Happy 30th Anniversary to Geto Boys’ second studio album Grip It! On That Other Level, originally released March 12, 1989.
The Geto Boys are renowned for three things: being innovators of Southern gangster rap, pioneering the horrorcore sub-genre, and for introducing the world to the talents of Brad “Scarface” Jordan. Grip It! On That Other Level, though not their best album, is where these elements first began to take shape.
The group was created by the fiercely independent, genius-level entrepreneur J. Prince who signed them to his Houston-based label, Rap-A-Lot Records. Hip-hop groups usually form organically, but Prince adopted a business model more akin to a manufactured pop group by molding and tweaking the Geto Boys formula until it was successful.
Between the release of their 1988 debut Making Trouble and Grip It! On That Other Level a year later, the group had gone through personnel changes including the removal of some original members and the addition of Scarface (going by the name Akshen at this point) and William “Willie D” Dennis. Even the name changed, as the original spelling of “Ghetto Boys” was switched to the more stylized “Geto Boys” (although early versions of Grip It! On That Other Level still have the original moniker on the artwork).
There were more lineup changes in the years after Grip It! On That Other Level, but it’s this album that first featured what is considered to be the classic Geto Boys line-up of Scarface, Willie D and Richard “Bushwick Bill” Shaw. Also credited as a member on the album, DJ Ready Red provides most of the production.
Rap music was mired in controversy in the late ‘80s. The violent lyrics of Ice-T, N.W.A and others and the sexual explicitness of 2 Live Crew had an older generation of white Conservatives calling for this “evil music” to be banned. While they were busy doing that, their children were upstairs feverishly listening to the music on cassette tapes, and loving it.
To say the Geto Boys upped the ante on violence and misogyny with Grip It! On That Other Level is an understatement. Songs like the rape-murder fantasy of “Mind of a Lunatic” are lurid and warped to a degree that makes Eazy-E seem relatively tame. Most of the gruesomeness is thanks to Bushwick Bill who comes across as way too realistic. Today the whole thing sounds almost cartoonish and utterly pointless, but this was 1989 and the end of a decade that had seen the devastation and chaos of the crack epidemic and Reaganomics. It isn’t therefore too hard to fathom why those from a ravaged community wanted an outlet for their aggression, and why others would want to hear it. This was, after all, the decade of the slasher flick.
While Bushwick Bill was crossing all types of decency lines, Scarface and Willie D used Grip It! On That Other Level to establish Geto Boys as Houston’s premier gangster rap group. The finest gangster rap always has a message and a political undercurrent, and isn’t just violent for the sake of it. It is a formula developed by Ice-T, mastered by Ice Cube and enhanced by the Geto Boys.
The obvious example is “Do It Like a G.O.” The record is hard and violent, but also has all three group members lamenting everything from the vicious circle of drug dealing and prison that black men can get caught in, the education system, slavery, modern-day racism, disconnected politicians and more. The song is also notable for its criticism of black radio and ruffled the feathers of rappers from New York City by calling out the hip-hop industry for being so NYC-centric.
Willie D and Bushwick Bill step aside for Scarface to shine on “Scarface.” The song is a showcase for Scarface’s excellent storytelling and deep introspection, and a clear glimpse of what he was to become as a lyricist. “Scarface” is also a quintessential gangster rap classic, complete with sampled snippets of MC Ren and Ice Cube, directly referencing the influence of N.W.A on the Geto Boys’ music. Rap songs sampling the move Scarface would soon be done to death in the ‘90s and beyond, but here the concept was new and relatively effective. Having said that, the chopping up of one of Tony Montana’s most famous lines to make it just about his testicles probably sounded as corny then as it does now.
A year after the release of Grip It! On That Other Level, Rick Rubin remixed most of the tracks and repackaged them as a new album simply named The Geto Boys. The new collection also featured some older tracks and new ones, but doesn’t necessarily improve on the original versions. Geto Boys released their best album, We Can’t Be Stopped, in 1991. Scarface’s debut album Mr. Scarface is Back came out that same year, kicking off the start of his acclaimed solo career.