Scarface became the most admired rapper in the southern United States in the 1980s, rising to prominence as a member of the group Geto Boys. He left the group in 1991 to start a solo career he had abandoned before joining the Geto Boys, and he remained popular through the 1990s. According to All Music Guide’s Jason Birchmeier, Scarface “defined what it meant to be a Southern thug rapper years before anyone even coined the term Dirty South.” Legions of rappers in Houston, New Orleans, and Memphis following Scarface imitated his style, creating a movement. Scarface has also collaborated with numerous other rappers, including Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, 2Pac, and Master P.
As influential as he was among rap circles, Scarface nevertheless failed to achieve widespread recognition in the mainstream until the twenty-first century; the numerous albums he recorded throughout the 1990s, although nationally successful, never made the charts or were promoted among popular music fans. Much of the reason for his lack of mainstream acceptance stemmed from the harsh nature of his lyrics—lyrics that made his raps unsuitable for radio. Some also blamed the producer to whom he remained loyal throughout much of his career, Mike Dean, for holding the rapper back, keeping him to an unadventurous, though easily-identifiable sound.
Born Brad Jordan, the rapper who later became known as Scarface, grew up in Houston, Texas. Performing under the name Akshen, he began a solo career as a rapper around Houston before signing to the Rap-A-Lot label, which was run by producer James Smith. Smith was then recruiting for a rap group called the Geto Boys, and he tapped the future Scarface to join that effort as the 1980s drew to a close. Scarface and the rest of the Geto Boys released their first album, Grip It! On that Other Level, in 1990. The album was later rereleased in 1990 as The Geto Boys. Filled with violent imagery, the album shocked many of its listeners. It also introduced Jordan, alias Akshen, as Scarface, in a song called “Scarface.” Jordan liked the name so much he decided to keep it, and from then on the rapper was known as Scarface.
The outcry against The Geto Boys proved to be just the publicity the group needed to reach a wider audience, and they soon developed a loyal following. In 1991, the group released its second album, called, appropriately enough, We Can’t Be Stopped. This album went platinum amid further negative publicity. The VH1 music television network assessed the rap group on its website, saying, “Some of the most vile sequences of words ever used in popular music appeared on their albums, glorying in rape, mutilation and violence.”
For some of the group’s fans, We Can’t Be Stopped became the group’s definitive recording, never to be topped. The Geto Boys soon had a national following,
Born Brad Jordan on November 9, 1969, in Houston, TX; married; five children.
Began as a solo rapper in Houston, TX, under the name Akshen, 1980s; joined rap group Geto Boys, 1980s; released first album with the Geto Boys, Grip It! On that Other Level, on the Rap-A-Lot label, 1990; rereleased that album as The Geto Boys, also on Rap-A-Lot, changed his performing name to Scarface, 1990; released second Geto Boys album, We Can’t Be Stopped, 1991; released first solo album, Mr. Scarface Is Back, 1991; left the Geto Boys, 1991; released second solo album, The Diary, 1993; released solo albums throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, including The World Is Yours, 1995; Untouchable, 1997; My Homies, 1998; and Last of a Dying Breed, 2000; became president of Def Jam Records South, 2000; released The Fix n tof Def Jam label, 2002.
Awards: Source Awards, Lyricist of the Year, 2001.
Addresses: Office — Dei Jam South, 1349 West Peacht-ree St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30309. Website— Scarface Official Website: http://www.defjam.com/defjamsouth/scarface.
and this set the stage for Scarface’s post-Geto Boys solo career.
The first album Scarface recorded on his own was Mr. Scarface Is Back, released in 1991. For many, this release proved that the rapper was the best of the Geto Boys, and this incited jealousy from his fellow Geto Boys Bushwick Bill and Willie D. Scarface followed Mr. Scarface Is Back with another solo album in 1993, The Diary. By this time, his fame had eclipsed that of the Geto Boys and he had left the group to go fully on his own. Scarface followed The Diary with more solo albums throughout the 1990s, including The World Is Yours in 1995, Untouchable in 1997, and My Homies in 1998. This last album was a two-disc set that featured Scarface with many other well-known Southern rappers.
Scarface broke through to broader recognition on the national rap scene in 2000 with his album Last of a Dying Breed, considered by some critics to be his most accomplished work to date. The album won for him the Lyricist of the Year award at the Source Awards in 2001. Also in 2000, Scarface became a businessman, going to work as head of the Atlanta office of Def Jam Records South. In this capacity, he signed the label’s first recording artist, a former radio deejay calling himself Ludacris. Ludacris proved to be a major success for the new label, achieving platinum status several times over with his debut album Back for the First Time.
