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The Year’s Final Verzuz Isn’t a Battle—It’s a Celebration of Bay Area Legends

Before Too $hort and E-40 take the stage on Saturday, they spoke with The Ringer about the event, their new joint album, and how they laid the foundation for the past 30-plus years of North Cali hip-hop

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Too $hort had no intention to participate in Verzuz. Let alone one against his friend E-40.

For what? he thought. He’s a multiplatinum artist with little to prove, and competing against his friend was out of the question. That was the mind-set he had when 40 presented the idea earlier this summer, when Verzuz was a quarantine event confined to Instagram Live. But knowing his friend, 40 kept pushing until one day he had enough, and blindsided the 54-year-old with a meeting accompanied by Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, the legendary producers who created the series, which features rap and R&B legends playing their hits back to back in a (mostly) friendly competition.

“I shot it down a little bit,” $hort, born Todd Shaw, said by video chat this week. “Then they was bringing me in the loop of the bigger picture.”

The trio’s message to $hort was similar to everyone back home in the Bay who’d been watching over the summer: Two of the region’s biggest OGs needed to put on for a historically unsung land.

“We’re going to showcase what the unlaced has yet to see or hear,” 40 said. “It’s not just a battle,” $hort added. “It’s not just displaying your catalog, trying to outdo somebody else. It was like, ‘This could be a bigger situation for the Bay, just as far as the story being told.’”

It’s appropriate that 40, born Earl Stevens, and $hort would be tasked for the job. Since the 1980s, both artists have been shining examples of reinvention. $hort’s musical path started in East Oakland, alongside his partner Freddy B. Without any record label presence in the Bay, the two moved cassettes out of the trunk of their car, riding around the Town’s most notorious hoods, selling tapes where drug dealers sold drugs, most notably the 69 Village projects in the shadow of the Oakland Coliseum. Soon after, they caught the attention of a small record label, 75 Girls, and later Jive Records, which released six straight platinum Too $hort albums, including Life Is … Too Short, Get in Where You Fit In, and Gettin It (Album Number 10). 40 followed a similar blueprint 32 miles up the coast in Vallejo. Under the tutelage of his uncle “St. Charles,” he drove down to Magazine Street and dropped off tapes at local corner stores and mom-and-pop shops, selling his music on consignment with his brother D-Shot and fellow Vallejo rapper B-Legit. Eventually, he’d join $hort on Jive’s roster and produce a platinum record of his own.

For the next 30 years, the two carried the Bay Area on their backs, appearing on songs with hip-hop legends Tupac, Jay-Z, and the Notorious B.I.G., plus newer acts like Chris Brown, Quavo, and Kendrick Lamar. In the mid-2000s, they brought the hyphy movement nationwide following the murder of Mac Dre, with Too $hort’s “Blow The Whistle” and E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go,” two of the movement’s signature songs.

Now, they’re ready to put their legacy on display. To coincide with the Verzuz appearance, the two are releasing a bundled album titled Ain’t Gone Do It/Terms and Conditions—which marks Too $hort’s 22nd and E-40’s 27th official release. There are also plans for the duo to team up with Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg for a joint project slated to release in 2021. Ahead of this Saturday’s Verzuz appearance, $hort and 40 chatted with The Ringer about the upcoming project and Bay Area hip-hop while taking a trip down memory lane.

Oakland and Vallejo in the ’80s were totally different than they are right now, but how do you find a way to dream your way out of Oakland? At the time, there wasn’t Jive Records.

Too $hort: At the time, you got the Whispers. They’re popping. They came to Oakland early in their career, and you would see the guys driving down the street in a fucking Rolls-Royce, going up to the hills. You’re like, that’s the fucking Whispers. You would hear about stories about the Pointer Sisters in the Town, and Lenny Williams was always there, from Tower of Power, you know what I’m saying? These dudes are the real deal. Fucking Larry Ram used to be around the Bay.

Sly Stone moved to L.A. early on, but the legend of Sly lived. Sly was big. I know, even at a young age, I know a lot of things about music that happened over the years before my time, during my time, and I always knew that Sly Stone came about in the Bay, was a radio DJ, and then his music blew up. He had a multiracial band. He took the shit out, he went to L.A., big as fuck, but he was Bay, he was big. So when you’re a little kid, a young artist dreaming, that’s the dream. Sheila E was with Prince. She’s from West Oakland. It wasn’t no far-fetched dream. People were doing this shit right here in your face.

