The Geto Boys
The Geto Boys
Hard-core Houston rappers the Geto Boys inspired an incident in 1990 that smacked of censorship and, consequently, catapulted them to either fame or infamy, depending on one’s perspective. In the midst of an effort to broaden the group’s market, Geffen Records, a large record label and distribution company that had contracted to release the Geto Boys’ first major-label album, backed out—and immediately sparked a public controversy. While hardcore rap is praised by some for its candid depiction of a tense inner-city life created by poverty and racial discrimination, many reviewers and listeners felt that these rappers had gone beyond the line of acceptability. The discussion as a whole fit into a contemporaneous debate about music and censorship that also concerned rap acts 2 Live Crew and Ice Cube.
The name “The Geto Boys” actually refers to a shifting cast of rappers, several of whom have gone on to solo careers since departing the Boys. The group was formed in 1986 at Rap-A-Lot Records, an independent Houston-based label, when owner/producer James Smith decided that he needed an outfit that could express “the street”: the experiences with which he had grown up in the slums of Houston’s Fifth Ward, what the Source’s Adario Strange referred to as “Houston’s most notorious war zone.” The three original Geto Boys, Jukebox, Raheem, and Sir Rap-A-Lot, had a hit in 1986 with “Car Freaks,” their first single. But the group disintegrated before they had a chance to build on that achievement.
Still committed to his vision, Smith decided to try again in 1988. Strange encapsulated the story for Source readers in rap terms: “With the goal of vesting the group with a more ’underground flav,’ James looked throughout all of Houston to find the illest rhyme sling-ers to rebuild the Geto Boys.” The streets offered up three rappers—Willie D., Scarface, and Bushwick Bill—also known as Willie Dennis, Brad Jordan, and Richard Shaw; backed by the music of DJ Ready Red, this combination scored a hit that far outstripped “Car Freaks.” Called “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” the single earned gold and platinum records; that triumph, as well as two popular albums released on Rap-A-Lot in 1988 and 1989, cemented the future of the group, despite continuing personnel changes.
DJ Domination (born Michael Poye) replaced Ready Red in 1991. And even when lead rapper Willie D. decided to devote himself to solo work in 1993, Smith managed to keep the Geto Boys together. He recruited Big Mike—Michael Barnett—from another Rap-A-Lot
For the Record…
Members include Big Mike (born Michael Bamett; replaced Willie D . [Willie Denis; bandmember 1988-93]); Bushwick Bill (born Richard Shaw); DJ Domination (born Michael Poye; replaced DJ Ready Red [bandmember 1988-91]); and Scarface (born Brad Jordon). Original members included Jukebox, Raheem, and Sir Rap-A-Lot.
Group founded by Rap-A-Lot Records owner/producer James Smith, 1986; released single “Car Freaks,” 1986; new lineup released single “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” 1988; released two albums on Rap-A-Lot; released The Geto Boys, Def American Recordings, 1990; released We Can’t Be Stopped, Def American, 1991; released Till Death Do Us Part, Rap-A-Lot, 1993.
Awards: Gold and platinum records for “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.”
Addresses: Record company —Rap-A-Lot Records, 5645 Hillcroft, Houston, TX 77036.
outfit, the Convicts. In fact, the give and take of group and solo work had by then been thoroughly worked into the fabric of the Geto Boys, Smith presenting each member with a contract that specified work both with the group and singly. Scarface expressed his support for the group’s flexible lineup when he told Strange, “You can’t stop this. If it ain’t me, Bushwick and Mike, it’ll be someone else. But you still can’t stop the Geto Boys!” Taking Smith’s expansive recording philosphy one step further, Scarface opened his own independent label, Face II Face.
That the Geto Boys have survived in any form is remarkable considering how hard some forces have tried to stop, or at least curtail, their success. By 1990, the Boys were prepared to distribute their major-label debut, on Def American Recordings through Geffen Records. After replacing the original manufacturer, Digital Audio Disc Corporation, which was prompted to pull out in response to the album’s lyrics, Def American was forced to look for a new distributor in August of that year, when Geffen decided that it, too, could not handle the product.
That month the New York Times quoted a Geffen spokesperson’s explanation: “While it is not imperative that lyrical expressions of even our own Geffen artists reflect the personal values of Geffen Records, the extent to which The Geto Boys’ album glamorizes and possibly endorses violence, racism and misogyny compels us to encourage Def American to select a distributor with a greater affinity for this musical expression.” Bushwick Bill told Jon Pareles, the Times reporter, “We were just expressing stuff that happens in the ghetto, just being like reporters. We want to make everybody mad enough to look at the ghetto right in their own state, not just to look at the middle-class and the rich areas. There are people who curse worse than me and want to hide it all, but I ain’t no hypocrite.”
The song garnering the most attention during this brouhaha was “Mind of a Lunatic,” which professed to describe the thoughts and actions of a rapist and murderer, but several critics worried that the narrative too easily crossed over into endorsement. “Assassins” and “Trigga Happy Nigga” similarly described violent attacks on people the narrator encounters, with particularly explicit scenarios reserved for women. In a December, 1990, issue of Rolling Stone, a reviewer referred to the “utterly unredeemable... snuff-and-rape fantasy ’Mind of a Lunatic’” and criticized the Geto Boys for “mistaking the homicidal misogyny of ’Mind of a Lunatic’ and ’Gangster of Love’ for justifiably harsh, graphic descriptions of life when you’re young, poor and black.”
