Bush, the alternative rock group, has been soothing the headbanging mallrat populace for a quick minute now, but has garnered an unlikely aficionado in Scarface, who is banging his head to
Razorblade Suitcase while roaring in his souped-up black Chevy Impala. Lighting a Newport cigarette at a red traffic light impasse, Face screws up his lips, bobs animatedly to "Straight, No Chaser," then takes drag. Fidgety like a pre-adolescent, the 26-year-old Brad Jordan takes off impatiently at the change of the signal, arousing acrimonious stares from surrounding motorists. A smile creeps across Scarface's lips, at having once again pissed people off.
Bolting down South Main, the central strip running through Houston, early in February, Face is on his way to a birthday get-together for record producer John Bido (winner of a 1994 SOURCE award for the
Geto Boys' "'Till Death Do Us Part"). Hanging out--as he did the night before with Bido and Geto Boy Bushwick Bill at the Daiquiri Factory--provides a welcome respite from all the promotion Face is in the middle of for his latest record,
Untouchable. Rolling up on the suburban split-level home that doubles as Bido's recording studio, the Temple , creates a pretty contradictory scenario; imagine John Shaft on the set of television's The Brady Bunch. Still, Face looks only so out of place--it might actually be difficult to spy the platinum-selling gangsta rapper. For the cover of
The Other Side Of The Law, the debut album of Scarface's protege ensemble Facemob, Face is decked out in a crisp Armani suit, more gangster than gangsta. But today, he's in a baggy pair of blue jeans, a blue windbreaker and eyeglasses, with a Fat Albert baseball cap covering the long forehead scar that gave him his namesake.
When I first met Scarface, enjoying BBQ hot wings and a Bud Light at a local Hooters restaurant, he seemed apprehensive that a Brooklyn writer would be covering his new album. Now, hours later, he amiably offers me his cigarettes and Courvoisier from Bido's bar. The guy who wrote the prime lines "This year Halloween fell on a weekend/ Me and Geto Boys went trick or treatin'" (from "My Mind's Playin' Tricks On Me," the brilliant Everclear-inspired delusional fantasy of 1992 that would become the Geto Boys' biggest hit) actually seems considerably rooted in reality during our conversations. "I'm strictly into the paper," Face repeatedly cites as one of his many motivations. "If I'm makin' this much a year, then I can imagine what it would be like if I was signin' the goddamn check," he tells me earnestly.
So how is it that a guy who wants what most folks want--economic security and the means to provide for his children--inspires such animosity from so many people? That's the discussion in the birthday boy/ producer's living room, between the four friends assembled so far. "I ain't never been one to knock anybody's hustle," Scarface says of the anti-gangsta rap brigade headed by former civil rights activist C. DeLores Tucker and politician William Bennett. "And if that's her hustle, to downgrade us and talk bad about us, then that's cool if that's gon' get her paid. Don't fuck wit' mine, bottom line. If a motherfucker try to knock my hustle, I feel threatened, 'cause I got children." But his boss, Rap-A-Lot Records CEO James Smith--who reputedly launched the profitable label with drug money--seems to think it's more a matter of semantics.
Nas and the
Notorious B.I.G. aren't labeled or marketed as gangsta rappers, though their music speaks to themes similar to the Death Row collective that Tucker targets, and they may slip through her net just because of their classification. "I'd like to ban that name, gangsta rap," Smith has said. "Let's see if we can change the name from gangsta rap to reality rap."
Scarface, characteristically, is more concerned with the reality of Tucker's potentially damaging ill will than any underlying theoretical explanations. "When I feel dangered, I'm more, for realla than the shit I be rappin' about. That bitch get something done to her fuckin' wit' me like that."
He wearies easily of discussing Tucker, moving onto justifying the world view he expresses on wax that brings him so much reprehension. "I'm still on some street shit
that ghettos across the country can relate to. If we went to the overall condition of every black community cross-country, then we'd see the same fuckin' thing. People respect
and expect me to stay on my shit that drew them to me at first. That's why I can't see myself cleaning my shit up, being more friendly in my words, in my delivery."
