This article originally appeared in the November 1990 issue of Spin.
“The adolescence of individuals of color becomes a trial balloon, a posse sent ahead to scout uncharted social and psychological domains. The pose may be killed or maimed or wounded so that the rest of society can occupy the social terrain that has been scouted with relative personal safety…These kids pose the limit embodying both what American culture aims for and what the culture must not become. In the same way that the deaths of real cowboys, outlaws, adventurers and soldiers made images of these figures safe for general consumption, elements of the ‘street kid’ figure are becoming incorporated into the general American character.” —Timothy Maliqualim Simone, About Face: Race in Postmodern America
The Geto Boys aren’t much given to rapping about unity, positivity, and consciousness. Nor do they style themselves as prophets or teachers (or even role models, come to that). Instead they say things like “Life is pain, and pain is everywhere” and “Peace is a dream / Reality is a knife.” If there’s one hip hop band in America determined not to be made safe for general consumption, it’s the Geto Boys from Houston, Texas.
“It ain’t nothing but a fad,” says Geto Boy rapper Bushwick Bill of those homeboys on the black-consciousness tip. “I’ve seen these same brothers—the ones who wear peace signs and who everybody thinks are so positive—talking about what bitch they gonna fuck. What happened to ‘She’s my black sister?’ That’s just for the wax.”
It’s not that the Geto Boys haven’t tried their hand at massage raps. They once cut a track called “You Gotta Be Down,” urging their listeners to turn in crooks to their local police. Naturally it was a flop.
“People don’t want to hear that shit,” continues Bill. “People want to hear what’s going on around them in everyday life—war, blood, violence. It’s okay for the President to start a war in Iraq, but it’s not okay for me to talk about what I see around me in the ghetto.”
Growing up a dwarf in the Houston ghetto known as Fifth Ward, Bushwick Bill quickly learned how to take care of himself.
“When I first went to school, people tried to fuck with me,” he says. “They’d call me ‘shorty’ and ask ‘How’s the weather down there?’ I just started kicking ass. Because I’m short, I have a low center of gravity and I know how to use my weight. If I don’t want nobody to pick me up, they can’t. They’ll catch a hernia trying. I used to win fights by tripping people or hitting them in the nuts—anything to get them to the ground. Then I’d stomp on their arm or their jaw until it broke. All that beautiful stuff. That’s the only way to get respect in Fifth Ward.”
While developing his martial prowess, Bushwick Bill also found time to work on his sexual prowess: “Ever since I was young, girls have had fantasies about what it’s like to fuck somebody short. They’d want to know ‘Is your dick really big?’ and I’d be like ‘You wanna find out?’ As soon as they saw my dick, they’d be hooked—always coming back for more, like dope fiends.” Even pleasure is painful in the Geto Boys’ scheme of things.
When asked what sort of life expectancy he could look forward to, living the hard-core life in Fifth Ward, Bill replies, “We’re dead already.” To illustrate this point he tells a story about a friend of the Geto Boys named Darryl Keyes: “He was shot eight times and they thought they lost him twice on the operating table. We thought that when he came out of the hospital he would be a changed man—less violent and not as crazy. We were wrong. Now he thinks he’s unstoppable and untouchable. If I was to put that in a song, people would say I was glamorizing violence, but there really are people like that in Fifth Ward.”
The Geto Boys’ hard-core attitude has captured Rick Rubin‘s otherwise waning interest in rap. Rubin is the head of Def American, the label he founded after leaving his and Russell Simmons‘s CBS-distributed Def Jam, and the Geto Boys are the first hip hop band he has signed since Public Enemy in the mid-’80s. Now Geffen Records—the company that distributes Def American—has decided not to release the record, citing the album’s “violent, sexist, racist, and indecent” content. (Previous to the Geffen decision, Digital Audio Disc Corporation—one of the country’s leading compact-disc manufacturers—refused to press the album.)
