Big Talker

Willie D is in the house. In fact, Willie D is on the mike. A slow jam starts up behind him. "The say that the apple don't fall too far from the tree," he intones over the beat. "There are now more than a million children of imprisoned parents in the U.S. and 80 percent of imprisoned mothers have dependent children under the age of 18 years old. Welcome to Willie D's Reality Check. I am your host, Willie D."

Willie D, a.k.a. Willie James Dennis, is wearing a clean, button-down shirt and wire-rimmed glasses. As he listens to callers, he cocks his shaved head to one side, directing his studio helpers with deft hand signals. A thick wedding ring glitters on his left hand. When he is bemused, a private smile spreads slowly across his face. He is suave, so suave that it's a shame his good looks are wasted on radio. At the moment, Willie D looks like the perfect gentleman. What he doesn't look -- or sound -- like is a notoriously violent, morally unpredictable proponent of random sex, rape and murder. Until only a short time ago, though, that's exactly what many people took him for.

They took him for that because, as a member of Houston's Geto Boys, he was an emblem of the declining morals of black youth and the entertainment industry. In 1992, a youth who got in trouble for killing a cop blamed his crime on the Geto Boys. Across the country, parolees and gun-toting teens were always listening to the Geto Boys, especially when reporters were around. A compact disk factory refused to press a Geto Boys album due to its obscene and violent lyrics. Geffen refused to distribute their major-label debut. In 1991, one of the Geto Boys allegedly dangled his baby out the window, prompting his teenage girlfriend to shoot him in the eye. Throughout all this, the Geto Boys topped the charts, singing about the Man, mayhem and getting down in a hot tub with two bitches at once.

But that was the old Willie D; tonight, the man behind the mike is the new Willie D, a Willie D who this week went national with his radio show. Like many rappers who hit the scene in the 1980s -- and survived -- Willie D is refashioning himself into a multi-industry businessman. He's started record labels and landed film roles, but his most unique product, the one that may take him the farthest, is Reality Check. As a rapper, Willie D presented himself as one mean muthafucka; when he announced Reality Check's syndication, he presented himself as a different sort of player, one who wore a suit and a tie.

But according to Willie, the only people who think a major transformation has occurred are those who never understood "so-called gangsta rap" to begin with. "People automatically think that because I'm a gangsta rapper, that I'm going to walk in the place limping and shit, holding my dick, throwing up a 40, throwing up signs and shit," he says. "And that's never been me. Never." Actually, Mr. Dennis is generally polite and enthusiastic. On one recent day of public appearances, he got a better response (in the form of loud amens) from a group of senior citizens he spoke to than from a Texas Southern University rally, where he exhorted students to vote. ("Y'all stupid, just stupid," he told those who were unregistered.) With women, he is impeccable or just a little mischievous -- at one point he gave the soft, shiny hair of a young radio executive a gentle noogie, in response to which she giggled. But that was about the extent of his dastardly behavior.

The gangsta rap, he insists, is just a performance. "Hell, if I'm a gangsta rapper, Bruce Willis is a gangsta actor," he says. But there's a difference. "Everybody wants to meet Bruce Willis. Nobody wants to sit down with Willie D and get to know Willie D, because Willie D is a gangsta rapper."

But on this evening, ensconced in a studio at The Box, 97.9 FM, being a gangsta rapper is far from Willie D's mind. The topic of his call-in radio show, though -- children whose parents are in prison -- could easily be the subject of a rap song. Since Reality Check went on the air a year ago, it has become an outlet for what many perceive as Willie D's alter ego: a smart, passionate man who has the straight talk and the sixth sense for controversy that are required of any good talk-show host. In actuality, many of the concerns of Willie D the rapper are the same as those of Willie D the on-air personality, and his street credibility (he can honestly tell listeners he's been there) has served him well in both careers. The Geto Boys told it like they saw it, and now, so does Reality Check. In fact, Willie D often uses the show as a way to grapple with his past.

