The Etymology of
in Hip hop
An absurdly nerdy look at how hip hop invented the most important slang of our time.
When 90% of the population hears a rap song about shorties, they imagine this:
Or in urban dictionary terms, “a fine ass woman, or your girl.”
But if you’re hip hop-inclined, you know that shorty has multiple meanings, used to refer to a woman, kid, or man (one new to drugs, gang life, or rap).
Here's the thing: up to the mid-90s, shorty referred to female, male, and child equally (~30% each). But by 2002, female bit rose to 70%.
So by 2004, any mention of shorty was most commonly a female, which explains why the kids these days don't associate shorty with a gun-wielding, drug-selling thug.
Why the dramatic change?
Hip hop invented shorty. Hip hop is responsible for changing its meaning. Let’s look at its history, from the first “shorty” in ‘85 to the first “shawty” in the late 90s.
Biggie, Too $hort, and Marley Marl
the birth of shorty
Too $hort was the first rapper to use shorty. Ever. In 1985.
Go to 2:14 for the magic moment.
Listen carefully and you can hear it...
Now everytime I see her she be doing it soon
Like ninety on shorty in a motel room
Shorty is likely the woman named throughout the track, though possibly himself (Too $hort’s nickname).
What's dope is that this first instance of shorty is a double entendre. Since the beginning, shorty could mean different things depending on the context.
By ‘91, there were fewer than 10 instances of shorty in hip hop history. By ‘93, the count increased to 50 and then doubled again to 100 by ‘96.
Here’s who introduced shorty to hip hop and was responsible for its spread.
‘shorty’ users, ’88 - ’93
As influential producers, Marley Marl’s and Lord Finesse’s shorty use may have helped it spread throughout the NY hip hop scene.
Finesse is first to use shorty in song title, “Hey Look at Shorty”.
These albums from Pete Rock, Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy were mad influential in early hip hop scene.
Insane commercial success for hip hop songs using shorty in ’93. Gimme the Loot on Ready to Die, 36 Chambers, and Midnight Marauders.
Biggie throws down a triple shorty entendre on Gimme the Loot. Check it here.
By ’93, anyone in hip hop, fan or rapper, would have heard shorty due to the commercial success of Biggie, Tribe Called Quest, and Wu-tang (who, on C.R.E.A.M., recorded the iconic “life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough”).
But what caused the rise in ’93? Why the sudden change in rappers who were using shorty in their lyrics?
Pre-’92, the ~50 songs that used shorty weren't even popular. No artist was prolific with the word.
Influential albums like Apocalypse 91 (Public Enemy), All Souled Out (Pete Rock), and The Low End Theory (Tribe Called Quest) each had a track with shorty, so it’s possible that a handful of songs exposed the word to nearly every aspiring rapper.
What’s fascinating is how hip hop culture took an unknown word and made it part of every rapper’s flow.
Shorty is now in 7% of all hip hop songs (as of late ’12) – as popular as words like sex, glock, rims, pussy, and drugs.
And how a few artists could move a word from a handful of instances to mainstream in the stretch of 5 years.
southern hip hop, crunk, and lil jon
why shorty's meaning changed
By ’96, shorty’s meaning started to tip toward female.
Why? Southern hip hop blew up.
Southern hip hop created shawty. It created Crunk music. It’s responsible for Lil Jon, credited with the first shawty in ’97.
(Yes. Lil Jon, the rapper we most often mock, should receive all of the glory that comes with adding shawty to the hip hop lexicon. Refer to the historic Who You Wit on Lil Jon's debut album).
Southern hip hop went mainstream by ’02, with Outkast’s Stankonia, T.I.’s Trap Muzik, and Ying Yang Twin’s Salt Shaker, and the fabric of rap music started to change.
Southern hip hop and Crunk music shifted the setting of rap songs to the club, and with it, a focus on eying, attracting, and dancing with shawties. All of those songs about lady shorty would soon drown out the other more traditional meanings.
Interestingly, these songs not only focused more on women, but written conversationally as if rappers were speaking to one.
You're probably familiar with this style of rap...
Here, 50 and Ying Yang Twins give instructions to shorties – now a common theme in hip hop for the past 10 years.
Southern hip hop brought another interesting change that added to shorty's prevalence. Shorty became an element of flow, meaningless lyrical filler (the “WTF?” in the above graph).
The above lines from T.I. and Lil Wayne sound like they're battling – shorty as a fictional recipient/adversary.
So there you have it: shorty's birth in '85, popularization in the mid-90s, meaning shift in the early '00s, and Lil Jon getting a whole lot of credit.
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