Scarface -- a.k.a. Brad Jordan -- strikes a defiant victory pose in the face of gangsta rap's recent carnage on his fourth solo release, The Untouchable. And in his case, that bigger-than-life image gamble appears to have paid off.
A decade after he leapt headlong into the budding gangsta rap scene with his partners in crime, the Geto Boys, the 26-year-old Houston native is among the genre's few platinum-caliber spokesmen left. In the wake of the shooting deaths of two of the industry's biggest hip-hop wise guys, Tupac Shakur and Christopher "The Notorious B.I.G." Wallace, Scarface is alive and well, enjoying his first unqualified solo hit with The Untouchable. Upon its release this spring, the CD debuted at number one on the Billboard pop charts and rocketed from the 83rd slot to number one on the R&B charts in only two weeks. At last look, The Untouchable had dropped from the Billboard Top 20, though the video for the CD's single, "Smile," is still among the most frequently played clips on MTV.
Not that Scarface stresses much over his status in the gangsta-rap hierarchy -- or anywhere else, for that matter. In conversation, he's loose, relaxed and, dare say, jolly. Still, as questions turn to his new CD, he's all business.
"I'm just making music," Scarface says. "I'm a musician, and I love to do it."
Then he turns evasive. "At least you didn't ask me the question that I hear from everybody: 'What's different about this album than the last?' Whatever is different about this album than [1994's less successful The Diary], I let the people listen to it to decide that. It ain't like I make an album and be like, 'Yeah, I want this to be different than the last one.' That ain't really why I do this. I just do it because I like doing it -- and it pays the bills."
If there is something truly different about The Untouchable, it's that Scarface injects a more freewheeling style and attitude into his violent, urban landscapes. On his earlier releases -- The Diary, 1993's The World Is Yours and 1991's Mr. Scarface Is Back -- a vaguely foreboding tone made him appear to be more a storytelling drifter than a homey with firm ties to the 'hood. Where chilling slices of urban insanity such as "A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die" centered more on the psychologically disturbing aspects of street warfare, The Untouchable lightens the load a bit with a been-there, done-that attitude.
Indeed, Scarface has had his share of experiences from which to draw for his tales. Raised in the southeast Houston ghetto of South Acres, at the age of 14 he had already slashed his wrists in an attempted suicide. And his unpredictable, often manic behavior soon led to stays in various hospitals. But none of that curbed his creativity; if anything, it made him hungrier to get ideas out. At 16, Scarface released his debut, Big Time. It didn't go anywhere commercially, so he continued to make his living on the streets.
Then the rapper was recruited by Rap-A-Lot President James "Lil' J" Smith for the Geto Boys, thus beginning a lengthy collaboration with Fifth Ward compadres Willie D and Bushwick Bill. The Geto Boys went on to be as successful as they were controversial, but as the group's appeal waned, relations within the band grew strained, and solo outings became more common. The Geto Boys eventually broke up, only to reconvene for last year's The Resurrection. Now, with the success of The Untouchable, such reunion efforts may be unnecessary for Scarface. While he professes nothing but love for his sometime bandmates, he admits to having "a pretty crummy time" recording The Resurrection.
"It's gonna cost a lot of money in order for me to do that shit again," he says.
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Oddly enough, it was through rock and roll -- not rap or R&B -- that Scarface first came to perform music. As a teenager, he was a lead guitarist and singer for a local rock outfit, and to this day he's still heavily into '70s and '80s rock -- everything from Pink Floyd to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Iron Maiden. Though The Untouchable features a healthy number of collaborations with other rappers -- including Ice Cube, Too Short, Dr. Dre and the late Tupac Shakur (on "Smile") -- Scarface wouldn't object to making future creative pairings a bit more adventurous. "[If] muthafuckas that I like ask me to do a song, you know I'm down with that shit," he says, "whether it be the Smashing Pumpkins or Andreas Vollenweider."
Perhaps a bit more realistic are Scarface's plans to venture onto the big screen. It's been rumored that he was offered a role in the independent film Fifth Ward, which began shooting locally late last year. Scarface, though, denies knowing anything about the movie. "You know a lot more than I do," he says.
What Scarface will concede is that he's writing a few screenplays, one of the more intriguing of which involves a love triangle between a husband, a wife and the wife's male best friend. As for his musical future, there's no Untouchable tour planned. Right now, Scarface remains focused on producing other artists. And what little free time he has is spent playing family man to his wife and four children. So, after years of tussles and turmoil, could it be that Scarface is becoming a model citizen?
"I ain't trying to run for president or none of that shit," he says. "[But] If the shoe fits, put the muthafucka on.