Happy 25th Anniversary to the Geto Boys’ fourth studio album Till Death Do Us Part, originally released March 19, 1993.
When most people think of the Geto Boys, they think of the guys who recorded “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” They think of the Houston, Texas-based gangsta rap crew with Brad “Scarface” Jordan, Richard “Bushwick Bill” Shaw and William “Willie D” Dennis. But what many people don’t know is that this lineup was actually not the first, but rather the third configuration of the group.
Before Rap-A-Lot Records label head James “Lil’ J” Smith put together the configuration that recorded the albums Grip It! On That Other Level (1989) and We Can’t Be Stopped (1991), he masterminded two other versions of the Geto Boys. The first, featuring Sir Rap-A-Lot, Jukebox, Raheem, and DJ Ready Red, released a few singles. The second version, featuring Jukebox, Prince Johnny C, Ready Red, and dancer Lil’ Billy (aka Bushwick Bill), recorded their debut album Making Trouble in 1988.
So when Willie D, whose commanding vocal presence was a fixture across the group’s biggest hits, left in 1992, it wasn’t the first upheaval. After Willie D re-dedicated himself to his solo career, Lil’ J went into his label’s talent roster to keep the Geto Boys a three emcee operation.
Lil’ J brought Michael “Big Mike” Barnett into the fold in late 1992. Big Mike had made noise as one half of The Convicts, another Rap-A-Lot group, who dropped their well-received self-titled album in 1991. Big Mike fit in well for the group’s fourth album, Till Death Do Us Part, which Rap-A-Lot released 25 years ago. It’s an oft-overlooked transitional album for the Geto Boys that demonstrates a lot of their growth.
The Geto Boys gained traction in the late ’80s for their extreme content, their albums featuring mind-boggling amounts of cursing, sex, and violence. But starting with We Can’t Be Stopped, they really began to delve into the psychological impact that street violence had on their lives. That trend continues here. Yes, the body count on Till Death remains high, and it is often described in lurid detail. But the group also continues to explore how the omnipresence of death shapes their lives.
Till Death also gives the group members a lot of time to shine as individual emcees. Geto Boys albums have always featured solo material, but starting with We Can’t Be Stopped, more emphasis was being placed on members of the crew standing as individual entities. With a little more than half of its songs made up of solo tracks, Till Death follows suit. The production is handled by in-house producers N.O. Joe and Bido, who use a mix of sampled material and live instrumentation together.
When it comes to calling out injustice, this version of the Geto Boys are just as righteously angry as previous incarnations. “Crooked Officer,” the album’s first single, is an extremely violent anti-police corruption screed. The song was originally intended for Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. It was written by The Convicts, back when Suge Knight was looking to sign the group. Dr. Dre produced the song, and thought about putting it on his seminal solo album, but relented (possibly due to push back from Interscope). Big Mike then took the concept and lyrics back to Rap-A-Lot, where it was again repurposed for the Geto Boys. The guitar and organ heavy track provides the backdrop for Scarface to proclaim, “I'm letting freedom ring / From the hole in my Glock, for fucking off Rodney King / It ain’t nothing you can ask us / And since justice is blind, I’mma buy the bitch some glasses.”
The new configuration of the Geto Boys shows the most chemistry together on “Murder After Midnight.” It’s a tale of gangsta-fied revenge that describes all three emcees scouring the streets of Houston, searching for the crew crazy enough to take shots at Big Mike, over a sample of Curtis Mayfield’s version of “Hard Times.” It all leads to Bushwick Bill’s expectedly violent final verse, as they locate their enemies and lay waste to the entire block.
The album’s second single “Six Feet Deep” is classic introspective Geto Boys. The Commodores’ breakup ballad “Easy” is transformed into something even more melancholy, as all three members describe the scenes at funerals for young Black men dead from street violence. They document the minutiae of the scene, reflect on the short and brutal lives that the deceased lived, and express despair at the fragility of life. Given the amount of wanton violence executed on this album, the song is an effective counterpoint that demonstrates the finality of death.
