In Austin, Bushwick Bill Found his Musical Playground

Late Geto Boys rapper’s penchant for stage crashing was legendary

“There was a bunch of white people there who looked like they'd rather be listening to Beethoven or Bach,” Bushwick Bill recounted of his first time crashing a live band performance in Austin – a Continental Club Gallery gig in early 2013 where he freestyled over Gordie Johnson’s Sit Down Servant.

Wild Cat: Bushwick Bill at band practice with guitarist Zach Ernst and drummer Matt Strmiska (photo by John Anderson)

“But they were responding to what we were doing, so it felt good.”

The veteran rapper, who rose to fame from his work with Houston’s Geto Boys, died late Sunday night in a Houston hospital at age 52. Earlier this year, the MC – who stood 3-foot-8-inches and had lost his left eye in a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1991 – announced that he’d been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.

For the last six-and-a-half years, the Jamaica-born musician, real name Richard Shaw, had been a fixture in Austin – not exactly a resident, but often crashing here for extended periods of time. It was here that he fell in love with performing alongside live bands.

“I didn't even know Stevie Ray Vaughan was from here,” he told the Chronicle in summer 2013. “I'm in my own hazy world, not even knowing all about music, and out here I get to meet real musicians where their feelings come through their fingertips into their instruments, and they mean it! It's not programmed or sampled or stolen.”

It was the late T. Murphey, a partner at Arlyn Studios, who compelled Bill to stay in Austin after a January 2013 Geto Boys gig at Emo’s. The rapper stayed at Murphey’s South Lamar apartment while his host introduced him to his circle of musicians.

Soon, Bill was taking shows, including a much ballyhooed set at Hotel Vegas with Sit Down Servant backing him. Not long after, he began appearing alongside guitarist Zach Ernst, bassist Scott Nelson, and drummer J.J. Johnson – then performing as the Disciples. That combo backed him when he played at the extreme music fest Chaos in Tejas.

“I don't need any more processed music,” Bill told the Chronicle one day while breaking from band practice. “Live music is where it's at.”

Throughout 2013, Bill, with the Disciples and Sit Down Servant – plus B3 player Mike Flanigin, producer Jacob Sciba, and others – logged many a late night/early morning session at Arlyn Studios. Those recordings boiled down to an 11-track album called Checks & Balances that was completed and scarcely disseminated. The Chronicle received a copy, which included several remakes from his 2009 religious LP My Testimony of Redemption, a redo of the Geto Boys song “Geto Fantasy,” and five originals, including the gospel-influenced “Wade in the Water” and witty, autobiographical “This Is My Story.” Ultimately, the album never came out.

That was far from the end of Bill’s relationship with live music in Austin. Thereafter, it became a common local rite of passage to have him show up unannounced and jump onstage to either freestyle of perform Geto Boys classics like “My Mind Playin Tricks on Me” or “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta,” the latter having been prominently featured in Austin-shot cult comedy Office Space.

He’d stage-bomb punk bands, country bands, blues bands, psych bands, and funk bands. The acts that Bushwick graced with his presence included: the Peterson Brothers, Sabbath Crow, Big Bill, 8 1/2 Souveniers, Harvest Thieves, Palm Daze, Southbound Drive, Kalu James, Bill King & the Bad Bad Bad, Matt Hubbard, the LeRoi Brothers, Teenage Cavegirl, the Bulemics, Golden Dawn Arkestra, and Brownout.

He would show up at even the most unexpected spots and deliver an impromptu performance. He once rolled into a music trivia contest, hosted by the Chronicle, then got up and rapped; he popped into the Butter n’ Jam vibe night at Dozen Street; and at the psych-oriented Saturnalia Fest, he jumped onstage with at least four bands, including headliners Allah Las, who looked puzzled as they struggled to recreate “My Mind Playin Tricks on Me.”

Before playing his song “Takin’ It Back” at Hotel Vegas performance in in 2013, Bushwick Bill expounded on his mutual love affair with Austin music.

“I gotta thank Austin for this. I just said I wanted to make an album with a live band, and now you all love me.”

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Bushwick Bill, Richard Shaw, Gordie Johnson, T. Murphey, Arlyn Studios, Sit Down Servant, Zach Ernst, Hotel Vegas, Brownout, Chaos in Tejas, J.J. Johnson, Scott Nelson, Jacob Sciba

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