By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
Twenty years after three virtual strangers came together in a Houston recording studio, the Geto Boys' legacy is secure. Individually and collectively, Bushwick Bill, Willie D and Mr. Scarface are among the handful of Houston artists whose names are recognizable the world over. Alongside the likes of Schooly D, Boogie Down Productions and N.W.A., their hard-boiled rhymes about life (and death) in the Fifth Ward and other Bayou City ghettos were instrumental in rap's transition from imaginative but innocuous verbal gymnastics to realistic and often disturbing street-life scenarios.
The controversy touched off by Geffen Records' refusal to distribute their 1990 self-titled album, and its subsequent rescue by Rick Rubin's Def American label, remains a watershed moment in the convoluted history of free speech, censorship and popular music. For better or worse, it's nearly impossible to imagine how artists as diverse as Eminem, Insane Clown Posse and Lil Wayne would have ever gone platinum without them.
Around these parts, their liberal use of blues, soul and R&B samples in their backing tracks opened a third front in hip-hop's previously bicoastal theater, giving Southern rappers their first opening in a campaign that would eventually see them dominate the entire industry; like ZZ Top before them and Destiny's Child after, the Geto Boys literally put Houston on the map. And thanks to Texas filmmaker Mike Judge, millions of people who have never set foot in Fifth Ward know them as the soundtrack fueling the white-collar gangsta antics of the 1999 cult classic Office Space.
None of this, of course, means the Geto Boys have to like each other. They really don't, admits Willie D, who says that today the trio rarely speak.
"I don't know why we don't get along," he says. "It's hard to explain. I think one of the most difficult parts about being in a group is compromising."
There have been other Geto Boys, but the classic lineup of Willie D, Bushwick Bill and Scarface made only three albums during their true heyday: Geto Boys (Rubin's slightly altered production of that year's Grip It! On That Other Level); 1991's landmark We Can't Be Stopped; and 1993's Til Death Do Us Part, which left little doubt the bloom was off the rose and effectively launched the long-running solo careers of all three members. There have been periodic reunion albums — 1996's The Resurrection, 1998's Da Good, Da Bad and Da Ugly, 2005's The Foundation — and live appearances (about ten in the past decade, Willie reckons), but the Geto Boys haven't been "together" for a long, long time.
Like many before him, Willie D likens the Geto Boys' dynamic to a marriage, one that's been estranged for around 16 of its 20 years. "We're like a couple that's always separated and shit," he says. "You might not get back together again — she's living at her mother's house, I got a new apartment over here. We still love each other; we talk every now and then, 'How you doing?' and that kind of thing, but we just can't get the shit right."
But the Geto Boys were an arranged marriage from the beginning. None of the three had anything to do with the group's debut album, 1988's Making Trouble, recorded by Prince Johnny C, Jukebox Slim and DJ Ready Red as the "Ghetto Boys." What those Ghetto Boys shared with their differently spelled successors was the man calling the shots, James Prince, who, figuring local rap fans would just as soon listen to their fellow Houstonians as music imported from the East and West coasts, founded Rap-a-Lot Records in the mid-1980s. Even so, there was little original about Trouble, a Run-DMC retread down to the members' choice in haberdashery — black fedoras — on the cover.
"We wanted to tell our stories, Houston stories," says Willie, who himself began rapping after hearing Run-DMC on the radio as a sophomore at Forest Brook High School. "We had heard the New York stories." (Meanwhile, he credits Ready Red with forging the Geto Boys' distinctive sound: "The heavy horns, strings, that bluesy-type shit, that's Southern — that's us.")
Sensing party rhymes and heavy-metal guitar samples were a creative and commercial dead end in the wake of the hip-hop sea change heralded by hard-hitting albums like N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton (1988), Prince — then known as Lil J — decided to steer the group in a more streetwise direction. He brought in Willie D, whom he had already signed to Rap-a-Lot as a solo artist, to write some songs in that vein for the next Ghetto Boys album. The two met through their mutual Fifth Ward barber.
"I wrote a couple of songs [like] 'Let a Ho Be a Ho,' and the dudes that were in the group didn't like it," remembers Willie, now 40 and himself the owner of Relentless Records. "They had wives and stuff like that, so they didn't want to be using that type language. But that's the direction J wanted to take the group. He wanted the group to be more edgy, to be more unforgiving. At that time I was as raw as a diamond on the bottom of the ocean."