Mouth of the Dirty South
Last year OutKast hosted BET's Top 25 Artist Countdown, a show wherein today's hip-hoppers play and talk about their favorite videos of all time. Andre 3000 and Big Boi were then the reigning kings of not just hip-hop but also the wider music world. Half of their list was composed of their primary influences (ghettodelic '70s funk groups like Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament/ Funkadelic) and the other half their ATLien crew, which included their own works as well as stuff from their Georgia homies Goodie Mob, Slimm Calhoun and Killer Mike.
One video by another group fit neither of those descriptions: the Geto Boys' 1991 urban nightmare "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me," a song that Andre 3000 said "put Southern rap on the map."
The road to that groundbreaking smash began in a Houston used car lot on Shepherd, where James "Lil' J" Smith (who today goes by J. Prince) founded Rap-A-Lot Records in the mid-'80s. By 1987 he had assembled the classic Geto Boys lineup. He had recruited three local high school dropouts: the Fifth Ward's Willie D, South Park's Scarface, New Jersey-bred DJ Ready Red and Bushwick Bill, a New York-born dwarf then working as a dancer in a Sharpstown nightclub.
The group's debut, Grip It on that Other Level, caught the attention of New York rap and heavy metal producer Rick Rubin, who was then flush off huge successes with the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill. Rubin cleaned up the sound on Grip It and rereleased the album nationally as The Geto Boys, but not before provoking a force-five hurricane of moral outrage.
The band's song "Mind of a Lunatic," in which Bushwick Bill raps about raping, murdering and then reraping a woman, was arguably the most violent rap tune recorded up to that point. Geffen had agreed to distribute the album but then pulled out, objecting to the lyrics.
Eventually Time Warner signed on to distribute the record, but only on the condition that its name appear nowhere on the CDs. (And likely for the first time in the history of the American music business, the company that was supposed to have pressed the discs backed out; never before had a manufacturer attempted to censor a band.)
The Geto Boys sold disappointingly, so when it came time to record "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" on the album We Can't Be Stopped, there was much less of a national flavor to the proceedings. It was a pure Rap-A-Lot deal.
Today, though the cheesy monster-movie special effects of the "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" video haven't aged well, the song's power remains intact. Over rumbling, nearly ambient bass and a scratchy and singsong 12-note Isaac Hayes jazz-guitar riff, Willie D, Scarface and Bushwick Bill laid out the downside of being a gangster -- namely, that you lost your mind to horror and paranoia. You thought cars filled with "blind, crippled and crazy senior citizens" in fact held rival gangsters out to kill you. You were alienated from your family. You bashed your fists bloody on the pavement for no reason at all.
In the spring of 1992, that song played just about everywhere. The bass bulged the tinted windows of many a vintage Delta 88 across the South, and boomboxes blasted the tune at city parks. The hipper dance clubs -- even those of the pop and rock variety -- spun it in among Prince's "Cream," EMF's "Unbelievable" and that C+C Music Factory "Everybody dance now" ditty.
The tune went gold and peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard rap charts and No. 23 on the pop charts, and unlike so much else that came out that year, it has staying power. Even now, the song rests on many critics' "Best Hip-hop Ever" and "Top Songs of the '90s" lists.
What's more, it kicked down a barrier in the mind of a nation. Until then, the only rap from the South to make it big was 2 Live Crew's moronic booty rap, which was from the dubiously Southern city of Miami, and Vanilla Ice's whitey abominations.
The only real rappers, the music media would pontificate, were from New York and maybe, just maybe, L.A. Until the Geto Boys came along, Southern kids -- both black and white -- did not feel like they had dawgs in the hip-hop hunt. (I know, 'cause I was one of 'em.)
We didn't give a crap about all the East Coast vs. West Coast bullshit we read about in Spin and Rolling Stone. We admired elements of both -- the jazziness and righteous black pride of the NYC groups, and the funkiness and don't-give-a-fuck-ness of the L.A. guys -- but we all wanted to hear from our own region. Even though we already lived in it, we had to wait for the "Dirty South" to be invented.
The Geto Boys changed all that.
Through a combination of solid rhymes, lethal tracks and Tyson-roundhouse samples, the Geto Boys dragged the whole South behind them and into the game. (Don't believe the sources on the Internet and elsewhere that bestow that honor on Arrested Development. "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" dropped five months before "Tennessee" and has proved much more influential in the long run.) Then there was their impeccable street cred.
Willie D had served time for a gas-station holdup; Scarface had sold drugs in his teen years and in '93 was wounded by a security guard in Louisiana during a shoot-out between rival gangs. And Bushwick Bill, the dwarf who made it big, had one eye shot out by a girlfriend in '91. In fact, the Geto Boys used a photo of him -- bloody stump of an eye and all -- being pushed on a gurney into the emergency room on the cover of the CD that delivered "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" to the nation. (Rolling Stone named it the worst album cover of the year -- hell, it's easily the most disturbing of all time.)
Later, Scarface launched a successful solo career, cementing Houston's reputation as a hip-hop city. Thanks to the groundbreaking efforts of these Houstonians, Atlanta and New Orleans quickly followed, and by the mid-'90s the Dirty South was a sound and a commodity as well as a reality, and today it is the top rap region in the country.
And how does Geto Boy Willie D feel about being one of the godfathers of the genre? "Oh, you want a quote? Put this in quotations," he says. "Fuck you, pay me."
He's kidding -- a little bit.
"It's always good to set a precedent, to be a pioneer in any kind of movement," he says. "I humbly appreciate the gratitude. But I'm caught up in the 'right now.' I've been amazed at our shows this year by the warm reception we've gotten from the people our age, down to the kids who were in elementary school when that shit came out. It's people from every race, gender, age and socioeconomic status."
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