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.