Bushwick Bill, who helped inject Southern hip-hop storytelling with vivid psychological horror and lightly morbid comedy and became one of the genre’s most recognizable characters in the process, died Sunday at a Colorado hospital. He was 52.
A representative for the rapper confirmed the death to the Associated Press. Last month, Bushwick Bill announced that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Bushwick Bill — who was born with dwarfism and stood, by one account, approximately 3 feet, 8 inches tall — was a member of Geto Boys, the Houston trio whose work in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s on the seminal Rap-A-Lot label was among the most formative in Southern rap. The group was known for its incendiary, sometimes grotesque lyrics and also for songs that grappled with morality in stark terms.
It made Geto Boys a flashpoint for cultural conservatives preoccupied with rap lyrics, which Bushwick Bill anticipated on “Talkin’ Loud Ain’t Saying Nothin’,” from the 1989 album “Grip It! On That Other Level”: “You don’t want your kids to hear songs of this nature/But you take ‘em to the movies to watch Schwarzenegger.”
Influential producer Rick Rubin signed Geto Boys to his Def American imprint and rerecorded that album as “The Geto Boys.” Rubin was forced to find a new distributor after his original one declined to release the album over its graphic content.
Geto Boys returned to Rap-A-Lot after that and continued to release strong work, including the outstanding 1991 album “We Can’t Be Stopped,” which featured the group’s biggest single, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” The song is alarmingly spooky, but Bushwick Bill’s verse, which comes last, described a disturbing hallucination that he was being attacked while out trick-or-treating: “The more I swung, the more blood flew/Then he disappeared and my boys disappeared too/Then I felt just like a fiend/It wasn’t even close to Halloween.”
Bushwick Bill was born Richard Stephen Shaw in Kingston, Jamaica, on Dec. 8, 1966, and spent much of his childhood in the Bushwick section of New York City’s Brooklyn borough. His mother worked as a hotel housekeeper, and his father was in the merchant marine. As a teenager, he immersed himself in New York’s emerging hip-hop culture, writing graffiti and competing in break dancing competitions.
He moved to Houston in the 1980s and initially joined an early incarnation of Geto Boys as a dancer (under the name Little Billy), but soon became a rapper, appearing on the group’s 1988 debut album, “Making Trouble.” After that LP, the group rejiggered its membership, landing on its essential lineup: Bushwick Bill, Scarface and Willie D.
In 1991, Bushwick Bill had an early brush with death. High on PCP and grain alcohol, he said, he got into a physical altercation with his girlfriend and got shot in the right eye, a trauma he detailed in harrowing detail on “Ever So Clear,” from his 1992 solo debut album, “Little Big Man.”
In interviews, Bushwick Bill said that he was pronounced dead, toe-tagged and brought to the morgue.
“I was actually on the cold slab,” he said in 2014.
(He occasionally told differing stories about the shooting — in some of his accounts, his mother shot him.)
The incident was also immortalized on the album cover of “We Can’t Be Stopped,” which features a photo taken in the hospital of Bushwick Bill — flanked by Willie D and Scarface — on a stretcher, his eye blood-red, the day before he had surgery to remove it. He later said he was so medicated at the time he didn’t know the photo was being taken and that he didn’t see the album cover until after its release.
In addition to several albums with Geto Boys, Bushwick Bill released many solo records and appeared on Dr. Dre’s landmark 1992 album, “The Chronic.” In the 1990s, he announced that he was renaming himself Dr. Wolfgang von Bushwickin the Barbarian Mother-Funk Stay High Dollar Billstir. A devoted Christian in his younger days, he became born again in 2006. In the mid-2010s, he was filmed on and off for three years for an as-yet-unreleased documentary about his life.
Complete information about survivors was not immediately available.