Busta Rhymes
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Music Sermon: The Underrated Genius Of Busta Rhymes

The word “underrated” is overused. Even though I regularly write about underrated artists, I try to stay away from the term whenever possible–but it’s appropriate for Busta Rhymes. While his cohorts from the Native Tongues collective are highly lauded and celebrated, especially A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, Bus–who enjoyed a longer and more commercially successful hit-making run than the others–has become the old uncle to hip-hop fans. Maybe it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt, because he has continued to record, instead of falling into a DJ and production role with occasional features like Q-Tip, or releasing indie joints like De La, or pursuing his acting career and branching into other arms of entertainment like Queen Latifah, or just hitting the old school circuit with the classics like Dres of Black Sheep. But Busta was a pivotal artist in hip-hop. Because of his flow. Because of his live performance. Because of his features. Because of his videos. He raised the bar and helped broaden the scope of hip-hop at crucial moments in the genre’s evolution.

Busta’s been referred to as hip-hop’s “jester” several times over the years (primarily by mainstream outlets, but I think we know better). This is a severe misnomer; an indication of how Bus’s high energy, colorful presence, raspy growl and dominating smile were misunderstood. “That energy? It all comes from the appreciation I have for what I’m doing,” he explained in an interview for his debut solo album. “I love the music creating something from nothing, adding the beats, the instruments. When I put the song together and it's banging, that’s my best reward. And when I’m feeling that? Oh my God, I’m trying to make sure you feel the way I’m feeling.” The ability to convey that joy and excitement through every medium, to get you hype ‘cause he hype, is the uniqueness of Busta.

When telling Bus’s story, most start at “Scenario;” the game-changing posse track from A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory (Tribe’s defining album; I will die on that hill.) which heralded Busta’s forthcoming solo career, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. But if you’re walking into the story when Q Tip asks Mr. Busta Rhymes to tell us what he did in “Scenario,” hit stop. Then rewind until you see a Long Island high school cafeteria with a slim, short-haired Trevor Jackson, Jr hitting the East Coast Stomp, highlighted with red animated graphics. Now press play. This is where the story begins.

Busta Rhymes the Mighty Infamous

We’ll get to Busta literally roaring into hip-hop infamy on “Scenario” in a bit. Before he was the breakout rapper on that track, he was the breakout star of The Leaders of the New School…which is ultimately why the Long Island group broke up. But LONS was itself was a standout group, that became part of a standout collective, so Bus sticking out amongst all that excellence was no small feat.

Hip-hop was always youth culture, but it was also a heavy dose of the realism of life and actuality (shout out to AZ). LONS and the Native Tongues were part of a new subculture of rap groups accessible to young hip-hop fans who didn’t grow up in the streets, couldn’t relate to hood tales, and didn’t identify with braggadocio rap, but still wanted to see themselves reflected in the culture. Fans who didn’t rock gold chains and adidas, but sported backpacks (because they were still in school), did regular stuff like homework and hanging out at the mall, and maybe even had both parents at home. This was the early alternative rap movement – hip-hop with lighter fare. “That Long Island environment was some fresh air type sh*t, that spacy sh*t that gives you room to be who you are and want to be without all those urban hangups,” he told the New York Daily News in 1996. “We thought hip-hop was so damn raunchy all the time oppressive. We needed some party, universal, happy sh*t…. We were comfortable, cozy. We were able to focus on hip-hop on a fun level.”

And the fun was infectious. Some hip-hop historians credit LONS for the rise of backpack rappers – young artists who emerged through the underground scene by way of college and mixshow radio. “PTA” got heavy video play on every urban platform, and soon there were black kids with backpacks doing the East Coast Stomp with fervor everywhere. Busta told Ed Lover years later during a radio promo visit, “I wish I could get a publishing check from every ni**a that does that dance.”

