Bushwick Bill, a founding member of the pioneering Houston hip-hop act the Geto Boys, died Sunday evening in Colorado at the age of 52 following a painful bout with pancreatic cancer. The 3′ 8″ tall rapper and hypeman reportedly stared down death until his final seconds. Indeed, Bill has always had a flair for the dramatic, even at his own expense. A few years ago, Brad “Scarface” Jordan, one of rap’s most celebrated MCs, told me a story once about how the H-Town group’s infamous cover for their classic third album We Can’t Be Stopped (1991) came together following a near tragic incident.
During an argument with his girlfriend, drunk out of mind on Everclear grain liquor and high on drugs, a depressed Bill shot himself in the eye. At least that was the story that he and the Geto Boys’ camp told to the public. In actuality, a suicidal Bushwick Bill had provoked his baby mother to kill him in an attempt to score life insurance money for his mom. It was documented on his 1992 song “Ever So Clear.”
Barely holding on, Bushwick Bill was rushed to emergency surgery as doctors scrambled to save his life. Although he lost an eye, the operation was a success. But when Scarface and fellow Geto Boys member Willie D showed up to check on their two-fisted comrade, they were shocked when it was suggested by their handler that Bill’s bloody, wounded, swollen, head-turning face be used in a shot for their upcoming platinum release that would drop just a month later.
“If you look at my face on the We Can’t Be Stopped album cover you can tell I didn’t want to be apart of that photo shoot,” Face told me years later. “He was highly sedated, man. We took that picture at the actual hospital where Bill was at. And Chief, who was our manager at the time, said, ‘Bill, take the eye patch down.’ And I was like, ‘Awww f**k! Man, this is some bullsh*t.’ I strongly believe that what goes on in this house stays in this house. I didn’t really want to put Bill out there like that. How many people have gotten their eye shot out and captured it on an album cover for everyone to remember? It’s hard to wake up in the morning and deal with that one.”
Years later, Bill looked back at the entire ordeal with deep regret. “It still hurts me to look at that cover because that was a personal thing I went through,” he told music writer Brian Coleman for his 2007 book Check the Technique. I still feel the pain from the fact I’ve got a bullet in my brain… I think it was pretty wrong to do it, even though I went along with the program at first.”
Yet back during hip-hop’s wild and impactful golden era of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Bushwick Bill saw it all as just part of shock-inducing theater. There were different levels to the man. On his 1990 standout “Size Ain’t Sh*t,” Bill laughably warned those underestimating his wee height: “Liftin weights will make you bigger/ But lift me you’ll be a dead-ass n***a.” The censorship-shredding rebel mused about “robbing little kids for bags” on Halloween on the Geto Boys’ breakthrough 1991 gold single and ode to paranoia “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.”
But it was the macabre and ultra violent 1991 track “Chuckie,” a take off on the murderous, sadistic Child’s Play character from the 1988 slasher film, that forever seared Bushwick Bill into the consciousness of rap fans. “A murder contest, you know I’ll win it/ ‘Cause in every mailbox, there be a head with a knife in it/ I’m gettin’ hungry, I need to be fed/ I feel like eatin’ a bag of barbequed broke legs…”
Bill claimed it was all just over-the-top, escapist, horror fantasy (he actually appeared in publicity shots with the creepy Chuckie doll) on par with shock rocker Ozzy Osbourne. But some critics rebuked what they saw as irredeemable lyrics. “All they come up with is the boring ‘Chuckie,’ a look inside a familiar demon from horror flicks,” dismissed James Benard in a 1991 review of We Can’t Be Stopped. Some even saw Bushwick Bill as a sideshow act; no different from the bearded lady.
Of course, such detractors were missing the part. Bushwick Bill was simply in the longtime tradition of music bogeymen like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Alice Cooper. Born Richard Stephen Shaw in Kingston, Jamaica on December 8, 1966, he later moved to Brooklyn, New York where he earned the name Bushwick Bill. His dwarfism oftentimes made him the object of ridicule, but Bill fought on and won respect with his fearless demeanor. He moved to Houston where he became a dancer for a local rap act christened by legendary Rap-A-Lot Records founder J. Prince called the Geto Boys. But the group soon went through a re-shuffling as Prince recruited highly touted lyricist Scarface, the charismatic, imposing Willie D and spotlight-grabbing Bushwick Bill. The classic lineup of the Geto Boys was born.
The Houston outfit broke ground every step of the way as they carried the mantle for Southern hip-hop before OutKast, UGK, Ludacris, Young Jeezy and the Migos, at a time when rappers from the South were largely viewed as “country.” The Geto Boys performed on major tours with the towering likes of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah and Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and earned their respect with their defiant, street-fueled testimonies on police brutality, government corruption, the drug game and violent, button-pushing tales of the lawlessness and poverty that engulfed Houston’s infamous Fifth Ward projects.
Bushwick Bill’s tongue-in-cheek twisted rhymes appeared on such solo statements as Little Big Man (1992), Phantom of the Rapra (1995), Universal Small Souljah (2001), and Gutta Mixx (2005). But by 2006, the man who helped give birth to the horrorcore rap genre opening the door for such incendiary acts as Ganxsta N.I.P. the Flatlinerz and Gravediggaz, had become a born again Christian. Bill was still fighting demons. In 2010 he was arrested in Georgia for possession of marijuana and cocaine, facing deportation.
Yes, Bushwick Bill remained a conflicted figure. But in the end he was just a hip-hop head who loved the culture and the music. He relished freestyling with Snoop Dogg, Scarface and others in the early ‘90s. He was a Public Enemy stan. Bill’s spoken word mic drop on Dr. Dre’s seminal 1992 work The Chronic underlined his straight-no-chaser mantra on the track “Stranded On Death Row”: “There’s three types of people in world/ Those who don’t know what happened/ Those who wonder what happened/ And people like us, from the streets, that make things happen.”
Rest easy, Bill.
(Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives)