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?

The environment Willie James Dennis grew up in didn't look anything like his ideal. In fact, Willie was as close to being a real Houston ghetto boy as the Geto Boys ever got. He was raised by his mother, Marvelous, along with two brothers and two sisters. They lived in several Houston neighborhoods, but Willie identifies the Fifth Ward, where he lived in housing projects such as Kennedy Place, as his hood. His home life, he says, was abusive, and food was often scarce. In his late teens he lived with his grandmother, because he and his mother couldn't get along. Willie was a hot-blooded kid who picked fights and stole his schoolmates' lunches. "Probably why I was beating people up, was because I couldn't win a fight at home," Willie says now. "Everybody was scared of me."

Born in 1966, Willie matured just as rap was surfacing in the ghetto. "We pretty much lived and breathed rap," says Ronald Hope, a childhood friend of Willie's. When the two of them lived in a Glenwood Forest apartment complex, they would put on a "talent show" for the neighbors every evening. They did the same at school during lunchtime, and eventually entered -- and won -- real talent shows. They hustled together, pumping gas, sacking groceries and mowing lawns, and they stole together -- from candy raids to more serious crime sprees. "Whatever one of us was doing, the other encouraged," remembers Hope. "If a week passed and you didn't have a good fight, something was wrong. We grew up around pimps and hustlers. That was everyday living. If you hear a woman tell her sister, 'bitch, you crazy,' that's not an offensive 'bitch.' That's just the way you relate. Those words are introduced to kids in the neighborhood at six or seven years of age."

Almost as soon as Willie and Ron were legally adults, they robbed a gas station and got caught, ending up behind bars for several months awaiting trial. Willie, not accustomed to having his liberty curtailed (he especially disliked watching commercials for fried chicken and pizza while having to eat jail food), quickly decided that jail was not for him and vowed never to go back. "I never took anything that wasn't mine again," he says.

But what he now calls "a dark chapter" in his life was just beginning. While he was locked up, his girlfriend became pregnant by her ex-boyfriend; the discovery came as a real blow to Willie. "I lived in, like, a fantasy world," he say. "I used to watch television all the time. I used to watch The Waltons. I used to watch Little House on the Prairie. I saw people who had a mother and father, who struggled but always pulled together in a time of need. I thought you met a girl you liked, dated for a really long time, then got married and had a lot of kids."

When his girlfriend broke the news to him, Willie's fantasy world collapsed. He didn't look at women for a long time after that, and then when he did, he didn't see them the same way he had before. "I put it in my mind, I said, 'I ain't getting hurt, but I'm fixing to do some goddamn hurting.' 'Cause I wanted revenge, like all of us who've ever been hurt do," Willie says. "We always get back at the people who ain't done us no wrong." Willie's duels -- both verbal and physical -- with other rappers in Houston's underground clubs gave him far-reaching sex appeal (even now, on his radio show, about half the callers are female).

"[Women] was already falling in line to his rude and gangsta ways. They expected it from him," Hope says. "Women just loved it all over the city of Houston." One of Willie's underground hits was called "Bald-Headed Hos" -- and the ladies loved it.

Why? "I think 'cause all the other men were sucking up, they were wanting to be on [the women] all the time, and I was sticking and moving," Willie says. "I was not trying to be on to one woman."

In 1988, Willie D, Brad "Scarface" Jordan and Bushwick Bill formed the Geto Boys (by this time, Hope had become a Christian and quit rapping). The group was the brainchild of James "Li'l J" Smith, president of Rap-A-Lot Records. Smith wagered, correctly, that hardcore rap (later dubbed gangsta rap) was going to be big, and he insisted on the group's unapologetic approach to ghetto life. Willie D concurred, and wrote many of the Boys' songs. In 1992, Willie quit the group to develop his solo career, but his CD sales floundered. Then, in 1996, he rejoined the Boys to make The Resurrection, which returned them to the top of the charts.

During this time, the womanizing Gangsta of Love -- Willie earned the name after sampling the Steve Miller phrase in one of his rap tunes -- began to slow down. In 1989, he met Bridget Yvette Bonier, a college student who hailed from the middle-class black subdivision of Brentwood, at a party. At first, Bridget didn't know who Willie was, and Willie sensed it was best to keep it that way. "I didn't speak on it," he says. It was only when Willie appeared on Good Morning America that she realized the truth about the Geto Boys. ("They were using profanity," she says, "and that is not my style!") She suggested that he write a rap song called "I Am Not a Gentleman," which he did, telling the world "Ladies first -- who the fuck made up that shit? / Nine times out of ten it was a bitch. / I'm coming atcha like this, / Cause your pussy ain't no more important than my dick, miss."

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