All wasn’t good inside the group, though. Even before the Leaders recorded their first album, the group was having issues and had split up, with Bus going off to pursue a solo career. When former Tommy Boy A&R Dante Ross summoned Charlie Brown for a meeting at his new label, Elektra, the guys initially went without Bus – but Dante wouldn’t sign them without him. Busta came back for the sake of everyone’s dream, but he and Charlie were continuously in a fight for control and prominence in the group. Literally. “Me and Brown used to fist fight and be bleeding at the mouth before we (would) get on stage,” Busta revealed to Vlad TV while discussing his tumultuous relationship with Leaders, “and then get on stage and be suckin’ and swallowin’ the blood in (our) busted lip while performing so the audience wouldn’t see the blood leakin’ from (our) mouth. And smile in front like everything’s good, and get back offstage and finish the fight.” Ew, Bus. Ew.

Publicly, however, the group was solid. They even scored a No. 1 with their final single from A Future Without a Past.

Busta spent time and put in work with established acts of the era, including his mentor Chuck D who, along with The Bomb Squad, gave Bus and Charlie both their emcee names and the group’s name (they had to battle another up-and-coming group for use of the name; the losing group took the title Young Black Teenagers), but was especially tight with Tribe. ATCQ was his creative refuge when he was feeling constrained within his own group.

When Tip came up with the concept for “Scenario,” his idea wasn’t just to give LONS a look; it was a platform for Busta. Tip wanted to position him as next. “’Scenario’ for Busta was like his step-out [moment],” he later explained. “That was my purpose… because I thought he was ill.”
Tip wrote Bus’s early lines in the track, an introduction that keyed him up for his big finale. That moment changed Busta’s career, and I believe changed the weight and status of the posse cut’s anchor position.

Busta recounted the moment from his point of view to XXL around the track’s 20th anniversary. “(Q-Tip) handed me the ball. He was setting me up with an alley-oop. I could just dunk the shit on niggas. That was his idea. Once it got to the, 'As I combine all the juice from the mind,' that was me all day. He heard that 16 bars of the verse I said, he said, ‘Nigga, I’m gonna set you up to come in so crazy. That verse is so retarded! Nigga, I got to set that bitch up right.’ I was like, ‘Alright, big homie what you got in mind for me?’ He said, ‘I want you to say this line in my verse.’ I said, ‘Alright, cool.’ Did it and went into my shit. My life changed dynamically after that.”

The Leaders went on to do a second album, but internal tension continued. After “Scenario,” Busta was tapped for more collaborations. His energy immediately elevated everything, even just talking trash on an interlude.

His rapidly ascending star was a problem within the group, namely with him and Charlie, in part because Charlie considered himself the leader. The cracks became publicly visible, right up to the point of the group famously breaking up on air in front of Yo! MTV Rap’s cameras, mid-interview with Fab Five Freddy. Good news, Bus and Charlie finally reconciled in 2012.

Bus the Magic Dragon

Leaders split in 1993, but it took a few years for Busta to finally release his solo debut. For artists with heat and anticipation, that kind of delay can prove dangerous, however in that span of time Bus didn’t lose any energy or clout. Between LONS’ last album and his debut in ‘96, he had a look on another legendary posse cut, once again holding down the close.

From the first single of The Coming, it was clear that Bus was no longer an underground backpack rapper. He had graduated from repping the MTA-taking, still living at the parents’ crib, fresh out of school set; to pushing Lex’s through Times Square with Hype Williams budgets and major radio play. The years of 1993 to 1996 were a damn near time-warp sized leap in hip-hop, but Busta made the transition with no hiccups.

“Woo Ha” is the essence of Busta Rhymes in one record. It’s loud and disorienting and distracting - the track sounds like of like a distorted carnival calliope. It’s also fun, and almost annoyingly catchy. But it’s not silly. It’s a mistake to ever confuse Busta’s playful energy as silly (which is why I take umbrage with the “jester” descriptors). It takes skill to spit whimsical rhymes without just stringing a bunch of hat, cat, bat rhymes together. Busta and Missy Elliott both did that well, and they both translated it to visuals with great success. (Honestly, why more people don’t talk about the two of them as hip-hop’s creative twins is beyond me, but that’s another sermon). Hype’s fisheye lens was tailor-made for the two artists, and with his help, Busta’s first solo outing revealed that he wasn’t simply talented and animated, but a creative visionary. His delay was perhaps beneficial because he landed right at the beginning of the golden era of music videos.

