Geto Boys - Biography
By Oliver Hall
Among the first hip-hop stars from the American South (although three of four members in the classic lineup came from the East Coast), the Geto Boys are famous as one of the raunchiest, hardest, and most soulful groups in the genre. On Grip It! On That Other Level (1989 Rap-A-Lot) and The Geto Boys (1990 Rap-A-Lot/Def American), Bushwick Bill, Scarface, and Willie D deliver unhinged, exaggerated, hilarious raps over DJ Ready Red’s incongruously gorgeous, comforting music.
Collins Leysath, better known as DJ Ready Red, was born and raised in New Jersey and first encountered hip-hop at block parties in the Bronx. He moved to Houston to be near his sister and soon enough, Ready Red became the DJ in the Ghetto Boys – a band put together by Houston’s J. “Li’l J” Prince (born James Smith) for his Rap-A-Lot label. The first lineup of the Ghetto Boys with MCs Raheem, Juke Box, and J. Prince’s brother Sir Rap-A-Lot (a.k.a. K-9), cut the local radio hit “Car Freaks” in 1986. This line-up quickly disintegrated and Raheem released his solo album The Invincible (A&M) in 1988. A new line-up consisting of DJ Ready Red and MCs Sire Juke Box and Prince Johnny “C” recorded singles including the “You Ain’t Nothing/I Run This” 12” (Rap-A-Lot) in 1987. In 1988, they made the Run DMC-esque debut album Making Trouble (Rap-A-Lot) with their newest member, the diminutive Jamaican-born dancer and hypeman Little Billy (who would soon be known as Bushwick Bill).
By 1988, the year Making Trouble was released and the Ghetto Boys became known as the Geto Boys, Prince Johnny and Sire Juke Box had left the group, and J. “Li’l J” Prince went on to put together a harder-edged version. Red told the website AllHipHop in a 2008 interview that he introduced local rapper DJ Akshun— Brad Jordan, later named Scarface— to Rap-A-Lot: “There was this little cat that was rapping called DJ Akshun. I was like ‘OK, let me hear you rap,’ and he was not bad. Come to find out that he was from Camden, New Jersey. Then K-9, who was one of the original members of the group, had just got out of jail and came back home. I told Rap-A-Lot about Brad, and we had a battle between K-9 and Scarface (or Akshun at that time). They started rapping and ‘Face blew him up out the water. That’s how ‘Face got to be a Geto Boy."
In 1989, Willie D (a solo artist and former boxer from Houston’s Fifth Ward), Scarface, and Bushwick Bill were the Geto Boys’ three MCs for Grip It! On That Other Level (Rap-A-Lot). While Dr. Dre of N.W.A. shocked with the lyrics of his earth-shaking album Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless/EMI) in 1988, the Geto Boys’ demented imaginations on Grip It! make Compton seem as wholesome as an Archie comic. On “Mind of a Lunatic,” MCs ‘Face, Bill, and Willie D narrate the thoughts running through a psychopath’s mind, each one-upping the others’ violent scenarios in classic gross-out battle style. (Willie D’s rap begins: “My girl getting skinny/She strung out on coke/So I went to her mother’s house/and cut out her throat.”) Not only lyrically challenging, the music is interesting as well; on “Let a Ho Be a Ho,” Red plays a drumbeat against the tricky riff from Pink Floyd’s “Money” that brings out an entirely new quality in the familiar musical phrase.
Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin, sure of the Geto Boys’ greatness and appeal, remixed and resequenced Grip It! The result was 1990’s The Geto Boys (Rap-A-Lot/Def American), which is often mistakenly referred to as the Geto Boys’ debut album. The black-and-white cover art of The Geto Boys, with a mugshot of each member, is considerably grittier than the colorful cover of Grip It!, which is a fairly standard representation of late-80’s hip-hop style. The lyrics on The Geto Boys, particularly “Mind of a Lunatic,” proved too much for Geffen who declined to distribute the album. “Can you believe those hypocrites would distribute Guns N’ Roses, but not our shit?” Bill would ask on the first track of the next Geto Boys album. The controversy surrounding The Geto Boys did not hurt its sales, which went gold shortly after the album’s release. The original version of the Boys’ XXX-rated “Gangster of Love” on this album is built around a sample from the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker,” but Miller or his people were apparently not pleased since a sample from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” replaces it on some versions of the album.
