Bushwick Bill (real name, Richard Shaw) long-time member of the legendary southern rap group Geto Boys, has died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. Never one to pass up a chance to use his personal tragedies to promote his career (after shooting out his own eye during a drug-fueled argument with a girlfriend, the rapper used a gruesome photo taken in the hospital as the cover for the next Geto Boys album (NSFW), Bill was about to embark on a “Ph*ck Cancer” tour when he ultimately succumbed to his illness.
The Geto Boys are (were?) an interesting group. Their early output was overly derivative of other acts such as Run DMC and NWA. While the Geto Boys’ music never went mainstream like those latter groups (several featured (very NSFW) spots in the movie Office Space notwithstanding), they eventually overhauled their lineup and carved out a place as one of the premiere groups in southern hip hop. This new lineup included Bill, who previously served as a backup dancer for the group called “Little Billy,” a reference to his dwarfism (he reportedly stood 3’ 8” tall). Although his stature was initially a novelty, Bill’s raps and overall persona as an MC demanded respect. Alongside rappers Scarface (who remains one of the most respected rappers in hip hop history and possibly the most revered southern MC among his peers) and Willie D, Bushwick Bill made the Geto Boys a group that was heralded for their blunt and innovate raps. Bill helped shape the new enigmatic sound and content. He was a guy who could rap convincingly about “living for the Lord” in one line, and then let off an expletive-laden string of insults in the next, and make the whole things sound authentic.
Bushwick Bill’s verse on the Geto Boys most famous track, 1991’s catchy but incredibly dark “Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me, (NSFW)” is perhaps his most impressive, and almost certainly his best known, work. The song and its memorable music video are equal parts hardcore and haunting, a precursor to the underground subgenre of “horrorcore” rap later deployed by artists like Tyler the Creator. Scarface opens the song with an all-time memorable verse, followed by a solid middle section by Scarface and fellow group member Willie D. Bushwick Bill comes in to bat cleanup in the song’s closing verse, and boy does he deliver. His tale of robbing trick-or-treaters is the perfect blend of over-the-top violence, humor, darkness and paranoia that epitomizes both the song and the group. And while Scarface’s lines may be more literary and stand out from a critic’s perspective, Bushwick Bill delivers the song’s twist ending (how often does a song even HAVE a twist ending?) that I remember my friends quoting at school as a kid) – “Then I felt just like a fiend. It wasn’t even close to Halloween.” While the music video is well done, it’s Bill’s lyrics that vividly paint the picture of his bloody knuckles hitting the concrete as everyone else around him disappears. If a song can be a horror movie, this was it.
Bushwick Bill’s death is unlikely to make many headlines today, but his passing should not be ignored; rap music has lost a very unique and talented artist and individual, one whose persona is unlikely to be replicated. R.I.P. Bushwick Bill.