All photos courtesy of William Morrow/An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
It's 9 PM in Brooklyn and Scarface is giving directions over the phone, telling Eric B.—of venerable rap duo Eric B. & Rakim—how to get to Dumbo.
"We right here on 37 Main, cuz," he barks into bluetooth headphones, wrapping himself up into a hoodie that reads "Brooklyn" across the chest. "It ain't like we in Bed-Stuy!
In between calls, Face is talking to me about his just-released memoir, Diary of a Madman, an important text and the latest in a short list of rapper tell-alls. When Eric B. shows up minutes later, dressed in a pinstriped suit and leather "roach-stompers," he embraces Face, who proclaims with the delight of a childhood fan, "I love you Eric, you my dawg!"
It's a night of lighthearted celebration for Face, who minutes prior launched his book at Dumbo's Powerhouse Arena to a crowd of ecstatic fans—some of whom waited up to an hour to meet the iconic MC, get an autograph, and snap a selfie. With the night winding down, he's seated at a round table on the bookstore's second level, talking about Madman and the mad life that inspired it. He looks, more than anything, relieved.
Face, a born-and-bred Houstonian, finally has some time to exhale after a hyperactive career that saw him break boundaries for Southern hip-hop while garnering fans in fellow rappers the country over. The cerebral street poet's early peers included UGK, Ice Cube, and Too $hort, and he's collaborated with heavyweights like Jay Z, Nas, and a young Kanye West. He's also one of few artists to work with both Biggie and 2Pac, a testament to an undeniable talent that's marked by intoxicatingly visual storytelling and an unmissable, gritty-as-the-gravel voice.
Now 44, with 11 solo and seven Geto Boys albums under his belt, Face is without a doubt "your favorite rapper's favorite rapper." It makes sense why that’s the pull quote on the back of his new book.
In some ways, Madman, which Face co-wrote with journalist Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, is the story of an unsung hero who sold millions of albums and inspired many of hip-hop's most well-known lyricists, yet has eluded household-name fame. It's also an unprecedentedly honest look into the mind of a true madman with a haunting past. In 240 pages, Face recounts childhood trips to the psych ward, suicide attempts, small-town shootouts, and the pains of saying goodbye to friends gone too soon.
"He dug up shit that I really wanted to bury," Face says of working with Meadows-Ingram to revisit some of his more painful memories. "I had to decompress after I talked to him because he was relentless in trying to get this shit. And it's all for the better for the book and the reading, but goddamn, he went there."
Throughout the launch, Face pokes fun at Meadows-Ingram for his insistent drudgery, even calling him the "devil" on some occasions, suggesting that the soft-spoken writer often dug too deep for comfort.
Meadows-Ingram, a 36-year-old Memphis native and former editor at Vibe and Billboard, grew up listening to Face and always appreciated his influence on music beyond Texas's "Third Coast." When it came time to work on Madman, Meadows-Ingram says he tried to put his journalistic approach to the side to tell his hero's tale the way he wanted it told.
"In order to tell a good story, you always have to ask the hard questions," says Meadows-Ingram during our joint interview with Face. "It's obviously a different relationship when it's someone from the media, it's a little more antagonistic. And here, I wanted to ask the hard questions, but it's his story. When you're a journalist you're trying to serve the larger story. With this, we were collaborating, truly."
Collaboration between the two, surprisingly done over lengthy phone interviews, was mostly fluid. Still, Face admits he struggled to open up and unearth his many demons, for fear of how he'd be perceived.
"There's certain shit I didn't want to hear, certain shit I didn't want to see in that book," he says. Even now, with Madman in stores and receiving positive reviews, Face says, "I don't even want to read this book because I know: In this book is that life."
The life Face refers to is one of fantastic highs and tragic lows, peppered with drug abuse, prolific creativity and missed opportunities, all in service of a recording career that kicked off in 1991 and continues to this day thanks to collaborations with Rick Ross and The Game. With his rap career serving as the central focus of the book, Scarface said that hip-hop memoirs—which Ja Rule, LL Cool J, and Common have explored in recent years—are important because they provide fans with an "intimate look into an artist's life."
"Listening to my records, you feel one way about it when you hear it, but reading my words," says Face, "that makes us a little bit more intimate." Meadows-Ingram agrees. "This is a book that should exist, and I think that's probably true for a bunch of artists."
