The cover art for Too Short's 1990s album 'Short Dog's in the House,' drawn by Boze — "a little homie from the hood," as Too Short described him. (Cover: Boze/Jive Records; Photo by Gabe Meline/KQED)
Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.
On the title track of Too Short’s 1990 album Short Dog’s In the House, wedged between bars about globetrotting and cold mackin’, the pioneering Oakland MC says, “I used to be local ’til I signed with Jive / Too Short done went nationwide.”
After a decade that started with Short slanging tapes out of his trunk as an independent artist, this was Short breaking into the hip-hop’s golden age of the ’90s. Short Dog’s In the House features notable songs like "Pimpology,” one of the first of many tracks to sample lines from the movie The Mack, filmed in Oakland. “Nothing But a Word to Me,” with Ice Cube, marks an early collaboration between major artists from Northern and Southern California. And the song “Short But Funky” is both a thinly veiled diss to MC Hammer and Too Short’s mission statement as an artist.
The album’s biggest single, “The Ghetto,” found Short deviating from his player persona, dropping socially conscious rhymes over a classic Donny Hathaway interpolation. The album sold over a million units and influenced generations of hip-hop heads. It’s a classic.
And then there’s its illustrated cover art: a group of animated human-bodied dog-faced characters cold chilling in a parking lot. Cars that look like Mercedes-Benzes, Lamborghinis and Cadillacs are parked all around, as poodle and bulldog-like characters cut eyes, point fingers and posture like folks would at any social happening. This one is clearly a sideshow.
While this scene unfolds in the foreground, a larger canine figure in an Oakland jacket looms near the city’s skyline, like an overseeing oracle, here to tell the world about The Town. And at the bottom left corner of the album cover, in tiny lettering, there’s a signature from the artist: Curtis "Bozie" Wayne Riley Jr.
“The process of me doing the album cover, it started way before I ever met Short,” says Bozie, who now goes simply by Boze, on a recent video call. “For me, it started at The Art School.”
In the mid-to-late ’80s, Boze was a student at The Arts Magnet School, a.k.a. “The Art School,” a high school on the California College of The Arts campus. Boze, a multitalented kid from Deep East Oakland, attributes his skills to the tutelage of his artistic parents, the influence of his neighborhood, the lessons from his high school and his affinity for hip-hop.
At The Art School, he had an African-American instructor named Robert L. Caillier who taught college-level arts courses, didn’t take any mess and was a firm believer in students using the classroom to refine their individual voices. “We were given the green light to draw all the things that we love,” says Boze. “So we were drawing hip-hop characters.”
From 8th grade until 12th grade, Boze constantly practiced drawing donkey ropes, Kangol hats, Gazelle glasses, and Adidas with the fat strings. After graduation, Boze used his talents to freelance, illustrating projects for MC Ant, Tomahawk Records’ Indian Tone and a logo for East Bay rapper Spice 1.
Money was slow, though, and Boze briefly considered turning to the streets. Then he got into airbrushing.
During that era, about three major hip-hop tours would come to town each year, and Boze would be ready. “I’d be in my grandmother’s garage airbrushing like 10-12 outfits, charging people $350 a piece,” says Boze, noting that white Guess or Levi’s jeans were a favorite. “My grandmother was getting mad because she’d see all these guys with 5.0’s, glasshouses, and K5s pulling up and coming to the house,” says Boze, imitating his grandmother’s concerned voice. “I’m in there airbrushing! I had an honest hustle.”
Along with visual art, Boze was a part of T-CAP Productions’ group Capital Tax. He earned a name as a dancer, designed the logo for the crew and even did some musical production.
As his reputation and clientele in Deep East Oakland grew, Boze eventually made artwork for someone in Too Short’s crew. Coincidentally, Short had recorded a new album for Jive, and he needed artwork too. “They came to me,” says Boze. “Short was like, ‘I want you to do a sideshow scene, but I need it with dogs.’”
Short also suggested to Boze a few types of cars to draw, but told him to use his imagination with the rest. Boze is quick to mention that modern sideshows are different than the one depicted on the album cover, the way they used to be. “It was more like a car show. People brought out Falcons, Novas, Cougars, Mustangs. Trues and Vogues, Zapco boards. It was a chill situation,” says Boze. In the late 1980s, he adds, only a few people did donuts, police rarely came, and afterward, folks would hit Mexicali Rose or Denny’s.
With years of preparation from art school under his belt, chronicling that era of the sideshow came easy; Boze says he knocked it out in two or three days. But the image that’s widely known — that’s the second drawing. The first one was rejected by Jive; the label needed certain specs for reproduction. “Short never gave me back the original one,” says Boze. “So either Short still has it, or someone at Jive does.”
The version that adorns the platinum-selling album, meanwhile, has been widely shared and impactful. Short has gone on record to mention the importance of the album cover, as have other major artists. Even Snoop Dogg seemed to have a fanboy moment when recently discussing the album art, and how it directly influenced the cartoon-dog cover art for his smash-hit album Doggystyle.
Boze tells me he’s talked to people about the Short Dog’s in the House art all across the country: Virginia, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and even in Alabama, where he now resides. Years removed from the experience, now working as a curator of arts education for the Coleman Center of the Arts in York, Alabama, Boze says he doesn’t often discuss the album — but when it does come up, people tell him how it made them feel. Not the music on the album, but the artwork itself.
A teenager at the time of the drawing, Boze says it’s wild to think the image could be likened to a hip-hop version of The Sugar Shack, the dance-hall scene painted by Ernie Barnes, which was featured on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You and shown the final credits of the show Good Times.
While it’s debatable if the image is on that same cultural level, the numbers don’t lie. “Over a million people have seen this work, I’ve got the plaque to prove it,” says Boze with a laugh. “I’m a platinum artist.”
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