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

May 29, 2019
Originally published on June 10, 2019 8:33 am

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.

Editor's note: This story includes includes brief mentions of suicide.


When HBO's drama The Sopranos began airing in 1999, the idea of a mob boss seeking therapy was revolutionary. But Tony Soprano wasn't the first gangster to expose his sensitive side to the world: That distinction came nearly a decade earlier, thanks to three gangstas of a different stripe.

The year was 1991. John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood was playing on the big screen. Rodney King's beating by LA cops was on virtual loop on the small screen. And "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," by the Houston rap trio Geto Boys, was bumping out of nearly every car with speakers in the trunk, putting a voice to the angst and paranoia that defined what it meant to be a young black man in America at the time.

When "Mind Playing Tricks" came out, the Geto Boys were already legendary in the South. It was hard not to stand out with a group that included Willie D, a former Golden Gloves boxer; Bushwick Bill, a brash Brooklyn transplant and former breakdancer who stood less than four feet tall; and Brad Jordan, a lyricist with enough street cred to wear the stage name of rap's most celebrated kingpin: Scarface. He wrote three of the four verses in this song, originally intended for his solo album until Rap-A-Lot Records founder J. Prince decided it was the breakout record he needed for the label's flagship group.

But it's Scarface's grandmother who deserves credit for the song's title. "It was a strange way of how he came about it," she told MTV several years ago. "I come through the room and I think I was just kinda mumbling to myself or my lips was working or something. He said, 'Mawmaw, what you talking about?' I said, 'Oh nothing, my mind's just playing tricks on me.' And didn't have no idea he was gonna go out and be making a song about it."

A multi-instrumentalist from a long line of musical talent, Scarface had been a fan of metal as a kid. But growing up in Houston's Southside introduced him to a different kind of hard rock: He went from dropout to local drug dealer coming up. He also spent some time in a hospital psych ward, after trying to kill himself once as a teenager.

Learning to articulate his feelings must have contributed to making him the coldest songwriter in rap, more Southern Gothic than Edgar Allan Poe. Just listen to him in the song's third verse: One moment he's in church praying for an exit out the drug game; the next, he's contemplating suicide.

Day by day it's more impossible to cope
I feel like I'm the one that's doin' dope
Can't keep a steady hand, because I'm nervous
Every Sunday morning I'm in service
Prayin' for forgiveness
And tryin' to find an exit out the business
I know the Lord is lookin' at me
But yet and still, it's hard for me to feel happy
I often drift when I drive
Havin' fatal thoughts of suicide
Bang and get it over with
And then I'm worry-free, but that's bulls***

This was confessional rap — street ministry. Scarface was acknowledging emotions a generation of black boys had been conditioned to hide.

Gangsta rap may have been America's nightmare in the '80s and '90s, but it was also America's creation. There's a post-traumatic stress that comes along with being black in this country: It's almost part of your inheritance. And the feeling was compounded by the crack era, by the war on drugs, by over-policing and mass incarceration. 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 we should fear the most.

The music of that era was rebellious; it was aggressive. It was misogynistic and hyper-masculine to a fault. It was definitely political, even if it was far from "conscious" rap. But one thing it hadn't much been up until that point was vulnerable. "Mind Playing Tricks" became that first vulnerable gangsta rap song. In the lyrics, the Geto Boys were still hardcore hustlers, but they weren't glorifying the streets — they were traumatized by them. The beginning of Willie D's verse tells the story:

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

All of a sudden, the villains depicted on record — and by society — were cast as the victims. They were haunted by their own demons, but also by the economic degradation that hollowed out the hoods from which they came. The track got a creepy music video that would probably be labeled Afro-Surreal today, like something out of a Jordan Peele flick.

Geto Boys lowered their masks enough to reveal their inner fears, but you didn't have to be an ex-drug dealer like Scarface to relate. 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 your anxiety anthem. Our generation knew how to posture. We knew how to pose and play hard. But the survival tool we'd really been missing all this time was a way to process our pain, to process our reality.

Therapy was still a huge taboo — and really a privilege — that most black folks just weren't privy to. "Mind Playing Tricks" became the Trojan Horse, giving a generation the language to consider something we'd never let down our guard to talk about. Pretty soon, you even had preachers using the song as text for their Sunday sermons.

"The first time I actually heard the song analyzed and broken down was at church," says music journalist and Southern hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, recalling one of his earliest encounters with the song as a kid back in the '90s. "Somebody was preaching at church — you know how preachers do analogies with their sermons. He was like: 'And you know, it's like that Geto Boys song, when your mind's playing tricks on ya.' He was breaking down the depression, the drugs, the anxiety, the everything — he was corralling all of this into his sermon. That was one of the first rap songs that I remember where topics like that were even touched on."

After "Mind Playing Tricks," gangsta rap started to sound a little different. It was still hard, still raw and uncut. But now, it began to echo the blues tradition it grew out of. You had artists like MC Eiht rapping about how the "hood took [him] under." Or Spice 1 wearing "The Face of a Desperate Man." And Tupac crying all those thug tears.

Today, mental health is one of the biggest topics in hip-hop culture: Even as many still suffer in silence or die tragically from drug overdoses, many more conversations are happening in public. Last year, Kanye West called his bipolar diagnosis his "superpower" in an attempt to destigmatize mental illness. The importance of self-care is a constant theme on Black Twitter. Radio personality Charlamagne the God wrote a whole book, Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks On Me, about confronting his anxiety and getting help for it. (Scarface even wrote the foreword.)

And there isn't a popular rapper out there who doesn't owe their career to this song in some way — whether they know it or not. It gave an artist like Drake the range to wear his heart on his sleeve. It gave Kid Cudi his biggest hit in "Day 'N' Nite," a song he wrote while trying to make his own version of "Mind Playing Tricks." And it's gifted us a whole subgenre of emo rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD and, yes, even Post Malone, who top the charts by pouring out their pain.

For so many artists and fans today, rap is still the closest thing they have to therapy. It's the space where artists articulate their trauma and and air out their toxic behavior. 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.

Meanwhile, the Geto Boys fight on. Willie D is still as politically outspoken as ever. Bushwick Bill is battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis he recently revealed to the public. Then there's Scarface, easily one of the greatest rappers of all time. His grandmama told him her mind was playing tricks, and he turned it into something bigger than a hit: a diagnosis. Not just of black boys in the hood, but of the effects America's systemic ills were having on us.

If he made a new version of the song, "it would be bigger than me," he said in Charlamagne's book. "My paranoia would be based on my people going back into slavery." His mind could still be playing tricks. Or just maybe, 30 years later, he's seeing reality with more clarity than ever before.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIND PLAYING TRICKS ON ME")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIND PLAYING TRICKS ON ME")

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?

BUSHWICK BILL: Yeah.

SCARFACE: Oh.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIND PLAYING TRICKS ON ME")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YO! MTV RAPS")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIND PLAYING TRICKS ON ME")

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.

CARMICHAEL: OK.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIND PLAYING TRICKS ON ME")

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.