E-40: None of those resources were around. We had to make a way out of no way. At first it wasn’t that easy. We had to go through the process of finding somebody to press up the vinyl. Somebody had to do the cassette, the CDs, and we had to get somebody to mix it and master it. We had to find a studio. We had to go through a lot of shit.

$hort, you got on in the ’80s, but you have features with Jay-Z and Biggie a decade later. Do you feel like that brought validity to what you were doing?

Too $hort: That shit just happened because of what I was doing. I moved to Atlanta, and Atlanta was a melting pot. I developed friendships with people like Erick Sermon, Redman, Keith Murray, Puff Daddy, my man from the Lost boyz, Mr. Cheeks. So many New Yorkers were in Atlanta, and we was homie homies, you know? So when I announced I was retiring in 1996, it was as all that east-west shit was brewing up. I was mixing and mingling with my homies from New York in Atlanta. I’m on a Jay-Z album, then I’m on a Biggie album, then I got a song with Lil’ Kim, then I got a song with Erick Sermon. All these artists were huge at the time, so each time I collaborated with one of them, I got another little peek into breaking through in New York. So then I announced my retirement. Then I started getting calls from Foxy Brown and other artists going, “Hey, let me get a feature. Let me get a feature. Let me do this, spit that shit like you did on Jay’s shit. Do me that shit like you did on Big’s shit.” People in New York used to say, “Man, I really don’t know your music, man, but I respect you.”

How did you manage to stay neutral in the East Coast–West Coast beef?

Too $hort: I was very much in touch with Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Jay-Z and them, and I was around to hear the Tupac, Snoop Dogg side. Tupac was serious as fuck and Biggie was serious as fuck, Puffy was really on alert. And I really feel like a lot of people in that shit jumped on the bandwagon with the songs, and a lot of people in the core of the shit—the Snoops and the Biggies—were trying to get past that shit. And I understand Tupac’s passion, because Tupac got shot the first time, and Tupac got put in jail right after he got shot.

I could just imagine having to sit up in fucking jail, shot the fuck up, and niggas that you think shot you was the homies. Bullshit like that could just sit with you. I understand his whole motivation, but I think that it wasn’t a gang war where everybody from New York was trying to get everybody for California. And it wasn’t, it definitely wasn’t that energy around me because I knew the truth.

Why does Pac get so much love in Oakland to the point where we damn near claim him?

Too $hort: Because he damn near claimed us. He came to the Town, fell in love with the Town, and made very loud statements about how he felt about the Town, even though he wasn’t from the Town. It was a connection there that probably had a lot to do with the Black Panthers. He probably felt that origin of the Panthers in the air and embraced that shit. If he would’ve picked that path in life, he would’ve been a damn good Panther.

40, what was your relationship with Mac Dre?

E-40: He did his thing, and he was gamed up. I always tell people that I was a Young Black Brotha Records fan as well. He was a Sick Wid It fan. I never had nothing against that man, man. People try to pit us against each other, and people would just get mad. I’ve been around for a long time. Good brother. You know what I’m saying? I played my position and never goaltended or hated on anyone.

How does it make you feel that you guys were never able to officially collab?

E-40: It bothers me, man. Not being able to talk to him directly. I know it would’ve been straight. You feel me? I’m glad that we were straight, like before he passed, and pretty much really since ’93, ’cause even when he was in jail, we chopped it up. Me and Dre had a few conversations where we respected each other. Definitely. An icon, we love him.

Too $hort: Here’s something really slick: Rest in peace, Mac Dre. People started saying that from all over the place. “RIP, Mac Dre,” different ways in their raps, and I’m like, “Man, that’s a cool way of shouting out the Bay.” But then I’m like, If you like a sucker-ass nigga who don’t nobody really fuck with you or you ain’t even popping like that, you don’t have the right to say “RIP, Mac Dre.” You can say it. You couldn’t ever be friends with Dre. He wouldn’t fuck with you. You know what I mean? So you ain’t really got no business. Shout out to the Bay. RIP, Mac Dre. He could say that, but you can’t, you feel me?

Does the Bay Area like to play the underdog? Do you guys relish that?

Too $hort: Bay Area artists have a superior air about being cool. And we think that we the coolest one in the room, we got the most game. No matter what level we all are on status-wise in society, you still ain’t got that Bay game. I’ve had this debate with [Bay legend] Mistah F.A.B. His passion for the subject is greater than anybody else I know who’s involved in the Bay Area hip-hop scene.

