Remembering Bushwick Bill, rap’s pioneering Little Big Man

The Houston rap legend died at the age of 52 this past Sunday but his impact on the genre will live on for ages.

June 11, 2019
Remembering Bushwick Bill, rap’s pioneering Little Big Man Photo: Matthew Simmons/Getty Images  

It is relatively impossible to begin any tale about Bushwick Bill without starting with the most obvious one: the night he cheated death.

The year was 1991 and the ingredients for erratic behavior were all there: PCP, Everclear, anger due to an argument with a girlfriend. The Houston rapper born Richard Shaw dared the woman to kill him in order to collect insurance money for his mom. A fight ensued and she wound up firing, shooting him in the eye. He was pronounced dead at a Houston area hospital, but three hours later, he returned, alive and alert in the morgue.

According to Bill in a TV One interview for the program Unsung, he had a toe tag and was being prepared for an autopsy. In his words, he was the only living person with both a birth certificate and a death certificate. That scene would carry into the myth-making that would follow him and his career for the next 28 years.

The most iconic Houston rap photo did not take place at the ranch of James Prince. Of all places, it happened at a hospital with Scarface and Willie D, the two other members of the Geto Boys, wheeling Bushwick Bill out of the hospital on a gurney. The gauze pad that was supposed to hide his missing eye was hanging on his cheek. It became the album cover for We Can’t Be Stopped, a fitting metaphor for not only the group who fought off label issues to succeed but for its primary star, a man who was born with dwarfism and wound up becoming one of the more famous hip-hop faces in America.

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For Bill, who died Sunday at the age of 52 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, that photo was his introduction to mainstream America. The subsequent “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” video made Halloween feel terrifying, an opening for hip-hop into the varying degrees of mental health and paranoia. That video was America’s first inkling to rap beyond the boom bap and structure of New York or the hyper-realism of Los Angeles rap that Hollywood would later commodify into film and television projects. The Geto Boys were brash, unfiltered and unapologetic takes on life in the Third and Fifth Wards of Houston,with Bill, in particular, leaning on dark comedy and horror to satisfy listeners and grab attention. With four warped verses around a guitar loop of Isaac Hayes’ “Hung Up On My Baby,” the song itself felt like a giant detour from what the rest of the world was going through. If LL Cool J was in up in his room and heard his conscious call, Scarface prayed that his mind wasn’t thinking of the world trying to kill him at every step.

“We all share the planet, the rainbows share the sky, why can’t we all share the same dream? And rap about what we see?” Bill told Fab 5 Freddy for a Yo! MTV Raps segment in 1991. “Whether it be East Coast, West Coast, or no coast? Tell me what it’s like in No Coast, I wanna hear!”

In breaking down “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” he added, “Paranoid, schizophrenic, manic depression point of view cause when you live in 5th Ward when you live in any ghetto, you get caught up in the mental aspects of where you're living. And these are three psychological profiles, like me thinking it’s Halloween and someone’s there when no one’s there.”

“It’s just like when you believe there’s food on your table and there’s nothing there.”

Bushwick Bill’s first steps in hip-hop weren’t that of an outsized personality, the self-proclaimed Little Big Man. Instead, he was a dancer and wound up moving to Fifth Ward, Houston in the 1980s from New York. He became a member of the then Ghetto Boys in 1984 when Rap-A-Lot was still a fledgling label created by J. Prince to make his brother, Sir-Rap-A-Lot, the label’s first star. It wouldn’t be until 1988 when Prince saw the vision for the perfect Geto Boys lineup to shop to America, pairing Bill with a former DJ turned enigma named Akshen and a solo rapper who doubled as a Golden Gloves champion inside the boxing ring.

