Before UGK, before Outkast, and before No Limit ever made a dent in the rap game, there were the Ghetto Boys. Before them, the South had nothing they could call their own in the rap game. By the time Grip It! On That Other Level was released in 1989, the group had settled on Willie D as the enforcer, Scarface as the smooth MC and Bushwick Bill as the comedic relief. By 1990 the group dropped the “h” and “t” in “ghetto” and became the Geto Boys. Rick Rubin picked them up and produced a self-titled album that enraged the straight-edged public just by the album cover. Bushwick Bill had expanded beyond his original comedic role, Scarface was tapping deeper into his psyche with his lyrics and Willie D was continuing to bring the fury with his aggressive delivery. By 1991, We Can’t Be Stopped was released and the hip-hop world was never the same. There was no longer an unapproachable topic in hip-hop. The Geto Boys changed the rules without even trying, just spitting truth. They single-handedly put the South on the map, invented the genre horrorcore, brought rap to a deeper psychological level and addressed the pains of growing up in urban American poverty.
I had a chance to catch up with the three of them in the hotel lobby of the Spring Hill Suites on St. Joseph Street before their performance at the Howlin Wolf on June 7th. Willie D was the first one I met, followed by Bushwick Bill, who was wearing a Yoda backpack. Scarface was fashionably late due to an extended wait time on a food order at one of New Orleans’ fine dining establishments. For a group that touched on issues as serious and violent as the Geto Boys, they couldn’t have been more jovial in their demeanor.
What was going on in the South with hip-hop before the Geto Boys?
Bushwick Bill: Out of town hip-hop. I didn’t get to Houston until August of ’84. I was just listening to all the music that I grew up with in New York. I wasn’t hearing any local rappers but I heard that there was local rappers. I heard of a song called “Car Freak” from a label called Rap-A-Lot and never knew that I’d be a member of the group Ghetto Boys or be a member of the Rap-A-Lot staff/label. The thing I like about Houston is that they like everyone’s music but it took time for their own music to grow on them.
Willie D: I was listening to a lot of East Coast rap… everybody. If it was hot I’d listen to it, I didn’t discriminate. If it was hot, I jammed it. I listened to everything from Grandmaster Flash to KRS, LL, Whodini, Fat Boys, Heavy D, Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, all those cats. We had a huge amateur scene [in Houston], a lot of aspiring rappers, nobody that really made a mark or anything. I performed at a number of talent shows and that’s kind of how I got my reputation battle rapping.
New Orleans rapper Big Mike was part of the Geto Boys for an album. Do you think there is a link between the rap scene in Houston and the scene in New Orleans?
BB: Alway. You got to remember, I’m Jamaican and I’m originally from Brooklyn, New York. When I came down here and started moving between Houston and New Orleans going to shows, I started realizing a lot of people in New Orleans have family in Houston, and a lot of people in Houston have family in Louisiana. Some of our production came from N.O. There always will be a connection between people migrating from a state over to a state back.
The Geto Boys were the first group to really break through out of the south, but it’s definitely different from what the Houston sound has become. It’s not UGK or chopped and screwed lean music. How do you feel about your influence on Houston rap without just considering yourself a southern artist?
BB: So basically what you’re saying is that Geto Boys didn’t focused on a southern twang. You want me to tell you something else that’s interesting? While Geto Boys was taking off in Houston for the Making Trouble album, there was a dude named DOC from Dallas that went to L.A. and started writing songs for N.W.A. So Texas been in this game for a minute making platinum songs, you just gotta know who’s who.
Scarface: Southern rap and putting a boundary on that shit is just disrespectful. As hard as we fought to be a part of what hip-hop was and for them to push us back down to where we come from to me is like a slap in the face. We worked so fucking hard to be national.
WD: When you cross that mothafuckin state line, when you cross that southern line, and the people lose their mothafuckin mind when you show up, I think you can officially say that you are not a regional act, and Geto Boys have not been regional for a long long time.
What shifted the Geto Boys from being regional to being innovative and influential nationally?
SF: I think it would be safe to say that the minute the We Can’t Be Stopped album came out and had a gold single off of it, we weren’t a fuckin local act no more. We were the first rap act, when Rick Rubin picked us up, to be denied distribution. The first rap act to talk about just life, like fucking corpses and eating brains. We were the first people to do that shit. Horrorcore is what they called it.
WD: [For samples] we didn’t give a fuck who it was as long as that shit was jamming. I remember we sampled N.W.A. That was unheard of, for a rap artist to sample another rap artist.
BB: Ice Cube said “AK 47 is my tool. Don’t make me act a mothafuckin fool.”
WD: We sampled that for the “Scarface” song. When Ready Red first sampled it, he was just fuckin around. I was like, “We gotta use that shit.” He said “We can’t use that, that’s their shit.” I was like fuck that, that shit jammin.
BB: And just like Scarface, we were the first one to sample movies; now everybody is doing it.
WD: Geto Boys started that Scarface trend. Ready Red first sampled it with Balls and My Word.
BB: That’s Al Pacino’s voice. He made him sing “All I have in this world, all I have in this world, all I have in, all I have in, all I have in this world…” Now they use an auto-tune format, but Red did that manually with no computer. All he had was a Roland 808 drum machine, a [E-mu] SP1200 and two turntables, and he was making stuff sing.
When was the last time Willie D, Scarface and Bushwick Bill all got together to do a Geto Boys tour?
WD: Over 20 years. We’re talking about 1991.
BB: Yeah, on the Greatest Rap Tour Ever with Public Enemy.
WD: In fact this tour will be the most dates we’ve done in the last ten years.
BB: The last ten years that were spot dates won’t add up to as many as we’re doing now.
How do you approach the live setting after not doing it for so long; and what inspires you to keep going?
