Protect Scarface

Prince Williams/Getty Images

Protect Scarface

Prince Williams/Getty Images

“I been to the point where I felt like I was gonna die, bro,” says Scarface. His thundering old-testament voice creaks and catches, a desiccated echo of its usual self. His eyes are watery and bloodshot, and his face is lined. He’s got on a baseball cap and no shirt, and his camera is pointed up at his face in just about the least flattering angle imaginable. He looks terrible. Willie D, Scarface’s longtime partner in the Geto Boys, looks on in the other side of the Zoom window, his brow a permanent furrow. Scarface is telling the world that he’s got coronavirus. He just found out.

We’re going to hear more and more stories like this one. The COVID-19 virus has only just started to hit the music world. The Cameroonian jazz-funk saxophonist Manu Dibango and the ’90s country star Joe Diffie have died. Jackson Browne, John Prine, and Adam Schlesinger have all gotten sick, the latter two seriously. And the disease has put the fear of God into Brad Jordan, one of the greatest rappers of all time. “It’s hard for me to hold together, man,” Scarface tells Willie D. “I’ve been shot, homie, and I didn’t feel like that. My life been threatened, and I never felt — in no way, shape, form, or fashion — like I didn’t have control of the situation. But right this time, man…”

Scarface has looked death in the eye plenty of times, both on record and in real life. Brad Jordan was just 20 when the Geto Boys made “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” the group’s biggest-ever hit. On the opening verse, he’s grizzled and weary, his soul shot through with stress: “At night I can’t sleep, I toss and turn/ Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned.” A year later, on the solo song “I’m Dead,” Scarface envisioned his own end, three years before the Notorious BIG ended Ready To Die the same way. For decades, Scarface rapped about depression, tension, violence, suicide. He lived through rap’s wild-west era, standing as the most visible member of the first Southern rap group ever to be taken seriously outside the South. He helped establish how anyone could rap about doubt and fear and paranoia. He changed everything.

There’s a legitimate argument that Scarface is the single greatest rapper who has ever lived. It’s there in the voice, a husky and drawling preacher boom. Even at his loosest and most conversational, Scarface has always brought gravitas. He’s made every word matter. It’s there in the writing, too. Early on, the Geto Boys made themselves notorious with bloody horror-movie fantasias. But even at his most baroque, Scarface has always wound in threads of regret and sadness. He’s made sure those stories had stakes. Later on, as he moved away from the theatrics, Scarface has kept pushing the bluesy intensity of his style, becoming a figure demanding of awe and reverence.

So many things about Scarface’s story seem to belong to mythology, to oral tradition. There was the tempestuous relationship with the Rap-A-Lot records mogul J Prince, a genuinely terrifying figure who still commands total deference. There was the brief major-label moment when Rick Rubin signed the Geto Boys, and there was the public backlash to violent rap lyrics that doomed that deal. There’s the moment that Scarface recorded his guest verse on Jay-Z’s “This Can’t Be Life” — the first song that Kanye West ever produced for Jay — immediately after learning about the death of his friend’s son, fighting back audible tears as he rapped about the importance of keeping your family close.

Through it all, Scarface never released a bad album. Only one of his proper studio LPs — 2015’s still-pretty-good Deeply Rooted, his most recent — is anything less than great. In 2002, when he was serving as president of Def Jam South, Scarface released The Fix, a late-career masterpiece that remains one of my favorite albums ever. Then he walked away from the business, swearing he’d never make another album. Then he made more albums — 2007’s Made, 2008’s Emeritus — that were just bafflingly good. More recently, Scarface has lost a shocking amount of weight. He’s written a memoir. He’s collected guitars and played occasional shows with rock bands. He’s mourned the death of fellow Geto Boy Bushwick Bill, who died of cancer last year. A few months ago, Scarface even ran for Houston City Council, losing in a runoff election. He’s a grandfather now. He’s only 49 now, but he’s lived so many lives.

These days, Scarface is again saying that he’s done with rap. But Scarface just showed up on “Both Eyes Open,” a song from fellow Houston rapper Slim Thug that came out last week. Once again, Scarface sounds great. (Like Scarface, Slim Thug recently announced that he had tested positive for coronavirus. Please stay safe, Houston rappers.)

