The Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill dead at age 52

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LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 05:  Rapper Bushwick Bill of The Geto Boys performs onstage during Beach Goth Festival at Los Angeles State Historic Park on August 5, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 05: Rapper Bushwick Bill of The Geto Boys performs onstage during Beach Goth Festival at Los Angeles State Historic Park on August 5, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

After several conflicting reports earlier Sunday — initially disseminated by TMZ — regarding the health of the Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill, it has now been confirmed that the pioneering rapper has died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 52.

“Bushwick Bill passed away peacefully this evening at 9:35 P.M. He was surrounded by his immediate family,” the rapper’s publicist, Dawn P., told Rolling Stone on Sunday night. “There were incorrect previous reports that he had passed away this morning. We are looking into doing a public memorial at a later date. His family appreciates all of the prayers and support and are asking for privacy at this time.”

Bushwick Bill was born Richard Stephen Shaw on Dec. 8, 1966, in Kingston, Jamaica. Born with dwarfism, as an adult he stood at 3 foot 8 inches tall. At age 19, he joined Houston’s Geto Boys, whose core lineup eventually included Scarface and Willie D., originally as a dancer known as “Little Billy.” That core lineup released Grip It! On That Other Level (featuring one of Bill’s signature songs, “Size Ain’t S***”) in 1989. The album caught the ear of super-producer Rick Rubin, who took 10 of its tracks plus one from the group’s 1988 debut, Making Trouble, and remixed them with his protégé Brendan O'Brien for The Geto Boys. That record was released in 1990 on Rubin’s major label, Def American Recordings.

Even in a burgeoning era of gansgta rap, during which many hip-hop groups generated controversy, the Geto Boys’ “horrorcore” style was considered especially shocking. Def American’s distributor, Geffen Records, wanted no part in The Geto Boys’ release and subsequently terminated its manufacturing/distributing deal with Rubin’s label. Rubin arranged alternative distribution with Warner Bros., and the original Def American pressing of The Geto Boys became the only WEA-distributed album labeled with this specific warning: “Def American Recordings is opposed to censorship. Our manufacturer and distributor, however, do not condone or endorse the content of this recording, which they find violent, sexist, racist, and indecent.”

The uproar surrounding The Geto Boys (whose tracks like "Mind of a Lunatic" and "Assassins” dealt with rape, serial killing, and even necrophilia) generated publicity and made the group a cause célèbre like 2 Live Crew and Ice-T’s Body Count, although the Geto Boys never received the mainstream attention of some of their peers. Still, the group’s follow-up album in 1991, We Can't Be Stopped, went platinum; its single "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," a grim inner-city reflection on trauma and PTSD, went top 10 on the R&B chart, to No. 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, and to No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, despite receiving virtually no radio airplay. "Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is now considered one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.

We Can't Be Stopped’s sales were also likely boosted by a high-profile incident that same year, when Bill shot himself in his right eye during an argument with his girlfriend while under the influence of grain alcohol and PCP. The album’s controversial cover depicted Scarface and Willie D. wheeling Bill into the ER with his damaged eye socket on full, gory display.

The classic Geto Boys lineup began to splinter in 1993. After a brief reunion in 1996 for the critically acclaimed album The Resurrection, Bill left to pursue a full-time solo career (he released six albums between 1992 and 2010), though there would be other, sporadic reunions over the years. Following his stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in February 2019 (which was announced in May), Bushwick was supposed to reunite with Scarface and Willie D. for a final tour called “The Beginning of a Long Goodbye, The Final Farewell,” with portion of the proceeds going to pancreatic cancer awareness. "Because of the seriousness of Bill’s prognosis, the Geto Boys have decided to do just a handful of shows at the end of this month in order for fans to be able to see the group together one last time,” read a statement on the group’s website.

However, that four-date tour was canceled after Bill pulled out, reportedly because he felt promoters were exploiting his illness. He instead planned to embark on his own 20-date “Ph*** Cancer” solo tour starting this past Saturday, June 8, in Dallas, but he was hospitalized that evening and did not perform.

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