While gangsta rap was kicking around the hip-hop underground since at least the mid-’80s heyday of Schoolly D, 1991 was arguably the year that the subgenre truly broke. Twenty years ago today, gangsta pioneers the Geto Boys dropped their most commercially successful effort, We Can’t Be Stopped. The album was a career touchstone for the group, and represents something of a symbolic hip-hop crossroads with the only gangsta rap group of greater influence, N.W.A., who released their own sophomore effort, Efil4zaggin, just a month prior.
As the flagship act on Houston’s Rap-A-Lot records, the Geto Boys broke new ground for both Southern rap independence and deviant gangsta rap on the whole. 1989′s Grip It! On That Other Level saw the debut of the group’s core of Willie D, Scarface and Bushwick Bill. (It was preceded by an earlier effort with an entirely different lineup, disposition and spelling.) With its proud embrace of psychopathic disorders and over-the-top tales of ass kicking, murder and dope dealing, the album was a bold step forward for pure, unapologetic nihilism in hip-hop. On the strength of that record, the Geto Boys were picked up by recently defected Def Jam head Rick Rubin, and it seemed like their road to stardom. They rerecorded much of the album for a S/T reissue, which was then unceremoniously rejected by his distributor, Geffen, on account of its vulgar content. Rubin bounced the project to Giant Record,s but the scandal was enough to cool any crossover potential the project may have had. We Can’t Be Stopped found them back at square one, underground masters churning out ghetto dope independently for Rap-A-Lot. There, they created their shining mainstream moment.
One of the great travesties of hip-hop is how the Geto Boys are often reduced to a one-hit wonder talking point on cash-in television countdowns and rock-mag listicles. Yes, “My Minds Playing Tricks on Me” is their only significantly charting single, but Billboard is a poor barometer of hip-hop influence in the early ’90s. Calling them one hit wonders is akin to saying the same of Black Sabbath. They were niche, genre redefining and album-oriented artists. And yet “Minds Playing Tricks” is an undeniably singular record, a psychological thriller set to an oddly warm Issac Hayes loop and anchored by Scarface’s heart-wrenching four cornered room soul, bearing Bill’s proto-Shyamalan twist ending. It doesn’t sound like an obvious hit, necessarily — it doesn’t even have a formal hook — but it’s an empirically perfect rap song. Its success was one of those all too rare instances in popular music where great artistry triumphed for the sake greatness alone.
But it was breadth, not perfection, that fueled the rest of the album. Where 1989′s Grip It was primarily a shock-and-awe grab, We Can’t Be Stopped found the trio expanding their approach, dipping their toes in both deeper personal and sociopolitical waters. It was not without its moments of gleeful ignorance (Bushwick’s horror film killing spree tale “Chuckie” stands out immediately), but it also had more thoughtful moments. “Ain’t With Being Broke” was a systemic consideration of poverty, “Gotta Let Them Hang” turned their trigger happiness on police and “Trophy” critiqued the Grammys’ neglect of their genre.
It’s unfortunate, though, that the group’s greatest commercial success and visibility came at a time of minor growing pains. Sonically, it’s a more polished album than its predecessor (the Rap-A-Lot production team had clearly picked up a few pointers from Rubin), but there’s almost a loss of charm and an added datedness. And while there’s a certain nobility to their consciousness, it doesn’t always hit the mark; “Fuck a War” is a clunky fusion of rebel rap shit with an actual message. But it was an important transitional record for the group – the moment that they realized their capability to make more nuanced and cerebral records of the “Minds Playing Tricks” variety. In fact, it may have been that record’s success that inspired them to continue to move into more grounded, streetwise material.
But while the Geto Boys were maturing, N.W.A. was doing the opposite. The long-awaited follow up to Straight Outta Compton, Efil4zaggin marked a dark new direction for the group. Sociopolitical firebrand and principle songwriter Ice Cube had exited on less than amicable terms and, left to their own devices, the remaining members honed in unapologetically on the more vulgar and shocking aspects of the first album. This was a tipping point for gangsta rap. Before Efil, there were plenty of examples of vulgar gangsta rap, but in the album format, those tracks were balanced in some way with pandering songs for the women or songs of social uplift, or at least a sort of ghetto panorama that strived for positive leaning realism. Efil4zaggin is a record that’s purely destructive, seeped in gleeful misogyny and an almost child-like obsession with profanity. If there was any precedent, it was the Geto Boys, but their approach was more fantastical. They were very clear that their deviant actions were that of the lunatic madmen. N.W.A. portrayed a dystopia that was more grounded in reality, one magnified by their existing reputation as truth saying hood griots. That, and how musically close to perfect it, too, came. Fueled by Eazy’s increasingly unhinged brashness and Dre’s trunk crushing funk, it truly was and remains the first great ignorant rap album.
Efil4zaggin produced no hits. There was very little on the album that could even be played on radio. Its two hits – ”Appetite for Destruction” and the reggae-tinged “Always Into Somethin” — barely scraped the low ends of the R&B charts. (Though the Compton singles, for all their acclaim, were equally unsuccessful by the Billboard barometer.) Where Compton was well loved in rock circles, the follow up was mostly loathed in its time. Rolling Stone gave it two stars. Newsweek called it “a mediocre work, a retreat from cinematic storytelling into simple punk bluster.” Its critical legacy has warmed in the decades since, but when the N.W.A. retrospectives are made, its always Compton cuts like “Fuck the Police” or “Express Yourself” that fill the soundbites, not “She Swallowed It” or “One Less Bitch.”
But, as is often the case, radio charts and mainstream critics are faulty measuring sticks. Because while Compton was a Big Bang moment for gangsta rap, Efil might just have been just as influential. It sold like hot cakes, debuting at No.2 on the album charts and knocking Paula Abdul out of the top slot in its second week. Undoubtedly, it was the choice album that teens hid from their parents in 1991. And its impact on underground rap as a whole is immeasurable, particularly in smaller markets. In the wake of Efil4zaggin, it seemed like every local rap group immediately went from 2 Black 2 Strong to 2 Many Bitchez. If, as many dime store scholars have posited, N.W.A. did create gangsta rap as a vehicle for social change with Straight Outta Compton then they were also responsible for steering it off that road with Efil. Which, again, is only a problem if you’re the type of concerned and moralizing listener unable to find some joy in extreme and nihilistic vulgarity. The music itself was undeniably banging.
This is likely the main reason why Efil is left out of the discussion — it twists the narrative. To hear popular myth tell it, hip-hop changed into the hip-hop that everyone always complains about when Dre left N.W.A. to produce his second Big Bang record, 1992′s The Chronic. That project was easily pegged as the archetypical sell-out record. It was a sonic landmark and produced future anthems that would confuse the racial politics of frat parties for decades to come. Efil4zaggin was the exact opposite of a sellout record. It was pure, unapologetic gangsta rap and a completely underground effort.
Future Geto Boys’ efforts – 1993′s Till Death Do Us Part and 1996′s The Resurrection – are more cohesive and aged better in many ways, but likely wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for We Can’t Be Stopped. They would go on to become hip-hop legends, with an above ground legacy that was always somewhat muted. Perhaps this is the price the Boys’ paid in the pursuit of maturity.