Photo by Peter Beste
The director of Bushwick Bill’s: Geto Boy documentary, Gregy Roman, was in tears at the Museum Fine Arts of Houston telling the audience how proud he was making this film. Despite how taxing the production was一mostly because gaining the Houston legend’s trust was no easy feat 一he couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome. Roman’s emotions overtook him at mentions of Bill from the audience. But his authenticity and passion shone through his work. For the tenured director, it was more than just a film, and Bushwick was more than just a rapper he documented. The pair were good friends and their friendship dates back to before the Jamaican-born entertainer ever considered picking up a microphone.
The 78-minute documentary highlights Bushwick’s journey as a kid raised in the streets, his fruitful career with the iconic Houston hip-hop faction The Geto Boys, and the gunshot incident that happened on June 19th, 1991. Richard Stephen Shaw, better known by his stage name, Bushwick Bill, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to Brooklyn, New York with his family years later to avoid the crime that was happening in his home country. When the family arrived in Bushwick, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where Bill gained his moniker, he began to notice that he was vertically challenged. Suffering from Dwarfism, the late rapper was often bullied and teased by his classmates which would, in turn, become the impetus behind his success. In the documentary, the rapper details his journey of survival, how he had to find ways to survive not only in his rough neighborhoods but learning to navigate the world at large. The journey of self-discovery would lead him into music, where he fell in love with hip-hop.
In the early 80s, Bill was a b-boy and his crew was competing at the Swatch Watch Fresh Festival. The event took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Roman was born and raised and was also a b-boy. Coincidentally, the two performers and their crews were competing against one another. Gregy said tearfully, “I didn’t even know until I started making the film. So we concluded that I met Bill in 1984.”
Documenting Bushwick’s life was always on Roman’s agenda, for the music Bill created was life-changing. “There was nothing like the Geto Boys. It was so great finding that music,” Gregy explains. It became his life mission to not only find Bushwick but to get him on board for this film. Despite his height, Bushwick Bill presented himself as a larger-than-life figure in hip-hop, making it hard to access him. It wasn’t until the director met the Geto Boys member at a hotel in Austin they were both staying in at the same time. It was almost as if fate brought the two together for that moment. But Roman’s dream was instantly halted when Bill said he wasn’t interested. If anything, At the time, the “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” emcee was more interested in going to Walmart to send some money to his daughter. Roman jumped at the opportunity to offer Bill a ride, and the rest was history. “That’s how our relationship started,” Gregy explains. “ and three months later we became partners for this film.”
Today, Bushwick Bill’s legacy still lives on, and his son, Javon Shaw aka Yung Knxw, and the director, Gregy Roman, talk about the challenges of making this film and things they didn’t know about the legendary rap titan, friend, and father.
Photo by Abiel Garcia
DE: I remember watching one of your dad’s last interviews with Isaiah Carey and you were with him. How vividly do you remember that moment?
JS: Literally! My dad told me not to speak in the interview because he said, “You might not know the last time you’re going to see or hear your dad.” So he told me to evaluate what he’s saying to me. He knew that I was going to need what he was saying to me until the day I die. It was monumental stuff I needed.
DE: It was almost like a lesson he was teaching you.
JS: Man, it’s wild because he even said in the interview that he told me not to speak. They gave me a mic to speak at that time, but my dad took it from me before we went on.
DE: Is there something you learned about your father while being a part of this documentary that you didn’t know before?
JS: Yeah, a whole bunch of stuff! Gregy said it best, “You have to put a camera in front of him to speak on certain things.” Besides that, it’d be random things he would say to you during the conversation.
DE: That’s how humble he was.
JS: Bro, he’s so chill! For example, how I’m talking to you right now, he would be like that regularly. We could’ve been outside in Sunny Side somewhere and it would’ve been the same thing.
Part Two with Gregy Roman
DE: Gregy, you’ve talked about how difficult it was making this film. What were some of the challenging parts of filming this documentary?
GR: It started in 2012 in SXSW and Bill signed to let me share his life rights for the film so that I could legally make it. I’ve been down the road where I tried to make a film on somebody before and I didn’t get the rights. So I learned my lesson on a couple of different projects. One of the difficulties was Bill traveled a lot and his son, Javon, can attest to that. One time I took a camera crew and sound guy to Detroit and Bill was no longer there because he was in Atlanta. That stuff used to happen a lot, but it wasn’t Bill’s fault. One of the hardest things was not being able to give Bill a couple of plane tickets to LA and finish a whole bunch of stuff. It took us years to gain his trust to do that. The money would’ve solved a lot of it, but I wouldn’t have gotten to know Bill as well.
A lot of the stories he tells in the documentary he has told me when we were out eating or just hanging out. I probably went to about 60 live shows that Bill or the Geto Boys did so I got to know Bill well. I would’ve never got the story about them beating up the background person on “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me.” I’d never heard that story. So when we’re filming and he’s telling the story, I’m laughing so hard. We almost couldn’t use it because he’s making me laugh. It’s not like he told me that he was going to give me that story. It’s one of the funniest parts of the film because I couldn’t make it all sad. I had to mix it up a little bit.
DE: But that just makes the lyrics even more real when Bushwick says, “So I swung and hit the nigga in his mouth.” The story just validates how real the lyrics and the video are.
GR: Absolutely. We went to great lengths to find the guy and we couldn’t find him. We went to great lengths to find a lot of stuff because anything before 1995 was not out there. I think BET had one of their warehouses burned down in 1999 so they have none of the early hip-hop stuff. BET interviewed everybody and they didn’t have any of that. We had one little tiny segment of something from them and they told us it didn’t even exist. The research was tough and Bill was tough. However, in all honesty, I wouldn’t trade anything.
DE: Do you have a personal favorite Bushwick Bill song either as a solo artist or part of the Geto Boys?
GR: You know what always hit me? I come from skateboarding and punk rock culture and “Mind of a Lunatic” is what turned me. I didn’t think they were crazy, but that was one of the best-told stories. I honestly can’t even say what my favorite Geto Boys or Bushwick song is. However, when I heard “Mind of a Lunatic” in 1990, it was one of the most badass songs I’ve ever heard in my life. It went up there with any heavy metal song.
DE: What do you want people to take away from this film?
GR: One of the things Bill and I talked a lot about was just telling all the stories. I told him that if you don’t want to tell them, then look at it as a cautionary tale. So I’d say the film is a cautionary tale. Be careful what you get yourself into and if you don’t stay true to yourself, bad stuff might happen. Take away whatever you want from it, but it’s also a takeaway. Let luck happen to you because you never know what might happen from just being lucky. It’s all about being at the right place at the right time and that’s Bill’s whole story.