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Criminal defense attorney C. Don Clay began working for Too Short, a West Coast rap pioneer, almost by chance. In 1986 the rapper, whose real name is Todd Shaw, needed someone to help him start a small record label, and Clay’s name was mentioned. At the time, “they were selling tapes out of their car,” Clay recalled. Even so, Too Short was a rising star in the San Francisco Bay Area hip-hop scene, and his X-rated rhymes were admired by up-and-coming rappers such as then-unknown MC Hammer, Clay said. Clay drew up papers for Short and his business partners Randy Austin and Theodore Bohanon — and Oakland, Calif.-based Dangerous Music was born. Dangerous put out what is now considered a classic West Coast rap album, 1986′s “Born to Mack.” Short sold 150,000 albums on the streets, which caught the attention of Jive Records. Jive offered Too Short a national record deal and launched a career of platinum albums. The move was also the springboard for Clay’s sideline as an entertainment attorney. Los Angeles has a legion of designer attorneys who handle celebrity contracts and manage their business interests. But Clay says he occasionally gets a call when local entertainers want a trusted second opinion about civil law or when they have run afoul of the police. “There are not a lot of entertainment attorneys in the Bay Area,” said Austin, Too Short’s former business partner who was president of now-defunct Dangerous Music. Local entertainment insiders trust Clay because he is a straight shooter, said Austin, who now runs Da Dirty South Records in Los Angeles. “Don is a real person. He will tell the whole story. He will tell you what he can and can’t do,” said Austin. Clay’s criminal law expertise is a bonus. “He’s helped get a lot of people out of trouble,” Austin said. In recent years that list has included Vallejo, Calif., rapper E-40, gangsta rapper Kurupt, and ex-Golden State Warrior Latrell Sprewell. Clay was part of Sprewell’s defense team when his Mercedes crashed into an Antioch, Calif., resident’s car on Interstate 680 in 1998. The basketball player pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 90 days in home detention. In August 2000, E-40 — who was born Earl Stevens — hired Clay when he was part of a brawl that shut down UPN’s taping of The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards. No charges were filed. Clay has done criminal and civil work for former Death Row Records rapper Kurupt. The rapper was mired in a legal turf war with Death Row, which is run by Marion “Suge” Knight. Clay advised Kurupt for his depositions and later defended the rapper when Kurupt and his bodyguard were arrested on weapons charges. In 2000, Kurupt pleaded to a misdemeanor conviction, which will be set aside after he completes probation. Clay’s duties are diverse, and he explains that an attorney has to be “a jack of all trades.” Clay — who has framed copies of Too Short’s gold albums hanging in his office — is a familiar face in Oakland’s courthouse hallways. “Anyone who has tried felony cases in the past 10 or 15 years knows who Don Clay is,” said Alameda County, Calif., Deputy District Attorney Darryl Stallworth. “[Clay] is very quick on his feet,” said Stallworth. When a trial takes an unexpected turn, Clay adapts. “Some attorneys think trials are scripted,” said Stallworth, who faced Clay in a preliminary hearing for a 1995 murder case. “I noticed that he has the ability to change as the case changes.” He grew up in Fresno, Calif., and attended University of California, Berkeley, on a baseball scholarship. He earned his law degree at San Francisco’s Hastings College of the Law and in 1980 was an extern for the late First District Court of Appeal Justice Clinton White. Clay lives in San Francisco with his wife, Lisa, a deputy city attorney in San Francisco. Clay was chair of San Francisco’s Juvenile Probation Commission in the early 1990s, during the politically tumultuous period when the board fired the county’s chief probation officer, Fred Jordan. Later, when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Jr. was elected and wanted new reforms, he demanded that all of the commission members resign. “That was a hard time. There was utter chaos going on,” Clay said. During his board tenure, “there was a sense of accountability starting to build.” After serving two and a half years of his four-year term, Clay said he left the board to sit on the city fire commission. This year, Clay will represent a man who was arrested in 2000 based on DNA evidence for a crime he allegedly committed in 1974. The defendant, Ellis Lockett — who is now 50 — was initially a suspect, but at the preliminary hearing in 1975 a judge dismissed the charges. Aside from the legal issues of the case, the Lockett trial is meaningful to Clay because Lockett’s attorney in the case 26 years ago was Justice White. The prosecutor was Contra Costa County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Terence Bruiniers. Clay says White, who mentored many prominent East Bay African-American attorneys, helped inspire his criminal defense career. The late justice once asked him rhetorically: “Who will represent the people?” Clay recalled.

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