You're about to enter a nightmare world of brute criminality, unrelenting bloodshed and African American self-loathing.

And it's got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Loadin' up my weapons, gettin' ready for

another street-sweepin' neighborhood drug war.

Police come around in a meat wagon,

knowin' that tonight they'll be draggin'

off {suckers} to a six-foot ditch.

I hope ya insurance paid up, bitch ...

This song is titled "Another Nigger in the Morgue," and it's delivered with exuberance -- glee even -- by Scarface, one of three Houston rappers getting famous right now as the Geto Boys. It's off the group's gold album, "We Can't Be Stopped."

The funk is moving. Scarface stands proudly in his "run-down neighborhood cemetery," counting bodies:

Fifty-seven, 58, 59,

All layin' down in the same line.

You sorry {suckers} couldn't handle me.

I d'n {messed} up 17 families ...

Scarface, in a gunfight, pulls out an automatic shotgun known as a Streetsweeper:

Hit three or four in the head.

That's three or four niggers left for dead ...

This is "gangsta rap" at its finest. A muscular groove. A muscular voice. And a very, very disturbing view of life in which killing equals fun, coldbloodedness equals manliness.

The price you pay, the listener, for a few minutes of vicarious thrills is the nagging worry that, damn, maybe songs like these are turning this into a world where a teenager can shoot into a stranger's car because he feels like "bustin' somebody," then grin when he's arrested for murder.

To 21-year-old Brad "Scarface" Jordan, this is a moral puzzle easily disregarded.

"I don't want people to follow Scarface. I want people to follow Brad Jordan, man." That's what he says backstage at Capital Centre, with the Geto Boys about to step in front of 10,000 rap fans as the headlined act. "See, Brad Jordan ain't have {a thing}. But he came up and got something. Scarface is just a character. He's just something to look at. He's not nothing to be."

A few minutes earlier, Jordan was smiling and moving through the backstage hangers-on with a beer in hand, half swaggering and half staggering, a bandanna pulled over his face bandit-style.

"Nobody can go out and kill 30 or 40 different people and not go to jail," Jordan says. "You know? That's stupid if you believe that. You gotta draw that line, man. There's a line over here for fiction" -- his arm splits the air -- "and there's a line over here for nonfiction."

Except that when you talk to the Geto Boys, the line seems to blur.

Just look at Richard Shaw, a k a "Bushwick Bill," who is unique enough as the only dwarf in rap music, but now he's got a glass eye too. His girlfriend shot him in the head last May. Drunk and suicidal, Shaw had insisted on it.

Today he explains it with a chuckle: "I brought my work home with me."

What does fantasy violence have to do with real-life violence? What does pathology have to do with entertainment? And while we're asking questions, what the heck are the Geto Boys doing in the Top 40?

Gangster Sells

This story begins in the rough Fifth Ward section of Houston around 1985. James Smith, who grew up there, was working as a bank teller when he decided to encourage three neighborhood teenagers -- one of them his stepbrother, none still in the group -- to rap. "Every day I would come home and catch them playing hooky," he says. Smith told them that if they stayed in school, he'd help them break into the music business. He named them the Ghetto Boys.

In 1986, Smith bought a used car lot and went into business for himself. And in a "rickety" old two-story building on the property, the rappers would practice. Cliff Blodget, a white fellow with a computer science degree, came along one day, said he'd heard about the group, and he and Smith launched Rap-A-LotRecords.

To up-to-date ears, one early GhettoBoys recording -- the 1987 single "You Ain't Nothin'," backed with "I Run This" -- serves as a startling curiosity. The performers went by such corny, grandiose, old-style hip-hop names as Sire Juke Box, Prince Johny "C" and Grand Wizard DJ Ready Red. Their delivery owed much to the tag-team style of Run-DMC, once cutting-edge but now so mannered as to be amusing.

"The Run-DMC type of style, that's what was real popular back then," Smith says. "That's the style they knew." And it was an attempt at "commercial" rap. No cussing, no murdering. Just typical MC braggadocio about being "def on the hip-hop scene."

But all along, Smith says, he wanted the Ghetto Boys to have a street edge. So on "Making Trouble," their first album in 1988, the rappers boldly declared themselves "trouble-makers, cold common thugs, tearin' down the neighborhood." Interspersed among the lyrics were snippets of Al Pacino from the movie "Scarface," an underground classic. ("Say hello to my little friend" -- BOOM!)

And in one song, "Assassins," the Ghetto Boys pioneered the "slasher" style of storytelling that would later bring three other Geto Boys national notoriety. One woman is chopped up with a machete, another with a chain saw. Although homage is paid to Freddy Krueger, the psycho-killer of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies, Smith says, "We were thinking about the 'Texas Chain Saw Massacre.' " Working that Texas angle a little bit.

As it turned out, "that was the hottest song on that album."

In 1989, the West Coast rap group N.W.A. raised the stakes on criminal violence and impolite language with "Straight Outta Compton," a million-selling album that has been disturbingly influential.

In late '89, with a new lineup of Bushwick Bill, Willie Dee and Scarface (then known as DJ Akshen), Rap-A-Lot released the second Ghetto Boys album, "Grip It on That Other Level." And it was an underground sensation, with song titles such as "Trigga Happy Nigga."

"Gangster movies sell," Smith says. " 'Scarface,' 'Bonnie and Clyde.' " At the same time, he insists the group's violent lyrics reflect the cold realities of inner-city life. "It's just regular talk with the Geto Boys. It's everyday conversation."

Most Americans never heard of the group until the summer of 1990, when record producer Rick Rubin picked up the (rechristened) Geto Boys for his Def American label. Rubin had the distribution muscle of Geffen Records behind him, which he had used successfully to push such controversial acts as comedian Andrew Dice Clay and Slayer, a satanically inclined heavy metal band.