Tonight his guests are Julie -- mother, former crack addict and three-time prisoner -- and One Grand, father, rapper and a former drug dealer who's also done time. The callers are not your typical talk radio aficionados -- the first is a 15-year-old, the oldest of five, with a faint Hispanic accent. Her mom's a crackhead, out of prison just in time "to ruin our Christmas." The girl wants to know what it takes to get someone on crack to realize they're doing wrong. Willie lets his guests answer, then he offers Julie a note of encouragement that's also meant to inspire his listeners.

"I'm from the hood. I know what people on drugs look like. When you walked in the door, I expected you to look like someone who was recovering," Willie says. "And I'm like, what the hell do a recovering addict look like? 'Cause I have seen few in my life. But you're a beautiful woman, I mean you are beautiful. When you walked in the door, I'm like mmnh! You look like the president of a major corporation or something like that. You look wonderful."

As the show continues, one small drama follows another. A young man calls in to say his father broke down after years of sobriety and is back in prison. Julie's grown daughter calls in to say how proud she is of her mother for cleaning up her life. Julie cries.

When it began, Reality Check was going to be no big thing, just another way to capitalize on fame. Willie D planned to just "be opinionated," call up his friends in the music business -- Ice Cube, Puff Daddy, etc.-- and joke around. But after the first show, Willie D's wife, Bridget, put an end to that idea. Bridget told him that just "kickin' it" on the air wasn't enough -- there was too much of that already in the entertainment business. She told him it was time to show people his "other side," the side she had fallen in love with. It was time for him to do something for the community.

After that, Bridget says, Willie D didn't speak to her for a couple of days. But he eventually came around. As the show took off, Willie D began to see that his wife was right. The show could be emotional, informative and dramatic. What's more, the program had that intangible quality that successful rappers need to command street- level respect: It was real.

Reality Check aired only once a week on The Box, and because the station measures its time slots on a weekly rather than a daily basis, it's been hard to say exactly how large Willie D's audience was at any one time. But what's clear is that soon after Reality Check began being broadcast, its time slot became more popular; nine months after the show went on the air, the number of listeners for the time slot had nearly doubled. It was estimated there were 20,000 listeners every quarter-hour, which helped make The Box the city's number one evening radio station. It was enough that, after a year, Willie D decided to syndicate Reality Check and do it five nights a week instead of one. "It just blew up," he says of the show. "It got too big for one night a week. It got too powerful."

Powerful or not, five nights a week was four nights too many for The Box, so they dropped the show. But almost immediately 97.1, Houston's FM talk station, picked it up. On Monday, Reality Check began broadcasting in approximately ten markets, and in a year, Willie D's syndicator, Dallas-based Radio Shows, Ltd., expects the show will be heard in 100 markets.

If the show (which can be heard locally from 8 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday) is successful, Willie D may have more of a voice, and more of an audience, than ever before. And listeners will hear not a gangsta rapper whose obscenities are easy to reject, but a respectful, sonorous man who speaks for, to and about the black underclass and takes calls from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. People who have never heard the Geto Boys will hear Willie D. And if they hear Willie D, they will also get a dose of what he calls "reality."

In tone and subject matter, Reality Check is similar to Oprah -- in fact, Willie has said he wants to do for Houston what Oprah Winfrey has done for Chicago. He's done shows on gang violence. He has invited rape victims to speak on the show. He's emphatically dissed welfare and chastised people who blight their neighborhoods by driving around with their radios turned way up. He went to the hood and convinced a couple of carjackers, one of whom was his cousin, to come tell listeners why they thought they had a right to take people's cars. He talked about self-reliance, responsibility and family values. He called up University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia at home one night and put him on the air, asking Graglia why he made all those derogatory comments about blacks and Hispanics.

When Graglia finished talking, Willie pulled one of his classic surprises. "You know what? Professor?" Willie D said. "Really, when I called you I thought that you was going to get an attitude or something, and I was ready to just lay you out. But I gotta respect your comments, man."

Later, he told a get-out-the-vote rally at the University of Houston's downtown campus that Graglia's comments "might be true for a large portion of us. Let's face it, how many do y'all know in your own family that's on that side that's determined, that want better and are willing to work for it, willing to sacrifice something? I can tell you in my family -- most of my family's lazy. They sorry. Every time I come around, they trying to ask me for money. But at the same time, we have a lot of hardworking, decent people in our race that deserve opportunity the same as the next person does."

