Remembering Shawty Lo, Regional Rap Hero

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I have a day job that doesn’t consist of writing about music yet does entail listening to music, if that makes sense. Every day, I put on a shirt, a tie, some slacks, and some comfortable enough dress shoes and take people to and from the airport. It’s a nothing job per se, but there's something about timing and catching certain things at the right moment.

On a random night maybe a month or two ago, I went scouring Apple Music looking for Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know (Remix)." You know, the one with the trifecta of mammoth verses from Jeezy, Ludacris and Lil Wayne. They didn’t have it. Had to eventually sit upon Soundcloud and reminisce about college days. About how people determined “snap music” to be the death of hip-hop, when it was all party music to begin with. How D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” literally brought New York’s stubborn and generally indifferent rap culture right down upon Atlanta with foamed mouths and bite.

Shawty Lo died on Wednesday morning in Atlanta, a single-car accident in which his Audi veered off the road and struck a tree. He was 40 years old which emphatically sucks because he was still young but also because his death will or eventually bring up trolls who question your fan hood of someone just because they died suddenly.

As common as D4L was in regards to a here-today, gone-tomorrow rap group, they mattered. Their leader was Carlos Walker, a slim yet sort of portly man who got by with all of the rap confidence in the world. He proclaimed himself a fictitious drug lord the same way a lot of rappers did. He didn’t say all of this particularly well, but he said enough to get your ear and mind going. Everyone knows D4L for Lefabian “Fabo” Williams, the eccentric and lanky front man who wore all-white glasses and brayed more often than he actually rapped. Fabo’s mind said he saw spaceships on Bankhead in Atlanta. Shawty Lo merely wanted the world to know he was King of Bowen Homes.

It wouldn’t be long before D4L and their Down 4 Life album switched between playlists, between my college dorm and the club. “Betcha Cant’ Do It Like Me” sashayed into “I’m Da Man,” where K-Rab’s long whistle and drums became a car staple. Zaytoven, another Atlanta staple would remix the beat for Young Dolph’s breakthrough single “Preach,” but Shawty Lo had something. The longer Northerners and “purists” hated “Laffy Taffy” and the snap craze from Atlanta, the more the South loved and clutched to it. When they shot the video for it, there was Mike Jones front and center, being asked about how the record would do in Houston. It blew up, went 3x platinum and landed at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. D4L ended up having a gold album with Down 4 Life, an incredible feat in itself considering how critics panned then as "limited" and "the death" of hip-hop.

When 2008 rolled around, Shawty Lo’s confidence had soared into crafting a ready-made marching-band record. “Dey Know” is a song specifically about shit-talking, the clever kind where you proclaim the circus is behind it. Where running in place is now an iconic dance that everyone can do. It continued on. “Foolish” led to a massive DJ Khaled-sponsored remix with Birdman on Autotune. “Dunn Dunn” gave us the “well gotdamn, must be two sides!” chant. Units In the City, featuring him essentially taking a small bit from Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 album packed enough club hits for Shawty Lo to have his own set in any venue. Even his features over the years, from Soulja Boy Tell’em’s “Gucci Bandana” to Rich Boy’s “Wrist Out the Window,” were specific and sincere. Again, Shawty Lo wasn’t the most imposing of rappers yet, he knew when to come in and leave right on time.

His fame may have been reduced to two bullet points. One, his pressure on T.I. in 2008 about how T.I. could escape doing major time in the feds for weapons possession; not acknowledging who really runs Bankhead and even being from Bankhead led to T.I. eviscerating him all over Paper Trail. The beef became so one-sided, T.I. literally shot a video for “What Up, What’s Haapnin”  where he planted a picnic chair in front of Atlanta’s Bowen Homes sign as a direct shot to Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know” video. It was done by then. Lo eventually recoiled back to being a businessman, occasionally showing up on tracks here and there on LiveMixtapes and other platforms but he wasn't going to recapture the world the same way. Even if Plies outright stole his dance for "Ran Off On the Plug Twice." 

The second, which brought him national infamy, came when Shawty pitched a reality show about him and the ten mothers of his children in 2013. The show, titled All My Babies' Mamas, was about how one man could even handle having ten different women be involved in his life. It was critically lampooned and ultimately cancelled before it even aired. It was enough to get conservative talking heads like Rush Limbaugh moving their brains about it, which meant that Shawty Lo was famous enough, just enough, to be a hood superstar on multiple levels.

Which, given my level of thinking from 2005 to 2008, it’s exactly how one could capture Shanty Lo — a regional rap star who for a time had the most fun beef in hip-hop. It’s another chunk of my college life gone. But when he was around, he executed with what he had — precise and with all the timing in the world.

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