Whatever Happened to The Geto Boys?

Once considered the greatest menace to society imaginable — i.e. to ‘90s white America’s fragile sensitivities — the Geto Boys ultimately just disappeared… Where’d they go?
(Credit: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

In the early evenings of late January 1991, after local news and Wheel of Fortune, the majority of American families tuned in to CNN’s coverage of Operation Desert Storm, the first ever real-time, front line broadcasts in the history of combat. This was groundbreaking stuff, honest-to-goodness live war, featuring play-by-play from on-site reporters and color commentary from retired senior military in the studios. This was next-level nationalism, unprecedented patriotism, televised mass murder with the feel of a dark sporting event and the lo-fi broadcast resolution of a video game. 

The night vision footage of green rockets and tracers racing back-and-forth across the black skies of Baghdad looked an awful lot like the last level of Asteroids. The Apache view screens with 8-bit graphic crosshairs pounding Lockheed Hellfire missiles into buildings and dots that scattered like ants were spot-on Nintendo. And the overhead video from actual B-52s (not the “Love Shack” kind) raining savage oblivion on bridges and convoys — dead-ringer Atari, with a touch of Frogger viewpoint.

The arcade-quality visuals lessened the soul-sucking reality that people were dying and America was loving it from the living room. By Desert Storm’s end, in what was gleefully referred to as “shock and awe,” the US and allies had run 115 assault missions per hour, around the clock, for six weeks straight, each delivering 90 tons of explosives.

FM radio drive-time personalities across the nation made merciless Desert Storm skits and parodies built of cultural ridicule. American political and spiritual leaders offered no objections, as protecting Muslim feelings was not a campaign promise. No, the only truly offensive culture, the real seismic threat to America’s skewed and mostly delusional sense of its own morality, was “gangsta rap.”

The iconic cover! Iconic because Bushwick Bill really did shoot himself in the eye, but it could be iconic for that phone alone.

 

Three months before the Iraq war, an especially noxious new strain of gangsta rap from Houston, Texas had bubbled onto conservative radar. More than just a collection of offensive songs, the self-titled album of a crew called Geto Boys was essentially one 55-minute-long offensive act, a next-level form of unpleasantry that completely redefined music, and exposed white America’s deep fear of a simmering black social volcano cemented over for decades.

The subjects for the songs on the record were (and still are) just plain horrible: extreme murder, rape, and perhaps most heinously, necrophilia. When heavy metal bands spoke of the ineffably foul act — for instance, Slayer sang about banging corpses in ’89 — concerned parents predictably appeared on Geraldo, but when Geto Boy Bushwick Bill, a black dwarf, rapped about it, the response was abject horror, from community chapels to the White House.

To be clear though, Geto Boys shit was real. Lyrics about pistol-whipping women, robbing elderly blind men, dismembering prostitutes with machetes and chainsaws and executing crackhead priests (all in one song) — taken from true stories and police cases that never made it beyond Houston’s Fifth Ward, the cracked-out battlefront of a neighborhood group members Willie D and Scarface grew up in.

Well, that’s offensive! Why, yes it is, and with this lyrical form of “shock and awe” Geto Boys intended to deeply offend, as a last ditch attempt to draw the attention of a nation ignoring all homefront wars, towards an abandoned community left derelict and broken from societal disregard, that had become its own terrible universe.

 

The original (and, let’s face it, long forgotten) Boys, when they had the extra “T” in their name (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

 

In 1979, during the Geto Boys’ childhoods, Texas Monthly reported Fifth Ward to have “far more pawn shops, loose dogs, abandoned buildings, bars and broken windows” than “sidewalks, streetlights, fire hydrants, parks or garbage trucks.” One in four streets had no drainage system, and of those that did, half simply drained to open, rotting ditches. 

These were resort conditions compared to what was on the way.

Hell embroiled poor, mostly black neighborhoods throughout the ‘80s as crack invaded. Shortly before the release of the Geto Boys LP, a convicted killer interviewed by the Houston Chronicle said the Fifth Ward had become “a war zone of nightly shootings, fistfights and police harassment” where “seven-year-old children know how to handle pistols” and “the right amount of money can buy any weapon, even hand grenades.” 

Similar Hadean scenarios existed in Philadelphia, where, in 1985, Schooly D released his “PSK” (short for Park Side Killaz) single, universally recognized as the first gangsta rap record. Boasting the industry’s first sex, drugs and murder narrative, “PSK” was groundbreaking, but melba toast compared to what was on the way.

Two years later and 2,700 miles west, L.A.’s Ice-T recorded “6 ‘N The Mornin”, a west coast appropriation of the style and flow of “PSK”, for his debut LP Rhyme Pays, an album so profane it earned it the first black-and-white parental advisory sticker (a failed recording industry campaign, strongarmed by conservatives, against “explicit content” that actually ended up attracting young, impressionable listeners, and selling way more records!).

