The Long and "Too $hort" of My Life

Too $hortI first heard Oakland's own Too $hort -- the originator of "pimp" rap -- when I was eight years old. His lyrics made me feel powerful and worthless at the same time.

My cousin was popular in the East Oakland party scene, and at 16 she loved to listen to LL Cool J, JJ Fad and Too $hort. She and her friends would take me to shop at Eastmont Mall, smoke weed and laugh at my flat booty. $hort had a song out called "Flat Booty Bitches" at the time.

Who knew that this short, big-lipped, bucktoothed, bug-eyed rapper who made "ghetto music" that wasn't supposed to last would become a legend in the hip-hop game?

The hour-long documentary "Life Is: The Life and Times of Todd Shaw, aka Too $hort" premiered recently at the San Francisco Black Film Festival. It was produced by another Oakland musical heavyweight, D'wayne Wiggins of the pioneering R&B/hip-hop group Tony Toni Tone. I won a copy of the DVD in a rap battle a couple of months ago.

Listening to $hort, I learned to be hard, to let the words roll off my back like water, and like a sponge I soaked up a way of carrying myself that was just as mean as his lyrics. The hardness came in handy surviving the foster care system.

The year after I was born, in 1981, Todd Shaw flunked 10th grade and began selling tapes in the back of buses. Crack was everywhere in "tha town." My mother was smoking crack, my uncle sometimes too.

In 1982, $hort hooked up with another Oakland rapper, Freddie B, and they put out a song called "Trues and Vogues." By then, crack had made a complete slave of my momma.

I was a baby born out of a date between my momma and a client. She can't even remember my daddy's last name. I went from trick baby beginnings to become a rapper myself. I had to find my voice. Hip-hop was the perfect medium to express myself.

Too $hort rapped about crack and parts of ghetto life that were getting ignored in the media, documenting -- some say glorifying -- the genocide while propelling himself out of it.

Media corporations put money into gangsta rap and push it on the people. And rappers like me that ain't on that page, but are maybe just as dope, can't get a shot. Especially females.

Beneath his vulgar lyrics, $hort gave Oakland something it was severely lacking in the aftermath of the Panthers' demise, the Raiders leaving for Los Angeles and the conditions in poor neighborhoods getting worse: pride.

He put Oakland on the hip-hop map. Like the South Bronx, Compton and Queens, when you talk about rap you have to talk about Too $hort and Oakland too. And hip-hop Oakland loves him for that -- like we love the Raiders or the sideshow -- because Too $hort bought the game from shame to fame.

Too $hort signed a seven-album contract (a landmark deal at the time for a rapper), and Dangerous Music/Jive Records produced his fourth album "Life is ... Too $hort" in 1989.

The single "Life is Too $hort" marked a moment in my life too.

These days I bump Floetry, Talib Kweli and Zion I. They rap about topics I relate to, like self-love and soul searching.

I was in a group home in East Oakland when the song came out. Because of my light skin and youth (I was only 12 years old), some whores used to try to turn me out to whoring. They would comb my hair and invite me places. I was still too lonely to be smart about the friends I was making, and those girls set me up. They gave me to their pimp. When I wouldn't consent I was raped at gunpoint. One of the backstabbing whores thought it was funny I couldn't defend myself.

Too $hort, along with A.M.G and N.W.A., produced the soundtrack to that time of my life.

Now, people are getting arrested trying to be the next Too $hort. Recently, two local rappers were arrested for pimping. K-Luv the Pimp allegedly had a network that stretched across Northern California. He supposedly gave trophies to his whores, as an incentive.

I have long since stopped listening to Too $hort. I rap about the life I live, and what I've learned. I'm not trying to sell an image, so my poetry expresses real feelings.

Momma never found pride in "the game." She spent all that fast money quicker than she could make it. Saddest of all, my mother lost custody of all seven of her children.

Rappers should stop pimping for an image anyway. That's all about trying to take pride in being someone most of them are not.

What made Too $hort so successful was being his own man, embracing the business and the entrepreneurial spirit in combination with the ruthlessness that the street breeds. In Oakland, those qualities can get you turned out or arrested. Or make you an icon.

Sayyadina Thomas, 22, is an emcee and a staff writer for YO! Youth Outlook (

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