But Geffen balked at the Geto Boys, refusing to distribute their self-titled album (even though it contained much of the material from "Grip It on That Other Level," a proven success). Music writers across the country jumped on the story. It was, after all, a season in which the popularity of a raunchy rap group called 2 Live Crew had scandalized the mass media.

So newspapers were titillating their readers with reports of "Mind of a Lunatic," in which the Geto Boys spun a tale of rape, throat-slitting and necrophilia. One pop critic declared the album's lyrics "the moral equivalent of shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater." And Rubin was quoted saying things like: "I don't think the group actually hates women any more than I think they're going to go out and kill somebody. We're dealing with horror and entertainment here. ... These guys are just having fun."

Rubin finally found a distributor for "Geto Boys" -- Warner Bros. -- and on the album cover he tried to position himself as a champion of the First Amendment: "Def American Recordings is opposed to censorship. Our manufacturer and distributor, however, do not condone or endorse the content of this recording, which they find violent, sexist, racist and indecent."

Despite all the free publicity, "Geto Boys" didn't approach the platinum-level sales of N.W.A. or 2 Live Crew.

"A lot of the hype that came from the last album catered to the rock-and-roll fans," says William Dennis, a k a "Willie Dee." "A lot of the stuff you saw published was in, like, Rolling Stone -- magazines that our audience didn't necessarily read. So it really didn't do much for our sales."

Rubin isn't involved with the latest Geto Boys album. Rap-A-Lot now has a distribution deal with Priority Records, which introduced the world to N.W.A.

With a Bullet

During their recent Capital Centre show, the Geto Boys got a lukewarm reaction from the crowd for much of the set. At one point, Willie Dee said, "Somebody must've died that all y'all in here knew!"

Bushwick Bill did get people on their feet when he stripped to his drawers and engaged in mock sex acts with two scantily clad female dancers.

But for their last song -- "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" -- everyone in the house rose and rapped along, word for word, joyfully, transcendently.

There's nothing like a hit single.

An expurgated version of "Mind Playing Tricks" is currently No. 32 on Billboard's chart of the 100 hottest songs in America. That's without Top 40 radio support. (Popular video, though.) And the song has earned the Geto Boys much respect from serious rap fans; readers of the Source, a well-regarded hip-hop magazine, voted it the best rap single of 1991.

The thing is, "Mind Playing Tricks" isn't a blood-spattered death farce. In fact, it's the inverse -- a genuinely touching trip inside the tormented mind and soul of a dope dealer, told over a melancholy soul groove. Scarface, who merrily piles up bodies in "Another Nigger in the Morgue," is plaintive here, delving into such feelings as remorse, fear, depression, paranoia, even love for his woman and child:

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.

But even in this, the line between art and reality is fuzzy. Backstage, Scarface declares that he is actually clinically manic-depressive. That he takes lithium. "I've been hospitalized for manic-depression, you know, suicide attempts and overdoses," he says casually. He offers a too-fleeting glimpse of his wrists. "That's real {stuff}. That's why I wrote the jam. The {stuff} I write is like poetry to me."

Scarface also hints that he's done things on the streets worth feeling guilty about. "But I'll never tell." He smiles.

Yeah, okay. By the way, Scarface has a solo project out. Sample song titles: "Born Killer," "Murder by Reason of Insanity," "Diary of a Madman." (Lithium, huh?)

But then, there's no denying what happened to Bushwick Bill last May. His picture is right there on the cover of "We Can't Be Stopped." He's sitting on a hospital gurney, the bloody remains of his right eye bulging from its socket.

"All the things I thought I should have that I didn't have. ... I got into a depressed state of mind where suicide was my only escape," Bushwick says. "But I didn't want to do it myself. So I set my girl up to do it, which was unfair to her, and which was unfair to myself. Because I should have thought about my mom, you know, and what she put up with to help me get as far as I've got."

He doesn't see the irony, given his brush with death, in prowling around on stage with a machete and a cleaver, doing his gross-out "Chuckie" song (the new Geto Boys single). Inspired by the "Child's Play" horror movies about a maniacal killer doll, he raps: "A murder contest, you know I'll win it, 'cause in every mailbox, there'll be a head with a knife in it."

"I kept watching all the different 'Child's Play' sagas, right?" Bushwick says. "Then all of a sudden I decided, 'He's short, I'm short. What a better concept?' It fits. If I can't make the song, why make the movies?"

Bushwick Bill is into horror movies. Mention the real-life serial killer and do-it-yourself butcher Jeffrey Dahmer, and Bushwick says, "That movie came out already. It's called 'Pieces.' And think about the movie 'Maniac.' Remember when he peeled this one girl's scalp off and glued it to a mannequin?"

In a strange twist, Bushwick Bill has now found religion. He promises that his own solo album will draw largely upon the Bible. How does he reconcile his new devotion with his taste for horror?

"They have horror stuff in the Bible," he says. "Like if you were to read Deuteronomy 28, that talks about the blessings and curses of God. Talks about if you don't pay attention to God and {you're} disobedient, that your life will bear a child and eat it in secret." Bushwick chuckles. "That's in the Bible."

His album will contain a rap about Deuteronomy 28.

There's no telling how fast gangsta rap will play out. But for now Willie Dee, who seems to picture the Geto Boys as courageous social commentators, can confidently state: "As long as there's drugs, sex, war" -- the current album contains a foaming denunciation of the Persian Gulf dust-up -- "as long as politicians are dirty, are scum of the Earth, we'll always have something to talk about."