But some see Geffen Records, not the Geto Boys, as the racists. “I’ve been trying to get Chuck D to consider calling one of Public Enemy’s future albums Appetite for Destruction,” says P.E. publicist Harry Allen. “I hope this latest round with white supremacy will encourage the Geto Boys to consider doing the same. There’s no way to exaggerate the present level of attack against African men, i.e. all hip hop music, whether it be Kid ‘N Play or N.W.A. Now, someone at Geffen Records is denying any racism in their actions. Yet smart black people know better than to believe suspected racists who deny practicing racism. And the fact that the Geto Boys would be Geffen’s pride and joy right now had they been white and talking about brushing off niggers with gold chains is the least remarkable fact of this attack—especially since this, in so many words, is what the label has just done.”
Rick Rubin, on the other hand, feels less aggrieved. “I don’t feel any animosity toward Geffen,” he says. “I just wish they understood that I’m proud of this piece of art and that’s a valid reason to put it out, regardless of what they think of this record. I also feel that if the people at Geffen don’t like the Geto Boys record—and I believe wholeheartedly they don’t—I feel bad forcing them to put it out. I wouldn’t want someone to force me to put out a record I didn’t like.” Before the Geto Boys were signed, Geffen was troubled by Def American releases from Andrew Dice Clay and Danzig. They distributed the records but kept their logo off the packaging.
And as for the Geto Boys’ reaction to Geffen? “I hope they all die with dicks up their asses,” says Bushwick Bill.
Made up of equal parts network news, slice-and-dice horror movies, and everyday Houston-style ghetto reality, it’s easy to see why some people find the music of the Geto Boys deeply offensive. Liking their work is, at best, a guilty pleasure. The graphic violence and sexual explicitness reach their most controversial peak in “Mind of a Lunatic,” when the Boys imagine themselves inside the head of a crazed woman-hating psychopath:
“Looking through her window, now my body is warm / She’s naked, and I’m a Peeping Tom / Her body’s beautiful, so I’m thinking rape / Shouldn’ta had her curtains open, so that’s her fate / Leaving out the house, got the bitch by her mouth / Dragged her back in, slammed her down on the couch / Whipped out my nightstick and screamed ‘I’m cutting’ / Opened her legs, and commenced to fuckin’ / She begged me not to kill her—I gave her a rose / Then slit her throat, and watched her shake till her eyes closed / Had sex with her corpse before I left her / And drew my name on the wall like helter-skelter”
But listening to the album Geto Boys in its entirely, it’s obvious that what offends most people about the group is their lack of linguistic decorum. Take away the foul language and most Geto Boys raps contain conventional messages about staying in school, off drugs, and being proud to be black. As for the violence, Bushwick Bill says, “If people believe that the Geto Boys really do stuff like on ‘Mind of a Lunatic,’ they must also believe there’s a real Freddie Krueger and a real Micheal Myers.”
“The Geto Boys tell me the majority of things in their songs come from real life instances,” explains Rick Rubin. “I remember we couldn’t finish vocals on the record because Willie D [another Geto Boy] had to go to jail for headbutting a cop. Life is different where they come from. It’s like the Wild West. Some of it is fantasy, but it’s not all fiction.”
* * *
In the summer of 1988, two U-Haul trucks pulled up outside a Manhattan apartment building. Inside the trucks were members of the Jewish Defense League armed with baseball bats, intent upon confronting, as one member put it, “a piece of self-hating Jewish trash.” Luckily, Rick Rubin wasn’t home.
“I didn’t have a problem putting out a Slayer record even though their lyrics were perceived as pro-Nazi,” says Rubin, an iconoclast who believes that rap was born to be bad and that rock’n’roll is as much at home undermining left orthodoxies as right orthodoxies. “I didn’t have a problem putting out Public Enemy records even though they were perceived as anti-Semitic. I think that people should be allowed to say whatever they want and I don’t think that I or the PMRC or presidents of record companies should decide what can and can’t be said.”
“When I first found out that the Geto Boys record was not going to be coming out through Geffen, I called Jeff Ayeroff, the president of Virgin Records, who’s responsible for the Censorship is Un-American campaign. I though if anybody would have an open mind on the Geto Boys, it would be him. He told me that not only wouldn’t he put out the Geto Boys, he wouldn’t put out Andrew Dice Clay either.
