Scarface plays the Key Club tomorrow night. This is big news, considering most folks didn't even know that the greatest of all southern rappers was out of the pen. In October 2010 he began a term at Montgomery County Jail in Alabama over numerous unresolved child support cases. (There is also apparently another “federal” case about which little is known.) The weirdest thing is that nobody even realized he was gone until February.
His release in mid-August was also quiet — although our sister blog Houston Press had the scoop. An interview request to 'Face's management last week came to nothing, so it's fair to say that still no one has any idea what's going on with one of the most elusive men in hip-hop.
Some insight into his psyche can be gleaned, however, from the interview I did with him in July of 2010 for my book Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop. It turned out, I believe, to be the last substantial interview he did before he went in. (If that's wrong, please correct me in the comments section.) A chilling snippet about his time in a Houston mental health hospital can be heard on the video above, and more of our conversation can be found in the below excerpt from my book, about 'Face and the Geto Boys, which was originally published on another of our sister music blogs, the Village Voice's Sound of the City.
Southern rap's gangsta roots can be traced to one group: Geto Boys. There's nary a thug wannabe who didn't learn something from these Houston trailblazers, who helped put hardcore hip-hop on the map. They were every bit as tough as gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A and Ice-T — the media's faces for late eighties gangland menace — and even more twisted.
The group was masterminded by a luxury-used-car salesman named J. Prince. Born James Smith, Prince has also founded a condom company, managed champion boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., and donated millions to various local causes. But rap will be his legacy, and he possesses impeccable taste when it comes to the discipline, having fostered a who's who of Texas spitters, including Pimp C, Bun B, Trae, Z-Ro, Big Mello, Lil' Flip, and Devin the Dude. Though he hasn't published many runaway bestsellers, he's hasn't had many duds, either, and his Rap-A-Lot Records is hip-hop's longest-running independent imprint.
Some fear Prince, but many sing his eternal praises. Count former Rap-A-Lot artist Ganksta N-I-P among the latter, he a pioneer of the horrorcore rap subgenre that would influence the Geto Boys. One night in 1991 Prince saw him win a rap contest at a South Park spot called Club Infinity, and after the performance asked him to come into the men's room for an audition. Joining them in the quieter, cramped space, N-I-P says, were some twenty men, “bodyguards and highly ranking Rap-A-Lot officials,” he remembers.
N-I-P gave an impassioned performance, “breaking mirrors, hitting up against the wall,” and Prince was impressed. They met the next morning in the club's parking lot, where Prince handed him a $20,000 check and signed him to a three-album deal. “I love him to this day,” N-I-P says. “If I needed a car, he provided it. If I needed money, he provided it.”
But it was Geto Boys who proved to be Prince's greatest creation. As legend has it, in the mid-eighties he promised his younger brother Thelton and some of his buddies that he would release their rap record if they finished high school. Thus was born the original Ghetto Boys, whose members dressed like Run-DMC and were influenced by Miami and New York rap. Their song “Car Freak” got some local play. Featuring giant bass and goofy ad-libs, it's not gangsta but it is funny. “See, if you're walking down the street/ There's no conversation,” it goes. “The girl wants a man with some damn transportation.”
They didn't make much of a splash, but in the late eighties they changed the spelling of their name and shuffled their lineup; from the beginning Prince saw the group as a series of interchangeable parts. Staying on was DJ Ready Red, a New Jersey native who was a fan of pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. Though he would be the underappreciated architect of Geto Boys' raw, atmospheric compositions, he departed before they broke big, due to financial disputes with Prince.
Geto Boys' MCs included Bushwick Bill, a dwarf born in Jamaica who emigrated to America with his family when he was five and came up as break-dancer in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Though initially taken on as the group's dancer and hype man, after his rapping talents proved first-rate he was invited to become a full member. In fact, he became the group's secret weapon, by way of mesmerizing chants and gory, over-the-top rhymes. “Motherfuckers be worried 'cause I'm sick,” he raps on a Ganksta N-I-P ghostwritten song called “Chuckie.” “Dead heads and frog legs/ Mmm… cake mix!”
Joining Red and Bill was a battle rapper named Willie D, a fierce Fifth Ward native and Golden Gloves boxer who once knocked out Furious Five member Melle Mel in a celebrity match. Possessing an angry bark and a coarse sense of humor, D wrote or cowrote many of the group's best-known tracks, and also penned solo works like his anti-hairless-women anthem, “Bald-Headed Hoes,” from his first solo album, Controversy. (The work's cover features four seemingly arbitrary expressions of the title: a woman in a bikini, a KKK member, a policeman, and a shirtless D himself.)
Rounding out the collective was a remarkable talent named Brad Jordan, an eighteen-year-old rapper and producer who called himself DJ Akshen. His obsession with Brian De Palma's 1983 film would later bring him a nickname that stuck: Scarface. The new incarnation of the Geto Boys met for the first time when they arrived in the studio to record their 1989 album Grip It! On That Other Level. “That's why the album is so raw,” Bill explained on Yo! MTV Raps. But despite Bushwick Bill and Willie D's contributions, Scarface quickly emerged as the group's dominant force. Near-universally regarded as the best Southern rapper, he possess a rich, full baritone and is capable of taming complicated rhyme patterns. An absolute beast of a storyteller, his characters are criminals, convicts, and everyman sinners, some attempting to get things on track, some resigned to living in fear.