I argue with him. I’m like, “Man, once you put it out there, it’s out there.” You can’t tell a West Coast artist that he can’t make a record on a down-style beat. So if the Bay Area got some slick-ass phrases, slick-ass ways of walking and talking, fly-ass music, and people want to be like us, I say, “Be like us.” Because we the originals. You can’t take my shit and then stop me from being me. You can’t take my fucking mojo by trying to bank one of my songs. So it’s flattery, man. That’s all it is, to the fullest.

What is hyphy to you guys?

Too $hort: It’s not a dance. It’s not a musical sound. It’s this energy that can’t be mistaken. And you see it from a mile away and you know it when you see it, it makes a person move a certain way, talk a certain way. It takes over you, and it might not have you like 24/7, but you know when somebody gets a little hyphy when they start talking a certain way, acting like this, driving a certain way, listening to a certain song, getting high a certain way. And they like, “I’m on it, now.”

If you think it’s just music, you don’t get it. It’s really as significant as a subculture of hip-hop as crunk. It’s a subculture of hip-hop that has its own rules and regulations. But it’s its own thing. And hip-hop has had dozens of movements like that. And there will be many more to come.

E-40: I look at hyphy being energy, you know what I’m saying? He is like the first one to get off, the first one to get shit cracking. Like just a dude with hella energy. I never claimed that I made up the word “hyphy.” I participated in it by being from the Bay Area. They say Keak Da Sneak made it up, and they say Mac Dre made it up. They say the streets made it.

Why do you think that Atlanta embraced the hyphy movement so much?

Too $hort: Lil Jon is my guy. He’s very close to me. His early steps in the game are right there with me. His first tour was with me. Not like, “Oh, we’re on the same tour.” No. You’re with me, we do the same show together. He was really with me. So he goes and does a show in the Bay and he got a sniff of the hyphy and he was like, “Man, they doing the shit out there. That shit is hard.” And he says to me, “I want to make some songs like that for you and E-40.” And he starts making these beats, but he didn’t just give them to me and E-40, he gave them to Ying Yang Twins, he gave them to Petey Pablo. I have a hyphy playlist, and it’s songs that have been out the last couple of years. It’s everybody from fucking Migos to Rich Homie Quan, 2 Chainz. They all got hyphy songs. I’ll show you all of these records that are popping right now on the radio, people singing them, the hyphy’s live and well. It’s alive. If you ever doubt the hyphy just go listen to Tyga’s last hit. He stayed on the hyphy. That’s the shit. It ain’t going nowhere.

So what’s this I’m hearing about a collab album between y’all, Snoop, and Ice Cube?

Too $hort: We joined forces to make business moves and do a lot of shows together. We just think about it in terms of a business mind, and this is what needs to be done. We do so many shows together so now we’re going to have more reasons to do shows together and all kinds of other ventures too. All this shit is for hip-hop, man. This is the evolution of hip-hop, and what it should be. You could be an actor, or a liquor mogul, or a fashion model on top of your hip-hop empire, but you’ve got to be something.

E-40: The idea actually came from my manager, RJ. He was like, “You, $hort, Snoop, and Cube should put a group together during this quarantine.” I liked that a lot. I called them boys right away. One thing led to another and we was a group within 24 hours. Everybody agreed. Wasn’t really anything to think about. We got two albums already done.

When are we going to see this on wax?

E-40: It’s in the fourth quarter.

How important is it for the Bay to be recognized on a stage like Verzuz?

Too $hort: Well, to me and 40 it’s more important than actually doing the battle or whatever you want to call it. We’re not doing this for “I bet I could beat 40” or “Man, let’s battle.” It’s not even about that. It’s more like, “Let’s do this for the Bay.” As we stand up and pop our collars, that’s the whole Bay popping their collar. Every time we mention another accolade or another hot record plays, or where another eye opens like, “Oh man, that’s E-40, that’s Too $hort,” that’s the Bay. That’s bigger than us. The point we’re trying to get across is that there’s a whole area that has done very well in hip-hop, in R&B, in music in general. When it comes to the hip-hop version of the Bay Area’s musical story, me and E-40 are a foundation to that. There’s a lot of people you can give credit to. But that beam that holds the fucking roof up so the shit don’t cave in, it’s always been E-40 and Too $hort.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.