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?

"I was definitely not what she was used to," Willie says. "But she saw what I could be."

In 1994, Willie and Bridget, who is now a mechanical engineer, got married on a yacht near Houston; the wedding was officiated by Nation of Islam leader Robert Muhammad. 1994 was an important year for Willie for other reasons as well. It was the year his mother, with whom he had finally developed a close relationship despite the problems they had when he was growing up, died. Her death, he says, left him suicidal, and searching for a reason to keep on living.

"It made me see that everything wasn't about me, I wasn't put here to benefit me," he says. "I was put here for people who were less fortunate." He stepped up his schedule of speaking engagements, appearing at schools and in correctional facilities, talking to senior-citizen groups and at political rallies.

And 1994 was the last year that Willie got in trouble with the law -- a car repairman accused him of theft-of-service when he claimed his car but refused to pay a bill Willie says was more than double the estimate. Willie received deferred adjudication. And in a 1993 case that may yet mean jail time for Willie, a topless dancer at Foxxy's Cabaret accused him of beating her up while his bodyguard held her. Though a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to 120 days in jail and a fine, Willie maintains his innocence, claiming his fame made him an easy target and noting that the dancer, Keisha Blake, has a police record of her own. The case is on appeal. "I'm not worried," says Willie. "I am not worried. I'm concerned."

On Halloween night, hundreds of people pour into Chocolate Town, a cavernous nightclub in a northside strip mall with multilevel plywood platforms and older Latino men gruffly tending a crowded bar. On one chunk of the wan, windowless exterior of the club, someone has spray-painted a calligraphic "Happy Birthday Willie D" -- which it will be, after midnight. As young men in baggy jeans and young women in halter tops and, sometimes, matching short-shorts, park their beat-up cars and enter the club to pay their money and get frisked, it's impossible for them to miss a white stretch limo parked in front of the club. The limo conveys one clear message: This muthafucka has made it.

Inside the limo, Willie and Bridget cuddle in the back seat. They've left the Princess (which is what they call their two-year-old daughter, whose real name Willie wouldn't reveal) at home with a sitter. Bridget is wearing a sleeveless black sheath with beaded trim, and her frosted hair is piled on her head in elegant curls. She looks positively Waiting to Exhale. Inside a garment bag is the full-length gown she wore earlier to speak at a Prairie View A&M alumni banquet. One of Willie D's homeboys pours champagne and does an impromptu rap in honor of Willie's birthday, which everyone applauds. According to some mysterious yet precise schedule, Willie plans to enter the club in exactly two minutes.

When Willie and company pile out, he goes to the trunk of the limo and pulls out several white bags, then marches in through the out door. A South Asian man stationed there asks, uncertain about the lingo, "Are these your homeboys? And, er, your homegirls?" as the crew files past. Willie is wearing slacks and a swank synthetic shirt, a leather jacket styled like a work shirt and Versace cologne. He looks expensive. He swigs from a bottle of Moët. He makes his way to the "dressing room," a crude hallway with chairs and a table. Opened, the white bags reveal their contents to be one giant foil container of spicy buffalo wings and one giant foil container of regular buffalo wings. The buffalo wings convey one clear message: This muthafucka's from the hood.

Suddenly, the dressing room is filled with men eating and talking. Outside, people skirmish. Security men shine their flashlights on the ground, apparently looking for someone's teeth. On the dance floor, skinny young girls bend forward, leaning on their hands, rubbing their rears back and forth across their boyfriends' crotches. One young man grabs his lady's belt with one hand and swings an imaginary lasso with the other. Blunts are passed from hand to hand.

Willie D watches from the side of the stage as a series of rappers, some of whom are on one of Willie's two record labels, perform. Bridget, Marilyn Gambrell and her daughter Mackenzie join him. Finally, Willie takes the stage, which immediately fills with people (mostly, he says later, from the Fifth Ward). The Fifth Ward Boys, another rap group, are also on the mike. Together, they and Willie sing an anthem-like version of Willie's "Fifth Ward," another of his solo hits. They throw up their signs. Willie D turns his back to the audience and sings to the people on-stage. With his shaved head and solid stance, he cuts a mean figure. When he turns back around, he is shaking with anger. Someone on the mike is preempting him, disrespecting him. So he takes control. This is the other Willie D, the original Willie D. He's not about to exhort this audience to vote "no" on Proposition A, or to tell them that he's down with the disadvantaged and the elderly. He's here to rap, and rap he does.

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