“They tell me to get my old ass off the mic, but every time my old ass gets on stage I put on a hell of a show!” So promises Too $hort, the godfather of Bay Area hip-hop who’ll be hitting Brooklyn this Thursday and Friday for shows at the Knitting Factory. The back-to-back gigs mark $hort Dog’s solo Big Apple stage debut; with a discography that harks back to 1985’s Don’t Stop Rappin’ and a spell before that crafting custom songs for local customers, the East Oakland-raised, pimp-styled icon has a rap stash that runs deeper than most. But as a West Coast pioneer, Too $hort hasn’t always been so readily accepted in hip-hop’s heartland. In the run-up to his inaugural NYC shows, we got $hort to look back on his early days dealing with East Coast elitism, bantering with cynical Manhattan bellhops, and being told by Biggie that he was kinda like a big deal in Brooklyn.
Can you remember the very first time you came to New York City?
The first time I came to New York was to do a Yo! MTV Raps thing. I’ve had some crazy New York experiences!
What’s the first one that comes to mind?
I remember talking to the guy who was taking my luggage up to my room—talking to a bellhop—and he was asking me what I do for a living and I was telling him I rap and stuff. He was like, “Well good luck with your career.” I was like, “Well, shit, I’ve already sold millions of albums…” He was like, “Nah, get the fuck outta here!” I kept talking to him; I named some rappers I’d done shows with that I thought he’d know, like I mentioned Big Daddy Kane, and he was still like, “No, you’re fuckin’ lying!” So the bell-hop’s taking my bags while he’s like “Get the fuck outta here!”
Did you still tip the bellhop?
Yeah, I’m not that kind of guy! At the time I was extremely hot in the South, on the West Coast, and throughout the Midwest, but my stuff would never catch on the East Coast ’cause on the early days New York was like, “We’re not listening to anything that’s not from New York.” I’d come to New York and do a lot of media and we’d go around and sometimes do radio promo, but we’d never do shows. It was almost like certain people, like I’d see people in the streets like, “Yeah, we know who you are,” but they were never into the music.
Why do you think your music never caught on in New York?
I feel it was, you know, the justified arrogance of being the creator and inventor. You gave something to the world and feel like no one can do it better than the creator. I always understood what it was. The first time I went to shows and saw Run-DMC and those guys, and the first time I got an opportunity to perform with other New York groups at a show, I kinda copped the vibe early on, like hip-hop is ours. In the early days, with the West Coast and me, it was like I was seen as a hostile and my music was offensive to the creators. How could you take our invention and mess it up like that? But my opinion was—and I say the same thing to this day—that hip-hop is the same thing that every time someone hears it for the first time they fall in love. I don’t care if it’s the ’80s, the ’90s, or now, just all over the world, even where people don’t speak English, they listen to American rappers.
So once hip-hop got to the West Coast, we grabbed it and we listened to it and we started doing it. Everywhere hip-hop went it was just infectious. So I’m not the creator but at the same time I’m somewhat of a hip-hop creator ’cause I provided a certain style of hip-hop to a lot of people—though not New Yorkers or anything—like the whole pimp thing, and saying “bitch.” I listen to a lot of rap and hear elements that I brought to the table. I understand that if I hear a rapper say “beotch!” I’m like, “Why the fuck are you doing my shit?” It doesn’t bother me like that, but I get the point.
Were there any New York rappers that told you they were fans?
Yeah, I remember I was at a picnic in Atlanta at a huge mansion with cars pulled up no the grass—this was probably like ’93—And some guys call me over to this limo. I looked in the cracked open window a little bit and the guy said, “Yo, what’s up Too $hort, you got love in Brooklyn.” I was like, “Good lookin’ out, whatever,” and walked away. Later on in life, after I got to know Biggie, we did a song and we were hanging out one day and he said, “Remember a while ago I was in the limo at the Outkast picnic and I told you that you got love in Brooklyn? That was me.” So to work with Big, to become friends, it was kinda cool.
I’ve never really gotten a lot of love in New York. But later we talked and Big said a lot of cats in Brooklyn were fucking with my music from the start. I figured that after years and years of being round New York and New Yorkers, I found out there were certain little pockets that got it. The East Coast wouldn’t take to it, the city wouldn’t take to it, but certain people did. I never really had any hard feelings about it. When that East Coast versus West Coast thing was going on, I never participated or said one negative word about anyone. At the same time they was doing East Coast versus West Coast, I was doing songs with Biggie, Erick Sermon and Lil Kim. So I’ve always been approached on the streets of New York and hear people say things like, “I heard about your career, you get respect.” I’m not making the kind of music they like, but they do respect my career. That’s where I’m at in New York.
What was Biggie like to work with in the recording studio?
Big was the first person I ever saw just go in there with no pen, no paper. I know there’s a preparation process that guys like him and Jay-Z go through, but it doesn’t involve a pen and paper. To see it up close and personal, like in a room full of people, with a lot of smoking, a lot of talking, a lot of distractions, and he’s somehow putting together a rap in this head! He’d participate in the conversation, passing the weed around, and then it’s Big’s turn to go in there and do his rap and the shit is just flawless! I’m not knowing of the technique and what he’s doing, but I know this is a guy sitting in a booth with no pen and no paper rapping some incredible shit! I’ve seen Jay-Z do it a few times, too; it’s a pretty impressive recording style, but I’d never do it myself.
You mentioned people falling in love with hip-hop. What was the song that did it for you?
I’m from the virgin era—when we first heard rap it was “Rapper’s Delight.” It’s not a good version for New Yorkers maybe, and before that I can remember Fatback Band’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” that I never really considered as a hip-hop record, but “Rapper’s Delight” was the one for me. Then there was Grandmaster Flash, like “Freedom” was a big record on the West Coast. Spoonie G was always my favorite rapper, and then things like Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde [Andre Harrell’s first group], Run-DMC, and “Adventures Of Super Rhymes (Rap).” I talk to a lot of cats from New York and I don’t know how “Super Rhymes” was doing back in the day in New York, but that motherfucker was a big deal on the West Coast. That was our shit, Jimmy Spicer! And then there’s Count Coolout… I got a cold collection of early-days rap records. The room I started in when I lived with my mother was plastered with hip-hop records on the wall—12-inches I’d buy from the record store. That’s what it was when I was in high school in hip-hop.
Did any of the original, pre-vinyl old school tapes of artists like the Cold Crush Brothers make their way over to the West Coast?
I know about them. Me, personally, it might be just a me thing, but even to this day with the 50 Cent come-up era, I never got into mixtapes, I never made ’em myself, I ever listened to ’em. My beef with mixtapes is I always had nice cars and spent a lot of money on the top-end sound system, so I’m into listening to hip-hop records that are mixed real good, and old-school R&B, blues, jazz. And I’ve never liked the whole thing where the guy would mix the song and play the first line of the rap record 15 times in a row and the DJ would say, “New shit! New shit! New shit!” Hate me for it, but I just never got that, I never liked that. But with a lot of the real old school stuff, like from the late ’70s and very early ’80s, I never really got a hold of that stuff. I know a lot of DJs on the West Coast who have that stuff—I got a hard drive from this guy and it has tons and tons of stuff on it, like low quality, real old school stuff. But I never really listened to it. Maybe one day I’ll go in there and listen to it all.
Too $hort plays the Knitting Factory on Thursday and Friday.