Scarface himself continued his career as a recording artist with Def Jam, releasing his first album on the Def Jam label in 2002. “I finally am with a label who knows how to promote rap music,” Scarface told the Houston Chronicles Michael D. Clark. Called The Fix, and distributed by Universal, the album represented a departure for the rapper. Gone were the hair-raising lyrics of Geto Boy cuts like “Born Killer” and “Hand of the Dead Body,” replaced by much milder lyrics in titles like “What Can I Do?” and “Guess Who’s Back,” the latter of which featured guest vocals by rap superstar Jay-Z.
Moving to Def Jam from Rap-A-Lot also removed Scarface from an association that had begun to sour amid charges from the Drug Enforcement Agency that Rap-A-Lot was involved with drug dealing. “I feel like I got unstuck,” Scarface told Clark. And, as he said on UniversalUrban.com, now “I make the final decision on my product. I’m not obligated to nothing…”
The less confrontational new sound of Scarface immediately won broader acceptance than any of his previous work, in large part because it could be played on the radio. For the first time, Scarface hit the Billboard charts, climbing to the top of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and reaching number four on the Billboard Top 200, which includes all genres. He gained even wider mainstream exposure when he costarred in commercials for Reebok with Houston Rocket player Steve Francis.
From the Geto Boys, to a decade-long solo career, to his latest incarnation, Scarface has reinvented himself yet again to take his career to a new level. “The windows are open,” he told Clark, “and the sun is shining in my bedroom. There’s something different going on in my life. I feel like I have another 10 years left.”
Mr. Scarface Is Back, Rap-A-Lot, 1991.
The Diary, Rap-A-Lot, 1993.
The World Is Yours, Rap-A-Lot, 1995.
Untouchable, Virgin, 1997.
My Homies, Virgin, 1998.
Last of a Dying Breed, Virgin, 2000.
The Fix, Universal, 2002.
Greatest Hits, Virgin, 2002.
AdWeek, March 11, 2002, p. 5.
Houston Chronicle, August 22, 2002, p. 5.
PR Newswire, Sept 29, 2000, p. 710.
“Scarface,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 4, 2002).
“Scarface Is Back,” BET.com, http://www.bet.com/articles/1.,c2gb2890-3552-1,00.html (November 4, 2002).
Best-selling album since 1990: The Fix (2002)
Hit songs since 1990: "A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die," "Now I Feel Ya," "Smile"
Scarface emerged from the Houston-based gangsta rap group the Geto Boys in the early 1990s to launch a solo career, establishing the template for the southern thug rapper later followed by artists such as Juvenile and Master P. His unflinching depiction of inner-city desperation, coupled with deeply personal introspection, marked him as one of the finest lyricists in hip-hop. While the extreme violence of those lyrics and his seeming indifference to mainstream success prevented Scarface from crossing over to a wider audience, his loyal southern fan base helped him maintain a consistent level of success throughout the decade. His credibility within the hip-hop community won him the support of more mainstream artists such as Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre and landed him a job heading up the new southern subsidiary of the legendary rap label Def Jam, Def Jam South. By the early 2000s he was excelling both in his new role as an executive (he signed the hugely successful rapper Ludacris) and as an artist, enjoying the greatest critical and commercial success of his career with his seventh solo album, The Fix (2002).
Brad Jordan began rapping in his native Houston in the mid-1980s under the name Akshen, releasing music on the local hip-hop label, Rap-A-Lot. In the late 1980s the Rap-A-Lot founder James "Lil' J" Smith asked Akshen to join a rap group he had formed called the Geto Boys. In 1990 Akshen, Willie D, Bushwick Bill, and DJ Ready Red released their debut album as the Geto Boys: Grip It! On That Other Level. The album caught the attention of the well-known producer and co-founder of the legendary Def Jam hip-hop label, Rick Rubin, who signed the Geto Boys to his new Def American label and put together a reworked version of their debut entitled Geto Boys, a collection of grim, nihilistic dispatches from Houston's infamous Fifth Ward neighborhood that seem aggressively indifferent to mainstream approval. Every track revels in graphic depictions of sex and violence, from little person Bushwick Bill's comical sexual boasting in "Size Ain't S***" to the gleefully misogynistic "Gangsta of Love" to the brutal tale of a psychopath's killing spree in "Mind of a Lunatic." This last track prompted Geffen Records to refuse to distribute the album unless it was toned down, anticipating the censorship troubles that later dogged hip-hop artists Ice T and 2 Live Crew. Rubin refused and released Geto Boys through Giant Records. Thanks to the publicity-generating controversy surrounding it, Geto Boys was a solid success.