The cover of The Diary, Scarface's third album, is a black-and-white scrawled drawing of a journal, conjuring a grassroots, sold-out-the-trunk attitude towards the contents. Those contents, however, raised Face's game in hip-hop, practically reinventing Scarface from the somewhat generic gangsta lean of his previous efforts, and revealing a more fleshed-out thug aesthetic that disclosed some depth to the life of a G. The popular "I Seen A Man Die," an affecting tale of male sensitivity in the face of mortality, dug deeper than many expected Face to. It helped garner The Diary platinum sales...and the attention of Tucker & Co.
"What do they consider gangsta rap?" he questions, popping the cap off of a bottle of Corona for a friend. "Do they consider somebody who say 'Motherfucker, I drink brew, I smoke weed' gangsta? If I was at the two or three million mark, then I would no longer be considered a gangsta rapper, I bet, if you sayin' that Nas and Big is not considered gangsta. But to me, them motherfuckers real. I wouldn't call the shit 'gangsta rap,' man. I don't give a fuck what nobody call me. Just spell my motherfuckin' name right."
"Brad, it's for you," interrupts one of Scarface's boys from the kitchen, holding a cordless telephone. The big numbers moved by multiplatinum rappers
Snoop Doggy Dogg and
2Pac did nothing to emancipate them from the gangsta tag, but before this point can be made, Face has a call to take. It's his woman, with whom he is contemplating marriage with sometime soon. (The two live together, with two of Face's four children.)
Hip-hop culture has never been greatly swayed by outside criticism or commentary. The labels and trends imposed on the culture by outsiders (remember horrorcore?) have never held much importance to those true to hip-hop. Gangsta rap then, from the perspective of hip-hop culture, never really existed. The "reality rap" appellation is equally banal, or at least unnecessary. Don't all rappers rhyme about their reality? Weren't even
Run-DMC reality rappers? Or, if transcendental meditation was really their thing, didn't even
P.M. Dawn rhyme about their reality? An MC has always been an MC to participants in the culture of hip-hop, the only exception being the largely media-induced East/ West segmenting. For those actually listening, Scarface's material isn't much different thematically from either
Ghostface Killah or
MC Eiht, which automatically disallows hackneyed categorization from the mainstream media to take root.
Rap artists of different designations have embraced Scarface, attracted more by an appreciation of ability than anything else. The Diary featured a duet with Ice Cube, "The Hand Of the Dead Body," about the misinterpretation of hip-hop by white media. Tupac Shakur co-wrote "Smile" with Face just weeks before his death, for a duet that appears on Untouchable. "One love to the coldest motherfuckin' rapper that ever stepped foot on the motherfuckin' game, " Face says, "absolutely nasty." And in an all-star collaboration, Scarface's newest single "Game Over (Hundred Degrees)" features a
Dr. Dre production, with Dre himself, Cube and
Jay-Z was even set to appear on Untouchable, but his schedule didn't permit it.
Jay-Z and Scarface might seem an odd coupling, until the relationship is examined a little more closely. With Unreasonable Doubt, Jay-Z epitomized the Big Willie MC last year: dressed like a Mafia mobster on his album sleeve, rhymes rife with expensive champagne and designer references. A lot of the Willie posturing and mob mentality worship stems from cinema and directly from Brad Jordan's namesake. ("Scarface, King of New York, I wanna be it," said Biggie on Ready To Die's "Respect.") Al Pacino's infamous movie role and New York's Italian Mafia families have influenced any number of hip-hop artists: Capone and Noriega, Junior Mafia, the Notorious B.I.G., Nas,
Wu-Tang Clan and the
Firm, not to mention tha Doggfather and the whole arsenal of Death Row Records. Does Scarface take any of the credit for establishing the trend, or at least being the first to establish a connection to the whole aesthetic?