A month earlier, journalist Alan Light had published a longer and more in-depth discussion of the album in Rolling Stone; more appreciative of the work than the critic who would review it for the magazine, Light nonetheless argued, “If they want to rap about killing a woman and having sex with the corpse and claim that they’re not glamorizing violence, the Geto Boys should draw the line between the narrator’s voice and the band’s own viewpoint a lot more convincingly than they do in ’Lunatic.’” Light did assess the quality of the music as well as its lyrical content and found it impressive, offering, “Of course, even ‘Gangster’ sounds great. [Producer and Def American head] Rick Rubin...has crafted roiling, buzzing tracks out of movie dialogue, gunfire and relentlessly funky bass and guitar samples. Rubin’s taut, insistent grooves are the perfect setting for the rappers’ frenzied street-gang delivery.”
A month after Geffen’s rejection, The Geto Boys was rescued by another major distributor, the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic Records Distribution Network. Aside from ostensibly trumpeting their commitment to free speech, the entities involved in the record’s journey to market were also likely to realize quite a good return on their investment. In his August Times article, Pareles pointed out that the two Geto Boys albums released on Rap-A-Lot prior to the Def American deal did very well; he noted that the second, Grip It! On That Other Level, “is estimated to have sold more than 500,000 copies, an extraordinary number for an independent label.” Def American’s The Geto Boys was actually comprised of old and new songs, eight of which had appeared previously on the earlier albums. But even after overcoming initial obstacles, the record still faced the disfavor of one link in the market chain: some record stores ultimately chose not to stock it.
A year after the controversy over The Geto Boys, We Can’t Be Stopped refueled the fire. Rolling Stone critic Rob Tannenbaum acknowledged the validity of violence in a great deal of rap but denied the Geto Boys any such credit, averring, “All gangsta rap is layered with contradictions, but by misdirecting their rage at other blacks, especially women, the Geto Boys confuse their neighbors with their enemies. Only twice, on the album’s best songs, do they focus their rage at deserving targets.” Tannenbaum further noted, “When their emotions range only from spite to malice, their claim of holding a mirror to a young, black generation is revealed as a lie—the hatred is their own, and it pervades the entire album.” But this reviewer did reiterate Light’s claim that the quality of the music exceeded that of the lyrics: “Though the rhymes come in old-school couplets that sound simple and old compared with the competition’s, DJ Ready Red’s beats kick slow and funky, which gives the music its considerable power.”
We Can’t Be Stopped was plagued by even greater negative publicity when Bushwick Bill ended up in the hospital on May 10, 1991—minus an eye—after he was shot by his girlfriend. Anthony DeCurtis reported in Rolling Stone on June 27 that the shooting occurred after a drunken Bushwick Bill had threatened the woman and her son, then “handed her a loaded and cocked .22-caliber derringer and insisted that he wanted to die.” No charges were pressed, Bill went home with a glass eye, and the couple made up. (A photograph of the rapper in the hospital later came in handy as album art).
Till Death Do Us Part claimed the Number One spot on Billboard’s R & B album chart in the spring of 1993 during its first week of release. Although the album did not incite the controversy of its predecessors, it did manage to coincide with yet more dissenting media attention for the Boys. While attending a panel discussion at a conference of the National Association of Black Journalists, Bushwick Bill offended his listeners so profoundly that approximately 100 of them left the room. Havelock Nelson reported the incident in an August issue of Billboard: “He reportedly told the audience that all the women he knew were either bitches or hoes. He then ’cursed out’ a woman who asked if he would describe his mother that way. Later, he amended his comments, saying he only meant women he has dated.” The incident, of course, created more public criticism—a phenomenon that by then somehow seemed a necessary component of the Geto Boys’ existence.
“Car Freaks,” Rap-A-Lot, 1986.
“Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” Rap-A-Lot, 1988.
Making Trouble, Rap-A-Lot, 1988.
Grip It! On That Other Level, Rap-A-Lot, 1989, reissued, Def American, 1990.
The Geto Boys (includes “Mind of a Lunatic,” “Assassins,” “Trigga Happy Nigga,” and “Gangster of Love”), Def American/Rap-A-Lot, 1990.
We Can’t Be Stopped (includes “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”), Def American/Rap-A-Lot, 1990.
Geto Boys Best: Uncut Dope (includes “Assassins,” “Mind of a Lunatic,” and “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”), Rap-A-Lot, 1992.
Till Death Do Us Part, Rap-A-Lot, 1993.
Billboard, April 10, 1993; August 14, 1993.
New York Times, August 28, 1990; September 18, 1990.
Rolling Stone, November 15, 1990; December 13, 1990; June 27, 1991; September 5, 1991.
Source, June 1993.
Variety, August 22, 1990.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
"The Geto Boys." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/geto-boys
"The Geto Boys." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/geto-boys
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