He came to Houston from New York in the ’80s to visit his sister and brother-in-law. He wasn’t supposed to stay; he was actually on his way to Bible college in Minnesota. Instead, he started dancing in local clubs like the Rhinestone Wrangler where his short stature made him hard to miss.
Before long, he was a key ingredient in one of the country’s hottest rap groups, the Geto Boys, and a flashpoint in the culture wars over graphic hip-hop content.
Bushwick Bill, who died in 2019 of pancreatic cancer, helped put Houston hip-hop on the map. Charles L. Hughes’ new book, Why Bushwick Bill Matters, tells the whole story, from his youth in Jamaica and Brooklyn—he was born Richard Shaw— to his tenure as club dancer Little Billy to his key years as a horrorcore rapper and his unlikely turn as a solo gospel artist.
So, yes, Bushwick Bill matters. He was a gifted MC, with a galloping flow and oversexed imagination that calls to mind the legendary Queens rapper Kool G Rap. But sometimes, mattering can be complicated and more than a little problematic. Bill was also born with dwarfism and suffered from mental health issues throughout his life. To his credit, Hughes doesn’t sugarcoat any of the ways Bill was exploited on his rise to stardom, touching upon the history of freak shows, the stigma of disability, and Bill’s own stubborn embrace of the ample controversy that came his way, too.
“In his defiance and joy,” Hughes, who himself identifies as a short-statured person, writes, “Bushwick Bill remains a role model for me in how to live as a short person in all its messy complexity.”
And messy it was. Coming off their second album, Grip it! On That Other Level, the Geto Boys already had shock value going for them. When Rick Rubin’s Geffen imprint Def American scooped the group up in 1989, he upped the ante—with more liberal and more graphic use of Bill taking center stage.
Enter the expanded version of the previously released “Mind of a Lunatic,” the aptly titled fantasy of rape and necrophilia, in which Bill is the voice behind the opening and most violent lines. As Hughes writes, “If the use of Bushwick to deliver the most extreme rhymes on Grip It! had already invoked freak-show spectacle, now that process was being directed, Barnum-style, by a white producer interested in creating a cultural shit storm from which he could profit.”
After a massive backlash from the public, the controversial song eventually scotched the Geffen deal—the Geto Boys remix album would be released by Warner Bros. Music—and helped form an unlikely coalition between civil rights veterans and conservative Republicans, united against hip-hop but especially against Bill and the Geto Boys. It’s one of those songs that gives pause even to those normally quick to defend artistic expression (and even to some hip-hop heads).
Did Rubin exploit Bill? Probably. Did the Geto Boys exploit Bill as well?
As Hughes writes, in June 1991, “drunk on Everclear and high on PCP, a depressed and delusional Richard Shaw tried to get his girlfriend to end his life.” There was a scuffle over a gun. It went off, firing a bullet through his right eye. He underwent emergency surgery at Ben Taub Hospital. That’s where Geto Boys Scarface and Willie D found him.
But they didn’t just want to visit. According to Hughes, they also wanted to shoot an album cover.
He says they took the gauze off Bill’s eye, removed his IV, and wheeled him into the hallway for a photo. And that’s the gruesome image on the cover of the 1991 We Can’t Be Stopped album: Willie and Scarface flanking Bill, who wears a hospital gown, looking like he was indeed just shot in the eye. “It still hurts me to look at the cover because that was a personal thing I went through,” he told the writer Brian Coleman in the 2007 book Check the Technique. “I really didn’t understand why that picture was so important for them, important enough to take the IV out of my arm and endanger my life by taking the patch off my eye.”
The album cover was classic Geto Boys, provocative to the extreme. But there was, as usual, lyrical substance to back it up. The album’s hit song, “Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me,” is the group’s masterpiece, a study of inner-city PTSD that deals with feelings of alienation, paranoia, and suicidal ideation, laced over a moody, guitar-heavy Isaac Hayes sample. Bill’s verse is the standout on the track, featuring a menacing hallucination and the terror of realizing that his mind can’t be trusted. The track is a study in introverted horror, probably the most vivid and lived-in look at mental illness in all of hip-hop. As Hughes writes, “These discussions of the ‘mind of a lunatic’ were not the source of voyeuristic shock but instead a vehicle for empathy.”
The Bushwick Bill story is complex, more complex than a batch of controversial lyrics and a record cover would suggest. Bill is both the negation and exemplar of our culture’s stereotypes of the disabled, from his own years-long infatuation with horror movie doll Chucky—“one example of the wider use of disabled characters as monsters in cinema,” Hughes writes—to his refusal to let his disabilities hold him down. Why Bushwick Bill Matters does that complexity justice, and gives a Houston hip-hop legend his due.