In 1991 the Geto Boys released their second album, We Can't Be Stopped, the cover of which features a gruesome photograph of Bushwick Bill fresh from shooting out his eye in a failed suicide attempt. This repulsive yet powerful image echoes the music within. Like its predecessor, We Can't Be Stoppe d tempers its amoral celebration of crime and extreme violence with notes of sadness and despair. Nowhere is this balance struck more effectively than on the album's eerie single "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," which contrasts a jaunty Isaac Hayes guitar sample with spooky vignettes exposing the desperation and paranoia underlying the "gangsta" lifestyle. "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" became an underground hit, and helped We Can't Be Stopped to sell 1 million copies.
Although the reception of We Can't Be Stopped inspired each member of the group to pursue solo careers, it was only Akshen, now going by the name Scarface (an alter ego he first employed on the Geto Boys' debut album), who enjoyed substantial and long-term success. In late 1991 he released Mr. Scarface Is Back. Dispensing with some of the cartoonish eagerness to shock characterizing his work with the Geto Boys, the album presents a loosely connected series of emotionally nuanced and richly detailed narratives of inner city life that highlight Scarface's impressive talent as a storyteller. Mr. Scarface Is Back closes with the single "A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die." Anchored by a haunting Marvin Gaye sample and the remorseful refrain from which it takes its title, the track memorably shifts the focus away from Scarface's swaggering "gangsta" persona to cast him as an impartial yet melancholy observer, helpless to change the meaningless cycle of violence surrounding him: "He used to hustle on the street corner / His mom would always beg him to quit, but he didn't wanna / As he got older he got even worse / Till a real dealer showed him the purpose of a hearse."
The acclaim lavished on Mr. Scarface Is Back established Scarface as the breakout member of the Geto Boys, resulting in tension within the group. In 1993 they released Till Death Do Us Part, with a new member, Big Mike, replacing a disgruntled Willie D. This was followed by Makin' Trouble (1994), The Resurrection (1996), and the last Geto Boys release to date, Da Good Da Bad & Da Ugly (1998). While none of these quite attained the critical or commercial success of We Can't Be Stopped, Scarface's solo career continued to thrive. In 1993 he followed up his debut with The World Is Yours, which departs from its predecessor by embracing the then-dominant G-funk sound, the laid-back, melodic production style pioneered by the LA-based rapper/producer Dr. Dre. The World Is Yours also introduces a note of introspection to Scarface's lyrics, notably in the single "Now I Feel Ya," a seven-and-a-half-minute chronicle of the lessons learned in his life. He continued in this vein a year later with the more modest The Diary, which featured a collaboration with Ice Cube. Collaborations with Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur appeared on his fourth solo album, Untouchable (1997), which was followed by My Homies (1998) and Last of a Dying Breed (2000). While none of these albums achieved blockbuster success, they all sold respectably, simultaneously adding to Scarface's legendary status in the hip-hop community. In 2000 Def Jam Records acknowledged this status by appointing Scarface head of its new Atlanta office, Def Jam South. He quickly justified Def Jam's faith in him by signing Atlanta-based rapper Ludacris, who became one of the breakout successes of the early 2000s. In 2002 Def Jam South released Scarface's seventh solo album, The Fix, which earned positive reviews and brought him perhaps the greatest exposure of his career.
As a member of the Geto Boys and as a solo artist, Scarface spent the 1990s creating cinematic and provocatively graphic narratives of inner city crime and violence. Although his lyrics at times sacrificed subtlety for shock value, they increasingly uncovered the pain and vulnerability beneath "gangsta" posturing. Scarface's extensive and consistent body of work, along with his role as one of the original success stories of southern-based rap, marks him as one of the pioneers of 1990s hip-hop.
Mr. Scarface Is Back (Rap-A-Lot, 1991); The World Is Yours (Rap-A-Lot, 1993); The Diary (Rap-A-Lot, 1994); Untouchable (Rap-A-Lot, 1997); My Homies (Rap-A-Lot, 1998); Last of a Dying Breed (Rap-A-Lot, 2000); The Fix (Def Jam South, 2002); Greatest Hits (Rap-A-Lot, 2002). With the Geto Boys: We Can't Be Stopped (Rap-A-Lot, 1991); The Resurrection (Rap-A-Lot, 1996).