It’s not every day that a hip-hop legend asks you for your personal critique of a documentary retrospective of their career. But that’s just what happened this past Tuesday at the New Parkway Theater, following an advance screening of TVOne’s “Unsung” program featuring  Too Short, which will air on January 29. For those unfamiliar with “Unsung,” it’s similar to VH-1’s “Behind the Music” – a hi-gloss biography with interviews, video clips, and outtakes spanning an artist’s career – except with African American subjects.

Too Short

Too Short

For those unfamiliar with Too Short, he’s referred to in the “Unsung” episode as the “Godfather of West Coast rap” more than once. Although originally from LA, Short will always be identified with Oakland, the city he put on the hip-hop map.

On Tuesday night, Short Dog was definitely in the house, along with also-legendary Oakland rappers Richie Rich, Mistah FAB, and CMG (of Conscious Daughters), Tony Toni Tone member D’Wayne Wiggins, and long-time associate Lionel Bea.

Too Short and Friends

Too Short and Friends

Before the screening, “Unsung” producer P-Frank Williams, an East Oakland native (and my former editor at Source magazine back in the day), sat down for a quickie interview. Williams estimates he’s done about 30 episodes of the series, but the Too Short story stayed near and dear to his heart.

“Short needed to get his props,” Williams explained.

“People forget he was one of the first distributors of independent rap on the West Coast,” Williams said. “He was really a pioneer. If he’s not the greatest West Coast rapper, he’s up there … when you look at the history of hip-hop, who else has sold platinum or gold over two decades?”

But Short’s penchant for explicit lyrics and cusswords—he’s most famous for his trademark expression, “biiiiiiiiiitch!”—has overshadowed some of his career accomplishments. That was reportedly a concern for TVOne, who didn’t want to alienate female viewers.

There was also a perception that “Too Short can’t rap” – ironic, considering the number of classic hip-hop quotables he’s recorded – which may mask a coastal bias. “If he would have been from Brooklyn, it would have been a different situation,” Williams said.

P-Frank Williams

P-Frank Williams

Short’s undeniable string of classic material commenced with his first nationally-distributed album, 1987’s Born to Mack, and continued with Life Is… (1988), and Short Dog’s in the House (1990). 1992’s Shorty the Pimp, 1993’s Get In When You Fit In, and 1994’s Cocktales solidified his rep as hip-hop’s primary purveyor of player rap (with occasional social commentary).

Though he hasn’t strayed far from that template since, he’s remained a relevant hitmaker, from 1995’s “Getting It” to 2003’s “Burn Rubber” to 2006’s “Blow the Whistle” — as much a “West Coast classic” as  “Gin & Juice,” according to Lil Jon.

As Williams noted, it’s somewhat of a rite of passage for other artists—a long list that includes Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, and most recently, Lady Gaga (!)—to record with Short: “when you get that Too Short verse,” Williams says, “it’s a stamp of approval, [indicating] that you got game.”

Although not quite as in-depth as 2002’s Wiggins-produced feature-length documentary, “Life Is…,”  the “Unsung” episode updates Short’s career—including his recent appearance on the reality show “Couples Therapy”—while also detailing how he built his legend, hustling tapes on the 40 bus line and filming music videos in rough turfs in East Oakland, where his rap status gave him diplomat-level credibility.

Video clips from classic songs like “Life Is…,” “I Ain’t Trippin,” “I Want To Be Free” and “The Ghetto” are interspersed with interviews of acquaintances, friends, and music industry professionals. LA femcee Yo-Yo and radio personality The Poetess explain Short’s appeal to the female gender despite his misogynistic lyrics: women simply pretended he wasn’t talking about them, personally. “He was the only one that could make [the b-word] not offend,” Yo-Yo says.

Oakland's in the house

Oakland’s in the house

Short’s relationship with women, including his on-again, off-again affair with former label exec Monica Payne, is also addressed. As Payne attests, Short may be much more of a gentleman than the character he portrays on his records, yet his “player” lifestyle has made him a 45- year-old bachelor who may not be able to settle down or maintain a long-term relationship.

The most poignant insight into Short’s lengthy career, however, comes from the man himself, who notes at one point, “I don’t just see pimps and hoes, I see injustice, I see struggle.” (To this day, Short’s best-selling single remains his most positive song, “The Ghetto,” which celebrated the inner-city in an inspirational, uplifting way.)  As CMG related, “He sort of made it ok to be from the ghetto.”

CMG

CMG

During the screening, Short remained impassive for the most part, except when early videos showed him wearing now-dated outfits, causing him to laugh out loud on a couple occasions.