Syndication will bring the quality of Reality Check up a notch. Willie's new producer will be radio veteran David "The Rooster" Webb. The show has also wrought another, somewhat more surprising, alliance for Willie. White former parole officer Marilyn Gambrell is his new research assistant. As the director of No More Victims, a service organization for addicts, crime victims, perpetrators and their families, Gambrell has already provided several of the show's guests and has been on the show herself. She sees Willie as a soldier in the fight "to heal this nation." He, in turn, wants to help No More Victims expand.

When Gambrell found a guest for the show who had murdered both of his own parents, she says that at first Willie had one response: "He killed both his parents? Kill him!" But when she explained the extreme abuse the man had suffered as a small child, Willie began to see the possibility of rehabilitation. "I told him about little babies who are abused," says Gambrell, "who have their rectums torn open and are left there bleeding with no one to help them. We're not just evil, sickass people. We are surviving from something."

On the show, Willie is doggedly inquisitive, asking Graglia if he's ever called someone a "nigger," asking gang leaders exactly how gangs spread to other cities, asking Julie if her children still respected her after her incarceration. Though Willie D now lives in West University and drives a Lexus, hangs out at Starbucks, eats at Bennigan's and listens to James Taylor, on Reality Check he always seems to be exploring some aspect of the environment he grew up in, trying to make sense of the ghetto.

"It's therapeutic to me. I'm not just helping other people; I'm helping myself. I have a lot of demons that lurks inside of me," he says. "And the show helps me to cast those demons away. Because of all the strife in my life, you know, that's part of the reason why I'm so emotional, I'm so compassionate, I'm so connected, I'm so appreciated by all the people out there that's going through the same type of things. Or who have been there and done that."

"He's real. He's honest. I trust him completely," adds Gambrell, noting that the two have become so close that they often just have to glance at each other to know they're thinking the same thing. "He wants to know more, find out more. He'll call and say, this is my topic, I'm on my way to the library, what do you think?"

But what does she think about the sexist lyrics, the songs about slashing women's throats and raping them?

"That is unacceptable," she admits. "But I think he knows that's unacceptable, now."

Maybe, maybe not. Willie D continues to maintain that his rap lyrics are valid. Though in 1995, shortly after the birth of his daughter, he told USA Today that he had some reservations about letting her hear what he had written, he bristles at the suggestion that he feels apologetic. "How can a person be wrong on a record? How can an artist be wrong? How can a person painting a picture be wrong?" he asks passionately.

Though Willie D insists that his rap career is not over, he admits that, to his surprise, his commitment to Reality Check has taken precedence. How that will affect the songs on his new CDs, a solo album and a Geto Boys release he says will be out next year, he isn't sure. But while he has always defended his lyrics as a reflection of reality, he has also insisted that being a gangsta rapper is about money -- "getting paid, straight up ... Hell, if I thought I could write a song about living on a farm, milking cows, riding horses, plowing, um, the field or whatever ... I'd write about that shit."

And what sells hasn't changed much. After all, even Salt of the comparatively upright Salt-n-Pepa, who is now a born-again Christian, raps about taking another woman's husband on their new CD. "McDonald's ain't changing the Big Mac," Willie D points out.

Lucrative or not, Willie D's music has always had a message, and those who have been listening closely, he insists, won't be surprised at his newfound radio voice. Newsweek once called rap "a radical voice with an often conservative agenda," and overtones of caution, as well as the self-reliance that lies at the heart of black conservatism, do come through in some of Willie D's lyrics. But those overtones are even clearer on Reality Check.

"I got many conservative views. I got many liberal views," Willie says. "On the conservative side, I feel like, hey, a man should be the person who brings home the bacon. And I also believe a man should be the head of his house. When I say the head of the house, I mean if somebody try to break in the house, who's going to run to the front door?" Willie also thinks that for women, a career should be a choice -- for a man, it's an obligation. "A woman's obligation is to be a man's helpmate. Help raise the kids, cook, clean," he explains. "When I say cook, clean, I don't mean that in a prehistoric, slave-type perspective. I mean if a man gets off work, comes home, and he's not too tired, help out. Help her out. If the load gets so heavy, the best thing I can say is shit, hire a maid. Hire a maid if you're financially able."

