Last weeks Geto Boys episode of TVOne’s hit “Unsung” program continued the theme this season of late ’80s, early 90’s hip hop and R&B. This weeks episode will go back into the classic soul period to cover the career of the Delfonics. The Geto Boy’s episode was very special to me, much as the Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam and Heavy D episodes, because the groups music has represented a touchstone in my own life. I can recall very clearly when the Geto Boy’s heartfelt hip hop masterpiece, “My Minds Playing Tricks On Me” came into it’s hallowed place in the hip hop canon back in 1991, which was smakc dab in the middle of my adolescence. The Geto Boy’s were unique because at the same time that they produced some of the most outrageously violent, pshychopathic hip hop ever recorded, they also made songs that expressed a strong social consciousness. This makes them an essential part of hip hop’s “golden age”, including rappers such as KRS-ONE and BDP, Rakim, Schooly D, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube and NWA, Public Enemy, and Ice T, in that they made rap records that both spoke in terms of street level violence while also bemoaning the futility of it. The Geto Boys were seen as ambivalent and nihilistic in their time, but the rap generation that followed would be even more remorseless in their tales of guns and drugs. Of course, the other essential ingredient in the Geto Boy’s legacy is the fact they were one of the first groups to break out from the South, which has been dominant in hip hop over the last decade and a half. They also produced one of the most influential M.C’s of all time in the form of Scarface, known to the IRS as Brad Jordan.
It’s interesting that a group that is known for having three very distinctive M.C personalities was basically an inorganic, studio creation. The program covered the fact that the group was put together by Rap a Lot impresario J. Prince. The original lineup included D.J Ready Red and an M.C named Johnny C, and although they were the group that ended up sparking southern rap, Johnny C was actually a New York based M.C. It was brought out that that early itineration of the group had a surprise hit with a hardcore rap song called “Assasins.” One aspect of that early success that I found very interesting was that J Prince, the founder and owner of the label, practically demanded that Johnny C write more explicit, murderous raps after he saw the success of “Assasins.” It brings to mind questions of whether artists choose to write violent raps or if their record labels request it. In this particular case, it was Johnny C’s idea to write the song, but it was only one song in his arsenal, it didn’t seem he intended to make a whole career out of this type of content. The success of the song however, convinced J. Prince that was the way to go, and he ended up finding a group of Geto Boys who would match and excel the violence levels found in “Assasins.”
From there, the groups classic lineup of Willie D, Scarface and Bushwick Bill came about. Scarface of course, would go on to be one of the greatest M.C’s and lyricists of all times, whose vocalizations and content influenced other top shelf M.C’s such as Tupac and Jay Z, in short, an M.C’s M.C. ‘Face introuduced a whole new level of mental and emotional complexity on rap music, which the program revealed was possibly fueled in part by his own history as a manic depressive.
The Geto Boy’s definitely came out with a Southern version of the hip hop that ruled the day, confrontational, politically bold, and violent. The political side was basically caried by Willie D, a brash, bold, ex boxer turned rapper. Scarface was the lyrical genius and represented introspection, and Bushwick Bill was the Flavor Flav of the group, the wild card, a New York bred Jamaican midget. Besides the political leanings of the group, their willingness and prediliection to explore the questions of mental health and sanity spoke a great deal about an issue that is still a big one today, namely, mental health in the inner city and among black people. The other aspect was that The Geto Boys played with issues of mental health in the fashion of big Hollywood blockbuster movies, which is exactly what Willie D always used to defend the violence in their lyrics.
The group had some very serious personal problems, Bushwick Bill remarked that Scarface was a manic depressive, Willie D was paranoid (Keep looking over my shoulders/peepin round corners), and he himself was a schizophrenic. The story of Bushwick Bill shooting his eye out was recounted, as well as his struggles with drugs and alcahol. It was also mentioned that Bill was a Bible student and is currently making gospel rap. Again, the cold blooded business saavy of J. Prince is exemplefied by the anecdote of him taking the picture for The Geto Boys classic “We Can’t Be Stopped” album in the hospital right after Bushwick shot his eye out.
Of course, time is spent discussing The Geto Boys landmark “My Minds Playin Tricks on Me” single. ‘Minds Playing Tricks’ is one of the landmark, representative hip hop songs of all time, and it was released in a great time for rap hits, 1991-1992, which featured all manner of hits from Naughty By Nature’s “OPP” to Black Street’s “The Choice is Yours”, to Dr. Dre’s “Aint Nuthin but a G Thang.” ‘Minds Playin Tricks’ is unique for it’s examination of mental sanity in a black male, ghetto, gangster context. It most definitley started a whole new introspection in hip hop and paved the way for it’s later use by rappers such as Nas, Tupac, Jay Z, DMX, and even Drake and Lil Wayne. Of course, one of the songs attractive features is it’s beautiful, backing music, which Bushwick Bill mentions is a sample of Issac Hayes soundtrack song, “Hung Up on My Baby” from his film “Three Tough Guys.” The song itself features a Wes Montgomery/George Benson style octave guitar melody and is most likely one of the best samples ever in hip hop, an unsettling combo of beautiful, nostalgic music, with unsettling lyrical content.
All in all, based on lyrical content and ability, charisma, their pioneering position as southern M.C’s, and musical and commercial impact, the Geto Boys are one of the most important entities in hip hop history. Their Unsung episode also featured writers who wrote about them in their hey day, like Soren Baker from the Source and Nelson George. Willie D spoke of making Geto Boys music from the things they saw on the news, rapped in a first person format, which is what made so many gatekeepers uneasy with “reality rap.” This world focus makes me think of Bushwick Bill’s verse on 1996 “The Worlds a Geto”, which spoke of “500 dying in guerilla warfare in a village in Africa”, a verse that impressed me with it’s worldliness in the age of platinum and bling. The Geto Boys reminded me of the darkest and most street oriented elements of ’70s soul, like War, Curtis Mayfield, and 24 Karat Black. They are an outstanding example of making art that represents the pitfalls of both the individual and the community, and the Unsung episode that bears their name is a worthy one for reconsidering the legacy contained in their music.