Scarface on the Music That Made Him

Scarface is one of rap’s most accomplished storytellers, an evocative writer who uses his rare understanding of the criminal underworld to complicate so-called villains and stain supposed heroes. For the better part of three decades, he has been a defining voice in Houston’s rap scene, a pioneer whose emphasis on interiority and realism influenced how a generation of rappers—including JAY-Z and Killer Mike—thought about character study. As a member of the Geto Boys, Scarface provided a glimpse inside the minds of killers in Houston’s dangerous 5th Ward, depicting a harsh reality where the only way to defy a broken system is to embrace the menace it made you to be. As a solo artist, he’s been even more empathic, finding compassion for both shooters and their victims, mourning the dead and the living alike.

Simply put, the man born Brad Jordan has seen some shit—first as a hustler, then as a rap up-and-comer working to put Houston on the map, then as a respected veteran, label executive, and weary old head. Throughout, music has given credence to his lived experiences, reflecting the truths of surviving on the street. Raised in a family of DJs and instrumentalists, he became not just a rapper, but a guitarist and producer too. As he puts it, “I was always music.” 

His last proper album, Deeply Rooted, came out in 2015, but more recently he’s been honored with his own day for his impact on the Houston community, and he was nearly voted onto his hometown’s city council in December. The same problems he once rapped about are now ones he’s working toward fixing.

As he racks his brain trying to piece together musical memories from his eventful life, he summons stories about cosplaying as Prince, boosting cars, and stupid lil rapper names. In conversation, as in his verses, he is a master storyteller.

Scarface on the Music That Made Him

Bob Welch: “Ebony Eyes

Scarface: When I was 5, American Bandstand had a lot of good artists on there, man. That’s when I really started falling in love with the jams: Gladys Knight & the Pips, Patti LaBelle, Bootsy Collins, Parliament. Bob Welch had that song “Ebony Eyes,” [sings] “Your eyes got me dreamin’.” I knew all the words to it. I wrote my own version to it, [sings] “If I could hold you close to my penis.” We were some badass muthafuckin’ kids, man. What would I even know about penis at that age? Stop it. Hustler magazine came out in the mid-’70s, and my uncle had them in his room, and that was the first time I saw a real, live vagina. Those types of magazines provoke that type of thought, and it snuck into the shit I was trying to write. All my family are musicians. Everybody was writing shit down, so I wanted to write shit down, too.

Scarface on the Music That Made Him

Prince: Controversy

I was in my Prince phase around this age, with the big overcoats and the Jheri curl. I could rock it ’cause nobody would fuck with me: Better not say shit about my goddamn overcoat, I’ll beat your muthafuckin’ ass. I didn’t have very many problems growing up.

Those were the MTV days: Rick Springfield, Tears for Fears, Devo, Billy Ocean, Talking Heads, A Flock of Seagulls. All that shit. My dad was a DJ—I think he was just DJing parties and selling weed, I never took the time to ask—and we used to play a lot of music at the house. He had a lot of records and a hi-fi stereo. One time, I plugged my guitar up into his stereo and jammed—and busted his speakers. He was mad as fuck at me.

Scarface on the Music That Made Him

Run-D.M.C.: Run-D.M.C.

I was straight listening to rap at 15: LL Cool J, the Skinny Boys, Whistle, UTFO. And Run-D.M.C.’s debut was at the top of my list. I wasn’t rapping myself yet. I wanted to be a DJ like Eric B, Jam Master Jay, Scott La Rock, Marley Marl, Grandmaster Dee, and Dr. Dre because it seemed like it was the DJs who controlled the MCs—they were the heart of the group. It wasn’t till later that the MCs started to control the DJs.

I was trying to be a DJ, but we was already stealing cars and hustling by that point. When people say that rap shit was a way of life, that is what they mean. We listened to what we listened to, and we lived out our life in song. For every moment in my life, I can think of a song that was playing when it happened. [N.W.A’s] “Dope Man,” [Too $hort’s] “Freaky Tales,” [Boogie Down Productions’] “9mm Goes Bang,” [Public Enemy’s] “Bring the Noise.” We felt that shit because we understood what it meant.