"I don't give a fuck. I'm a mobster for real. Like I say, I ain't knocking nobody's hustle. If you get out there, and you rap about the clothes you got, and the cars you got, and the bitches you got, I ain't knocking your hustle, man. But I'm on monopoly, in Mafia mentality, all the time. I'm into taking over shit all the fucking time. So, I don't give a fuck who came out wit' the shit. It's just the way you feel, to me. And I feel I'm straight motherfuckin' Mafia. I got niggas who will ride for me, die for me, hide for me, kill for me, steal for me, deal for me. Whatever it take."
He asks one of his boys resting on the arm of the adjacent sofa if he'll shoot it out for him, and naturally, homeboy acquiesces. But this would mean that the Untouchable title probably has nothing to do with the movie documenting the fall of Brooklyn-born original gangster Al Capone (who was once known as "Scarface Al" because his left cheek was slashed in a fight).
"I ain't never seen the movie," Face says, shaking his head. "Untouchable just mean that l can't be fucked wit'. Motherfuckers try to lock me up can't fuck wit' me--I ain't did shit. Try to downgrade my music, can't fuck wit' me--I'm platinum."
The First Amendment is the means by which many controversial artists thought themselves untouchable, best exploited by
Luke Campbell) on
Banned In The U.S.A. during his governmental 2 Live
Crew conflict, and by publisher Larry Flynt's travails over Hustler magazine in the '80s. One wonders if Scarface feels his material is as protected by the Constitution.
"I consider myself an American, an Afro-American or whatever the fuck you wanna call me. But I don't feel like the same rules and laws apply to me. 'Cause I'm nigga--ain't no other way to explain me but that word nigga. Plain nigga. So, naw." Scarface pauses, then looks at his publicist, who seems, just for a second, distressed that Face's sentiments might reveal some racial self-hatred. But the mood passes, and Face changes the subject
to Too Short's post-retirement appearance on "Game Over (Hundred Degrees)," and his own premature retirement declaration after The Diary.
"I think Todd fixin' to get him a multimillion dollar deal. I think that's what he's settin' out for. Too Short is legendary, every time. He just gon' sit back and wait till a motherfucker offer him 15 million, and then do some more shit. What I meant [by announcing retirement] was, to back away from it and let somebody else stack them some hustle material. Let another motherfucker hustle. Just like running the corner. I think it was Rap-A-Lot; Jay [Smith] had me doing Untouchable. He broke out like, 'You gotta
do some more shit. You just can't quit.' Then the people that listen to me was telling me the same shit."
The key to understanding most people, musicians or otherwise, lies in their family background and childhood wonder years. Brad Jordan was raised in South Acres, a southern section of Houston separated from the five wards (which are roughly equivalent to New York boroughs), by his single mom, who was an accountant. His favorite bands included
Pink Floyd and
Boogie Down Productions,
Kool G. Rap & Polo and the
Rolling Stones. His mom married when he turned 10, but the teenage Jordan, diagnosed as manic depressive, spent some time in a mental health facility before coming to the attention of James Smith, who was launching Rap-A-Lot Records in 1989. Though playing electric guitar with dreams of fronting a rock band at the time, Jordan's rap skills were sharp enough to jibe with Bushwick Bill and
Willie D., the other MCs Smith called from Houston's rap scene. "When I came into Rap-A-Lot's thing, I was a solo artist originally," Scarface says. "And I love what Jay did by breaking us as Geto Boys, and then turning back around and breaking us as individual artists. I love that shit, that's beautiful."
The Geto Boys introduced the world to Scarface, and the chemistry that resulted attracted the attention of erstwhile Def Jam producer Rick Rubin (responsible for
LL Cool J's
Licensed To Ill, and
Public Enemy's debut). He subsequently produced
We Can't Be Stopped, which featured what would be the trio's biggest hit, "My Mind's Playin' Tricks On Me," while straining his own relations with record mogul David Geffen, who refused to release the album on his label after hearing content that included violence, misogyny, and necrophilia. All the while, throughout Geto Boys releases, Scarface's solo material was finding its way to the top of the pop charts, and gold certification.