Scarface gets most of the real estate on the album when it comes to solo tracks, recording four endeavors. It makes sense, as he had already released his 1991 solo debut Mr. Scarface Is Back, and his showcase track on previous Geto Boys albums are standouts in the group’s catalogue. “It Ain’t Shit” and “Raise Up” are two of the best songs on the album. The former has Scarface describing life on the types of blocks in the neighborhoods he grew up in over a blues funk guitar lick. “Raise Up” is the type of hard-charging track that ’Face recorded on his first solo album, describing his takeover by force of illicit activities throughout the streets of Houston. Scarface then cuts loose a bit on “Cereal Killer,” creating a gritty street tale populated with characters used to advertise popular cereal brands.
The album gets serious again with “Street Life,” which had been previously released on the soundtrack to the 1992 film South Central. The song is a trademark contemplative Scarface mood-piece, which would become part of his regular repertoire throughout his solo career. Over a mournful flute track, Mr. Jordan does an excellent job describing the environment and societal factors that would drive a young Black man to join a street gang and become consumed by violence and Black-on-Black crime.
Big Mike makes his presence felt on his showcase tracks. Though he doesn’t have quite the commanding vocal presence of Willie D, he’s definitely an adept lyricist, delivering his rhymes with a unique, twangy, Southern drawl. The first solo exhibition, “No Nuts, No Glory,” features Mike describing his domination of the streets over a string-heavy track that sounds lifted from a Blaxploitation flick.
Mike’s other showcase, “Straight Gangstaism,” was the album’s third single and one of the strongest tracks on the album. Over a sample of Parliament’s “You’re a Fish and I’m a Water Sign” and some added keys and soulful vocals, Mike describes spending his formative years learning how to carry himself as a gangster from the O.G.s in his neighborhood, marveling at the power and respect that they carried in his ’hood. His former partner in The Convicts, Big 3-2 contributes his unique style to the final verse. The video version also featured an excellent verse from Scarface, and I’ve spent way too much time trying to track down a physical or digital copy of the song.
The Geto Boys have always been pioneers in the field of “horrorcore” hip-hop, but even with that understanding, Bushwick Bill’s solo track, “Murder Avenue,” is more gruesome than most. Bill assumes the role of a serial killer and delivers two ultra-graphic verses filled with rape, torture, and cannibalism. Possibly with the fact in mind that his previous on-record dalliances in necrophilia led to the group losing its distribution deal, Bill issues a disclaimer at the end of the song. He states the track was inspired by the Jeffrey Dahmer murders and that he’s not trying to glorify the crimes, but the lyrics are still hard to stomach. However, the song is “saved” by one of the best soundscapes featured on the album, driven by grooving guitar licks and keys.
The album ends with “Bring It On,” which isn’t as much a Geto Boys track as it a showcase for the Rap-A-Lot roster circa 1993. A mega-long posse cut clocking in at a little over eight minutes, it features lesser known artists like 2 Low (aka Lil’ J’s son), Oakland’s Seagram, Too Much Trouble, 5th Ward Boyz, the deranged Gangsta N-I-P, and The Odd Squad (sporting a young Devin the Dude). Scarface closes the track, but the song is mostly about presenting the label’s forthcoming releases.
Till Death Do Us Part was the only album that this version of the Geto Boys recorded together. Big Mike released his first solo album Something Serious in 1994 and really found his groove as an artist. Willie D rejoined the group soon after, and they released their “comeback” album The Resurrection in 1996. Scarface continued to flourish on his own, and has become known as one of the most accomplished rappers to ever grace the mic.
While it might not be the best remembered of the Geto Boys’ albums, Till Death was a crucial one in terms of the individual members developing as artists and refining their lyrical skills. It also shaped the direction of the group and the entire Rap-A-Lot label musically. The members of the group might still have professed some serious blood-lust on record, but they were more thoughtful about it than they had ever been before.