Big Talker

From the Geto Boys to his new nationally syndicated radio show, Willie D has kept his mouth moving. But where his rap was once down and dirty, not it's--gasp!--respectable. Has the gangsta of love sold out, or just grown up?

Willie D is in the house. In fact, Willie D is on the mike. A slow jam starts up behind him. "The say that the apple don't fall too far from the tree," he intones over the beat. "There are now more than a million children of imprisoned parents in the U.S. and 80 percent of imprisoned mothers have dependent children under the age of 18 years old. Welcome to Willie D's Reality Check. I am your host, Willie D."

Willie D, a.k.a. Willie James Dennis, is wearing a clean, button-down shirt and wire-rimmed glasses. As he listens to callers, he cocks his shaved head to one side, directing his studio helpers with deft hand signals. A thick wedding ring glitters on his left hand. When he is bemused, a private smile spreads slowly across his face. He is suave, so suave that it's a shame his good looks are wasted on radio. At the moment, Willie D looks like the perfect gentleman. What he doesn't look -- or sound -- like is a notoriously violent, morally unpredictable proponent of random sex, rape and murder. Until only a short time ago, though, that's exactly what many people took him for.

They took him for that because, as a member of Houston's Geto Boys, he was an emblem of the declining morals of black youth and the entertainment industry. In 1992, a youth who got in trouble for killing a cop blamed his crime on the Geto Boys. Across the country, parolees and gun-toting teens were always listening to the Geto Boys, especially when reporters were around. A compact disk factory refused to press a Geto Boys album due to its obscene and violent lyrics. Geffen refused to distribute their major-label debut. In 1991, one of the Geto Boys allegedly dangled his baby out the window, prompting his teenage girlfriend to shoot him in the eye. Throughout all this, the Geto Boys topped the charts, singing about the Man, mayhem and getting down in a hot tub with two bitches at once.

But that was the old Willie D; tonight, the man behind the mike is the new Willie D, a Willie D who this week went national with his radio show. Like many rappers who hit the scene in the 1980s -- and survived -- Willie D is refashioning himself into a multi-industry businessman. He's started record labels and landed film roles, but his most unique product, the one that may take him the farthest, is Reality Check. As a rapper, Willie D presented himself as one mean muthafucka; when he announced Reality Check's syndication, he presented himself as a different sort of player, one who wore a suit and a tie.

But according to Willie, the only people who think a major transformation has occurred are those who never understood "so-called gangsta rap" to begin with. "People automatically think that because I'm a gangsta rapper, that I'm going to walk in the place limping and shit, holding my dick, throwing up a 40, throwing up signs and shit," he says. "And that's never been me. Never." Actually, Mr. Dennis is generally polite and enthusiastic. On one recent day of public appearances, he got a better response (in the form of loud amens) from a group of senior citizens he spoke to than from a Texas Southern University rally, where he exhorted students to vote. ("Y'all stupid, just stupid," he told those who were unregistered.) With women, he is impeccable or just a little mischievous -- at one point he gave the soft, shiny hair of a young radio executive a gentle noogie, in response to which she giggled. But that was about the extent of his dastardly behavior.

The gangsta rap, he insists, is just a performance. "Hell, if I'm a gangsta rapper, Bruce Willis is a gangsta actor," he says. But there's a difference. "Everybody wants to meet Bruce Willis. Nobody wants to sit down with Willie D and get to know Willie D, because Willie D is a gangsta rapper."

But on this evening, ensconced in a studio at The Box, 97.9 FM, being a gangsta rapper is far from Willie D's mind. The topic of his call-in radio show, though -- children whose parents are in prison -- could easily be the subject of a rap song. Since Reality Check went on the air a year ago, it has become an outlet for what many perceive as Willie D's alter ego: a smart, passionate man who has the straight talk and the sixth sense for controversy that are required of any good talk-show host. In actuality, many of the concerns of Willie D the rapper are the same as those of Willie D the on-air personality, and his street credibility (he can honestly tell listeners he's been there) has served him well in both careers. The Geto Boys told it like they saw it, and now, so does Reality Check. In fact, Willie D often uses the show as a way to grapple with his past.

Tonight his guests are Julie -- mother, former crack addict and three-time prisoner -- and One Grand, father, rapper and a former drug dealer who's also done time. The callers are not your typical talk radio aficionados -- the first is a 15-year-old, the oldest of five, with a faint Hispanic accent. Her mom's a crackhead, out of prison just in time "to ruin our Christmas." The girl wants to know what it takes to get someone on crack to realize they're doing wrong. Willie lets his guests answer, then he offers Julie a note of encouragement that's also meant to inspire his listeners.

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