Anyone who comes to Geto Boys records for anything other than entertainment is barking up the wrong gallows pole. The Houston rap group presents a vision so brilliantly overdone that many will never fully accept that it is just as valid as the righteous rage proffered by such would-be prophets as Public Enemy or KRS-One. Though they never achieve PE’s defined production or density of sound, Geto Boys’ records remain the equal of any well-done horror flick you’d care to name — full of gratuitous violence, unfeeling sex and endless exaggerations designed to split your sides in the way only the best non-family entertainment can. These guys are really sick.
Initially formed as the Ghetto Boys in the mid-’80s, the band began with only a hint of the overload they would ultimately unleash. Making Trouble‘s sleeve prominently pictures Bushwick Bill, but the psychotic midget who would become the Geto Boys’ greatest selling point is only featured talking on the album’s final track, “The Problem.” The rest of the record is essentially lame, as can be seen from the obvious Run-DMC image — gold chains and ugly sporting gear — and the rudimentary beats. While Geto Boys’ other main players had yet to arrive on the scene, DJ Ready Red and Johnny C. are on the job, engaging in plenty of the kind of hoarse shouting that would become their trademark.
Grip It! On That Other Level is a bit better. Scarface (listed as D.J. Akshun; the rapper’s real name is Brad Jordan) and Willie D(ee; Dennis) join Red and Bill (New York-raised Richard Shaw) to create the blueprint for the band’s nationwide major-label debut, where a bigger studio budget would allow for the kind of production values these guys deserve. Although Bushwick isn’t cited as a songwriter, the members’ identities are beginning to take shape. Scarface is serious and mentally unhinged; Bushwick is sociopathic in a corny way; Willie D, studly and full of himself, suffers from the sort of diction problems that would sideline most wannabe rappers. “Do It Like a G.O.” makes its second appearance (the first was on Willie D’s first solo album) in a much-improved version, while “Gangster of Love,” (not listed on the album sleeve) is aired complete with the Steve Miller sample prudently excised from the band’s major-label bow.
The Geto Boys (the article appearing for the first and only time) is the group’s definitive statement. The gruesome crew comes out swinging with their sickest material to date: the insanely angry “Fuck ‘Em,” the hilarious “Mind of a Lunatic” (which forms the musical basis for the next album’s “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” and contains the immortal couplet “Had sex with the corpse before I left her/And drew my name on the wall like Helter Skelter”) and Bushwick Bill’s personal statement of purpose, “Size Ain’t Shit” (“First of all I laugh/Then what?/Smack their ass like a goddamned car crash”). One cannot rationalize this stuff, but there’s no need to. That there is no way to make peace with this music is what gives the album its power. If you’ve grown up wanting music to express the most extreme feelings and ideas possible, these records go a long way toward fulfilling that goal.
The cover of We Can’t Be Stopped features a grisly 1991 snapshot of Bushwick Bill on a hospital gurney after having been shot in the eye (which he lost as a result) by a girlfriend he begged to kill him. (That he’s got a cell phone to his ear only ups the absurd horror of the situation.) Despite that graphic harshness, We Can’t Be Stopped is actually a more introspective album. With DJ Ready Red gone, John Bido emerges as producer, and his sampling digs into soul music rather than the harder, rock-oriented bites of the band’s past. Only two of the tracks are ensemble pieces; the rest are solo vamps. With an Isaac Hayes sample downbeat enough to indicate all the nights of drugging and running were finally catching up with them, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” became a hit. “Gota Let Your Nuts Hang,” however, is classic GB, with Scarface recommending lower cocaine prices as a way to bring peace to the ‘hood. Uncut Dope is a compilation.
Till Death Do Us Part, like most hip-hop albums of the era, was influenced by Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (on which Bushwick guested). With Willie D gone, the record introduces Big Mike (previously of Convicts), whose smoother rap style mixes with the sort of subtle keyboard shadings that would have been unthinkable just a few records back. Bushwick’s raps are particularly flat, while Scarface maintains on cuts like “G.E.T.O.” and “It Ain’t Shit.” Though the mock-newspaper album cover suggests they’ve succumbed to self-parody, it’s been pretty clear from the beginning Geto Boys are firmly aware of what their group stands for — or, rather, stood for. At that point, amidst a flurry of solo activity, Geto Boys called it a day, having spread enough bad faith and ill vibes to finally rest in peace.
The array of solo releases show mixed results, only occasionally achieving the sort of brilliance expected from Geto Boys proper. First up was Willie Dee, whose tedious Controversy (recorded with the Making Trouble lineup) is filled with dull misogynist rants like “Bald Headed Hoes,” “Welfare Bitch” and “I Need Some Pussy” (not to mention the “political” missive “Fuck the KKK”). The album is most notable for featuring “Do It Like a G.O.,” a song that gets a far superior treatment on the second Geto Boys album.
I’m Goin’ Out Like a Soldier musters even less punch as the music loops into infinity without ever reaching any sort of catharsis. Not only do Willie’s raps have little entertainment value and a confused point of view, his diction is incredibly shoddy, full of unintelligible mumbling. By the time of Play Witcha Mama, he’d given up being angry and decided to appeal to the ladies with an older, more “mature” sound. The title track is a duet with Ice Cube.
Scarface is the real surprise. As effective as his work in the band was, he’s even angrier when he gets to hog the mic. Mr. Scarface Is Back substitutes humor for horror, and sprinkles liberal amounts of blowhard self-aggrandizement. He’s up to the task sample-wise as well: “Your Ass Got Took” brings Robin Trower to the gangsta world. The World Is Yours isn’t quite so exciting. His music hasn’t got any clear vision here; only “Comin’ Agg” and “I’m Black,” an effective song about police harassment, pack any true bite. The Diary is equally jumbled. The production (more of it Scarface’s own work than ever) is more radio-friendly and features a thoroughly unsuccessful update (“Mind Playin’ Tricks 94”) and a duet with Ice Cube on “Hand of the Dead Body.” “I Seen a Man Die,” however, is an undeniably gripping account of just that. Broadening his success, Scarface contributed the title track to The Walking Dead and also did a track (“Friday Night”) for Ice Cube’s movie, Friday.
Bushwick Bill entered the solo arena a bit late. “Ever So Clear,” the centerpiece of Little Big Man, alludes to the reason why, as it recounts how he got shot. His short-guy complex is in full force throughout the album and seems a bit sad for it. It isn’t until Phantom of the Rapra that Bushwick puts it all together. He begins the album with a dull explanation of how rap is like street opera (“Phantom’s Theme”), but is quick to drop the conceit and get down with ominous grooves and paranoiac ranting. While “Wha Cha Gonna Do?” and “Ex-Girlfriend” are unrepentant, full-force braggadocio, “Only God Knows” openly admits that underneath all the boasting resides a man who confronts his mortality every day. On the album’s second half, Bushwick’s sound echoes that of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s “Natural Born Killaz.” It’s effective stuff and not so easily dismissed.
Big Mike’s own album is smooth rap; as for Convicts, only diehards need apply.
In early ’96, Bushwick Bill, Scarface and Willie D. reunited for The Resurrection, a slickly produced but characteristic album that isn’t as big a cultural event as the participants — whose divergent styles don’t really blend at all here — might hope it to be. War’s “The World Is a Ghetto” provides the basis for one of the most entertaining tracks; the luxurious soul-grooving “Geto Fantasy,” Bill’s sardonic “I Just Wanna Die” and the funky “Still” cover familiar ground.