“This is history,” a concert-goer tells me while waiting in line to get inside The Midway last Thursday night.
The large venue sprawls half a block inside a former warehouse on the outer edges of San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, next to the MUNI Metro East Maintenance Facility, where a graveyard of trains gather at the end of the line once service has ended.
You wouldn’t expect to find much here, especially on a weeknight after hours. Instead, the area is brimming with classic cars, smoke clouds, and hundreds of people from all over Northern California who have made their pilgrimage to see Too $hort—the iconic Oakland rapper—perform live.
In what turned out to be one of the most memorable Bay Area rap events of the year, $hort—along with The Park Avenue Band and Golden State Warriors DJ D Sharp—lit up the sold-out audience for a 35th anniversary celebration. The show was the first installment in a larger series of events titled “Bay Area Nights,” which is being curated by JABM Enterprises.
As someone who grew up attending Bay Area rap concerts as a teen and now well into my Millennial adulthood, I can testify that the post-quarantine vibe was stronger than ever, and a vibrant presence of folks repping Vallejo, Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, and every in between, was in full effect.
“This is about legacy tonight,” Kev Choice, an Oakland musician, producer, and keyboardist for The Park Avenue Band told me before the show. “People don’t really know that $hort has had his live band for over 10 years. He really knows music beyond rap. We tour to different cities with him and perform live sets to his songs. It’s dope.”
Before Kev Choice and the rest of The Park Ave Band came on to perform Too $hort’s most well-known songs from the past three decades, the night opened up with a duo of Bay Area rappers who are considered to be the future: LaRussell and Symba.
Having just released his third album of the year and fresh off an appearance on the nationally-syndicated The Breakfast Club radio show with Charlamagne Tha God, LaRussell is Vallejo’s newest addition to the rap canon.
His energetic set included crowd favorites like “Hyphy 2020” and “I’m Up” while also providing slower, introspective lyrics with his freestyle about slavery, oppression, and materialism. LaRussell brought his trademark positivity to the show—playful, filled with laughter, and shouting out his mom at one point–while the dudes behind me rapped every word and rocked in unison. He’s an artist I’ve been watching closely, and among the best representatives for the next generation’s wave of East Bay sounds.
Symba appeared next, an Oakland rapper who was recently recognized as a XXL Freshman of the Year–among the most nationally coveted titles for an ascending rapper to be crowned with. In a moment of reflection during his performance—which was highlighted by his hit single “Big Homie”—Symba turned off the music and directly addressed the crowd.
“We’re all family here tonight,” the rapper said, surrounded by 10 homies he brought on stage for Young Jr.’s guest performance. “In light of recent events, don’t nobody put their hands on anyone else in here. No violence, we’re all here to have a good time. We all got mommas and fathers, brothers and sisters. Let’s keep this shit peaceful.”
Symba, of course, was referring to the recent tragedy in Houston, when mega-rapper, Travis Scott, was at the center of nine deaths and hundreds injured during his Astroworld festival.
Yet here in San Francisco, it was all love, as blunts entered rotation and everyone rapped in chorus to Bay Area anthems like “Big Steppin’” and “Big Tymin’” in preparation for Too $hort. In between the knocking bass throughout the night, I appreciated Symba’s awareness and sincerity for setting a tone of positivity—something that hip-hop has always been based on, but is often uncredited for.
After midnight, Too $hort appeared on stage wearing a Black Panther Party hoodie and holding a titled red cup.
He removed his outerwear to reveal a special edition t-shirt from Bay Area apparel company, TRUE, commemorating his 35 years in hip-hop.
As Symba pointed out earlier, “some people don’t last 35 days in this business. This man has done it for 35 years.”
That’s longer than this writer has been alive. Too $hort has always been a source of informal education, one that my mom would play on the radio on our way to school, and that my older brother would spin from his stereo in the room we shared growing up. His songs have played an important role at every good party I’ve ever been to and have provided a soundtrack for life in Northern California. Besides E-40 and Mac Dre, no one has done more to represent local culture and create a soundscape for our region than him.
Seeing “Short Dog” perform live with a full instrumental accompaniment behind him, in a warehouse filled with loyal fans from all generations, and sharing the stage with the youngest wave of rappers, felt like a christening moment for any longtime hip-hop listener.
A specially-made video was projected throughout the duration of his performance, showing clips of him in the 80s wearing a thick gold chain in an Adidas suit, standing in front of Cadillacs. The images alternated shots of the Oakland skyline as well as various album covers from his extensive discography, which includes no less than 30 projects, including various collaborations.
Hearing “Blow the Whistle” performed by a The Park Avenue Band with live backup singers just hits different. Having an actual keyboardist keep the tempo of his 80s hit, “The Ghetto,” felt sonically appropriate. And throughout it all, the OGs and youngsters in the building were getting their freakiest moves on to “Freaky Tales” featuring a real bass and guitar.
Later on, appearances by Mistah FAB and San Francisco’s own, Stunnaman02, highlighted the transition from OGs to newcomers who have been representing the Bay Area rap world during every decade. The moment felt like a passing of the torch, rather than a clinging to the past, a distinction that gave the event a visible dimension of community.
In 2020—after dropping his 22nd studio album, Ain’t Gone Do It—Too $hort achieved the remarkable benchmark of being the first hip-hop artist to release an album in five different decades. In 2021, we can say we were there to see the moment en vivo at The Midway. And in 2022, with his newly formed West Coast supergroup, Mount Westmore, set to debut their full-length album in only a few days, it’s safe to say Too $hort and his folks will still be gettin’ it.
In many genres, long-term output is highly valued and celebrated. Yet, rap is often seen as a younger person’s music, and for a variety of reasons, some of rap’s originators and innovators haven’t lived long enough to be heralded in their later years. In the same way audiences have long appreciated acts like The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead—with shows that still pack houses and sell out—we are entering a stage in rap history we haven’t seen before, where the originators and multi-decade performers are entering the veteran stages of their careers.
It’s something that should be respected in the same lineage of jazz, soul, rock, and other mainstream influences—yet, for some reason, it’s often dismissed as less-refined or not as “artistic.”
Too $hort’s longevity is a reminder that the music he’s been making which has shaped so many of us—and has largely defined and documented a local lifestyle that has been since popularized by today’s major recording artists like Drake and Saweetie–is still headlining and worth staying out past curfew for. And though the lyrics may not exactly reflect the sentiments of the 80s, 90s, and 00s, they are songs that will forever have a deep legacy in the Bay Area and beyond.