Once Busta’s solo career was moving, it was full speed. Elektra had given him the Flipmode Squad imprint, and he was working not only on his own moves but building his camp. Between solo projects and Flipmode, he cranked out six albums in as many years before slowing down with his last two studio releases.

The Coming was a solid debut, but it wasn’t a classic. Really more of a follow-up from all his features; proof that his Busta-ness could sustain more than sixteen hot bars and some adlibs.

When Disaster Strikes announced his versatility and staying power. The first time I heard “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” on Hot 97, I was in my little cubicle at my first full-time job, and before the song was even all the way over, my friend and coworker called me from her cube down the hall, “That beat is so sick, I’m nauseous. I might throw up right now.” The beat was sick. More surprisingly, though, Bus had toned his flow down so we could appreciate his wordplay, and rode the Seals and Croft sample perfectly. This was a flow we hadn’t heard from him before – but he’d done it as a joke, after Puff and Q-Tip told him to chill with all the screaming on tracks because “b*tches don’t wanna do that sh*t all the time.”
This is such a great big homie/little homie story.

Then, the video dropped. Listen (motions you to come closer), I’m not supposed to curse, but that shit was. a. f***ing. moment.

No blogs. No social media. But everybody was talking about this amazing ass video. The theme, the dancers, the women, the costumes, the damn elephant! The combination of Busta, Hype, Fatima Robinson, and production designer Ron Norsworthy (who also designed the sets for “Woo Haa,” “Supa Dupa Fly,” “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” and “If I Ruled the World”) came together for a stunning, surrealist take on Coming to America. And while Bus hadn’t toned down his extra-large performance style, it was obvious this was grown man Bus. Established artist, comfortable in his space Bus. The outlandish fits were a little less outlandish - and tailored. They looked expensive. Plus he’d been in the gym, and his locks were intricately and immaculately styled. This was a platinum artist – even if he hadn’t hit the sales yet at the time.

Bus’s glow up didn’t change the playfulness and incredible imagination driving his art. His follow up single, “Dangerous,” came from an old Long Island Regional Poison Control PSA warning kids not to play with prescription meds. I know we have plenty of nursey rhymes-turned rap songs in the annals of hip-hop, but I’m still baffled at the mind that said “Yo, remember that commercial about drugs? We should flip that.” Oh, but that's why it's Flip Mode! (Imagine Weebay gif here.)

Bus and Hype delved into movie territory again for the video, borrowing from Lethal Weapon and The Last Dragon (Bus is such an obvious Sho Nuff). Part of the reason Spliff Star is the greatest hype man in hip-hop history (except for maybe Flavor Flav), is his ability to so perfectly play Arsenio Hall to Busta’s Eddie Murphy.

If you don’t care to give Bus credit for being one of the most agile and adaptable MCs of his time, you have to acknowledge the inspired originality in his videos. Again, the only person even touching him in ideas and innovation was Missy.

It’s not an accident that Busta is featured in two of the 11 most expensive videos of all time (two of the top three most expensive if you limit it to hip-hop). “What’s it Gonna Be” remains Hype Williams’ biggest budget. This is the kind of budget you get once you’re not just a rap star, but a crossover hit, a benchmark Busta had reached by his third album E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event).

Busta’s complete albums haven’t been super consistent - a reason he’s overlooked as one of the greats of the era – but his singles and videos rarely failed, until the early aughts.

Also, the Harlem Nights scene in this video is also incredibly underrated. Mo’nique was perfect.

The People’s Choice

Busta is a cameo MVP, for obvious reasons. From the time he shouted, “Oh my God” over a Tribe track, Busta has been a go-to choice when folks want to turn the joint up a little.

