Politics

Documentary on Houston Rapper Bushwick Bill Reveals the Main Behind the Outrage

The Geto Boys take three of the spots in Texas Monthly’s 20 Essential Rap Tracks, and for good reason. From 1987 through the 1990s, the Houston trio became Texas’s first commercially successful rap group. The band’s subversive, provocative music tackled social issues such as the anti-war movement, police violence, and systemic racism, laying the groundwork for politically conscious rap acts like N.W.A. and Crucial Conflict. In doing so, many of their lyrics were so profane and disturbing as to make any reasonable person’s skin crawl. This aspect of the band’s work proved influential for horrorcore acts such as Insane Clown Posse and even a young Tyler the Creator, who have both similarly incorporated shocking and hardcore themes. Geffen Records famously refused to distribute the Geto Boys’ self-titled album in 1990, and prominent political figures including Tipper Gore railed against their lyrics.

The hardest-hitting figure of the Geto Boys was also its shortest. Dancer-turned-rapper Bushwick Bill stood just three foot eight, having been born with a form of dwarfism. He quickly became one of the group’s three dominant personalities alongside Scarface and Willie D (a few other performers came and went over the years). A new documentary, Bushwick Bill: Geto Boy, focuses on Bill’s side of the story, chronicling the group’s ascent to legendary status and revealing a man who has had ample time to reflect—and whose memories are vivid and engrossing. Directed by Gregy Roman (who briefly managed Bill in the 2010s) with co-production by Bayou City rap legend Bun B, the movie premieres at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as part of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, on November 12. An encore screening will be held November 17 at Rice Cinema. The film was first conceived in 2012 and took nearly a decade to shoot. Prior to his death in 2019 from pancreatic cancer, Bill served as an executive producer and head writer on the project.

Bushwick Bill was born Richard Shaw in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents, who instilled a strong moral code in him. Yet bullying because of his short stature pushed a young Bill to seek violent revenge on those who wronged him. In sixth grade, he watched the 1970 film The Cross and the Switchblade, which follows teen gang members who convert to Christianity. That experience motivated Bill to reverse course and dedicate himself to Bible study, shipping out to the Redemption Ministry Fellowship in Duluth, Minnesota, and making plans to embark on a missionary trip in India.

Bill ended up in Houston’s Fifth Ward largely by accident; he was supposed to see his sister before leaving for India. But the city’s rap scene challenged his perception of the South as “nothing but cowboys and horses”; he was immediately drawn to the culture of speakers in car trunks and nightclubs that played hip-hop music. As he says in the film: “One week turned into a lifetime of music, madness, and mayhem.” Bill grew up alongside the birth of hip-hop, listening to “Rapper’s Delight” in the sixth grade and learning to breakdance as soon as it became a fad. This new style of dance caught the attention of everyone in the clubs he set foot in, including James Smith (a.k.a. J Prince) of Rap-A-Lot Records, who invited him to join the Geto Boys (then Ghetto Boys) as a dancer and hype man just days after his arrival in Houston.

The film opens with a close-up on the lower half of Bill’s face as he says: “I heard a story a man once told, but this is the story of the man that told it. This is my story.” Even with Bill’s heavy involvement in the project, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the documentary focuses solely on his perspective. Nearly the entire 78-minute film is interviews with Bill himself. There is no narrator, no questions asked, just Bill telling stories, and only one talking head—a brief clip from a Snoop Dogg interview by the Canadian journalist Nardwuar. Though the film also includes lots of archival footage from concerts and other scenes, it’s still based heavily on its subject’s own point of view. This is a risky storytelling strategy. Roman, the director, says he made extensive efforts to get Scarface and Willie D to sit for interviews, but they refused, possibly as a result of their tumultuous relationship with Bill.

Luckily, Bill’s eccentric personality carries the documentary. In a scene right before the title screen, he does a casual leprechaun heel kick before taking a seat. As the film concludes, he addresses his ocular prosthetist (he lost an eye in a shooting in 1991) with a tongue-twister, seemingly for comedic effect: “I take your recommendation of the prescription of the prosthesis.” He also describes the group’s achievements with jubilation. “Now I know what [eighties band Dire Straits] means, you get money for nothing and chicks for free, yes!” he laughs, referencing his newfound popularity with women after label executive Rick Rubin signed the Geto Boys in 1989. His dwarfism had severely limited his dating prospects in the past, so the sudden attention took him by surprise.

When the film turns to the low points of Bill’s life and career, viewers see a clear distinction between Bushwick Bill in public and Richard Shaw in private. This is some of the most compelling and revealing material in the movie. Bill admits that he felt a deep inner conflict over the lyrics fed to him by Rap-A-Lot CEO J Prince, who encouraged him to lean into controversy as much as possible, a sharp contrast from Bill’s own plans to dedicate his life to teaching the Bible. Richard Shaw, for example, would never advocate for killing a policeman, as the narrator of the song “Crooked Officer” does. Nor would he condone the sexual assault and murder described on “Assassins.” Rapping lyrics that deeply clashed with his values was so difficult for Bill that he resorted to numbing his emotions with drugs—alcohol, marijuana, PCP—before performances. “There was times I couldn’t get those emotions up unless I was drinking. I had to be drunk onstage, in the studio,” he says onscreen.

It was a downward spiral of drug use that led to Bill shooting himself in 1991, in an incident that left him missing an eye and with a bullet permanently lodged in the back of his head. The Bill we hear in the documentary more closely aligns with the perspective of his final album, My Testimony of Redemption, released in 2009. The gospel-rap record described his renewed commitment to Christianity and is the only project of his that doesn’t feature an explicit content label.

While Bill is open about his struggles with drug abuse and accompanying suicidal thoughts, and with separating person from persona, the documentary glosses over tensions that shaped the later years of the Geto Boys. Willie D, for example, said in a 2019 interview that he had a strictly business relationship with Bill, and that the two were never friendly with each other. He referenced a time when Bill pulled a gun on him in an intense argument. The movie doesn’t address this, nor does it tackle the question of why the Geto Boys have never reunited; in 2015, Scarface said the main reason was a lack of interest from fans.

At times, Bushwick Bill: Geto Boy is unclear on what it’s saying. The film is organized more by subject matter than chronology, making it a bit of a confusing watch. For example, midway through the movie, Bill speaks about recording his debut album Little Big Man (1992), but the sequence ends by breaking down the cover of a different Geto Boys record, We Can’t Be Stopped (1991). Similarly, one scene depicts Bill at the “gravesite” where Rick Rubin’s 1993 Death of Def publicity stunt took place, before then jumping back in time, without much explanation, to the events leading up to Bill’s shooting himself in the eye in 1991. Telling the story in order would have created a more cohesive viewing experience.

Bushwick Bill: Geto Boy was destined for success based on the strength of its charismatic protagonist alone. To its credit, the film provides a strong overview of the Geto Boys’ heyday and offers unprecedented access to one of rap’s most intriguing figures. Anyone curious about Texas rap history will find it to be a worthwhile watch. The documentary builds on what we know about Bill’s life from Charles L. Hughes’ recent unauthorized biography. Still, a more well-rounded approach would have included the perspectives of more musicians and critics. For a more complete take on one of the greatest Houston rap groups of all time, I would recommend checking out Scarface and Willie D’s podcast, Geto Boys Reloaded.

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