Geto Boys' 'Mind Playing Tricks On Me' Is Hip-Hop's Anxiety Anthem Gangsta rap had been known as aggressive, rebellious and political, but the Geto Boys' 1991 hit made it something new: vulnerable. Hip-hop's relationship with mental health has never been the same.

Stressed Out: How 'Mind Playing Tricks On Me' Gave Anxiety A Home In Hip-Hop

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In 1991, the late director John Singleton's "Boyz N The Hood" came out in theaters. Coverage of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles cops was playing practically on a loop on television screens. And this song by a Houston rap group called the Geto Boys brought never-before-heard vulnerability to the subgenre known as gangsta rap.


SCARFACE: (Rapping) My mind is playing tricks on me.

KING: Today, as part of our American Anthem series, NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael is here to talk about how "Mind Playing Tricks" became an anthem and laid the groundwork for generations of young black men to express their anxiety.

Hi, Rodney.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey, Noel. What's going on?

KING: Tell us about this song and what it meant.

CARMICHAEL: Noel, "Mind Playing Tricks On Me" was practically my theme song when it came out, and it wasn't just me. In the fall of 1991, you could hear this song bumping out of just about every car with speakers in the trunk. It really put a voice to the angst and paranoia that defined what it meant to be a young black man in America at the time.


SCARFACE: (Rapping) I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles.

BUSHWICK BILL: Cool out, man. You on the radio.

SCARFACE: We on the radio, dude?



CARMICHAEL: I mean, there's already a post-traumatic stress that comes along with being black in this country. It's almost part of your inheritance, right? And in the '80s and the '90s, remember, things got even deeper - the crack era, the war on drugs, over-policing and mass incarceration. I mean, this was the era when it wasn't at all unusual to hear young black men referred to as an endangered species. And the worst of it is, we were being told that we were the ones that we should fear the most. And just imagine how that plays with your psyche.


SCARFACE: (Rapping) At night I can't sleep. I toss and turn. Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned. Four walls closing in, getting bigger. I'm paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger.

CARMICHAEL: You know, the Geto Boys, Noel - they were already legendary in the South. But this song right here - it made them huge everywhere. And it gave Scarface, the member who wrote the majority of the song, more Southern Gothic street cred than Edgar Allan Poe. I mean, he was born Brad Jordan, but he took on the name of one of the most celebrated figures in rap - Scarface, the kingpin from the classic Al Pacino movie.

KING: So he's written this song about paranoia, about angst, about worry. How much of that was really part of his life?

CARMICHAEL: Well, it was a combination of his own imagination, but also his own lived experience. He wrote three of the four verses in the song, with group members Willie D and Bushwick Bill carrying the rest of the load. But it's actually Scarface's grandmother who deserves credit for the song's title. She talked about it several years ago with MTV.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I think I was just kind of mumbling to myself, or my lips was working or something. And he said, Mama. He said, what are you talking about? I said, oh, no, nothing. It's my mind just playing tricks on me - and didn't have no idea he was going to be going out, making a song about it.

KING: That is really remarkable.

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter) Yeah. So Scarface - he's a musician from a family - long line of musical talent. And he was also a high school dropout who got involved with the local drug trade when he was coming up. But, Noel, he also spent some time in a hospital psych ward after he attempted suicide once as a teenager. Now, you know therapy was still pretty taboo in most black communities, but learning to express his feelings - it just really made him a cold songwriter.

Now, just listen to the second verse. One moment, he's in church, praying for an exit out the drug game. In the next, he's contemplating suicide before getting a grip.


SCARFACE: (Rapping) Day by day, it's more impossible to cope. I feel like I'm the one that's doing dope. Can't keep a steady hand because I'm nervous. Every Sunday morning, I'm in service, praying for forgiveness and trying to find an exit out the business. I know the Lord is looking at me, but yet and still it's hard for me to feel happy. I often drift when I drive, having fatal thoughts of suicide. Bang and get it over with, and then I'm worry-free. But that's nonsense.

CARMICHAEL: Now, the thing is, you didn't have to be an ex-drug dealer like Scarface to relate to this song. You didn't even have to be from the ghetto like Geto Boys. If you were black, if you felt the pressure of growing up with a target on your back, "Mind Playing Tricks" was like your anxiety anthem. I mean, this was confessional rap. It was like street ministry, and it felt like he was telling us it's OK to acknowledge these emotions that we've been conditioned to hide. His message made it to some pretty unconventional spaces at the time, too.

MAURICE GARLAND: The first time I actually heard the song analyzed and broke down was at church, shawty (ph). Somebody was preaching at church.


Now, that's Maurice Garland, music journalist and Southern hip-hop historian. He's telling me about the first encounter that he had with the song as a kid back in the '90s.

GARLAND: You know how preachers do their little analogies with they sermons. He was like, and you know, it's like that Geto Boys song when your mind playing tricks on you. He was breaking down, like, the depression, the drugs, the anxiety and everything. He was corralling all this into his sermon. And that was, like, one of the first rap songs that I can remember where topics like that were even touched on, you know what I'm saying?

KING: So it was a very big deal for a gangsta rap song to show this kind of vulnerability - to have the word nervous in it.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and a whole lot of other words. Gangsta rap was basically considered America's nightmare back then, right? But, you know, it was also America's creation, in some ways. The music was rebellious. It was aggressive. It was misogynistic and hypermasculine to a fault. But one thing that it hadn't been much up until that point was vulnerable. And "Mind Playing Tricks" really became that first vulnerable gangsta rap song. Think about it. This is almost a whole decade before Tony Soprano even had a psychiatrist on TV.

KING: Yeah.

CARMICHAEL: So the Geto Boys - they really turned their fear inward with this song. They were hardcore hustlers in the song, but they weren't glorifying the streets. They were traumatized by them. Listen to this verse from Willie D.


WILLIE D: (Rapping) I make big money. I drive big cars. Everybody know me. It's like I'm a movie star. But late at night, something ain't right. I feel I'm being tailed by the same sucker's headlights.

KING: So this is 1991. In 2019, what would you say the legacy of this song is today?

CARMICHAEL: Well, you know, this song - it made mental health a topic of conversation way ahead of its time in certain black communities. And it's still resonating. I mean, just last year, popular radio personality Charlamagne tha God - he wrote a whole book about confronting his anxiety and getting help for it. And it was totally inspired by the song.

Now we got artists who regularly process their pain on record. It's a whole subgenre known as emo rap. Artists like Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert, even Post Malone - they're all clearly descendants of the Geto Boys and Scarface, in particular, whether they know it or not. So there's still pain and a whole lot of the wrong coping mechanisms, but at least rappers who represent the streets aren't afraid to use their music as a way to express it anymore.

KING: Rodney Carmichael, thanks so much.

CARMICHAEL: Thank you, Noel.

KING: Rodney Carmichael writes about hip-hop for NPR Music, and we've been talking about "Mind Playing Tricks On Me" by the Geto Boys.

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