Still, even with the intimate transparency offered up in Diary of Madman, the book does have some glaring omissions, like when Face briefly touches on his relationship with his estranged wife and children. The decision to leave that part of the artist's saga vague, the authors said, was intentional.
"I wanted to make sure we touched it and we left it," Face says of his marital life. "We all know that I failed as a parent. I'll be a way better grandparent than I was a parent, and that's how I would rather leave that. I'll work on myself. But I always say that music took control of my life. All of it. Music fucked me up. I gave my life to it."
"We had that conversation," says Meadows-Ingram, who understood Face's apprehensions early on and was eager instead to focus on the rapper's story and not the story of his failed relationships. "He'd be like, 'Look, we talked about that thing, but we need to take that thing out.' You know, I'm not gonna fight to keep something in."
One narrative that does pop up throughout the book is Face's warped partnership with James Prince, Southern rap impresario and founder of Houston's Rap-A-Lot Records. Despite discovering Face in his late teens and giving him the opportunity to become a professional recording artist, Prince, throughout the course of Face's storied career, turned into the rapper's captor of sorts, taking full advantage of a largely one-sided friendship. In one section of Madman, Face recounts asking Rap-A-Lot reps about royalties for one of his several multi-platinum-selling albums, only to be asked to sign another contract extension in exchange for the money he was rightfully owed. Elsewhere, he remembers hounding the label's staff for a copy of his contract only to hear that he somehow owed the recording company money in the midst of his global success.
Prince is of course now in the midst of a similar label struggle himself, albeit in a very different capacity. James's son, Jas Prince, discovered Drake, who may be actively trying to opt out of his Cash Money contract after not getting paid his proper royalties. Though Face doesn't claim to know anything about the Drake situation, he says the music industry is a feeding ground for abuse, even from those closest to you.
"It's just a snake-ass business, man," he says, noting that even if a contract states an artist will only be paid a certain amount based off sales, numbers should be reevaluated based on unprecedented success—like, say, his many platinum-selling albums for Rap-A-Lot. Like he mentions in the book, the only time Face believes he got what he was worth in the recording business was when he made The Fix, his only album under the Def Jam imprint.
"Legally, it may be right, but morally, it's all the way wrong," he says. "We don't want to go in there practicing and preaching our loyalty to each other and ain't nobody loyal to each other when it's time to get paid. That's not aimed at anyone specific, but just with labels, period. If we did it together, we should eat together, right?"
In the book, Face opens up about feeling trapped at Rap-A-Lot for the bulk of his recording career, but today he maintains the "ultimate love and respect for [James Prince]."
That dichotomy—knowing that something didn't go right, but staying optimistic in defiance of that fact—runs through Diary of a Madman, and by its end it's hard to imagine that someone who's been through so much pain can still find peace with himself. Face said the actual completion of the book, in many ways, helped him come to terms with his past and look to the future with a new sense of purpose.
"All that shit that happened, it feels like the weight of the world's off my shoulders," Face says, impassioned. "That's gone. That ball of energy of being mad and disappointed and not being able to talk to somebody, it's gone, because I talked… It releases knots in your back and releases headache pressure when it's gone. It's probably the most beautiful feeling. April 21"—the date of the book's launch—"was probably the best day of my life, because now the whole world knows what I was reluctant to say." He holds up the book. "The words that I couldn't say to my mom, or to James, or to my uncle, or to my wife, they're there now."
Throughout the night, Face mentions the idea that he's now living his third life. His first two, which he documents in the book, flew by with such breakneck speed—and were clouded by such an immense amount of weed smoke that he calls his late-90s self a "hippie"—that he feels lucky to have made it through. In this new existence, he plans to find pause and see all the things he'd missed on his first go-rounds.
He pauses for a moment, covering his face with his hands. I imagine he’s thinking of the second, or third, chances he's been given, and now with the years behind him, it’s clear that the Southern legend—a man who moved so many with his unfiltered truth—has finally become untethered to the madman he once was.
"I don't know what's so disappointing about being alive," he tells me, "but I will say that the longer I'm alive, the more I appreciate not dying. I really believe that God spared me, and I'm thankful for that. Imagine if I would've died when I was seven, 12 years old.”
Meadows-Ingram chimes in: "The world would be much worse off.”
Dan Buyanovsky is a journalist based in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter.