By Rolf Potts
33 1/3/Bloomsbury, 2016
My first memory of the Geto Boys was learning how to play the iconic hook from “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” in middle-school band. I know now that the warbling guitar lick fueling the track is sampled from a 1974 Isaac Hayes track called “Hung Up on My Baby,” but at the time, I just wanted to fit in with some of the cool kids in Port Arthur's Woodrow Wilson Middle School Band when they performed this song during pep rallies (sans approval from the band director). After gathering up the courage to ask them how to play the phrase, some of the 8th-graders in band let me perform with them when sitting in the stands at football games. It was a big victory for this chubby nerd.
I didn’t know anything about the legendary Houston trio at the time, even as they were wrecking the charts in the fall of 1991 with We Can’t Be Stopped. When I finally found a way to listen to the entire record, I was scandalized. I’d never heard anything like the Geto Boys - the profanity, the subject matter, the sampling — and I didn’t know what to do with it. The only rap music I was familiar with was the pop-rap of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Kris Kross and the like, but thanks to these three gentlemen, my musical world started expanding into whole new directions.
In his engaging treatise on the group’s self-titled third record for Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series, Rolf Potts recounted a similar experience when he heard The Geto Boys for the first time in 1991. He talked about walking into his college dorm room to meet his new roommate, only to be met with music and lyrics far outside of his experience. These songs piqued his curiosity in ways rock and metal weren’t, and they eventually inspired a trip to Houston to see the world that birthed such a powerful musical artifact.
On one hand, the book reads like a fairly straightforward historical recounting of the events surrounding this record. Potts shares a concise history of Houston’s Fifth Ward (and similar neighborhoods) as a way to provide the necessary context for the specific rise of the Geto Boys and Southern hip-hop in general.
We also learn about the creation of the Geto Boys and the stories of various members that swirled around the moniker before coming to rest upon Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill. Considerable ink is also given to the singular influence of J. Prince and Rap-A-Lot Records in the Houston music community, including his production techniques on The Geto Boys; how he distributed and marketed the album outside the big markets on the East and West Coasts, and how his personal hustle caught the eye of Rick Rubin.
On the other hand, Potts also dives headlong into the controversy that swirled about the national release of this record (released in 1990), using it to frame the evolution of the band and its role in the national hip-hop scene, as well as the album’s status as a cultural lightning rod. He doesn't shy away from discussing how people were shocked and incensed by the lyrical content, but does so by providing artistic, historiographical, and sociocultural context to the songs. For this reason, chapters like “Gangster of Love” and “Talkin’ Loud Ain’t Sayin’ Nothing” served as two of the strongest.
Frankly, the book still comes across as much drier than it should be. In the introduction, Potts cops to being hyper-aware of the potential for “ghetto tourism” (a term coined by Tricia Rose in 2008’s The Hip Hop Wars), but while I can certainly sympathize with such a sentiment, I felt his nervousness about this scenario robs the text of some vitality and urgency. This album had a great story to tell — who created it, where it came from, who listened to it, and the record company shenanigans around its major label release, not to mention all the hand-wringing from the music press, cultural commentators and politicians — but it’s all too clinical and matter-of-fact.
The book sings, though, when Potts talked about his trip to Houston in college. The chapter “Trigga Happy Nigga” chronicles how he booked a ridealong with the Houston Police Department as a way to see as much of Fifth Ward as possible. He discusses what he saw during that day, including providing details about a few stops the officers had to make when patrolling the neighborhood. It was super-revealing and puts a human face on the book. Granted, I understand that Potts didn’t want to make the book about himself, but when you write about an album that’s changed your life (even just a little bit), you need to inject just a bit of yourself into the picture.
I also love when Potts does let his fandom show, especially when he engages in cultural criticism. Chapters like “Let a Ho Be a Ho” and “Read These Nikes” veritably lash out at many of the people who attacked The Geto Boys, giving special attention to reactionaries of the cultural, religious, and political varieties who sought to create drama and theater to advance their own causes.
Overall, The Geto Boys is a welcome addition to the 33 1/3 canon, as it brings some much-needed diversity on several levels. While I certainly clamored for more personal insights, Potts delivers a strong history lesson that is well-researched and gives the Geto Boys their due as hip-hop pioneers. While long-term fans of the band (and Houston) might not find too much new information in these pages, they should definitely appreciate Potts’ efforts to educate the wider world on the struggles and successes of this iconic act.
Now, if only I could still play that "Mind Playing Tricks" melody line on the euphonium…