Flip on a Geto Boys album, and you enter a place where life is nasty, brutish and short.
To its many detractors, this hard-core rap group from Houston is itself nasty and brutish. At 4-foot-2, band member Bushwick Bill is undeniably short.
The latest Geto Boys album, "Till Death Do Us Part," is mainly business as usual for the Geto Boys--and, with the album having quickly gone gold, business is good.
"Crooked Officer" continues rap's recent cycle of cop-killer fantasies, with the Geto Boys intoning, in a taunting singsong, "Mr. Officer, crooked officer / I want to put your ass in a coffin, sir."
It's almost like a curdled spoof on "Officer Krupke" from "West Side Story," that heartbreakingly innocent relic from days when street gangs packed nothing heavier than brass knuckles and switchblades.
Elsewhere, the group, which also includes rappers Scarface and Big Mike, offers "Murder Avenue," an explicit fantasy about a psychotic sex-killer. Another, profanely titled song parodies the romantic rap-ballad form while depicting male lust at its crudest and most objectifying. Various other raps are portrayals of inner-city streets where the rule is kill or be killed.
Considered in the most forgiving light possible, the Geto Boys are pathologists who take cuttings from society's diseased body and hold them up to a microscope for our inspection.
Remove the benefit of the doubt--as Geffen Records did in 1990, when it refused to distribute a Geto Boys album it found to "glamour(ize) and possibly endorse violence, racism and misogyny"--and the group is part of that pathology.
The Geto Boys now are distributed by Priority Records, which has become the French Foreign Legion of the music industry in its willingness to take on hard cases (Ice-T included) that the conglomerate labels have banished.
Speaking recently from his home in Houston, Bushwick Bill vigorously defended the Geto Boys as unyielding commentators, as opposed to pandering exploiters, quoting Shakespeare, the Bible and Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" to make his case.
But Bushwick Bill maintains there is another side to the Geto Boys' music that gets overlooked amid the controversy, a side he says will come to the fore when the band makes its Los Angeles area debut on Saturday at "Jam for Peace." The daylong benefit at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre features more than 30 rap and R & B acts playing brief sets to raise money for grass-roots charities and community groups that serve neighborhoods torn by last year's rioting.
Don't expect the Geto Boys to allot any of its 15-minute slot to examinations of crazed mayhem and sleaze.
"This is a benefit for peace, so why would we be talking about violence? Unless it was how to stop violence, or decrease the violence and increase the peace," Bushwick Bill said. To that end, the Geto Boys will perform their latest single, "Six Feet Deep," a slow rap that sorrows over the toll taken by gang shootings. And they may include "Letter From the KKK," a sardonic challenge to young blacks not to play into the hands of racists by tearing their own community apart.
Given the pervasively bleak and horrific vision and the disdainful tone of the Geto Boys' work, they would seem to be one of the last bands in pop music to come out for a do-gooder cause.
If you take their songs as legitimate commentary rather than exploitation, and find them persuasive, it's hard to find any of the hope for positive change that usually motivates benefit concerts.
But Bushwick Bill says he does entertain hope. As rappers, he and his partners may sound nasty and brutish; but as a speechmaker, Bushwick can sound downright uplifting.
"You can't get around it. Life is pain, and pain is everywhere," he said. "You can't candy-coat an unsweetened world. But you can get together and make it a better place to live."
"The world has been broken into millions of pieces, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive," he continued. "If you give up your dreams you die. I still believe there's going to be peace at last--but not until Jesus Christ returns. Until then, Armageddon is in full effect, and we have to work on preserving ourselves instead of destroying ourselves."
"I want everyone coming to the concert to remember this, that God's people perish for lack of knowledge," he added. "The only thing that's held people down, no matter what color you are, is lack of knowledge. If you can't speak up for yourself, you will react just like a dog. A dog reacts on instinct, not on intelligence. That's the problem in the ghetto. It's a depressing environment, and people react with violence instead of peace."
As a constructive measure, he would like to see a proliferation of neighborhood block associations, "something where someone gets all the kids and adults and takes them out on a picnic and shows them another side of life. It has to be something that's taught and nurtured. This benefit doesn't have to be a one-time thing. It should be a monthly, weekly, daily thing."
Bushwick Bill evidently has restored a measure of peace in his own life following a horrific episode two years ago. According to his account in a rap called "Ever So Clear," he got drunk, ordered his girlfriend, Tamika, to shoot him, forcing her hand by attacking her and her baby when she at first wouldn't comply. As they struggled over a gun, it discharged and a bullet took out his right eye.
Now, as he speaks on the phone, one can hear in the background the happy romping of Rich, the 11-month-old son of Bushwick and the woman who shot him. He said he also helps care for her three other small children.
"I'm like a Mr. Mom," he said. "I get up and help out, getting the milk together and changing diapers. I've even learned to mix baby formulas and stuff like that. I know how to give them a bath in the sink. What's cool is that I can sit with them in a Big Wheel or tricycle; we can all go rolling down the street together. They're having more fun than the average kid, (because of) my size."
"Jam for Peace" is being organized by V-103.9 (KACE-FM), an Inglewood radio station whose "urban" format features a mixture of hip-hop and R & B mirrored in the event's roster of acts.
The bill includes such veterans as the Geto Boys, Ice-T, Miki Howard and Troop, and successful newcomers such as H-Town, Portrait, Shai and Duice. Some previously advertised heavy-hitters will not appear, including Arrested Development, L.L. Cool J, Levert, Johnny Gill, Wreckx-N-Effect, Snow and House of Pain.
"Everybody's wondering what can be done after the riots," said John Rockweiler, general manager of the station, which is owned by Willie Davis, former star defensive end of the Green Bay Packers. "There's a lot more rhetoric going around than things happening, and we thought we would do something more action-oriented than rhetoric-oriented."
Because of the logistic constraints of presenting more than 30 acts in nine hours, all of the R & B performers on the bill will sing to taped backing, according to Tony Fields, the station's programming director.
The show is taking place in Orange County, Fields said, because they wanted an outdoor facility. Organizers also considered L.A. venues, including the Hollywood Bowl and the Coliseum, but Irvine Meadows came through with the best deal.
The acts are donating their performances, but the benefit has some hefty overhead costs, including hotel accommodations and airline tickets for out-of-town artists, as well as the cost of renting Irvine Meadows and paying ushers and security. Whatever is left will go to 19 community groups chosen as beneficiaries by Isidra-Lynn Person, the station's public affairs director.
"Whatever we raise we will evenly distribute," Person said. "We would love to give them at least $2,000 each. Some of these groups don't have fax machines or voice mail. Little things like that can make you be more effective."