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.
The Geto Boys
The Geto Boys perform 8 p.m. Friday, July4, at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483.
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."
Prince asked Willie D to join, and although the rapper had his misgivings — "I knew all the shit that goes down when you join a group" — he relented out of appreciation for the opportunity Prince had given him. ("I wanted to be a team player.") Prince had another rapper in mind for the group as well — Brad Jordan, a softspoken Acres Homes native who rhymed under the name Mr. Scarface. Willie and Scarface went from strangers to bandmates over the course of one evening.
"Me and Scarface didn't even know each other," he says. "The day we went into the studio to make the album [the record that eventually became both Grip It! and Geto Boys], that's the day we met."
The original idea was for the Geto Boys to continue as Jukebox, Willie, Scarface and Ready Red still on turntable duty, but the first night the reconfigured group began recording, Slim decided to leave. Willie noticed Bushwick Bill — the stage name of three-foot-eight Jamaican native Richard Shaw, who had been the previous Ghetto Boys' onstage hypeman and dancer — hanging out in the studio, rapping along to Public Enemy, and, he says, "a light went off."
"[I said] 'Let's put Bushwick in the group and let him rap Jukebox's parts,'" Willie recalls. "Everybody's looking and laughing or whatever, and I was like, 'See this shit, man — no offense or whatever, but I think people will really trip out on a midget rapping, especially if he's talking about kicking somebody's ass.'
"But it wouldn't be a joke — we were going to make them take him seriously," he continues. "We were going to make people look at him and say, 'That dude there is the real deal.' So the same night, I took Bill downstairs to the kitchen and asked him some personal questions about himself and came up with 'Size Ain't Shit.'"
The revamped Geto Boys clicked instantly, Willie remembers, and the album — which, besides "Size Ain't Shit," also includes future classics "Mind of a Lunatic" and "Trigga Happy Nigga" — came together in short order. Their grittier, profanity-strewn style was a hit even before Geffen's fateful decision not to distribute the album, which brought the Geto Boys national headlines and landed them front and center in the ongoing censorship debate stirred up by Tipper Gore's media-watchdog group PMRC. Naturally, once Rubin's Def American label picked up the album, the controversy fueled record sales even more.
Although critics and fans alike tended to focus on the runaway sex and violence in the Geto Boys' songs, what truly set them apart was the psychological depth underlying even their most cartoonish moments. Whereas most of their contemporaries never bothered to explain their motives beyond simple thrill-seeking, songs like "Mind of a Lunatic" and the immortal "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" went a step further, acknowledging the paranoia, despair and outright fear lying just beneath all that swaggering gangsta bravado.
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"We always keyed in on struggle," Willie says. "The struggle is how the people on top thrive on benefiting from the people on bottom, and keeping the people on bottom down. We always wanted to be a voice for the disenfranchised."
Not coincidentally, whereas most of their onetime peers have been all but forgotten by history — everyone save Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur, pretty much — the Geto Boys' music is as potent now as when it was fresh out of the studio. Likewise, even though they've long since gone their separate ways, Willie acknowledges that the same chemistry that was there the first night he, Scarface and Bushwick became the Geto Boys makes it virtually impossible to close the book on the group entirely.
"The first few times [we got back together] were kinda scary, because I didn't know what to expect because of the long layoff," he says. "But man, every fuckin' time we link up, it's magic. We could not have performed together for five years, but when we hit the stage, bam! You'd never know."