When Willie D takes the stage at the Middle East Downstairs for the Geto Boys’ first-ever Boston performance this Saturday night, it will mark a new chapter in the legendary Houston-based rap group’s relationship with hip-hop fans on the East Coast. Considering the way things started in 1990, when Willie, Scarface, and Bushwick Bill arrived to perform in New York for the first time as an upstart crew courting controversy with their explicit lyrics and unabashedly Southern flavor, things have improved, to say the least.
“They did not like us and we were not welcome,” recalls Willie on the phone. “And they let us know by giving us a warm round of boos when our name was announced. They booed us so long, they had to boo us in shifts. I’ve never seen a crowd tired from booing — you could see them resting up to start booing again.”
Yet, as Willie is keen to point out, when the Boys returned in 1991 with the No. 1 song on the rap charts, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” the reaction was quite different. They played a sold-out Madison Square Garden, and the track helped solidify their status as one of the iconic and revered groups of all time, a fact further confirmed by their current reunion tour.
With the release of their second album, “Grip It! On That Other Level,” in 1989, the first featuring the lineup of Willie, Bushwick, and Scarface, the Geto Boys emerged as one of the first rap acts outside of New York to generate national attention. Alongside N.W.A in Los Angeles and Miami’s 2 Live Crew, the group introduced a sexually explicit and graphically violent edge into the hip-hop lexicon with songs like “Mind of a Lunatic” and “Scarface.” Those tracks helped win the attention of producer Rick Rubin, who signed the group to Def American Records in 1990, only to be forced to switch distributors when Geffen refused to participate in the release of their self-titled album due to its content.
The Geto Boys
“I looked at it like it was just another wall we had to knock down to liberate the people,” says Willie. “After that, rappers felt free to say whatever they wanted to say without repercussions. If you go back to 1990, you don’t hear New York hip-hop referencing those types of words. It was after 1991 and the success of “Mind Playing Tricks” that you started hearing those things."
Art and reality seem to blur on their most heralded album, 1991’s “We Can’t Be Stopped,” the memorable cover of which features Willie and Scarface flanking Bushwick on a hospital gurney shortly after the latter accidentally shot himself in the eye, causing permanent damage. Still their biggest hit to date, “Mind Playing Tricks” was fueled by bleak paranoia but also showcased the Geto Boys’ less-heralded talents, like their dark sense of humor and soulful sound based around a sample of Issac Hayes’s “Hung Up on My Baby.”
“They made a very strong case by the time ‘We Can’t Be Stopped’ came out that hip-hop was no longer run by New York City’s five boroughs,” says Boston-based author Brian Coleman, who chronicled the making of the album in his book, “Check the Technique.” “ ‘Mind Playing Tricks’ was important — it explored mental illness from a new angle, and presented it over music that wasn’t the status quo in rap at the time. It was a complicated and at times emotional song, and extremely catchy. It was a bold move from a group that didn’t give a crap what other people thought about them.”
In subsequent years, their output slowed as Scarface and Willie pursued concurrent solo careers with varying success, yet their presence remained strong. Rap aficionados can point to their influence on artists like Gravediggaz and Eminem, while mainstream audiences will likely recognize their memorable contributions to the soundtrack of the cult comedy “Office Space.”
But two decades after altering the cultural landscape, the hardcore lyrics and attitudes have understandably softened a bit.
“Some of the things we talked about early on, I’m a grown man now and I’ve grown from some of my thinking that I put into those words,” explains Willie, who refrains from performing songs like “I’m Not a Gentleman” and “Bald Headed Hoes” at current shows. “When we were performing these songs when they were new, and we were basically kids, I felt all the words because I was actually living what I was saying. But I perform these songs because they are iconic and the fans want to hear them. The feeling has been transferred into passion to perform and put on a good show.”
And after a long wait, Boston fans will finally have their chance to see a show 25 years in the making on Saturday.
“Fans made me appreciate what we have,” says Willie, who stated that the group is “in serious talks” about recording their ninth album. “There’s an infinite love for the group, and we can’t shake it no matter how disgruntled we may be about the industry or how much we want to do our own thing. We need to embrace our legacy and make sure that we secure it, to make sure that we are in control of our message and we have something to say about it.”