Scarface on the Music That Made Him

A Tribe Called Quest: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm

A Tribe Called Quest really made me want to rap. It was already cool to talk about hustling, but it was better to talk about hustling skillfully. Along with Tribe, MC Breed, Richie Rich, MC Eiht, and Spice 1 were the guys that helped really mold that vibe for us. They talked about the streets like nobody had ever talked about them before.

That’s why I’ve been questioning the way I feel about the new music, because it all sounds the same. Back then, you knew exactly who you were listening to. Now, you don’t know. Is that Lil so-and-so? Nah, that’s Big so-and-so. I’ve heard some of the dumbest names in fucking history: Soft Dick, or some shit. Fuck, man. 

I don’t think this shit is policed the way it used to be. There was a time when, if you put out some dumb shit, they’d whip your muthafuckin’ ass, like when KRS-One had the battle with Nelly. The keepers of the gate ain’t available anymore. I don’t want to pull none of my little brothers down, so I just let them eat. It’s so tough for us as a people to get on any-muthafucking-way, so if that’s keeping my lil homies off the streets and from getting they ass killed or whatever, then by all means: get you the money and get the fuck out the way.

When I joined Geto Boys at 17, I wasn’t friends with anyone in the group at all. I had my own friends and my own neighborhood that I was in. I wasn’t in theirs. We grew up in the streets. We didn’t fuck with people we didn’t know. We Can’t Be Stopped came out when I was 20, and it went platinum. But we were still in the streets then, so I was still putting out fires. I lost a lot of friends at 20. They didn’t get a chance to live to see 21.

Scarface on the Music That Made Him

D’Angelo: Brown Sugar

I had more money than I could fucking spend. A lot of fucking money. I was trying to be an entrepreneur, trying to do my label shit, putting out groups, doing a lot of production for people. I was trying to get credits, making beats. I was doing Facemob and Geto Boys, and I’d just released The Diary, and that’s what I was listening to. But D’Angelo had a great album that came out that year. He’s dope. When you know how to make a muthafuckin’ album like that, you shitting in dead grass.

Scarface on the Music That Made Him

Coldplay: Parachutes

Coldplay was big for me in the 2000s. Parachutes was a good album. “Spies,” “Yellow,” that good shit. They had a cool vibe on that muthafucka. 

At that time, I was on that Roc La Familia compilation [The Dynasty]. I had just got off Rap-A-Lot Records and got onto Def Jam [as president of Def Jam South], and I wanted to make the best album that I could make. That’s where my primary focus was. I was on my executive shit. I was forced to make that transition. I knew I wasn’t gon’ rap forever. When you get tired of some shit, you just say “fuck it” and move on.

Scarface on the Music That Made Him

Nas: Untitled

This Nas album stood out more than anything to me back then. That’s when the game took a turn for the worse. All the shit that came out was fucked up. I don’t really recall what came out around 2005, but I know a lot of the records were changing the face of what hip-hop was really doing. It turned into chants and shit. It was the internet turn, man. Hip-hop took a bad hop.

Scarface on the Music That Made Him

Radiohead: In Rainbows

That may be the best Radiohead album of all time. Everything on it made sense. The Arctic Monkeys had some great shit, too. It was just different. It had a big-ass sound, man.

Around that time, I started making a transition, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I started playing golf. I stopped rapping. What made me go back to doing my shit [with 2015’s Deeply Rooted] was that I wasn’t contractually obligated to record and I could do things under my own conditions. I had the deal I wanted for me. 

I was still reluctant to put albums out, because the terrain had changed so much. We went from muthafuckas that had college degrees to muthafuckas that couldn’t speak English. I thought maybe I was too smart for what the genre was doing. But every person I played Deeply Rooted for called it a breath of fresh air. We ain’t doing it for the check. We do it for the getback. I want to build careers. A single can feed a couple of people, but a career can feed an entire bloodline. My grandkids gon’ eat off this.

Scarface on the Music That Made Him

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick really tapped into his artistry and went there on this album. Every artist has an album like that in them. I liked Nipsey Hussle’s shit, too. He was the one to me. I like that grungy street appeal. He did it his own way, like I did. I can’t do pop. Me and pop don’t work. I’m not a part of pop culture. I love being able to go to Best Buy and browse without people fucking with me. I take that serious as fuck. I’m right here on ground level, and I love it.

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