I mentioned two of the most expensive videos of all time. “Victory” was the second, more expensive one. What other rapper can you perch on a statue at the top of a towering building in some dystopian, Running Man-esque scenario, covered in feathers, and it seem perfectly normal? Like “Oh, hey Bus.”

Even when Busta is opening a posse cut instead of closing it out, he adds a little extra something. “Ante Up” didn’t exactly need any additional cranking up, but why not?

I’m guessing that Busta would consider his most significant career features – aside from “Scenario” – to be the four tracks he was part of for ATCQ’s comeback album, We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. Also Tribe’s final album due to the passing of Phife Dawg, We Got It from Here…  reunited not only core group members – including original member Jarobi White – but also brought together “unofficial” folks, like Consequence and Busta.

Bus stepped in for Phife at the 2017 Grammys for the incredible performance of the timely and topical “We the People.”

The Showman and the Hypeman

As I said before, it’s a mistake to believe Busta is any less serious of an artist because of his humor and high energy style. He’s remained active in the game for the last 30 years because his love for the art is real. He once referenced a concept instilled by Chuck D: CLAMP. “That’s this thing he would say when we was trying to get on,” he told The Daily Beast. “(He said) ‘If you muthafuckas don’t got your concept, your lyrics, your attitude and appearance, your music and performance right, you don’t have a CLAMP on this shit.’ I took that, applied it to everything: Concept. Lyrics. Attitude/Appearance. Music. Performance.”

People who know Busta personally or have seen him live often rank him amongst the best live performers in hip-hop. Bus will give the same performance in front of 24 people as he will in front of 24,000. He boasted during promo for The Coming, “If I have to bark louder, I will. If I get on stage before the other man, I’m taking all that energy, just to make sure he don’t catch wreck.” And right next to him, keeping the energy going, is Spliff Star.

Spliff has known Bus most of his life, and worked with him his entire solo career. As the hype man becomes a relic of the old school and members of artist’s camps eschew the name, Spliff is proud of being both one of the last hype men standing, and one of the best to ever hold the title.

“If I was going to be the hype man, I was going to be the best hype man,” Star told VIBE in a recent interview. “I wanted them to remember my name. Spliff Star never dropped a solo album, and I’m still a household [brand]. When the books close on hip-hop, I hope I’m on one of the pages, even if it’s on the last page.”

It helps that Bus and Spliff are of the same mind about the importance of a tight performance, something that even the Leaders agreed on. Early hip-hop performances could be boring unless the MC had dancers and/or danced himself (like Big Daddy Kane and Heavy D), or was high energy (like L.L.), or just magnetic (like Eric B. and Rakim). The acts you knew would deliver an excellent show had added elements to keep the energy up. We joke about Flavor Flav now, but his energy paired with Chuck D’s commanding voice and the S1W’s military maneuvers added up to a hell of a show.

“When you get on stage, you’re supposed to give the people a performance. I’m passionate about mine,” Spliff added. “I want you to be like, ‘Yo, that light skinned n***a was whyling.’ I want to bring you that energy, so when you see me, you know what it is. And if you see Busta performing by himself, you know it can’t be the same if I ain’t there.”

The Big Homie

A major point of distinction between Busta and some of his contemporaries is his desire to bridge the gap between his generation and the new. While he doesn’t love everything he hears, he doesn’t dismiss current music as out of hand, either. Because of his own experience coming up under more seasoned artists, he believes in mentoring and helping new artists find their way. “Leaders of the New School, we had a bunch of artists in a clique called New School Society,” he has explained. “Then we broke up, I start my own shit: Flipmode… There was always a lineage. I’m always an advocate for putting out artists, breaking artists, creating legacies and careers – and being able to pass on the information, giving them some guidance. Something that we can be proud of.”

