Twenty-six years ago, the Geto Boys were quickly becoming one of the most controversial groups on the Houston music scene. A year before, in 1990, they released their eponymous album The Geto Boys, which contained music from their first two albums, Making Trouble (1988) and Grip It! On That Other Level (1989). The Geto Boys was remixed by producer Rick Rubin, whose Def American label they were signed to. However, the Boys had a falling out with Geffen, the label’s distributor, who didn’t want anything to do with the Boys’ graphic, violent, misogynistic lyrics. This prompted Rubin to arrange alternative distribution through Warner Bros. Records.
For their following album, We Can’t Be Stopped, the Boys went back to Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records, the label that created the group in the first place. Now a three-man unit consisting of Willie “Willie D” Dennis, Brad “Scarface” Jordan and the diminutive Richard “Bushwick Bill” Shaw (Collins “DJ Ready Red” Leysath quit the group during the album’s production), the Boys were in an unapologetic mode, making sure the industry suits who shook in their loafers at their previous work knew that they weren’t watering down their sound. Willie D was still a brash cad, turning out such lyrical insolence as “I’m Not A Gentleman” and “Trophy,” while Bushwick Bill teetered between being a raving psycho (“Chuckie”) and a threesome-igniting playboy (“The Other Level”). But it was Scarface who was the group’s most conflicted MC, unloading his personal and mental demons on wax. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Stopped’s first single, and the group’s biggest hit, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” Scarface starts off lamenting the thoughts that keep him up at night:
At night I can’t sleep, I toss and turn
Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies bein’ burned
Four walls just starin’ at a n—a
I’m paranoid, sleepin’ with my finger on the trigger.
As “Mind” went gold and eventually became one of the most popular tunes to come out of the gangsta rap genre, the Boys became known as hip-hop artists who didn’t mind forcing people out of their comfort zones. Even Stopped’s cover — Dennis and Jordan wheeling Shaw, sitting up on a gurney with an injured, exposed right eye and talking on an old-school cellphone — was meant to be disturbing. But the Boys were also illustrating a point: Not even a trip to the hospital can prevent them guys from igniting and inciting.
Dennis still remembers that day. He got a call from tour manager Tony “Big Chief” Randle to go to Ben Taub Hospital in Houston. While under the influence of PCP and Everclear grain alcohol, Shaw had apparently egged on his girlfriend to shoot him and, during the tussle, got shot in the eye. (He later told Howard Stern it was a scheme for his mother to collect his life insurance so she could pay the deductible on her medical insurance.) While Dennis doesn’t remember who showed up in what order, he recalls Jordan and Leysath being there, as well as Randle and Rap-A-Lot co-owner Cliff Blodget. “We were all concerned,” said Dennis. “The first thing we’re thinking is, you know, ‘Don’t die.’ Everybody wants to make sure he’s all right. So we get there, we find out that he’s all right. He lost an eye, but he will survive. After I go up to check on Bill, Brad goes to check on him and we come back downstairs [and] congregate in the lobby of the hospital. And, then, there is where Cliff tells us, ‘Hey, we’re finished with the album. What are we gonna do about the album cover?’ ”
And that’s when Dennis decided, even with an incapacitated Shaw, there was no time like the present. “Well, s—, he alive!” Dennis said back then. “We can shoot the album cover right now!” Blodget was concerned Shaw wouldn’t be up for it, so Dennis went back up to Shaw’s hospital room and asked if he wanted to do it. “He was drowsy, but he could hear me,” Dennis said. “I was like, ‘Hey, we’re fixin’ to shoot this album cover. We need to shoot this album cover.’ I said, ‘Are you down?’ He was like, ‘I don’t care.’ ”
After asking a nurse for a gurney, Dennis and Jordan wheeled their injured friend down the hall, and Blodget took the shot. “Somebody asked Bill to take off the bandage, because he had a bandage over his eye,” Dennis said. “And he peeled the bandage off, and that’s how you got that cover.” Was he talking to someone on that phone? “Nah, he was just holding it.”
Over the years, the other members have had regrets about taking this photo. Shaw admitted he wasn’t feeling the situation in Brian Coleman’s 2007 book Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies:
“It still hurts me to look at that cover because that was a personal thing I went through. I still feel the pain from the fact that I’ve got a bullet in my brain. To see that picture only brings it back more so. I think it was pretty wrong of them to do it, even though I went along with the program at first. 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. I could have been blinded for life. And Face was against it the whole time. That’s why he has that look in his eye in those pictures.”
Jordan would later say, in a 2010 Vibe interview, how uncomfortable he was with the whole thing:
“If you look at my face on the We Can’t Be Stopped album cover, you can tell I didn’t want to be a part of that photo shoot. Bill was still in the hospital. He was highly sedated, man. … I strongly believe that what goes on in this house stays in this house. I didn’t really want to put Bill out there like that. How many people have gotten their eye shot out and captured it on an album cover for everyone to remember? It’s hard to wake up in the morning and deal with that one.”
Dennis thinks they’re entitled to their opinion, but he also wants it known that they still did it. “All I know is, at the time, we all was down with it and we agreed to do it,” he said. “Look, man — it’s me and you and we go inside this damn restaurant and we say we’re fixin’ to rob this m—–f—– and we go in there and rob it. Together, we both make a conscious decision. I didn’t drag you in there. I didn’t put a gun to your head. We both got out the car and walked inside and robbed that m—–f—– … and then, later down the line, you start talking about how you regret that you did that. That’s fine. Me, on the other hand, I may feel like it was worth it, you know. So, I got my views and you got your views.”
Regardless of the guilt that may have come afterward, this unsettling sight worked in their favor. We Can’t Be Stopped went platinum in 1992, and the cover has gone on to be one of most iconic of all time. And thanks to New York apparel line Supreme, which collaborated with Rap-A-Lot in releasing a Rap-A-Lot clothing line earlier this year, you can now wear hoodies and T-shirts with the cover on it.
Dennis still looks back fondly on that time, when he and his partners showed that nothing could keep them from being the most hardcore hip-hop group in the South. As for the Geto Boys themselves, they’ve had their highs and lows since Stopped. They’ve released four studio albums — some with the original lineup, some with a member missing, some with a new member. They’ve all released solo albums. Dennis launched a Kickstarter campaign for a reunion album called Habeas Corpus. Unfortunately, the campaign didn’t reach its $100,000 goal, and Jordan later said the album wasn’t going to happen. Dennis, who these days can be heard on his Willie D Live podcast, say three Boys do get together on occasion to do live shows.
“After the experience with Rick Rubin and Geffen Records not wanting to press up our album, not wanting to distribute us, I was like, you know what, with this new album, we should name it We Can’t Be Stopped,” he said. “That was the whole mentality. When Geffen tried to do what they [did], we [couldn’t] be stopped. When we had stores that refused to sell our records, we [couldn’t] be stopped. We had venues that didn’t want to have us perform; we were like, we can’t be stopped. Even before that, when we were coming from impoverished backgrounds, we couldn’t be stopped. And when Bill got shot in the eye, we [couldn’t] be stopped.”