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Take it to That Other Level
by Bill Nehill
Willie D of the Geto Boys talks about the origins of the iconic trio
At the turn of the 1990s, hip-hop was enjoying one of its greatest and most innovative periods.
Without sacrificing an ounce of integrity, Run-DMC had blasted onto MTV and into commercial success. In their wake followed a wide range of emergent rap, from the righteous self-knowledge of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions to the more funky and surreal De La Soul and Digital Underground.
New York City was grabbing all the attention, with Los Angeles garnering a close second, but there were a host of MCs and crews rising from local subterrains. One such group was the Geto Boys, who rose from a city very few would ever perceive as a hotbed for hip-hop: Houston, Texas.
While contemporaries NWA and Ice T were gritty and anything but tame, Geto Boys took things light years further, embracing a nihilist attitude and extolling a lifestyle of murder, psychosis, and deviant sexual behavior.
Geto Boys began innocently enough in 1986 in Houston, with three MCs: Raheem, the Slim Jukebox, and Sir Rap A Lot. The Ghetto Boys released a few singles and an album heavily influenced by Run-DMC. The lyrical content was fairly harmless, but that changed with the introduction of Willie D, first as a writer then as a rapper in the group. In a recent phone interview, Willie D explained the transition from the original lineup to what would become the classic version of Geto Boys.
“I signed to [Geto Boys label] Rap-A-Lot as a solo artist,” Willie D says. “[Producer] J-Prince got a hold of me and asked if I’d write some songs for the new Geto Boys album. So I wrote ‘Let a Ho Be a Ho’ and ‘Do It Like a G.O.’ He liked it and said, ‘This is where I want to go with the group.’ He gave the group an ultimatum to get with this. Only Jukebox remained.
“When I first started writing for the group, I had no intention of being in the group but J-Prince asked me and he told me he knew of this dude named DJ Akshun (a.k.a. Scarface) on the south side of town, and he wanted to put us together. At the time, it was going to be me, Scarface, and Jukebox. On the first day of recording, Jukebox was having personal issues and quickly left the group. We’re hanging out in the studio and Bushwick Bill is just hanging with us. He’s drinking a 40-ounce and rapping the Public Enemy song, ‘Rebel Without A Pause.’ A light bulb goes off and I think, ‘Man, let’s put Bushwick in the group: He’ll take Jukebox’s place.’ Everyone was laughing but I was serious. People had reservations about him. I said, ‘Let me take him downstairs and let me see if I can write something for him.’ I took Bill in the kitchen and asked some personal questions about himself and I embellished what I thought it might be like to walk in his shoes. I came up with ‘Size Ain’t Shit.’ A few days later, Bill recorded the song and he became a Geto Boy.”
With the new lineup in place, Geto Boys recorded Grip It! On That Other Level, a gritty portrayal of sex and violence set against a backdrop of stoned R&B and classic rock samples courtesy of DJ Ready Red. Like someone waving a broken bottle in your face, the lyrics were discomfiting, confrontational. However, Geto Boys weren’t without their healthy dose of dark humor. All three MCs had a way of turning a line and listeners would find themselves chuckling to some of the morose and twisted depictions.
More importantly, the album piqued the interest of Rick Rubin, who championed the group and brought them into the studio to restructure and re-record the album. The resulting version was bleaker and angrier, as dark as its stark, black cover.
“Grip It! On That Other Level got us a lot of notoriety, especially ‘Mind of a Lunatic,’” Willie D says. “People like the PMRC and C. Delores Tucker were trying to find a way to hurt our record sales…Def Jam put it out and Geffen refused to distribute it because of its content. At the same time, Geffen had Guns N Roses and Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay, which was more than a little hypocritical. Geffen’s refusal was the first time in history where a distributor refused to press up a record due to its content.”
In 1991, Geto Boys released We Can’t Be Stopped. (Shortly before it dropped, Bushwick Bill lost his eye in a night of drunken gunplay with his girlfriend. The album cover displayed Bill being wheeled by Willie D and Scarface through the hallways of a hospital.) The album was every bit as brutal as its predecessor. However, the record also contained one of the group’s finest moments: “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” Set to a sweet 1970s soul track, the three MCs spoke in graphic detail about the pain and suffering of psychosis and paranoia, devoid of their usual bravado.
“I gave a lot of thought to what I was saying but I didn’t think or care about how people were going to interpret it,” Willie D says of the song. “I said what I felt. We didn’t really care. With our music, I knew we were going to piss people off but I wanted to give a voice to the people who are voiceless, people who are poor, underprivileged, misused, or mistreated. I felt an obligation to those who don’t have a voice. Not just poor people. Struggle is struggle. There are rich people who struggle with addiction, struggle with loss, who struggle with disease, death, backstabbing, trust. It’s black, white, Asian, Hispanic, young and old. Personally, I always felt I had a responsibility to be honest, to paint an honest depiction, even if it wasn’t in my best interest careerwise. I would just say what it was, period, and let the chips fall where they may. I mean, when I talk about destruction, it’s for the purpose of rebuilding something. Not to destroy for the sake of destroying but to build up, to build community.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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