The World Is Yours,
Mr. Scarface Is Back and The Diary were all strongly received. Solo albums from Bushwick Bill, Willie D and temporary Geto Boy
Big Mike never performed as well, making Face's ambivalence towards last year's reunion with
The Resurrection understandable.
"I wasn't into the Geto Boys project," Scarface admits, though he did produce six songs for the reunion album. "I wasn't totally against doing Geto Boys," he says, without much enthusiasm, cryptically adding, "Let's just say I was wit' whatever side of the court that the ball bounced on." It's clearly the end of that topic's discussion, though he does eschew rumors concerning beef between him and Willie D (the two were raised in the rival neighborhoods of South Acres and the Fifth Ward). "Me and Will cool, we cool; I love Willie, man."
Hours later, after a good half-dozen cigarettes and several glasses of mixed drinks, Scarface doesn't seem much looser or more inebriated than when we met at the beginning of the day. Upstairs in the Temple, an engineer mixes tracks containing a sampled loop from
Smackwater Jack and a
Bernie Worrell-like keyboard noodling of the theme to Jeopardy. Through this hypnotic montage, we discuss Interface Records, the vanity label that was to sustain Face along with his continuing record royalties throughout his premature retirement.
Facemob's The Other Side Of The Game was the first product from Interface,
released last year and featuring Scarface as a member, in a reflection of the Notorious B.I.G.'s relationship with the Junior Mafia. "I like puttin' other people out, and givin' other artists with talent--emphasize that--a chance to shine, you know? I wanna sit behind the desk and put motherfuckers out. The person who signs my check--I can imagine what they make, man. Shit! Jay is fuckin' huge!" What other artists are to be expected from Interface besides Facemob, who made only a modest splash? "I got a group called the Unforgiven. They rappers, there's just two of 'em. They're more on a hip-hop vibe. They got lyrics, and..." Scarface stutters before humorously repeating, "they got mad lyrics, kid," in imitation of Nas, with whom he spoke earlier in the week. "One of 'em is outta Chicago, and the other one is from all over the fuckin' place--New York, New Jersey, Houston, Missouri City. I got a little R&B group called Flage that sung on that song 'World Is A Ghetto.' But goddamn, I think that the release of that song put them up so fucking big 'til they don't even call me no mo', so..." Scarface laughs easily, clearly unfazed, or at least taking it all in stride.
Listening to the Facemob album, largely produced by Scarface, the sound of Face's own music is obviously prevalent, but it brings to mind a greater issue. Music from the South sounds regionally similar to California G-funk; it's slower, and very melody-driven. Scarface,
Tela all bear a strong resemblance to hip-hop brewed out on the West Coast, forcing the question, is there a stronger solidarity between the South and California? "Nah, that ain't got shit to do wit' it." Of all the guests on Untouchable, why no New York MCs? "Whoever shot through the studio or whatever, I was like, 'Cool, let's do this shit on my record; come fuck wit' me, man.' I
don't give a fuck about no East or no West Coast beef shit, man. I'm from down South. Like I said before, I'm strictly into the paper, and I don't give a fuck if
Kurtis Blow woulda walked in that motherfucker; Kurtis Blow woulda been on my shit!"
If at some point in the future it is the intention of Brad Jordan to pack it in as a rapper and concentrate completely on running Interface and producing, it's safe to say that won't occur until he can no longer make paper off his solo career. Scarface has defied the stigmatizing odds of the gangsta rap label limiting his success, as well as the dissolution of the Geto Boys, the outfit that brought him to public attention in the first place. The ignorant homocoastalism of the early mid-'90s had no effect on The Diary getting across to its million-strong, nationwide audience, and continued prosperity with Untouchable seems inevitable. Most importantly, Scarface can be counted on to never shirk his duty to speak out from the streets and educate the Tucker-Bennetts who are clueless to the ghetto lifestyle, trials and tribulations. Face is the deviant; don't shut him up.