Past what most would consider his peak years, Busta collaborated with artists including Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, Justin Bieber, DJ Khaled, ASAP Ferg, O.T. Genasis and more, plus projects with his contemporaries, like The Abstract and the Dragon mixtape with Q-Tip. Some may argue he needs to sit down and chill, especially after he fell off stage a few years ago during a performance. Bus claims he’s not trying to keep up with the young cats, just stay connected. He’s not stopping yet, either. Producer 9th Wonder tweeted a couple of years ago that new Busta music is coming, and I personally have confirmation that he is, indeed, in the studio. He still loves this, and still wants us to feel how he feels.

In 1998, Tourè asked Busta what kept him motivated in his career. Busta’s response was that there was no other option. “I attribute that to having no Plan B. No other plan of survival. A sense of determination that’s so extreme, I can’t accept failure as an option. I dropped out of school in the tenth grade; I don’t know any trades; I don’t know any particular field of business. If I don’t win at this rap shit, then I’ma really be fucked up.”

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past. 

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Faze Clan, 100 Thieves, And How Hip-Hop And Video Games Collide With Esports

“I got game like Genesis.” – Lord Finesse, “Yes You May (Remix)” (1992)

Smugly sophisticated, succinct but vivid, Lord Finesse managed more in five words than this author ever could. Then there’s The Fresh Prince, who gave us, simply, “Ever since I was younger, I was into video games” on 1988’s “Human Video Game,” complete with Ready Rock C’s beatboxed rendition of the Donkey Kong theme. Of course, Biggie immortalized the poshness of a multiple console array on “Juicy,” a lyric inevitably recited at the mere mention.

Prescient though these men were, none could have predicted that Rockstar Games’ 2013 offering Grand Theft Auto V, itself emblematic of this marriage of worlds, would become the most profitable entertainment title in history. It raced to $1B in sales in just three days and has since surpassed $6B. Or that video games would out-earn all of Hollywood’s offerings and all record label projects, combined—now eight years and counting. Or that, according to the Wall Street Journal, more people watched other people play video games than they did the entirety of the 2017 NFL season.

The math is mind-bending. And few are as qualified to unlock it as Kevin Mitchell, who launched an esports program within the Sports Communications Department at Emerson College and also a pre-college initiative for high schoolers interested in esports careers. Last year, Mitchell founded the College Esports Expo (CEX), the first of its kind; year two saw 300% growth. CEX panels discussed ESPN’s first-ever Collegiate Esports Championship (CEC), a March Madness-esque national championship for gaming set to premiere this May; the fledgling Evergreen Conference, an esports league comprising the eight Ivy League schools; a Learfield IMG merger that Mitchell claims “will reshape the college esports landscape” by elevating merchandising, sponsorships and media rights to the level of D1 athletics. Meanwhile, more than 200 national institutions offer scholarships for varsity esports. And major schools like NYU, Syracuse, George Washington, and UC Irvine–“the Harvard of esports,” says Mitchell, with 400+ members in its esports club and an on-campus gaming arena–are diversifying their esports curricula.

Mitchell boasts not just game but guile and grit as a veteran of the music industry, hired by Bobbito Garcia at Def Jam and mentored by Lyor Cohen. Along the way, he earned several Grammy nominations and created a Washington, DC-based internship program that counted Young Guru, Delante Murphy, and Kevin Liles as participants. He also singlehandedly pressed up the white labels for ‘90s anthem “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz. But it was his oversight of Shaquille O'Neal’s record label TWIsM that bore fruit.

“It was ’96. I was on set at a video shoot for ‘Man of Steel,’ off the Steel soundtrack, and I beat Shaq at Tekken in front of Ice Cube and B-Real,” Mitchell grins. “Shaq got pissed and joked that he didn’t want to pay me. That’s my earliest recollection of hip-hop and gaming—that and playing Madden with Snoop in the ‘G Thang’ era.”

Long removed from boyish bravado, Mitchell, who acknowledges that he’s “more of a practitioner than an academic,” serves as director of business development and strategic intelligence for theater company National Amusements—looking for opportunities between seemingly disparate worlds. When he first started placing songs into the Madden and NBA Live franchises on behalf of EA Sports, he knew he’d found his lane – it turns out that hip-hop and gaming aren't as different as they may seem.

