Rap boasts a sole black, one-eyed midget. Gordie Johnson didn't need a reminder.
Still, sitting at his pedal steel guitar one night in February at the Continental Club Gallery, Johnson couldn't understand how Bushwick Bill, the enigmatic, effervescent Geto Boy, had just hijacked his gig. The Houston MC walked onstage midway through a set by the guitarist's band Sit Down Servant, took the microphone, and started rapping to an experimental gospel-blues beat.
Bill had arrived in town to record an album, a live-band reinterpretation of his 2009 gospel LP My Testimony of Redemption. He'd shown up with the Geto Boys midway through their winter reunion tour and stayed after "some white dude with dreads" introduced him to T. Murphey, who then housed the beloved hip-hop icon on a couch in his South Austin apartment.
Murphey's the reason Bill went to the Continental that night. He's a partner at Arlyn Studios just down the street, where Johnson doubles as a producer. Bill needed Johnson at the soundboard, but he was also in search of a band to back his freestyles. With SDS drummer Stephane Beaudin, the guitar player could satisfy both requirements at once.
The morning was approaching 1:30am, but Johnson agreed to go back to Arlyn, where Jacob Sciba, the studio's chief engineer, was waiting with Bill and his crew.
"All I can hear is a gang of people in that room," Johnson remembers. "Bill and his girlfriend were carrying on, and everybody's talking a bunch of shit.
"Then, all of a sudden, it's on! Just record everything and go."
Bill returned to the South Austin cutting room four times to record with Sit Down Servant, plus a handful of sessions with Raw Fusion, the Meters-inflected local funk trio of Zach Ernst, Scott Nelson, and Matt Strmiska. Sometimes they'd work on Checks & Balances, the predetermined name for Bill's remake of My Testimony of Redemption, like when the rapper and SDS recorded "Wade in the Water," a song in which Bill advises his listeners to "accept God as your Lord and savior."
There were tangents, of course, like a few hours after they recorded the aforementioned track.
"I start playing [Mahalia Jackson's] 'In the Upper Room' and Bill started rapping about 'moaning and groaning' and 'soaking in perspiration,'" says Johnson.
"It's like predicting monarch butterflies," he adds. "You just can't tell where they're going to land."
For the next three months, the monarch usually landed around 2:30am.
Sessions for Checks & Balances generally got called a day out, usually for prime time, so that Johnson, Sciba, and whoever else working Arlyn that night could grab dinner and get back to work for the rapper pro bono. Bill never did get to the studio on time, and when he did arrive, rarely would he start recording right away. "Sometimes you don't feel your soul at 7pm," Sly Stone once said, and for Bill, that soul wouldn't roll for another six hours.
The interim was occasionally well-served. When he wasn't completely off the reservation, Bill got reacquainted with his album lyrics of years ago – an objective he accomplished over the course of a full evening.
"He goes to YouTube videos to listen to himself," explains Toni Lewis, Bill's younger brother, who flew from Atlanta to assist with production. "Once he hears the first word, he starts to pick up on the rest, but he'll spit the lyrics with the YouTube video to keep himself on point."
Johnson and Raw Fusion couldn't understand how the two renditions would line up on a remake.
"Nothing's in time," points out Johnson. "But he'd do it until he got it, then take the headphones off, and he'd kill it. Absolutely kill it. And we'd be in disbelief. He went from absolutely useless to insane in one second."
This happened more often than not, so the players adjusted, jamming for hours until Bill settled in.
"Some nights there would just be chaos until a quarter to five in the morning," says Johnson. "I'd be sitting there with my steel guitar, and Stephane would be on drums, and Jacob would be there ready to push record. We'd be like, 'What are we doing? Why are we doing this? We're not getting anything done. I gotta work tomorrow.'
"All of a sudden, 5am, it gets really badass and we record six jams."
"It's like turning on a faucet," adds Raw Fusion guitarist Ernst. "You make a groove and wait around a while. As soon as he's ready [makes puking sound], Bill raps for a while, and when he gets tired, it's done."
The rapper had performed with a live band before – ages ago, in Washington D.C., when the Geto Boys performed a go-go rendition of "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" with Rare Essence – but he'd never gone into the studio with one, and he didn't take quickly to the post-production pace at which a live band's session may move.
"He comes from another world," explains Johnson. "There are 48 channels [in this recording console], and there's a different microphone coming up for each channel. We mix all that down to a stereo two-track thing that you can hold in your hand and listen to. Bill would come out of the vocal booth and be, 'All right, man. Give me the track. I need to take it to my homeboy in Houston.'
"Give you the track? Homeboy, this isn't coming off a sampler. There's guys out there playing it. We've got to mix it. That means sending it to a scientist in L.A. who can fix it to legal broadcast levels."
Bill didn't get it, and over time, started to mistrust Johnson, who he thought was trying to rip him off.
"'You guys must be bullshitting me. Why are you holding on to my music?'" Johnson remembers Bill saying. "'What am I gonna do with it anyway? I can't do anything with it. There's no music. We've got to put it together.'
"He wanted that instant gratification, but he comes from a world where guys have beats they load onto a DAT file on a computer, and it's good to go. That's not where music lives. There's some process involved in it."
The back-and-forth went on until late May, at which point Bill left to rejoin the Geto Boys and Johnson split to tour with his band Big Sugar.
"I don't actually know the state of what's going on with the record," Johnson shrugged last month. "I recorded most of it, and boiled down some of it, but I have no idea what's happened since I left."
Checks & Balances got finished. I'm holding a copy at my desk right now.
Lewis and Murphey whittled 56 tracks into 11 and an interlude during June, using only two tracks from My Testimony of Redemption ("Takin' It Back" and "Spiritual Warfare") for the LP. The rest comprises three other solo remakes, a Geto Boys redo ("Geto Fantasy," off 1996's The Resurrection), and five new originals, including "Wade in the Water," a gospel rap track with Sit Down Servant, and "This Is My Story," a funky, quick-witted autobiographical number.
In addition to Sit Down Servant, who cut three tracks, and Raw Fusion, who contributed eight, the album features contributions from local session staples like drummer J.J. Johnson, organist Mike Flanigin, guitarist Derek O'Brien, and Hard Proof Afrobeat hornman Jason Frey.
"Hip-hop has always had a band," attests Bushwick Bill from New York, where he's working on a movie. "I came into the hip-hop era when it was still danceable music. Every song you heard would make you dance. Then rap came into it and everything changed.
"But in the Eighties, there was Pumpkin & the Profile All-Stars, and Pumpkin was the drummer. Grandmaster Flash had horns and keyboards onstage at certain shows. Even Kurtis Blow performed with a band."
Bill had yet to hear the album when we spoke, and he played no part in its sequencing.
"I'm not tripping over it," he says. "At the end of the day, it's music I made. People are going to hear my thoughts. It might not end up the way it would if I'd sequenced the songs, but it'll still be my thoughts."
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