DJ Ready Red left the group in 1990. According to Red’s 2008 interview with AllHipHop, he felt that the increasingly successful Geto Boys were not being paid what they were owed. Red says he tried to convince the other Geto Boys to band together with him and confront J. Prince about the group’s accounting, but Bill, Willie D, and Scarface sided with the Rap-A-Lot owner. The cover of the Geto Boys’ next album, 1991’s We Can’t Be Stopped (Rap-A-Lot/Priority), one-ups the cover of The Geto Boys and of every other contemporary gangsta act. The photo depicts Scarface and Willie D wheeling Bushwick Bill down the hallway of a hospital. In the photo, Bill is missing an eye, which he had recently lost in a real-life incident involving his girlfriend and a gun. We Can’t Be Stopped included the hit “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” in which the Geto Boys describe their nightmares in gory detail over a lovely, ethereal groove, incorporating Isaac Hayes’s gorgeous 1974 tune “Hung Up on My Baby” and Biz Markie’s “Pickin’ Boogers.” Songs such as “I’m Not a Gentleman,” “Fuck a War,” and “I Ain’t With Being Broke” don’t mince words or waste them. Scarface issued his first solo album, Mr. Scarface Is Back (Rap-A-Lot), that same year.
After a stint with crack cocaine, DJ Ready Red eventually moved from Houston to his home in Trenton, New Jersey. He is now reportedly a preacher and member of the Universal Zulu Nation, sober, and living in California. Willie D. left the Geto Boys after We Can’t Be Stopped to resume his solo career, which began with Controversy (Rap-A-Lot), released in 1989. Bushwick Bill released his first solo album, Little Big Man (Rap-A-Lot), in 1992.
In 1993, Big Mike took Willie D’s place for Till Death Do Us Part (Rap-A-Lot), after which the Geto Boys split. 1996’s The Resurrection (Rap-A-Lot/Noo Trybe) brings Bushwick Bill, Scarface, and Willie D back together, but not for long. Bushwick Bill left before 1998’s Da Good Da Bad & Da Ugly (Rap-A-Lot/Noo Trybe), on which DMG – the “Detrimental Gangsta” – takes his place. The following year, the Geto Boys were featured prominently on the soundtrack of Mike Judge’s beloved comedy Office Space.
In the late-80’s, the Drug Enforcement Administration started investigating J. Prince and Rap-A-Lot Records, which led to DEA interest in Scarface. Eventually, this also led to a minor scandal in the Clinton White House. Rep. Dan Burton, the Republican congressman from Indiana who chaired the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee from 1997 to 2002, described President Clinton as “a scumbag” to the Indianapolis Star in 1998. Among the many allegations Chairman Burton made against the Clinton administration, detailed in the 2004 House report titled “UNSUBSTANTIATED ALLEGATIONS OF WRONGDOING INVOLVING THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION,” was the claim “that Vice President Gore had inappropriately interfered with a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation in Houston, Texas, of James Prince and his associates at Rap-A-Lot Records. Chairman Burton further charged that Attorney General Reno was obstructing congressional review of this matter.”
According to the website Black Electorate, during a 2003 congressional hearing a letter from James Nims of the DEA to Rep. Burton was made public in which Nims made the DEA’s plans for Scarface clear. “In regards to the US Attorney’s Office,” Nims wrote, “we could not convince them to indict Brad Jordan, AKA ‘Scarface,’ even though I strongly believe we had him tied in solidly on a federal drug conspiracy charge. This was devastating to the case as we felt that Brad Jordan could have provided us with important leads and information regarding Mr. Smith,” i.e. J. Prince.
Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill reunited again for 2005’s The Foundation (Rap-A-Lot), originally titled War & Peace. In 2008, a best of compilation, Best of the Geto Boys (Rap-A-Lot/Asylum) was released.