Though few can match his songs' nuance or moral complexity, his paternal attitude and exquisitely paced flow established the template for a hardcore rapper, and his influence can be heard in everyone from Tupac Shakur to Jay-Z. “Jay-Z [initially] was tongue twistin',” says Memphis rapper Eightball. “When he slowed that shit down, that was some Southern shit, that was some Scarface shit he was doing.”
'Face has always seemed older than his years. He's got a wide face, sturdy frame, bad posture, and tends to make jokes about subjects others might not necessarily find funny, like killing himself, as he did in an interview with video blog site VladTV. He came up in Houston's poor South Acres neighborhood, which he describes as close-knit. “Everybody was cool with each other,” he says. “We really believed in our neighborhood. It ain't no different than the hood anywhere else.”
Music ran in his family. He learned to play bass guitar from his uncle, and nowadays makes occasional surprise appearances at Houston rock shows as a guitar player. But his childhood was traumatic; he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists with a razor blade when he was twelve or thirteen. Before long he was shuttled off to the mental health ward at Houston International Hospital, where he was plied with lithium and antipsychotic drugs. “When you go crazy in the hospital, they get like five or six big ol' men to come in there and hold you down,” he remembers. “They pop you with that Thorazine and you go out.”
Even worse was when they locked him in a foreboding spot called the “quiet room,” which contained little more than a small mattress with no covers. “I spent a lot of time in the quiet room, to the point where if anybody said anything about that quiet room I was like, 'OK! I'll be good! I'm not crazy anymore!'”
'Face says he had a schizophrenic uncle, who was “on drugs heavy, like he got high and never came down.” Other than that, however, he can't point to any genetic or experiential reasons that may have sparked his mental health issues.
He remains unsatisfied with his treatment. During our phone conversation, he grows increasingly sarcastic and worked up as we discuss the subject, at one point Googling his doctor, who is now employed by the University of Texas Harris County Psychiatric Center. Scarface then proceeds to fire off an e-mail to him, which he reads aloud, pausing occasionally to laugh hysterically:
“I don't know if you remember me but my name is Brad Jordan. I was at Houston International Hospital in the early eighties. Thanks for your help in the past. I'm one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. You sucker!”
There's something poetic about this note, with both its slightly vengeful and oddly warm notes. Indeed, Scarface's tribulations have repeatedly worked their way into his music. Unlike other rappers who'd have you think they're psychopaths, his honesty makes his voice resonate.
Obsessed with the thin line between sanity and craziness, between living and dying, he captures the desperation of men at their wits' end. “Everybody's got a different way of endin' it,” he raps on, “I Seen a Man Die,” “And when your number comes for souls then they send it in/ Now your time has arrived for your final test/ I see the fear in your eyes and in your final breath.”
It wasn't necessarily his depression or treatment that informed his style, he says, but rather his therapy, which forced him to articulate what was going through his head. “We had one-on-one and also group meetings, where you had to talk,” he says, adding with a laugh that thirteen-year-olds like himself were permitted to smoke cigarettes if they had their parents' permission. “It helped big time.”
Not long after departing the hospital, Scarface left home and stayed with some friends through his middle-teen years. He dropped out of high school and later got his own place with longtime producer John Bido. His career as a rapper was kicking into gear; he'd come onto J. Prince's radar after an acquaintance passed along a tape of his song “Scarface.”
But though the emerging mogul showed interest in signing him, Scarface was advised to stay away. “Everybody was like, 'Watch out for him,'” 'Face remembers. “Everybody.”
I ask him why they said that.
“Everybody had their own little, whatever they wanted to say or do, but we never cared about that,” he says, vaguely. “He ain't never did nothing but right by us. Rap-A-Lot and Scarface birthed each other. We were together when our careers started.”
In fact, just as Geto Boys were gaining national renown, Scarface released his still-admired 1991 debut, Mr. Scarface Is Back. The album went gold and kicked off his long-running solo career, and three years later, he put out his high-water-mark effort The Diary, which featured the remarkable “I Seen a Man Die” and saw his stories coming into sharper focus.
Near the turn of the decade he was recruited by Def Jam executive Lyor Cohen to be president of Def Jam South, a spin-off intended to give the New York company a toehold in the emerging Dixie market. For the imprint 'Face helped orchestrate the signing of Atlanta rapper Ludacris, who would become one of the bestselling MCs of all time.
Scarface released a career-defining album of his own for the label in 2002. The Fix had guest verses from Jay-Z and Nas, not to mention sparkling beats from Kanye West, the Neptunes, and collaborator Mike Dean. Dubbed overly commercial by J. Prince, 'Face calls it his “best work to date.”
Though it debuted in Billboard's top five, he wouldn't see that kind of success again. He attributes his relative commercial failings to his lack of dance songs, and it's something of a sore subject that his earnings haven't lived up to his stature. “Give me the money,” he says. “I don't care if nobody knows me.”