Geto Boys, a Houston rap group, was formed in 1986 by James “Lil’ J” Smith, owner of Rap-A-Lot Records. The Geto Boys are regarded as the group that not only put Houston (and the Fifth Ward) on the hip-hop map, but also the South on the hip-hop map. They are also one of the first groups to pioneer what critics would call the “gangsta rap” genre within hip-hop by telling the real and fictional stories of the life of marginalized people in urban communites like Houston’s Fifth Ward. The band (originally spelled “Ghetto Boys”) consisted of Keith Rogers (Sire Juke Box), Thelton Polk (K-9/Sir Rap-A-Lot), and Oscar Ceres (Raheem). In 1986 the trio released the single “Car Freak,” which received limited distribution.
The group’s first album release, entitled Making Trouble, came out in 1988 on Rap-A-Lot Records and featured a new lineup—Sire Juke Box; Prince Johnny C (born Jonathan Carmichael from Trenton, New Jersey); DJ Ready Red (born Collins Leysath from Trenton, New Jersey); and Bushwick Bill (born Richard Shaw of Bushwick, New York, and originally from Jamaica) as their hype man and dancer. This album garnered minor local and regional support, however, the group did tour with national recording artists The Fat Boys on their Wipe Out Tour.
Due to creative differences, Sire Jukebox and Prince Johnny C departed from the group and were soon replaced with Willie D (born Willie Dennis of Houston) and Scarface (born Brad Jordan of Houston and originally known as DJ Akshen). DJ Ready Red remained as the fourth member of the band. In 1989 the newly-revamped group, whose name was changed from Ghetto Boys to Geto Boys, released a second album, Grip It! On That Other Level. This record fared much better than the first, with several singles, including “Gangsta of Love,” “Size Ain’t Shit,” and “Mind of a Lunatic,” that earned the group a larger following and helped Houston gain national recognition in the rap music world.
Rick Rubin, cofounder of New York-based Def Jam Records, was impressed with the Geto Boys recordings and decided to release a different version of the Grip It! album on his Def American label. Originally set for distribution by Geffen Records, the graphic nature of the group’s lyrics, especially the necrophilia described in “Mind of a Lunatic,” caused the company to pull out, and the album was subsequently distributed by Giant Records. Entitled simply The Geto Boys, it was released in 1990 and contained the following disclaimer: “Def American Recordings is opposed to censorship. Our manufacturer and distributor, however, do not condone or endorse the content of this recording, which they find violent, sexist, racist, and indecent."
The violent and sexually-explicit lyrics included on The Geto Boys created a good deal of public controversy as opponents advocated censorship. This call for censorship was fueled by the testimony of two Kansas teenagers who claimed to be "temporarily hypnotized" by the Geto Boys song “Mind of a Lunatic” which caused them to shoot another teenager. Prominent politicians soon launched a campaign against “gangsta” rappers and the labels that recorded them. Other controversial rap artists, including 2 Live Crew and Ice-T, later found themselves the targets of this campaign as well, as some labels bowed to public pressure and began severing ties with so-called gangsta rappers.
In 1991 the Geto Boys released a classic in their fourth studio album, We Can’t Be Stopped, on Rap-A-Lot. It was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. The album cover featured Willie D and Scarface pushing Bushwick Bill through the corridors of a hospital after he lost his eye in an altercation with a girlfriend. The lead single from the album, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” featured the trio taking turns on the microphone, with each rapper sharing personal experiences involving paranoia, fear, and violent encounters. Though the band received virtually no radio airplay, the song became a hit, earning the group a following in New York and Los Angeles—markets that were traditionally difficult for Southern rappers to penetrate. The song even reached the Billboard pop charts.
By 1993 Willie D had left the group to pursue a solo career. The Geto Boys added Louisiana-based rapper Big Mike and released Till Death Do Us Part. The album continued the same violent themes as before, with such songs as “Murder Avenue,” “Murder After Midnight,” and “Cereal Killer.” The album was certified gold in May 1993.
Willie D eventually rejoined the group, replacing Big Mike. In 1996 the Geto Boys released their next album, The Resurrection. It featured a remake of a classic 1970s tune by Los Angeles-based soul-funksters War, entitled “The World is a Ghetto,” in which the Geto Boys referred to poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods, such as the Bronx, Compton, Watts, and Houston’s Fifth Ward, and compared them to those of Third World countries. Another song from the same album, “Still,” was featured in the movie Office Space (1999).
Da Good, Da Bad, & Da Ugly, their seventh album recorded in 1998, included Scarface and Willie D without Bushwick Bill, who had left the group to pursue a solo career. This album featured guest appearances from several fellow Rap-A-Lot label mates, including a young Beyoncé Knowles singing on the track “Gangsta (Put Me Down).”
The Geto Boys waited seven years before their next release. In 2005 the three longtime members, Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill, reunited in order to release The Foundation. The album peaked at Number 3 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. The record, which featured such songs as “Dirty Bitch,” echoed the same themes that had made the group controversial throughout its career. Geto Boys reunited for a performance in San Bernardino, California, in October 2009. In 2015, a decade after their last album, the Geto Boys (Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill) announced that they would work on a new album, Habeas Corpus. They initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to independently release the album, but by their deadline in July, they had raised less than half their goal of $100,000. Scarface subsequently declared that he was finished with the group.
The Geto Boys are heralded as being the break-out band for southern rappers in hip-hop music.