On June 19th, 1991, Bushwick Bill was pronounced dead. He shot himself in the eye that day, after suicidal ideations and a prolonged argument with his girlfriend. The rapper, born Richard Stephen Shaw, was only 24 at the time, but he had already lived multiple lives.
Less than three hours after his “death,” he awoke in the morgue. According to Bill, he had a toe tag and was being prepared for an autopsy. In his own words, he hopped up, pulled out a catheter, urinated in a cup, and sent the patrolling officer and hospital tech running.
It wasn’t long before J. Prince, founder of the Rap-A-Lot label Bill was signed to as a member of the Geto Boys, got word of what had happened. Ever the cunning businessman, Prince ordered Bill’s groupmates Scarface and Willie D to go to the hospital and take what would become one of the most iconic album cover photos ever for We Can’t Be Stopped. With Willie D standing to his right and Scarface to his left, Bill, swollen from the trauma of a gunshot wound to the face, holds an era-appropriate cell phone up to his ear, the gauze that was supposed to be covering his injured eye pulled down.
This photo became the most well-known representation of Bushwick Bill. It became so popular that it threatened to overshadow the art of the man at its center and, years later, the group would express regret at ever taking it. But Bill’s body of work, and indefatigably charming character, made sure that he would never only be remembered as the dwarf with the missing eye.
Bushwick Bill began his career as a dancer after moving to Brooklyn from his homeland of Jamaica. He was a “breakdancing genius,” according to a 2014 conversation with the Canadian interviewer Nardwuar, and also dabbled in graffiti work and DJing. It wasn’t until he moved to the South — Houston, specifically — that he tried his hand at rapping. As Bill told it, while he was a dancer for the Rap-A-Lot group the Ghetto Boys, producer John Bido heard him reciting Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.” Bido informed J. Prince of Bill’s abilities, who then made Bill an official MC in the group, and one-third of the group’s most iconic lineup — alongside Houstonians Willie D and Scarface: The Geto Boys.
Like many fans, my introduction to Bushwick Bill was his closing verse on the Geto Boys’ most popular song, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” It was released in 1991, two years after I was born. My late mother suffered from depression and other undiagnosed mental health issues; it became her favorite song of all time. I heard it on long car rides out in the Texas country with my mom, brother and sister. My mom wouldn’t recite Scarface or Willie D’s complete verses, instead mimicking the bass line of the song, borrowed from Isaac Hayes’ “Hung Up on My Baby.”
When it came time for Bushwick Bill’s verse, though, she came alive. The bars, which tell the story of a hallucinated jumping of a fearsome figure on Halloween night, were penned by Scarface, but Bill’s delivery of the lines turned them into his own. His exaggerated enunciations made his verse memorable and borderline comical: “He was going down, we figured / But this wasn’t no ordinary nigga / He stood about 6 or 7 feet / Now that’s the nigga I be seeing in my sleep / So we triple teamed on him / Drrrrrroppin’ them motherfucking B’s on him.” Bill, who stood at approximately 3’8”, was playing the comic foil, as he often would, and with that role imbued the song with something unforgettable.
“Mind Playing Tricks on Me” was a family anchor, but it became something more for me once I was diagnosed as bipolar 1 in 2016. Upon being discharged from a Bronx hospital, I came home to Texas. My mother had long since passed, so home meant my sister’s apartment. I wasn’t quite myself, and my sister was determined to get me back on track. The easiest way to do that was by playing music that we loved — including “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” As dedicated millennials, we hopped right on Snapchat to recite lines of Bushwick Bill’s verse: “Then I felt just like a fiend / It wasn’t even close to Halloween,” we recalled, with accompanying hand gestures. When I watch the video back now, I see genuine smiles on both of our faces, despite the gravity of the circumstances that brought me home.
Home is where I am now, recovering from another manic episode and a paranoid schizophrenic diagnosis. Home is where I finally and fully appreciate the verses of Scarface and Willie D, but especially Bushwick Bill, whose presence on the track lit my mother’s eyes up with joy, and later brought life back into my own.
“Mind Playing Tricks on Me” went Gold, and reached No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on Hot Rap Songs. It was a song that put Texas rap on the map and inspired other acts coming out of the state, like UGK, who heard the song frequently on the radio and dedicated themselves to matching its success.
Bill carried the theatrics of his “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” delivery into his solo work. His most well-known song, 1992’s “Ever So Clear” from Little Big Man, tells the story behind the shooting that ultimately led to the loss of his right eye. Much like the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” “Ever So Clear” laid bare disturbing details that could easily become the stuff of nightmares. He also used the song to express his appreciation, however delayed, for his life: “I’m having suicidal thoughts, hoping that I don’t make it,” Bill raps. “But I’mma 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.”
At the very end of the “Ever So Clear” music video, Bill scoops his prosthetic eyeball out and plops it into a liquid-filled glass. It was a morbid touch, but one that typified his commitment to staying larger than life. Bill — and the Geto Boys — never shied away from death, and the grisly details that accompany it.
In the self-explanatory “Skitso,” one of Bill’s solo songs, he unfurled the mental battles he faced further, this time through the lens of a murderous alternate version of himself. Alongside Houston rapper Ganksta N-I-P, Bill is a founding father to horrorcore, a subgenre of hip-hop that uses fear and disgust as linguistic weapons. His ability to singularly weave tales of dark mischief on songs like the skin-prickling “Chuckie” was what set him apart, musically, from the other Geto Boys. His mind simply locked into a different plane of creative nihilism.
By 1993, Bushwick Bill’s comedic delivery and outsized character would lead him to television, in an appearance on the first season of the popular sitcom Martin. (Bill plays a man who had crossed lovers with a main character, Tommy.) The episode hasn’t aged great; it focuses on dwarves in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable if aired today, but Bill’s commitment to the role — a loud-talking, fist-throwing tornado of mayhem who flips a switch to a self-aware hugger by the episode’s end — makes the misadventure worthwhile.
In every body of work he created, Bushwick Bill leaned into the role he had decided to play. It was a high-wire act of refusing to shy away from public perception, and it was his self-acceptance that made him a musical presence that will tower over Texas hip-hop and rap itself, a larger-than-life legacy that matches the man.
Over the past decade, Bill began a new chapter of his career as a gospel hip-hop artist. It was an about-face from his decidedly disturbing artistic beginnings, a change he charged headfirst towards. In 2009, he released My Testimony of Redemption, featuring the songs “Goin’ to the River,” “God Heals the Pain,” and “No More Child’s Play.” The latter song, with a shredding guitar and screamo background vocals underscoring his scripture-based lyrics, showed Bill as the person he aspired to be late in his career: a leader of light who didn’t have to throw away the extreme elements that made him who he was. “No fear of death because I’m made righteous in His sight,” he raps with an emphatic shout, his final words on the last verse of the song. Listening to it, the commitment to living what he portrayed — a godly life — is clear. Bushwick Bill couldn’t half-step if he tried.