In the fall of 1991, an unusual song found its way onto the radio. It was called “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” and was performed by a Houston hip-hop trio called Geto Boys. A slow, mournful plaint, “Mind” relied on long, harmonically complex guitar samples—a departure from the short horn bursts and rapid drums then dominating hip-hop. If the song had an antecedent, it was the blues, not music you might have heard in a disco. Geto Boys—Scarface, Bushwick Bill, and Willie D—had deep, unmistakably Southern, voices and their lyrics didn’t celebrate or protest anything. “Mind” is an unsettling song, its opening couplets freighted with anxiety: “At night I can’t sleep, I toss and turn. / Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned. / Four walls just staring at a nigger. / I’m paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger.” For several months, “Mind” was on the radio all the time. Then Geto Boys—and Southern hip-hop—seemed to disappear. In the fourteen years since “Mind” was released, the band has showed up again on the Billboard pop charts only twice, most recently in 1996.
Now Houston hip-hop is back, enjoying a musical hegemony that happens only occasionally in pop. Not since Nirvana made Seattle the capital of grunge, in 1991, have a city, a sound, and a significant chart presence been so closely linked.