WD: Music is my therapy. I wouldn’t give a mothafuckin psychiatrist two goddamn nickels. Man, give me some mothafuckin James Taylor and a glass of Moet, and I’m good. Give me some GB on a particular day and I’m good.
BB: It’s just like what Shakespeare said: “Music soothes the savage beast.”
WD: If you pay us $50,000, you gonna get a billion dollar show, cause it ain’t no price on performance.
BB: You can’t put a price on the memory that you leave the show with. You remember when me, you and Face was talking about George Clinton and how Parliament shows was just a memorable experience? That’s why people have longevity. If you come to a Geto Boys show, we want it to be a memorable experience. Jon Bon Jovi said something that I’ve noticed the Geto Boys have been doing for the last 20 years. Jon Bon Jovi said, “When you come to a Bon Jovi show, I’m your host and it’s your party.” When I heard him say that on the DVD for Slippery When Wet I was like, that’s what we been doing. We want the audience to enjoy themselves as much as we’re enjoying ourselves, if not even more. When it comes to performance and our music, I have to think of literature like Shakespeare when he said “All the world’s a stage and all the people are merely players. Each playing their own part, having their own exit and entrance.” Now when you read something like that, that’s like listening to a Geto Boy album because it tells you what you could do when you exit life and it tells you what you need to know when you enter life. To listen to a Geto Boy album to me is like reading a well-written book that keeps me well-rounded. If you take every Geto Boy album that we ever put out, and you put all those words into a book, it will be a good read. If you took that same book and turned it into a script, it would be an interesting movie. Because to me, Geto Boy albums is like scripts to a movie. It tells you the good, the bad, and the ugly of life. The ups the downs and the turn arounds, it give you all of it.
You were the first rap artists to take lyrics into a darker psychological level on what it’s like growing up in the hood and not glamorizing it. Was that something you were going for in the studio or did that just come out that way?
SF: We were young and reckless, we didn’t give a fuck what we said at all.
BB: Well, basically Willie D said it best in 1989 when we were just starting off interviews for Right On and Word Up! and one of the people from the label was asking us how do we feel we can represent our music, and Willie said “I can’t candy-coat no unsweetened world, I can only say it like it is.” There’s no way to change what the perception of truth is; just give them the truth in a song. That to me was the strongest motivation right there. Be yourself and you’ll be accepted for being you; but if you try to be everyone else but yourself you’re going to lose yourself in trying to find yourself.
WD: Overall, we had a fuck everybody attitude. We were like fuck everybody and if they don’t like it let a fight come with it. And that was our mentality. We didn’t respect radio and I think that really worked to our advantage. We still don’t respect radio. We don’t go into the studio thinking “Man, we need to get on the radio.” Let’s approach the song like I’m having a conversation with you. I’m not worried about being politically correct. My concern is that you get the correct information and the truth.
The Geto Boys touched on a lot of horrific things beyond just gang violence and into the realm of horror. How do you feel about people that listen to your music and only hear the bad things and say that you’re destructive to society?
BB: You could say the same thing about the news. With media you never hear anything about somebody’s life being saved; that might be for the next segment of the news, but you’ll hear about babies dying, cars crashing… anything that has to do with death and destruction. Anything that’s bad or negative gets all the publicity but they don’t give you a balance. To me, the media is worse than anything they could say bad about Geto Boys.
WD: One of the reasons why they do that is because if you can scare the shit out of people you can get them to respond. It’s all about instilling fear.
SF: This is the ball game right here. And never forget you heard this from me. The name of the game is to create mayhem, make everything chaotic, then step in and restore order and look like a big man.
Have you gone through changes since the last tour?
BB: Basically where we’re at right now is that we’re not taking the fans for granted. We’re appreciating the fact that at our age we’re still loved and respected for what we said. And we never did fly-by-night music. We’re not a fly-by-night group. Our music has always been timeless.
WD: If you listen to GB, you basically hear the soundtrack of your life.
BB: And I’ve had a lot of people tell me that “When you rap, I felt like you were talking to me. You helped me get through the army; you helped me get through school; you helped me make it through the hood.” And I’m amazed because when you’re in the studio you don’t think that that’s what you are doing; you just want to inform the people of what’s going on in the ghetto. The ghetto is something that you either get taken under by or you make it out of.
WD: For me, I grew up on Stevie Wonder and listening to Stevie Wonder music probably saved my life. I was suicidal [a] couple times. I was homicidal; I’d kill some shit, too. Listening to Stevie Wonder and just listening to that music gave me some hope. His music was like look: this is what’s going on and this is what you should aspire to be and this is what I think should be going on. My thing was like when I make music, I want to talk to the people. And I always want to make sure that I’m aware that people are fucking struggling. It’s people out there that’s struggling. It’s people out there that’s hurting. It’s important for me to know that all these people are going through shit and I want to talk about it. I refuse to just come into this world and suck up oxygen and take up space and have a bunch of fuckin fun and have some babies and just check out of here without making a contribution. That won’t be my legacy.
BB: See, he liked Stevie Wonder growing up and I liked Bob Marley. We’re from the same part of Jamaica, Trenchtown Rock. You could pick up a Bob Marley record right now and you’d feel like it fits your situation today. And that’s my appreciation for Geto Boys music and old school music like that.
WD: Classic music, not old school.
What projects do we have to look forward to from the three of you in the future?
WD: Let them know that there are talks of a new Geto Boys album and I am working on my column. Go to askwillied.com; it’s an advice column.
SF: I got a book deal I signed off on pretty recently. The name of the book is called Made. I’m gonna be a published author now, so don’t just be fucking calling me Face no more.
BB: I’m working on an album called Checks and Balances. A few more songs and I’ll be done. I’m working with local legendary band members from Austin. That drops August.