With their 1989 album Grip It! On That Other Level (Rap-A-Lot), Houston rap group the Geto Boys carved out a new space within hip-hop culture. Alongside the Miami-based 2 Live Crew, they became one of the first Southern hip-hop groups to gain a national audience. Just as notably, with songs like their first hit “Mind of a Lunatic”, they virtually brought into being the horrorcore genre, a genre that rivalled gangsta rap in the visceral punch of its lyrics and outpaced all competitors with its reliance on grisly imagery and shock tactics.
It was this album that captured the attention of Rick Rubin, whose decision to sign the band to his new label Def American led to a break with his distributor Geffen Records, owing to the latter’s refusal to be associated with the controversial group. Rubin released their self-titled album, a reworking of Grip It! with some new songs, new sequencing, and new production.
The controversy attracted more ears. The group seemed to feed on the disdain of parental groups and other gatekeepers of culture. They courted dismissal and used it to fuel the representations of rage that brought them to fame. The three rappers of this classic lineup (not the original lineup and not the last), for a moment (roughly from 1989 to 1992), were a flashpoint in the history of hip-hop, influencing countless future artists and laying the groundwork for material still being explored. Those rappers were, of course, Willie D, Scarface, and Bushwick Bill.
This is a common trope in the way we describe the history of hip-hop or popular culture more broadly. In this narrative frame, the culture had become somewhat complacent in America—the Parents Music Resource Center was attempting to police profanity, the hip-hop scene had calcified into a more or less stable tension between the East and West coasts—and the Geto Boys (or in similar narratives, gangsta rap or pimp rap or Ray Charles and Southern soul or Madonna or any number of figures) intervened in a manner that shook things loose, that made the culture a little less predictable, a little less safe, a bit more daring. We can call this “the disruptor as hero” narrative model of cultural history.
There’s another model, of course, one we might call the “exploitation” narrative model. In this model, much of the great music produced by the artists we celebrate developed within a context of incredible inequity, manipulative business practices, and a cynical worldview. This is the narrative that emphasizes the role of Colonel Tom Parker in the career of Elvis Presley, or the role of Jerry Heller in the rise and fall of N.W.A., as documented in Gray’s 2015 film Straight Outta Compton. That film is a fine example of the conflation of the two models—figures like Heller and Suge Knight (and to an extent Eazy-E) are depicted as the exploiters while others like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are shown as heroic creators that were able to express themselves despite the game being rigged against them.
Maybe most stories of popular music are placed somewhere between the poles of disruption and exploitation. After all, popular music is packaged and disseminated by business conglomerates. It is designed and marketed to sell in large volumes. For the business side of things, that’s the point. The thing being sold, of course, is meant to be creative and expressive.
In general, a compromise is struck: there has to be something new to sell (in order to maintain interest and avoid buyer fatigue) but it ought not to be so new as to be unidentifiable and therefore ignored. The problem then becomes telling the story in such a way as to give voice to both the disruptive, creative act of expression and the compromised, exploitative bid for popular appeal.
This brings us back to the Geto Boys. The exploration of the grotesque and the use of imagery from De Palma’s 1982 gangster film Scarface on 1989’s Grip It on That Other Level was a calculated decision. It was not, however, a decision made by the three celebrated rappers of the classic line-up, but rather by the owner of Rap-A-Lot Records, James Prince, and DJ Ready Red. Prince had a group on his label called the Ghetto Boys, who had a minor hit with “Car Freak” in 1986. The members of this group were Sire Jukebox, Prince Johnny C, and DJ Ready Red; they also had a dancer who toured with them, but didn’t rap, named Little Billy (Richard Shaw).
Little Billy had dwarfism. He was a breakdancer from Brooklyn, New York who came to Houston in the interim between graduating Bible college and going on a mission to India. He began dancing in the Houston clubs, caught the attention of James Prince, and was added to the Geto Boys entourage—partly for the novelty of having a dancer of his stature. He never went on the mission to India.