Last week, in that Instagram Live conversation with his old comrade Willie D, Scarface said that he’d tested positive for COVID-19. He’d been to the hospital and been released, but he was shaken, and he was still sick. At times, he seemed both baffled and enraged. He hadn’t been on any flights, hadn’t been to any restaurants. How could this happen? He gave all the gory details, talking about waking up throwing up bile and the tiny under-the-bed toilet in his hospital room.

A day later, Scarface did a similar Instagram Live conversation with Ludacris and sounded much better. (Back when he was president of Def Jam South, Scarface signed Luda; the two go way back.) In that second conversation, Face’s voice was fuller, and his spirits seemed higher. He joked about all the Netflix shows he’s been watching. (Narcos is “clichéd,” sayeth Scarface.) He enthused about all the Instagram Live living-room sets from old-school DJs — D-Nice, DJ Scratch, Lord Finesse, ?uestlove — that have been lifting his spirits: “That saved me, bro!” But he’s still not better: “I’m not out the woods yet. My kidneys failing. I’m going to have to get a transplant, and then go on dialysis or whatever.”

All of this is sobering as hell. Scarface did that interview with Ludacris four days ago, and I haven’t seen anything on his condition since then. (He tends to stay quiet on social media.) It seems like Scarface will probably be OK. I hope he will. But the whole saga brings home a certain urgency. I think of Scarface as a true living legend, one of the greatest artists — in any genre, in any medium — of my lifetime. Appreciate him while he’s here. He won’t last forever. Nobody will.


1. Drakeo The Ruler – “Ion Rap Beef (Remix)” (Feat. Earl Sweatshirt & 03 Greedo)
Drakeo, the LA rap cult hero, is still on trial for his life, and his case doesn’t seem to be any closer to concluding. (Jeff Weiss has been all over the Drakeo story; his latest update on it is here.) So we don’t get any new Drakeo songs. But we do get this, a remix of a 2018 Drakeo/Greedo track that features an atypically straightforward Earl Sweatshirt sounding more California than ever: “Fuck the DA, free the Ruler/ Sex cancelled, I went right for that medulla/ Talking spicy hella easy, niggas hide behind computers/ Talking ’bout some he gon’ fight me, it’s unlikely, he a tulip.” Free Drakeo and Greedo and put them into a studio with Earl; we need more of this.

2. Conway The Machine & The Alchemist – “Calvin”
All of LULU, the new Conway/Alchemist EP, is a treat. But for me, “Calvin” is the winner — for its low-key menace, for its bloody-minded specificity, and for the in-the-pocket double-time flow, something that I’ve never heard Conway attempt before.

3. Sauce Twinz – “Bird Call” (Feat. El Trainn)
There are so many exciting things about the prospect of a new Sauce Twinz mixtape. Right now, though, my takeaway is just this: The bass on this beat is absolutely disrespectful. I love it.

4. Dutchavelli – “Surely”
Most of the recent UK drill I’ve been hearing has been too sing-songy. Too often, it just melts away into the ether. This isn’t that. This is that slap-you-in-your-shit music. Dutchavelli comes from East London, and his voice comes from Hades.

5. Stove God Cook$ & Roc Marciano – “Jim Boheim”
I spent four years in Syracuse, on my English & Textual Studies grind, and the only time I ever heard anyone use the name of longtime Orangemen basketball coach Jim Boheim was in a ferociously lame onstage Common freestyle. (Common rhymed “Boheim” with “say rhymes.”) Stove God Cook$ is a recent Busta Rhymes protege from Syracuse, and he just released the impressive LP Reasonable Drought. Roc Marciano, another onetime Busta beneficiary, did all the hazy, soul-tinged production, which is reason enough for you to listen. (Apparently, Flipmode Squad really is forever.) I could’ve picked any song from the album for this list, but mostly, I’m just happy to see Boheim’s name invoked with the proper level of respect. Also: “Upstate brick-breaker/ Still got one hand on the rock like Cliffhanger.”


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