And across town in Compton, N.W.A.’s Eazy E pushed the edge of the envelope with “Boyz N Da Hood”, another “PSK” nod based on “6 ‘N The Mornin’”, before N.W.A. pushed that envelope right down society’s throat with 1988’s Straight Outta Compton album. 

 

Willie D. (William James Dennis) and Scarface (Brad Terrence Jordan)  perform at The Arena in St. Louis in 1991. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

 

Ice-T’s side project, heavy metal band Body Count, released the rather unambiguous “Cop Killer”, earning White House fury from VP Quayle and Bush — and Charlton Heston, who stormed the record label’s parent company Time-Warner shareholders meeting, red-faced and shouting, waving printouts of Body Count lyrics.

(Such is God’s dry sense of humor, that Heston at the time was the NRA spokesman and was pushing to legalize a bullet nicknamed the “Cop Killer” by law enforcement, for its ability to penetrate bulletproof vests.

Geto Boys did some serious pissing off too, though their original mid-’80s incarnation (featuring no one you know), was far more virtuous. Ghetto Boys with an “h” and extra “t” were a short-lived, hugely-popular Run DMC knockoff and considered the first real southern rap group. The safe Boys shot to fame in 1986 slanging vinyl singles out of their trunks: most notably, “Car Freak”, about their broad knowledge of engine parts, and the obligatory, soft-posturing flex “You Ain’t Nothin / I Run This.” 

 

“Cause robbin’ and stealin’ is not the way that we’re livin’
And to be down with the Boys you gotta be down with givin’
Cause there’s joy in our hearts,

we’re really all about peace
So if you see a crook in action,

be down and call the police”

Ghetto Boys, “Be Down”

 

In 1988, high on life and life alone, the group released “Be Down,” an incredible lapse of judgment encouraging the hip-hop unfathomable – report all criminals to local police. Pledge-allegiance-to-the-law was not an inner-city hit, and hilarity ensued. Two members quit and slunk off. A backup dancer named Little Billy grabbed a mic, and with pre-paid studio sessions approaching (for a group with now only one, new, member), perhaps the fiercest 180 in the history of music began.

Having had damn well enough good clean fun, the group’s Lou-Perelman-meets-Suge-Knight mold of manager, J Prince, seized the reigns, and swearing dark oath to the gangsta rap phenomenon, began to script a brutal, derogatory and invasive crew meant to out-offend the Ice-T’s and N.W.A.’s of the world. After dismissing the remaining two original Ghetto Boys, while retaining Little Billy and the group’s DJ Ready Red, Prince set to work courting complete instability.  

Willie D, a 21-year-old Golden Gloves champ raised by two alcoholic and abusive parents in the Fifth Ward, and known to fight audience members at open mics, was signed on sight, told to act monstrous and rhyme reckless. Fresh off a bid for armed robbery, the act was no huge challenge. 

Scarface, an 18-year-old high school dropout and former drug dealer was cast as a cold, introspective hustler, a natural fit in look and demeanor. However, having been recently discharged from a psych ward after a suicide attempt, this was probably not a perfect match for his then mindstate. In this instance however, insanity was a commodity, and Prince drew up a contract immediately.

The pair were live wires, but Little Billy, known to the government as Richard William Shaw, was to become the real horror show. As Bushwick Bill, the 3’8” Shaw was paid to play a ferocious sociopath on a kamikaze course through society, a role that called for a type of rage and recklessness that had invaded his youth, and nearly driven him to murder.

 

Chucky’s in love — not! Bushwick Bill and Chucky and a knife — it ended in tears.  (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

 

In 1973, Bushwick’s family immigrated to New York City from Trenchtown, Jamaica, in an attempt to escape the violence ravaging the island’s south (somehow, random machine gun fire outweighed the coolness of the fact that Bob Marley often played backyard soccer with Bill’s dad). Unfortunately, the Shaw’s move was a jump from the frying pan into the fire, as their new Brooklyn neighborhood was a wilderness of drugs, gangs and unchecked crime — not the best playground for a seven year old. 

In the Showtime documentary, Bushwick Bill: Geto Boy, Bill recalls walking to his new school and seeing an infant thrown from a 7th floor window, by a man demanding money from his girlfriend, land impaled on a fence in front of him. Later that morning, and every morning for the next four years, Bill was harassed and beaten by bullies, until finally snapping in 5th grade and knuckling down anyone within reach.