In 1988 the Geto Boys released their debut album, Making Trouble. Aside from some local success, it went nowhere. Most of it was fairly derivative of Run-D.M.C. It did have two songs on it that seemed to break out in a somewhat new direction, however, a direction that owed some debt to recent work by N.W.A. and the emergence of a West Coast sound. Those songs were “Assassins” and “Balls and My Word”. The latter was a collage of samples without rapping.
Many of the samples (and all the words) came from Scarface; some of the layering techniques are closer to the work of minimalist composer Steve Reich than they are to contemporaneous hip hop DJs. DJ Ready Red made Scarface a significant element of the sound of Making Trouble, employing brief samples from the film throughout the album.
“Assassins” is perhaps the most notable track from Making Trouble, and it anticipates the direction the group will take in later releases. Sound-wise, it only slightly departs from the Run-D.M.C model. The steadfast but predictable flow of Johnny C’s rap clearly emulates Run. The production of the beat retains some elements of Run-D.M.C (particularly the drum programming) but the slightly sloppy guitar hits (reminiscent of Run-D.M.C. but contrasting entirely in quality) and the integration of the gunshot into the percussion track break new ground—even if they haven’t yet found solid footing.
Despite the clumsy aspects of the track, the lyrics are entirely beyond the purview of Run-D.M.C. At first, they are more akin to N.W.A., glorifying the crime spree of the narrator. But then the lyrics turn darker when the narrator spontaneously decides to murder and mutilate a prostitute: “A maniac, I stabbed the girl in her tits/ And to stop her nerves from jumping I just cut her to bits.”
James Prince and DJ Ready Red decided to double down on the violence and outrage. They let Johnny C and Sire Jukebox go and hired Willie D (William Dennis) and a rapper that went by the moniker Akshen (Brad Jordan), whom they renamed Scarface in accordance with DJ Ready Red’s emerging aesthetic, grounded in that film. One night, Willie D overheard Little Billy rapping along to a Public Enemy track. He convinced Prince and Red to add him as a third rapper and Little Billy became Bushwick Bill. Willie D wrote a song that would be programmatic for Bill: “Size Ain’t Shit.”
One can easily see the outlines of the “exploitation” narrative here. The Ghetto Boys (soon to become the Geto Boys—even the misspelling could be seen as manipulative) are not really a group with a solid lineup. They are whatever James Prince, a record label owner, needs them to be to push a brand, an emergent Houston hip-hop sound. Prince hires Little Billy to add some New York authenticity to the live show, but it is authentic breakdancing with a significant novelty factor involving his diminutive stature.
When their first album was deemed a bit too staid in its faux-D.M.C. trappings, Prince went back to the drawing board. If the vulgarity of N.W.A. was reading as “real” then Prince would produce a group that was even “realer”, grounded not just in Houston but redolent of its most notorious neighborhood, the Fifth Ward. Asken becomes Scarface; the excesses of a single track (“Assassins”) become the main ingredient of an entire group aesthetic. Moreover, the diminutive dancer becomes a rapper—a rapper with a ghostwriter in Willie D, who openly claimed “That would be some trip shit to see a midget rap.” (Sarig).
But an obvious problem arises here. How do we want to see Bushwick Bill? Do we want to see him as the disruptive hero that forces people to confront his non-normative body, to take seriously a man they might otherwise dismiss or politely avoid? Or do we want to view him as a victim, exploited by people in power to conjure up an audience and make money from the display of what is marketed as his aberrance? Or do we want to emphasize his role as the exploiter of demented imaginations and the worst possible inclinations of a listening public?
History depends upon narrative. Even historical facts are not simply objects available for perusal; they are the result of a way of viewing the world and the past—or, more to the point, a way of telling the world and its past.
In essence, James Prince fabricates a rap group, then recasts it when it proves less than profitable. He and DJ Ready Red concoct not only a sound but an image for the group—and beyond the group, an image for the emergent Houston hip-hop scene. That image is grounded in a film (Scarface) that is itself exploitative yet celebrated within gangster culture. The song “Assassin” and the later tracks released by the Geto Boys grab a market share through shock value, giving voice to the darkest possible thoughts and acts of violence. And through it all, Prince and Red and then Willie D find ways to exploit a man suffering from dwarfism to draw attention—some of it also based in shock—to their brand.