The environment Willie James Dennis grew up in didn't look anything like his ideal. In fact, Willie was as close to being a real Houston ghetto boy as the Geto Boys ever got. He was raised by his mother, Marvelous, along with two brothers and two sisters. They lived in several Houston neighborhoods, but Willie identifies the Fifth Ward, where he lived in housing projects such as Kennedy Place, as his hood. His home life, he says, was abusive, and food was often scarce. In his late teens he lived with his grandmother, because he and his mother couldn't get along. Willie was a hot-blooded kid who picked fights and stole his schoolmates' lunches. "Probably why I was beating people up, was because I couldn't win a fight at home," Willie says now. "Everybody was scared of me."

Born in 1966, Willie matured just as rap was surfacing in the ghetto. "We pretty much lived and breathed rap," says Ronald Hope, a childhood friend of Willie's. When the two of them lived in a Glenwood Forest apartment complex, they would put on a "talent show" for the neighbors every evening. They did the same at school during lunchtime, and eventually entered -- and won -- real talent shows. They hustled together, pumping gas, sacking groceries and mowing lawns, and they stole together -- from candy raids to more serious crime sprees. "Whatever one of us was doing, the other encouraged," remembers Hope. "If a week passed and you didn't have a good fight, something was wrong. We grew up around pimps and hustlers. That was everyday living. If you hear a woman tell her sister, 'bitch, you crazy,' that's not an offensive 'bitch.' That's just the way you relate. Those words are introduced to kids in the neighborhood at six or seven years of age."

Almost as soon as Willie and Ron were legally adults, they robbed a gas station and got caught, ending up behind bars for several months awaiting trial. Willie, not accustomed to having his liberty curtailed (he especially disliked watching commercials for fried chicken and pizza while having to eat jail food), quickly decided that jail was not for him and vowed never to go back. "I never took anything that wasn't mine again," he says.

But what he now calls "a dark chapter" in his life was just beginning. While he was locked up, his girlfriend became pregnant by her ex-boyfriend; the discovery came as a real blow to Willie. "I lived in, like, a fantasy world," he say. "I used to watch television all the time. I used to watch The Waltons. I used to watch Little House on the Prairie. I saw people who had a mother and father, who struggled but always pulled together in a time of need. I thought you met a girl you liked, dated for a really long time, then got married and had a lot of kids."

When his girlfriend broke the news to him, Willie's fantasy world collapsed. He didn't look at women for a long time after that, and then when he did, he didn't see them the same way he had before. "I put it in my mind, I said, 'I ain't getting hurt, but I'm fixing to do some goddamn hurting.' 'Cause I wanted revenge, like all of us who've ever been hurt do," Willie says. "We always get back at the people who ain't done us no wrong." Willie's duels -- both verbal and physical -- with other rappers in Houston's underground clubs gave him far-reaching sex appeal (even now, on his radio show, about half the callers are female).

"[Women] was already falling in line to his rude and gangsta ways. They expected it from him," Hope says. "Women just loved it all over the city of Houston." One of Willie's underground hits was called "Bald-Headed Hos" -- and the ladies loved it.

Why? "I think 'cause all the other men were sucking up, they were wanting to be on [the women] all the time, and I was sticking and moving," Willie says. "I was not trying to be on to one woman."

In 1988, Willie D, Brad "Scarface" Jordan and Bushwick Bill formed the Geto Boys (by this time, Hope had become a Christian and quit rapping). The group was the brainchild of James "Li'l J" Smith, president of Rap-A-Lot Records. Smith wagered, correctly, that hardcore rap (later dubbed gangsta rap) was going to be big, and he insisted on the group's unapologetic approach to ghetto life. Willie D concurred, and wrote many of the Boys' songs. In 1992, Willie quit the group to develop his solo career, but his CD sales floundered. Then, in 1996, he rejoined the Boys to make The Resurrection, which returned them to the top of the charts.