A discussion following the screening quickly became a Too Short love-fest, as platitudes and anecdotes were exchanged by Williams, Bea, FAB, CMG, Wiggins, and Richie Rich, while Short talked about his love for music (“the funk to me is kind of religious”) and his appreciation for Oakland (“the epitome… it’s culturally-diverse.”)

It was then that the legendary rapper asked me my opinion of what I had just seen, which I’ll share: While the episode covers a lot of ground longtime fans (and generations of Oaklanders) may already know, it may be eye-opening to national audiences for whom Short isn’t already a household name. The segments which deal with the genesis of his rap career and his entrepreneurial spirit are utterly fascinating, and have mythic substance.

Mistah FAB

Mistah FAB

The beefs and controversies surrounding Short are examined as well as the highlights, and at the end of the show, not only does the rapper receive his props, but he is placed in an accurate pop cultural context. Perhaps even more importantly, the show cements Oakland’s place in hip-hop history.

The one underdeveloped theme is Short’s influence on later generations, which FAB spoke to at the New Parkway, when he noted his own rap career was dedicated to “carrying on the legacy of Oakland.”
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DSCF0089A former medical office seems an unlikely place to host a groundbreaking new art installation. The choice of location, however, helps to make ArtComplex’s “12 Artists, 12 Rooms”  a fascinating exhibition. The building, situated at 560 29th St. in Uptown Oakland, a residential street in a district experiencing rapid change, is a two-story house which once housed two medical offices but is now transitioning back to a residential property.

Enter ArtComplex and Ernest Jolly, who came up with the idea to host a pop-up gallery in the space in the interim period. 12 artists were invited to create installations, including Oakland’s First Couple of Black Arts, Karen and Malik Seneferu. Both are featured, on separate floors. Karen’s contribution, an extension of her recent “Day of the Dead”

Ernest Jolly

Ernest Jolly

installation at OMCA, is a room continuously screening her short film, “Strange Fruit No More: Fruitvale to Florida.” Malik, meanwhile, is showing several paintings and sculpted-wood altars which revolve around his interpretation of African ritual-myth traditions. His technique involves using reclaimed wood, pine needles, and other found items, which emphasizes the theme of recycling, in both a literal and metaphoric/spiritual sense.

The Seneferus’ work was the most familiar, especially for those who have been following Oakland’s multiculti visual art scene for the past few years.

Malik Seneferu

Malik Seneferu

Many of the other works featured in “12 Rooms” were equally astounding. The first piece that reaches out and grabs you upon entering is Matthew Scheatzle’s 3-D mixed-media collage of wood and acrylic. The installation fills up an entire room and turns a finite space into something more expansive. According to Scheatzle‘s artist statement, this work reflects his interest in intersections “between representation and object.”

At the ArtComplex opening reception, it was easy to be submerged in Amanda Klimek’s translucent light installation, which resembled jellyfish, or to be transported to another dimension by Nyame Brown’s Afro-futuristic pastel-on-blackboard drawings, which play with perspective as well as notions of heroic/superheroic visual iconography. Golden natural light reflected Agglab’s ectoplasmic white craft foam assemblages, lending them an ethereal tint. Music was provided by a saxophone-and-cello duo, with an improvisational, prog-jazz flair which resonated through the building.

agg labAs Jolly explains, in curating the show–which is open for weekend viewings until March 23–he wanted to emphasize the “cross-pollination” of cultures reflected in the city’s diverse populations. “You’ve got Malik, who’s got this African and African American-inspired installation, right next to Amanda, who’s got this kind of electronic plaster and LED lights and it’s kind of about spatial elements. If you walk through the complex and take it as a whole, everyone’s connected. But if you were to separate everyone, they can exist by themselves.”

DSCF0104

The overall experience is different from a museum installation, as one has to consider the environment in which the artists’ works are viewed/felt in a different way. Moreover, the urban reality of the surrounding neighborhood creates a contrast to the fantasy visions brought to life by the “12 Rooms” artists. The juxtaposition creates a space to consider carefully what each means, one that will play out over the next few months with additional performances, discussions, and other events. Visit http://artcomplex.popslice.com/ for more info.
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This week’s picks:
Caminos Flamencos presents Festival de Flamenco Fest, 1/30-1/31, $24-$30 ($5 off online ticket w/ promo code FLAMENCO), Yoshis, 510 Broadway

The Memorials, Future Perfekt, Bad Jones, 1/29, $7-$10, 8pm,  the New Parish 579 18th St.

Womanopoly, 1/30, 9pm, $5, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave.

Antique Naked Soul, 1/31, 930pm, Studio Grand, 3234 Grand Ave.

“In Search of Sheba: Black Women Artists” 2014 pre- opening reception, 2/1, 6pm, Warehouse 416, 416 26th St.

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