“You want some of these Kids, Bushwick?” I offered over the bag of Sour Patch Kids candies and rap legend and Houston music icon Bushwick Bill helped himself to a few, grinning as he rooted through the bag.
Sunday morning, many of us woke to the news that the Geto Boys rapper had passed away, taken by pancreatic cancer at the too-young age of 52. The internet was awash with stories of his death, from reputable news agencies, music blogs and the friends we know on Facebook. Then came official word from his family and management that news of the demise of Bushwick Bill – born Richard Stephen Shaw in Kingston, Jamaica – was premature. The family asked for prayers and did not downplay how dire his circumstances were. Late in the evening, the official word came that he had died in a Colorado hospital Sunday night.
That the circumstances of Bushwick Bill’s death recalled the greatly exaggerated demise of Mark Twain seems fitting. Like Twain, Bushwick Bill was humorous and could spin a yarn, whether on record in Houston proud anthems like “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” or autobiographical and cautionary songs like “Ever So Clear” or when relating the very real and wild details of his life for Viceland’s Party Legends.
The tributes poured in Sunday, when it was feared he had died, then when it was apparent he was alive and again after it was confirmed he had passed. Many were from his peers, people like Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike, who offered “love and respect always” and Ice Cube who said “He never backed down, even tho he was low to the ground. A true original.” They recognized his contributions to hip-hop. Along with fellow Geto Boys Scarface and Willie D, the pioneering act took on major labels, Tipper Gore’s censorship crusade and the geographical land battles of the genre by popularizing southern rap.
Lots of the tributes and heartfelt messages were from Houston musicians and the fans who chase live music in this city. Bushwick was known to them because he went to shows of all kinds and met all sorts of music fans in local venues. When he was approached by Geto Boys fans he was generous with his time, posing for selfies or talking for stretches. The “Little Big Man” seemed to be a man of the people.
I don’t at all purport to have known Bushwick Bill on a personal level. My wife and I encountered him on occasion at shows and I never told him I wrote about music or anything like that. On those occasions, he seemed easy to chat with, down to spend time with fans. One of my run-ins with him turned into a weirdly awesome afternoon. I’m sharing a little about it now because maybe it'll encourage others to share their recollections, too. And, and those recollections might also help Geto Boys fans anywhere understand what a gracious person he could be, the same man who wrote wildly over the top horrorcore rap songs like “Chuckie” and “Mind of a Lunatic” and boasted about stealing kids’ Halloween candy on his verse for “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” which Billboard has dubbed one of hip-hop’s greatest verses ever.
My wife and I were invited to Altercation Records’ Punk Rock BBQ at SXSW a few years ago, a big backyard picnic with bands at some Austin venue. The day’s headliner was Cheetah Chrome, guitarist for Rocket From the Tombs and Dead Boys. But, the first instantly recognizable person I saw was Bushwick Bill. Lots of Houston punk acts will tell you he was as much a fan of that genre as the one that made him famous.
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I asked Bushwick if I could get a photo with him and he saw my FYHA T-shirt and complied, of course. I asked if I could buy him a drink and he pshawed me and said he would buy me a drink. All he knew about me was I was from Houston, loved punk rock and was a Geto Boys fan. That was enough for him to pick up our first round.
That day, Bushwick was drinking Moscow mules and he’d had a few when he started looking for a cigarette. When Bushwick Bill wants to smoke with you – even if it’s just American Spirits (turquoise box, if memory serves) – you make that happen. My wife and I walked a couple blocks to a convenience store and came back with smokes and candy. While we were gone, he’d met up with Cheetah Chrome and the New York Dolls’ guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, who was also on hand to play (and is presently involved in his own battle with cancer).
We figured Bushwick had moved onto his friends. We felt lucky to have met him and settled in for the afternoon of music. But he returned to our picnic table and gave my wife a hug when she presented the cigarettes and he asked whether we wanted to meet the guys. We followed him to the green room and smoked, drank and talked with these iconic musicians as they sorted out the details of their set, which wound up being a mashup of Dead Boys and Geto Boys songs. When Bushwick was done, he joined us for another drink and to munch on sour candies. Then he, we and the band all went our separate ways.
I’ve talked with enough local musicians to feel that a pretty cool afternoon like that was common for Bushwick Bill and his fans. I’ve heard stories of him crashing on fans’ couches or about how kind he was to people who approached him. Many social media posts from people I know suggested the same. The people I’m talking about are Houstonians and during his career Bushwick Bill represented Houston, from Fifth Ward to places all over the globe. Even though he belongs to the ages now, as someone who was part of the first group to put Houston rap on the map he’ll always belong to Houston.