“There’s a high level of authenticity required with gaming; it’s not anyone trying to be something they’re not. That was always a staple of hip-hop. Also, the power of both seemingly came out of nowhere, driven by a fringe component of society: Latinos and African Americans from the streets who didn’t have an outlet and gamers holed up in their basements with nobody paying attention to them," Mitchell explained. "...Now, both disciplines have become borderless and diverse, and they leverage the internet—streaming for gamers and SoundCloud for rappers. They also share management inefficiency. Think about all those regional record labels that emerged then imploded; a few people did well while a lot of the talent suffered. Esports is no different. ... Those in the gaming space are not equipped to lead others because they’re used to thriving independently.”

Speaking of thriving, one needn’t look much farther than Drake, Travis Scott, and gaming phenom Ninja, the most followed–and most profitable, cresting half a million dollars a month–user on all of streaming platform Twitch. Those three, plus gaming aficionado JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, lifted the virtual roof off Twitch in March of 2018 when they teamed up for a game of Fortnite.

“That was the ‘man on the moon, shot-heard-round-the-world’ moment in esports,” attests Mitchell. “It’s akin to hip-hop’s moving from the uptown clubs to the downtown clubs. That day, hip-hop went to Union Square. I’d always anticipated that moment because of my exposure to hip-hop, but I couldn’t exactly predict how or when it would take place. If you could write a script of how these worlds would intersect, it would be that.”

The threesome would prove no one-night stand. Later in 2018, Drake would join Scooter Braun as co-owners of esports team 100 Thieves, along with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. And the NBA affiliation doesn’t stop there. Incredibly, there is a full-blown, sanctioned NBA 2K League: 21 NBA franchises drafted teams from among the world’s best NBA 2K players. It’s the first official esports league operated by an American professional sports association.

The synergy isn’t lost on the ballers. Says Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons, himself an avid gamer: “The overlap between hip-hop and esports is so dynamic because a lot of these artists are still in their teens and mid-twenties. So the crossover is easy to see: when they aren’t making music in the studio or performing in front of thousands of people, hip-hop artists are locked in playing a video game. And, from the other side, esports is a good way for gamers to meet their favorite artists or athletes; not only are they fans of our work, most of us know gamers by name and we are fans of their work as well!”

One such famous fan is Lil Yachty, now a member of the mighty FaZe Clan, far and away the world’s most successful esports brand. FaZe is a fascinating case study, for it combines 24/7 pro gamers with online personalities dedicated to creating content. Consider the work of FaZe Blaze, who as a preteen created and uploaded Call of Duty montages and now, via his FaZe affiliation, speaks of how blessed he is to have played GTA with Mac Miller and to call Schoolboy Q a friend. Fittingly, Blaze is releasing a wholly self-produced and performed hip-hop album called Playing Games. Blaze’s words ring true to any artist: “My best friends today are people that I met playing online; we all have the same passion to create. All of us are open books; we understood from very young ages that, if we were going to do this YouTube thing, anything in our lives can and will be made public. And because we’re so open with our audience, they connect with us on a much deeper level. It’s the sort of connection you make with real friends, close friends, even siblings. On the other hand, critical feedback can be hard. You’re not going to make your best stuff every time. But somebody else’s opinions shouldn’t change what you do, how you do it, or, ultimately, who you are.”

Whatever FaZe Clan is doing, it’s working: FaZe tallies a combined social reach of 210M, 21 times larger than that of the aforementioned 100 Thieves. In fact, FaZe was ranked #2 on Bleacher Report’s 2018 Power 50 Shake it Up list—two spots ahead of Drake. And FaZe’s social engagement numbers trump the Kardashians’. Not convinced? Prior to his induction and totally unsolicited, Lil’ Yachty was habitually tweeting, “FaZe Clan or no clan.”

