Bushwick Bill, Of Houston Rap Group Geto Boys, Dead At 52

Jun 10, 2019
Originally published on June 10, 2019 5:10 pm

Houston rapper Bushwick Bill, a founding member of the pioneering rap crew Geto Boys, died on Sunday evening in Colorado, his publicist, Dawn P., confirmed with NPR. A cause was not given pending a medical examination; the rapper was diagnosed earlier this year with pancreatic cancer. He was 52 years old.

Born Richard Shaw in Kingston, Jamaica, the artist moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn as a young child — hence his rap moniker — before relocating to Houston, where he first joined the Rap-A-Lot Records-assembled group in the early-to-mid-'80s as a breakdancer and hype man. But as members came and went, he found his way to the mic.

Known for his brash persona and performative storytelling, Bill's unhinged, engaging bars on Geto Boys classics like "F*** a War," "Mind Playing Tricks On Me" and "Mind of a Lunatic" were central to the group carving out its place as a pioneering Southern rap unit in the late '80s and early '90s. While Scarface was hailed as the lyricist of the group, Bushwick Bill's appeal lied in his erratic, say-anything verses. In hip-hop's Golden Era, Geto Boys is credited with putting Houston on the map by pioneering horrorcore — a rap subgenre rooted in nightmarish imagery, physical abuse and psychological horror. Many of rap's current stars, from Jeezy and Lil Wayne to Juice WRLD and 21 Savage, have cited Geto Boys as an influence.

In the span of a decade, from 1988 to 1998 — including a three-year hiatus, from '93 to '96 — Geto Boys released an impressive six albums. As a soloist, Bill released six solo albums from 1992 to 2010, while Geto Boys reunited for a 2005 album, The Foundation. In 2019, on the heels of Bill's cancer diagnosis, the members announced they were planning a farewell tour, to be called The Beginning of a Long Goodbye, The Final Farewell. The tour was later cancelled due to Bill pulling out of the performance dates.

Bushwick Bill was born with dwarfism and suffered from joint pain. In October 1991, Bill — drunk on Everclear and arguing with his then-girlfriend as he details in the song "Ever So Clear" — was shot in the eye. Willie D and Scarface posed alongside Bushwick Bill in the hospital halls the night he was shot, a photo which would later be used as the album cover of the trio's 1991 seminal album We Can't Be Stopped. To date, it remains the group's best-selling. In 2010, Bushwick Bill was arrested in Atlanta, charged with criminal possession of cocaine and marijuana and facing possible deportation.

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Bill first shared the news that he was battling cancer on May 1, 2019. In a video posted to TMZ, the ailing rapper announced he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in February 2019 and, up to that point, had not told his fellow Geto Boys, Willie D and Scarface. Later that same month, Bill was hospitalized with pneumonia and was forced to cancel the remaining shows on the Geto Boys reunion tour. "Now, the rumor is I pulled out on the tour, but if my health was a concern then you would know about my health, not about me pulling out of the tour," the rapper told fans in an Instagram video shot, speaking from a hospital bed. "This is a health issue. Pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy gave me pneumonia."

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Speaking to Vice in 2015, ahead of a screening of the horror film Child's Play that he was set to host in Los Angeles, Bushwick Bill explained the hope he found in fusing rap and the macabre: "There are these little moments in life where if you're under the right stars and the right light hits you, or when the northern lights are going by you could become a superhuman being. To be able to be bigger than who you are, I think people have always been fascinated with that. That you could turn into a werewolf and be strong, or that you could use electricity and bring something back to life."

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Additional reporting by Andrew Flanagan.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Bushwick Bill of the Houston rap group Geto Boys has died at age 52.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIND PLAYING TRICKS ON ME")

BUSHWICK BILL: (Rapping) This year Halloween fell on a weekend. Me and Geto Boys are trick-or-treating, robbing little kids for bags.

CORNISH: Bushwick Bill was born Richard Shaw in Kingston, Jamaica. His family moved to the Bushwick section of Brooklyn when he was a kid, but Houston, Texas, is where he became a Geto Boy, joining Willie D and Scarface to become pioneers of gangster rap. He told his fans that he had pancreatic cancer just last month.

Now to talk about Bushwick Bill and his legacy is NPR's Rodney Carmichael. Welcome back to the program.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Tell us about Bushwick Bill as a rapper.

CARMICHAEL: Well, Bushwick Bill - he was a vivid storyteller and really one of the most charismatic figures in hip-hop. He ended up getting into rap almost by accident, and really now he deserves probably more credit than just about anybody for popularizing Southern rap and especially horrorcore.

CORNISH: Horrorcore - OK, tell me a little bit about that 'cause that came around - what? - the late '80s.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, so horrorcore was basically, like, this offshoot of gangster rap - you know, these really graphic descriptions of murder and mutilation often of women. But Bushwick was also a guy who'd actually been studying to become a missionary and a minister before all of this. Then there's the fact that he was a little person with a disability that really made him an outcast and made his own life pretty horrific in some ways.

CORNISH: You can hear that in some of his classic verses - right? - from the Geto Boys song "Mind Playing Tricks On Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIND PLAYING TRICKS ON ME")

BUSHWICK BILL: (Rapping) But this wasn't no ordinary man. He stood about 6 or 7 feet. Now, that's the creep I be seeing in my sleep.

CORNISH: Rodney, you know, people look back at this song now, and they talk about it as one that tells the story of someone suffering from trauma - right? - someone who lives a violent life. Can you talk about how this played out in his music?

CARMICHAEL: Well, you know, Violence and trauma was a world that Bushwick was not afraid to deal with, and it wasn't always fictional, you know? One of the heaviest songs on his debut album, "Little Big Man" - it basically lays out a real-life event where Bushwick lost his eye to a gunshot during an argument with his girlfriend. He even ends up being declared dead before coming back to life when this happens. He was drunk on Everclear at the time, he says in the song, and that inspired the song's title, which was "Ever So Clear," which really ends up being this clear-eyed, really confessional song of enlightenment for Bushwick.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVER SO CLEAR")

BUSHWICK BILL: (Rapping) See; most of my life, I never had this. I felt like an outcast, treated like a misfit, damn near didn't make it on my day of birth, thinking, was I really supposed to be on this planet Earth? I take a deep breath, and then another follows 'cause hardship is kind of hard to swallow. See; it's rough being...

CORNISH: I know it's a long way from his early days of studying religion, but toward the end of his life and career, what kind of music was he doing?

CARMICHAEL: Well, you know, Bushwick made the classic 360-degree circle in his life and time. And he really ended up returning back to his roots to Christianity. He got born again, and he was really making music that was a lot closer to gospel in his later years - very uplifting music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD'S SIDE IS DA BEST SIDE")

BUSHWICK BILL: (Rapping) This is real talk. I'm on a righteous walk, left the dark. Now I'm shining my light like two lightning bugs. You could call me a thug, a true homie under God. Until the rapture comes, I'm back to psalm.

CARMICHAEL: But it wasn't the type of thing where he totally disowned what he had done in the past. He had unique ways of being able to mesh together all of the routes his life had taken into one big story that he felt like was - made him a witness and an inspiration for a lot of people.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Rodney Carmichael talking to us about the legacy of Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys. Bill died at the age of 52.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD'S SIDE IS DA BEST SIDE")

BUSHWICK BILL: (Rapping) Ain't no prince, no blood where I'm from, just the blood of Jesus. Believe it, son. Believe it's on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.