Bushwick Bill terrified a vice president’s wife into regulating song lyrics, released album art of himself bleeding on a gurney with a gunshot wound to the eye, and helped put Houston into the global hip-hop archipelago.
The 52-year-old rapper, born Richard Stephen Shaw, died Sunday in Colorado, according to representatives for Bill who spoke to the Associated Press. He had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
The MC was one of hip-hop’s most colorful and charismatic figures, whose macabre lyricism in the group Geto Boys — imbued with horror-movie violence drawn from life in Houston’s rough Fifth Ward — laid the groundwork for transgressive rap scenes to come.
The rapper was born in Kingston, Jamaica, with a form of dwarfism (he stood roughly 3 feet, 8 inches). After spending his early life in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, his family moved to Houston in the ‘80s. He initially joined Geto Boys as dancer billed as Little Billy but soon became its most recognizable MC from the group’s 1988 debut “Making Trouble” onward.
The group — revamped with MCs Willie D and Scarface in its popular incarnation — gained notice on the Houston imprint Rap-A-Lot, which helped pioneer a Southern-rap style of brash, noisy and tape-warped productions. Geto Boys immediately attracted controversy and intrigue for their surreally violent lyrics, which both reflected and amplified their lived experiences surrounded by drugs, guns and poverty in Houston’s humid haze.
“People want to hear what’s going on around them in everyday life — war, blood, violence,” Bill told Spin in 1990. “It’s okay for the President to start a war in Iraq, but it’s not okay for me to talk about what I see around me in the ghetto.”
But the group also had literary and cinematic streaks. Bill always defended songs like “Mind of a Lunatic,” with its explicit depictions of rape and violence, as character studies. “If people believe that the Geto Boys really do stuff like on ‘Mind of a Lunatic,’ they must also believe there’s a real Freddie Krueger and a real Michael Myers,” he told Spin.
In one of his most famous lyrics, Bill pointed out that hypocrisy. “You don’t want your kids to hear songs of this nature,” he rapped on 1989’s “Talkin’ Loud Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’.” “But you take ‘em to the movies to watch Schwarzenegger.”
Geto Boys were an independent commercial hit, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their albums across the south, and soon signed with mega-producer Rick Rubin. Rubin reworked their second album, “Grip It! On That Other Level,” into what would have been the group’s Geffen Records-distributed debut. But in an era when N.W.A became Christian-right villains and 2 Live Crew challenged obscenity charges in court, the major-label debut was thwarted after the label got nervous, declining to distribute it over its NC-17 content.
“Love, sex, war and politics — that’s what the album is about,” Bill told the New York Times at the time. “We were just expressing stuff that happens in the ghetto, just being like reporters.”
The group’s 1991 album, “We Can’t Be Stopped,” is perhaps its most infamous. The cover art featured Bill just after an altercation with a girlfriend where, high on PCP, he was shot in the eye (his exact version of events varied over the years). Blood-spattered on a stretcher, with Willie D and Scarface beside him, the album was an apotheosis for Geto Boys’ aesthetic — morbid, self-aware and provocative. Bill would later rap about the incident on “Little Big Man,” his 1992 solo album.
“We Can’t Be Stopped” also contained Geto Boys’ most notorious track, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” in which Geto Boys’ hyper-violent lyricism turned to hallucinatory, psychological noir: “The more I swung, the more blood flew / Then he disappeared and my boys disappeared too / Then I felt just like a fiend / It wasn’t even close to Halloween / It was dark ... on the streets / My hands were all bloody from punching on the concrete.”
The group had a lasting feud with Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore and founder of the Parents Music Resource Center, an activist group that pressured labels into censoring lyrics the group found objectionable (hip-hop like Ice T’s group Body Count and heavy metal like Judas Priest most often found themselves in the crosshairs). But it likely only stirred their notoriety.
Bushwick Bill would cameo on Dr. Dre’s landmark 1992 album, “The Chronic,” and appeared in the video for the popular diss track “Dre Day.” His taste for provocation never dwindled: In the ‘90s, he changed his public name to Dr. Wolfgang Von Bushwickin the Barbarian Mother-Funk Stay High Dollar Billstir.
But Geto Boys’ dank, hooky antagonism stayed in the spotlight. Later that decade, Geto Boys would enjoy a fairly mainstream film moment when their song “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” was used in Mike Judge’s 1999 cult hit “Office Space,” where it soundtracked the main characters’ rebellion from white-collar malaise.
Geto Boys were scheduled to reunite this year for a short tour called “The Beginning of a Long Goodbye: The Final Farewell,” which acknowledged Bill’s dire illness. However, the tour was soon canceled as Bill’s prognosis worsened.
Bill’s contributions to Geto Boys helped establish the Houston rap culture that would inform native Texan artists like UGK and, famously, Beyonce and Solange Knowles (the latter brought Geto Boys’ Scarface on as a guest on her new album, “When I Get Home”). A generation of antagonistic, distortion-laden SoundCloud rap would later draw from Geto Boys’ legacy and revamp it for an era of internet-driven nihilism and introspection.
“’I’m going to be heard anyway,” Bill told the New York Times in 1990. “They can’t hold us back because we’re going to be doing shows and people will be hearing the songs anyway. The truth can’t be stopped.”