The same year the Berlin wall fell and signaled the creeping halt of the cold war, hip-hop group the Geto Boys released their second album with a revamped and newly galvanized lineup. The album, Grip It! On That Other Level, took the urban virtues of rap music and honed it on a diet of ultra violence as seen through a hot and humid filter of Houston’s rough and tumble 5th Ward neighborhood.
After catching the ear of Rick Rubin, a reworked version of the album was given an international release as the self titled Geto Boys, featuring mug shot-style album artwork reminiscent of the Beatles Let it Be cover.
With lyrical topics running the gamut from sexual conquests to crimes committed, the album was a no holds barred attack on the senses delivered by a trio of emcees that found balance in each other and, in doing so, invented something entirely new. It was the arrival of dirty south rap.
Scarface’s bellowing low end is only complimented by the timbre of Bushwick Bill’s languid delivery. While Willie D’s vocal aggression energizes and almost physically pushes his verses into listener’s ears.
It was new and different and violent as all hell and, with politicians looking for a new bone to chew after the fall of communism, it wasn’t long before the Tipper Gore-helmed PMRC and then-Senator Bob Dole would place the Geto Boys square in their crosshairs.
Willie D remembers it well. It wasn’t pleasant.
“We were doing “Mind of a Lunatic” at the Palladium in New York in 1990,” he says over the phone before a Tuesday night show in Buffalo. “At the time, that was a very controversial song with the PMRC and had Tipper Gore coming after us. They didn’t like the song, so we got a lot of press about that and as soon as they said ‘From Houston, Texas, The Geto Boys,’ ‘BOOOOOOOOO, Get the fuck off the stage!’ They were booing us so long that they were booing us in shifts. They probably had exercised, drank a lot water and hadn’t smoked in a couple weeks.”
Then, with a hearty laugh, “They were ready!”
Fear mongering and casting aspersions on music they didn’t understand or care to, a 20th century witch hunt ensued by terrified conservative lobbyists seeking to censor and regulate what could possibly rip apart the fabric of American families in the new world order: rap music. The controversy–like always–would only prove to exacerbate their infamy and, in turn, recruit legions of new listeners curious about all the hubbub.
When two Dodge City, Kansas, teenagers were charged with killing a man in 1990, their lawyer claimed they were temporarily hypnotized by the Geto Boys’ classic “Mind of a Lunatic.” A deadly cocktail of alcohol, marijuana and rap music with violent themes had stolen two of the nation’s youth and turned them into murderous zombies.
Quite a feat for three guys from Houston just writing about the gritty streets they knew all too well. Eventually, those tales, mixed with sharp production that sampled Isaac Hayes’ “Hung Up on My Baby,” catapulted the group into the national spotlight and onto the charts in 1991 with the arrival of “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.”
Twenty two years later the Geto Boys are considered a lynchpin of southern rap whose influence has helped shape the careers of a litany of artists. Everyone from 2Pac to UGK, Lil Wayne to Insane Clown Posse claim deep inspiration from their music. “Early on, we appreciated fans but were too young and aggressive to understand what our impact meant. Naïve about lots of things. We thought if you were good and got in the door and continued to be good, you would be recognized and respected for your efforts,” Willie D says.
Now well into their forties and after a sputtering of one-off reunions, the elder statesmen of rap are finishing up a 17-date national tour, their first in close to two decades. “To be able to tour after 22 years, most current hip-hop artists can’t tour with songs on the radio,” Willie D reflects in amazement. “We haven’t had an album out in eight years. We have 50-year-old fans there with their kids now.”
“I was talking to Brad [Scarface] one day and I said ‘What I want out of this game is do it for 20 years and be known as a legend.’ At the time, there was no journeymen hip-hop groups, so I compared us to soul and rock groups–to be the O’Jay’s or the hip-hop Rolling Stones,” he continues.
Looking back at something he helped create, today Willie D finds new meanings in their work. “Lots of those songs that we did early on, like “Gangster of Love,” have some lyrics that are really hard on the women. You come to a concert, you’re going to hear that song, but it’s not going to have the same meaning because that’s not my life. I’m against that type of shit. It’s strictly entertainment to me, but I perform it like it’s the last song I’ll ever do in my life because the fans came to hear it. It has a different meaning now.”
Today, it’s easy to look back on the legacy of the Geto Boys and the legal maneuvering to shut them down as nothing more than censorship of their freedom of speech. A western world that had come unmoored from the cold war and left to naval gaze at their own problems and own families. For many, it was easier to place the blame of troubled youth on three emcees from Houston than it was to speak to their kids about how their day went.
“They understand who we are and what we’re about now. I think we’ve proven ourselves over time,” says Willie. “I think they understand we’ve made a substantial contribution to hip-hop. Now I have some more shit to do. I’m not done. I know I have something way bigger in me.”
The Geto Boys perform at BB Kings Blues Club, Sunday June 30th.