“It’s funny seeing the white, liberal perspective on censorship. Seeing critics talk about Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley as these wonderful artists who, in being censored, are being held back from doing their art, while Andrew Dice Clay is this vulgar disgusting person who doesn’t deserve to be alive, much less tell jokes. The difference is that critics like defending the idea of gay rights, defending black rights, defending women’s rights…but not white-trash rights. Andrew Dice Clay should be defended every bit as much as Robert Mapplethorpe.”
“Censorship was the big issue at the New Music Seminar this year and everybody had their own little narrow concern about the issue. Specifically, I remember Jim Fouratt—a gay activist—getting up and asking, ‘How do we oppose censorship and not allow records about gay-bashing?’ And a woman got up after him and asked, ‘How do we stop censorship and not allow records that disrespect women?’ The answer is you don’t. You can’t. It’s one or the other. We’re not allowed to talk about gay-bashing, we’re not allowed to talk about the President, we’re not allowed to say anything bad about America…It’s all the same. You can either talk about everything or nothing.”
“What offends me when I hear a record is not the lyrics but the lack of quality. I’m offended by the majority of records that come out, not because of what they say but because they’re bad records. I wouldn’t put out a 2 Live Crew record because they don’t make skillful records.”
The lack of “skillful” hip hop artists is something that has bothered Rubin for several years. Sometime between the first and second Public Enemy albums, Rick Rubin began to lose interest in hip hop. “I was a huge hip hop fan but more and more the records started to sound the same,” he says. “It was just rehash. Artists didn’t want to make great records anymore—they just wanted to get paid. People often ask me why I abandoned hip hop. To be honest, I think hip hop abandoned itself. I really feel that hip hop left me, rather than me leaving hip hop.” He denies that being white at a time when hip hop was beginning to take a decidedly black-nationalist direction has anything to do with his defection. What he doesn’t deny is his dislike for Afrocentric-style hip hop.
“To be honest, I think the majority of that stuff is bullshit,” says Rubin. “People wear Africa medallions because it’s this week’s fashion. If next week it was cool to wear a KKK hood, then they’d wear that.”
“I don’t think the reason people listen to hip hop is to be preached at. I don’t think that artists are valid politicians. I’m uncomfortable with people thinking that Chuck D’s politics are either brilliant or not 100 percent valid. He’s a rapper, he’s not running for President. You listen to the first P.E. album and Chuck’s talking about riding around in his ’89 Oldsmobile and people treating him like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The political side of Public Enemy only came into things as an angle, as something to write about that’s different from ‘I’ve got more gold.’ They were college students who had an idea to make cool records. I don’t think that anybody in Public Enemy at the beginning had any thoughts about being able to change the world.”
Rubin called what he did with L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy “black rock’n’roll”: “Def Jam makes rock records for black people,” he claimed at the time, consistently arguing that hip hop had more in common with heavy rock and hard-core punk than the disco or soul that it was normally categorized with.
This was a view not necessarily shared by Russell Simmons, Rubin’s Def Jam partner at the time. “While I was making records like the Beasties, Original Concept, and Public Enemy,” says Rubin, “Russell was working on stuff like Oran ‘Juice’ Jones, Tashan, Chuck Stanley, and Alyson Williams. I didn’t particularly like those records, and we had disagreements. I remember him asking me why I was wasting my time on a black punk-rock group like Public Enemy who weren’t going to sell any records: ‘Why waste your time on that garbage when you can have number one hits with the Bangles?’ I said, ‘Russell, this is my favorite record in the world.’ It’s funny now reading magazines, where Russell says he discovered P.E. Leaving Def Jam had as much to do with wanting to remain friends with Russell as anything else.”
Rubin not only left hip hop and Def Jam—he also left New York, relocating to Los Angeles, where he set up a new label, Def American. He’s now a familiar sight on the Hollywood club circuit—schmoozing at the Rainbow, or cruising down Sunset Boulevard in his black Corvette. It’s an ideal rock’n’roll lifestyle, clouded only by the Geto Boys dispute.
“A major factor in leaving CBS was that they wouldn’t put out my Slayer album,” Rubin says ruefully. “I’ve spent two years developing a relationship with Geffen, and it would be a shame to have to leave over this record. It’s just a question of how comfortable I’ll be with staying.”
At press time Rubin hadn’t found a label to distribute the Geto Boys.