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Geto Boys' Bushwick Bill dies: Morbid, provocative — an unlikely hip-hop legend

August Brown, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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."

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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."

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