Fists became useless in junior high, replaced by razor blades, shanks and youth gang assaults, and by high school, Bill’s Brooklyn had become kill or be killed. After suffering a particularly brutal assault, that his attacker’s father cheered on and laughed at, Bill stole a fireman’s hatchet (nearly the length of his body) from a hardware store and chose to pursue his assailant.

After crafting a backup homemade ninja star made of razors, Bill and his massive axe crawled beneath a car in front of his target’s home and waited -– until a passing friend noticed his leg, pulled on it, and convinced Bill to join him at the movies, where a ghetto-youth-meets-God pulp cinema classic just happened to be playing.

While watching the film, Bill experienced a true and deep holy revelation that led him in search of Christ and, eventually, to a Bible studies degree at a Christian academy in Duluth, Minnesota. Upon graduation in 1986, he committed to join a ministry in India, but before leaving, booked a very fortune-changing one week trip to visit his sister in the Fifth Ward.

Upon arrival, he set out to explore his sister’s neighborhood, and after wandering into a hip-hop dance club, came to realize Texas was not all white, mustachioed cowboys. Having grown up in New York during the birth of rap culture, Bill had become a locally-famous break dancer by his early teens, so with India on the horizon, he pushed through the crowd to drop some final moves for nostalgia. 

Seeing a b-boy dwarf rock windmills and headspins sent the crowd into a frenzy, and at night’s end, the house DJ pulled him aside and suggested he meet with local rap manager and label boss, J Prince. You know where this is going. At lunch the next day, Prince offered Bill a job as a choreographer for his group Ghetto Boys, and just like that, his gig with God was over.   

He accepted, cut communications with the ministry and never left Texas. 

Three years later, J Prince’s potent new Willie, ‘Face and Bushwick Ghetto Boys lineup spawned 1989’s Grip it! On That Other Level, a seething thunderbolt of an album that established the group as an evil, southern N.W.A.. The track “Size Ain’t Shit” (which there’s no use explaining and must be experienced), introduced Bill as a mad and maniacal miniature, down for whatever and bound for the grave.

 

“I’m getting hungry,

I need to be fed

I feel like eating a bag of

barbeque broke-legs

A nine or Uzi is my only utensils

Inside his chest they found

ten thousand pencils”

Bushwick Bill, “Chuckie”

 

In between loads of cartoonish ultraviolence and B-movie horror ephemera came some honestly unutterable lyrics, which Bill fought his faith to perform. “I started becoming Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I had just graduated Bible school… and here I am rapping about killing and mass murdering and raping,” Bill told Showtime. “I started being a drunk, I started doing hardcore drugs just to be able to rap those lyrics.” Telling himself that he wasn’t promoting, rather exposing, the darkness of the ghetto, he pressed on. 

In the TV One feature Unsung: Story of the Geto Boys, Bill clarified the intentions of the group’s Grip it! album, explaining “We were telling you these are the traps and the pitfalls…but we say it in the first-party, we make it sound good to make you hear how bad it is.” Nonetheless, backlash came pouring into Texas from across the country (to Prince’s delight, excellent PR), grabbing the attention of established industry figures, including one of the art form’s bearded pioneers.

 

One humid Houston day in the newborn 1990s, Def Jam cofounder and production deity Rick Rubin was wandering the streets of the Fifth Ward, asking around for the Ghetto Boys, before locating and signing them to his personal label, Def American. 

Having worked with Public Enemy on 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Rubin was no stranger to monetizing controversial art, and his Ghetto Boys plan was a classic “quadruple-redo”: for a fresh start, rename the group “Geto Boys”, re-record the Grip it! album in better audio quality, remix with a dusting of the mysterious Rubin life force, then re-release, on a larger scale.

After adding an album cover resembling The Beatles’ Let it Be, the gang did just that, and with the resulting self-titled album’s debut single “Do it like a G.O.”, threw epic roundhouses at crooked politicians, corrupt cops, black-owned radio and the KKK. The song lit an absolute dumpster fire on the front lawn of mainstream America, though the worst of the worst lay within “Mind of a Lunatic,” an album track that, with lyrics both Mansons might object to, spread the fire to the corporate penthouse.

At the behest of senators, churches, special interest groups, and even the CD manufacturer, who refused to press copies, Def American’s parent company Geffen halted the release of Geto Boys, citing “violent, sexist, racist and indecent” content. Undeterred, Rubin secured new distribution, though by its release date the group had already been banned across the US — venues wouldn’t book them, record stores wouldn’t sell them, and those that did kept their copies behind the counter. 

It got worse. Months after the album’s official release, a pair of Kansas teenagers claimed in court they were “temporarily hypnotized” by “Mind of a Lunatic”, leading them to shoot and kill a random passerby. The boys’ defense attorney warned the jury: “There is an imminent danger to young people getting hold of this thing. It can literal