During this time, the womanizing Gangsta of Love -- Willie earned the name after sampling the Steve Miller phrase in one of his rap tunes -- began to slow down. In 1989, he met Bridget Yvette Bonier, a college student who hailed from the middle-class black subdivision of Brentwood, at a party. At first, Bridget didn't know who Willie was, and Willie sensed it was best to keep it that way. "I didn't speak on it," he says. It was only when Willie appeared on Good Morning America that she realized the truth about the Geto Boys. ("They were using profanity," she says, "and that is not my style!") She suggested that he write a rap song called "I Am Not a Gentleman," which he did, telling the world "Ladies first -- who the fuck made up that shit? / Nine times out of ten it was a bitch. / I'm coming atcha like this, / Cause your pussy ain't no more important than my dick, miss."

"I was definitely not what she was used to," Willie says. "But she saw what I could be."

In 1994, Willie and Bridget, who is now a mechanical engineer, got married on a yacht near Houston; the wedding was officiated by Nation of Islam leader Robert Muhammad. 1994 was an important year for Willie for other reasons as well. It was the year his mother, with whom he had finally developed a close relationship despite the problems they had when he was growing up, died. Her death, he says, left him suicidal, and searching for a reason to keep on living.

"It made me see that everything wasn't about me, I wasn't put here to benefit me," he says. "I was put here for people who were less fortunate." He stepped up his schedule of speaking engagements, appearing at schools and in correctional facilities, talking to senior-citizen groups and at political rallies.

And 1994 was the last year that Willie got in trouble with the law -- a car repairman accused him of theft-of-service when he claimed his car but refused to pay a bill Willie says was more than double the estimate. Willie received deferred adjudication. And in a 1993 case that may yet mean jail time for Willie, a topless dancer at Foxxy's Cabaret accused him of beating her up while his bodyguard held her. Though a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to 120 days in jail and a fine, Willie maintains his innocence, claiming his fame made him an easy target and noting that the dancer, Keisha Blake, has a police record of her own. The case is on appeal. "I'm not worried," says Willie. "I am not worried. I'm concerned."

On Halloween night, hundreds of people pour into Chocolate Town, a cavernous nightclub in a northside strip mall with multilevel plywood platforms and older Latino men gruffly tending a crowded bar. On one chunk of the wan, windowless exterior of the club, someone has spray-painted a calligraphic "Happy Birthday Willie D" -- which it will be, after midnight. As young men in baggy jeans and young women in halter tops and, sometimes, matching short-shorts, park their beat-up cars and enter the club to pay their money and get frisked, it's impossible for them to miss a white stretch limo parked in front of the club. The limo conveys one clear message: This muthafucka has made it.

Inside the limo, Willie and Bridget cuddle in the back seat. They've left the Princess (which is what they call their two-year-old daughter, whose real name Willie wouldn't reveal) at home with a sitter. Bridget is wearing a sleeveless black sheath with beaded trim, and her frosted hair is piled on her head in elegant curls. She looks positively Waiting to Exhale. Inside a garment bag is the full-length gown she wore earlier to speak at a Prairie View A&M alumni banquet. One of Willie D's homeboys pours champagne and does an impromptu rap in honor of Willie's birthday, which everyone applauds. According to some mysterious yet precise schedule, Willie plans to enter the club in exactly two minutes.

When Willie and company pile out, he goes to the trunk of the limo and pulls out several white bags, then marches in through the out door. A South Asian man stationed there asks, uncertain about the lingo, "Are these your homeboys? And, er, your homegirls?" as the crew files past. Willie is wearing slacks and a swank synthetic shirt, a leather jacket styled like a work shirt and Versace cologne. He looks expensive. He swigs from a bottle of Moët. He makes his way to the "dressing room," a crude hallway with chairs and a table. Opened, the white bags reveal their contents to be one giant foil container of spicy buffalo wings and one giant foil container of regular buffalo wings. The buffalo wings convey one clear message: This muthafucka's from the hood.

Suddenly, the dressing room is filled with men eating and talking. Outside, people skirmish. Security men shine their flashlights on the ground, apparently looking for someone's teeth. On the dance floor, skinny young girls bend forward, leaning on their hands, rubbing their rears back and forth across their boyfriends' crotches. One young man grabs his lady's belt with one hand and swings an imaginary lasso with the other. Blunts are passed from hand to hand.