Face, Willie D, Bill, and DJ Ready Red are the more iconic version of the Geto Boys and “Size Ain’t Shit” from the mainstream debut, 1988’s Grip It! On That Other Level was Bill’s first stand out moment. “And if you kick, I'mma pick up a stick / And beat your ass to the size of your dick / And that's small! And you think you're mackin / While you lackin, Bushwick is packin.” Short or not, the usually introverted Bill could raise a tough guy attitude that rivaled his two Geto Boy brothers. The unexpected tenor in his voice spoke to what it was like to regularly looked at and viewed as a joke. He wasn’t a hypeman, he was a ready-made, confident and prominent figure that couldn’t be replicated or copied.

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We Can’t Be Stopped translated Houston streets and areas as destination places to either investigate or avoid. Even Fab 5 Freddy remarked as such when camera crews visited Fifth Ward months after “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” became a staple on television. The lasting piece of Bill’s legacy is that he helped knock down a door that Houston felt was locked. Listening to local rap superstars in MacGregor Park was one thing. Hearing those same stars run on MTV, BET and beyond meant that it was possible for the rest of the city to emerge as well.

Bill’s 1992 single, “Ever So Clear,” from his debut album Little Big Man recanted the night he almost lost his life as a testimony to mental health issues, drug use, horrorcore, and salvation. “I’m having suicidal thoughts, hoping that I don’t make it / But I’ma make it, ‘cause something’s steady urging me / Five hours passed, I made it through surgery / And the doctor said I wouldn’t make it through the night / But God told me, “Everything is gonna be alright” / And I’m glad that I’m here, G / But it’s fucked up I had to lose an eye to see shit clearly.” For some, it made them quit drinking. Bill was honest about his pain and trauma. When it came time for his sophomore album, 1995’s Phantom of the Rapera, he plainly said on the intro, “Rap is opera to people in the ghetto.”

Bill was always an acerbic critic of the world if need be, of how community ills plagued decision making. When he first revealed his cancer diagnosis to TMZ earlier this year, he sounded calm about it. “It’s not like I’m afraid of dying because if anyone knows anything about me from ‘Ever So Clear,’ I died and came back already in June 1991,” he said. He had used the following near three decades after that fateful night to transform himself into a father of four, a man of God who could quote scripture and when time called for it, the guy who laughed that an DEA agent trying to get Rap-A-Lot Records shut down was sentenced to menial work thanks to Janet Reno, Maxine Waters, and J. Prince. “Schumacher got a desk job, fuck you hoe!” he gleefully raps on 2005’s “Yes Yes Y’all.”

For many, the 3’8” Bill was a bridge, a world connector in ways not truly seen in southern hip-hop until the emergence of more Texas folk heroes like Pimp C. He was personable when you met him, a funny man when called upon, and gracious. It’s how he could justify appearing on 1992’s biggest album The Chronic and then years later appear as a cult icon thanks to Mike Judge soundtracking the film Office Space with “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta.” It’s also how he could play the comedic foil of Tommy in an episode of Martin. In many ways, that trajectory is how we love to see elder statesmen transition after establishing genres and waves. Without Bill being a zany, real-life Chucky doll to some, you don’t get wild characters like Eminem as he was sharpening Slim Shady to take on a new generation of parents and protestors.

In his final months, Bill was astute and unobstructed in discussing the life he had lived to that point. He had released a gospel album years prior and had become a born-again Christian a decade before that. As a rapper, he never let a bar hang loosely but as a man, he made sure every word stuck. In later interviews he was cautious to resign himself to constantly speak of death, canceling a supposed final reunion tour with Scarface and Willie D because he hated the tour name: “The Beginning of a Long Goodbye: The Final Farewell”. Ultimately, beyond an iconic video, Bill stood as tall as a giant, as a man and presence over Houston rap. He became part of Houston’s ethos, touching local legends along the way. If MC Wickett Cricket was the city’s most noted master of ceremonies, J. Prince its longest-tenured figurehead, and Scarface its first solo star, then Bill was the city’s first true personality to explode beyond city limits.

There is no Houston rap history without Richard Shaw. And damn it feels good to acknowledge that.

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Remembering Bushwick Bill, rap’s pioneering Little Big Man