Willie D watches from the side of the stage as a series of rappers, some of whom are on one of Willie's two record labels, perform. Bridget, Marilyn Gambrell and her daughter Mackenzie join him. Finally, Willie takes the stage, which immediately fills with people (mostly, he says later, from the Fifth Ward). The Fifth Ward Boys, another rap group, are also on the mike. Together, they and Willie sing an anthem-like version of Willie's "Fifth Ward," another of his solo hits. They throw up their signs. Willie D turns his back to the audience and sings to the people on-stage. With his shaved head and solid stance, he cuts a mean figure. When he turns back around, he is shaking with anger. Someone on the mike is preempting him, disrespecting him. So he takes control. This is the other Willie D, the original Willie D. He's not about to exhort this audience to vote "no" on Proposition A, or to tell them that he's down with the disadvantaged and the elderly. He's here to rap, and rap he does.

This time around, though, the ladies don't swoon or shriek. The crowd is already thinning out, and after half an hour people stream steadily through the exit. At 2:30 a.m., the owner shuts the club down. The birthday celebration is over.

If Willie D's fame as a rapper is eroding, he doesn't seem to notice. Most rappers who have been around as long as he has have branched out -- into record labels, acting, directing, clothing lines. The rap scene is characterized by a new maturity -- one can't be a rap star forever, and most new rappers aren't expected to make more than one album. Scarface, one of the Geto Boys, is married with four kids. LL Cool J was pictured on the cover of Vibe this March with his wife and daughters, and he recently published a book. He appears now in public service announcements exhorting young people to read the newspaper. Though success often distances rappers from the hood, Willie D says that he is "coming through the Nickel" (Fifth Ward) almost every day. As for how the hood reacts to Willie's success and his dark green Lexus, he says everybody's different.

"Anybody that's got it goin' on gets respect on the street. Some people will be like, heeey, how you doing, where you going?" he says. "Not everybody in the hood are haters. My point is that it can be done."

"A family man, a businessman, a com-munity activist," is how Willie D now describes himself -- and by all accounts, he performs each job with panache. "I don't know about his level of formal education," says Kevin Hanratty, a lawyer who rep-resents Radio Shows, Ltd., "but he knows what's going on. He's got an amazing ability to transfer in and out of different worlds."

Hanratty says that Reality Check is on a fast track. "Usually, syndicated shows bump along for three years before they take off," but Willie has national sponsors (whom Hanratty says he can't name) already interested. On October 27, the last night of his show at 97.9, Willie surprised his listeners with the announcement that his show would no longer be heard in Houston (at that point, 97.1 had yet to pick up the show). The phone lines immediately lit up. People were sad; they were mad; they proposed conspiracy-against-black-people theories and letter-writing campaigns.

Though the show is clearly important to Willie D's listeners in Houston, it's not clear yet if his formula will work nationwide. While there have been some successful black radio talk show hosts, none have really made it nationally. Historically, talk radio has appealed mainly to white conservative males, and that doesn't exactly describe Willie D's crowd. If he's to succeed nationally, he may have to do so by attracting a new audience to radio talk. Chuck D of Public Enemy once termed rap "black America's CNN," and in that same spirit, if it succeeds, Reality Check could end up revealing a seldom-heard urban perspective to a mainstream audience.

"You know, I don't have to do this show," Willie reminded his fans during his last program on The Box. "I could just sit around counting my millions. I can't think of any show in recent history where the host is as brutally honest as I am, and as informative as I am. I have to wear a bulletproof vest up here, man. I have to walk around with bodyguards up here, because I'm telling the truth." While the words aren't exactly true (there's not a bulletproof vest in sight), the man speaking them takes them to heart. In his mind, Willie D is a fighter -- no longer a street fighter, but a soldier of reality. And as is perhaps proper, for Willie D his commitment has begun with the personal. "I'm not living out my fantasy world anymore," he says over a Cajun lunch at a downtown church cafeteria. "I'm creating reality in my own life. The reality is that I'm a devoted father, I'm a devoted husband. I'm a provider. A protector. I'm a man.

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