Yachty reflects on those no-clan days. “I got my first Xbox in kindergarten. I was 5 years old. Faze Clan is the best gaming group in the world, plus I had been a fan since high school. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? Esports is going to the top. Major. It’s getting much more respect and I’m all for it. And hip-hop and gaming will continue to intersect because artists are younger and younger these days. There’s always a need for games and music.”

Yachty and the aforementioned Smith-Schuster, who in the offseason actually lives in the FaZe house in the Hollywood Hills, are among the group’s more visible assets. So too is FaZe streamer Tfue, who boasts the most-watched Fortnite channel on Twitch and whose 6M+ monthly viewer hours actually outpace Ninja’s. But the machine behind FaZe is no less impressive. CEO Lee Trink once helmed Capitol Records and Virgin Records. And the director of business development is none other than Clinton Sparks, the Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter, and DJ. Known best for his forward-facing ventures–writing and producing for everyone to Lady Gaga to Pitbull, winning ASCAP Awards with DJ Snake–Clinton has long pushed the culture from a number of leverage points, e.g. his stint as director of marketing at Karmaloop. There, under the purview of founder and CEO Greg Selkoe, he helped turn Karmaloop into the biggest streetwear E-commerce website. So, when Selkoe sold out of the ‘loop and assumed presidency of FaZe, he insisted that Clinton leave his native Boston and bring his magic dust to La-La Land.

Indeed, if looks like the Planters Super Bowl commercial, brand deals with Nike, HTC, and Nissan and collabs with Supreme and Champion are aftershocks of FaZe’s clout, then the L.A. house marks its epicenter. “At any given time, you will find guys like Post Malone, Trippie Redd, Logic, and Roddy Ricch just hanging out at the FaZe house,” notes Clinton. “The FaZe house is a thing; the Hollywood house tours actually stop now and point it out.” The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone. The home, once the sanctuary of the reclusive gamer, has become a tourist attraction.

Clinton, whose legendary Vegas parties brought worlds together, revels in the apparent dichotomy. “There's a really blurry line between what's cool and what's not cool anymore. You don’t necessarily have to run in rap circles to exist in each other’s lanes. But this move isn’t an accident; we strategically recruit and bring in people that make sense to the lifestyle that FaZe represents," he said. "It's not strictly ‘Can you game well?’ It's also ‘Do you understand culture? Maybe you're great at fashion? Maybe you're a model? Maybe you're an artist?’ So we seek out people with keen understandings of culture and lifestyle. Ultimately, my goal is to enhance and amplify the existing business and to make the FaZe brand bigger than any one player on the team, to the point of sustainability—not just in esports, but in music, fashion, business development, and new products. And I want to familiarize people not otherwise familiar with esports and get them involved.”

Clinton has stayed busy assembling what he calls a “hip-hop syndicate.” He’s currently in talks with everyone from French Montana to DJ Paul to Trey Smith to Travis Scott. On the content and business development levels, he’s dialoguing with Mark Wahlberg and Apple Music Head of Content Larry Jackson. And he’s secured investments from music executive Troy Carter–formerly of Spotify–and Yo Gotti.

“My experience with esports has been with Faze because they are in touch with the culture,” Gotti states emphatically. “My kids are big fans. The youth cares about music, fashion, and gaming and they’re all connected. I see what they are doing business-wise and I wanted to be involved. I know what it is to build a brand and FaZe not just a team; it’s a brand and a lifestyle. I’m all in!”

Indeed, the monetary aspect speaks to another unique parallel between the rap and gaming worlds—the hustle. Says FaZe Blaze: “The beautiful thing about our world today is that we have the resources not just to create, but to create revenue. We can literally generate cash, while living at home, through the internet.” The corner has been replaced with a gaming chair and a LAN line; the product, once physical, is now virtual. The end result is the same.

“Gamers are the new rock stars,” Clinton Sparks attests. “They're the new leading actor. They're the new leader of the band. They're the new major DJ. And it's only going to get better. To consider yourself cool but not see where esports is going is to be the guy who didn’t see what the internet was going to be when it was first introduced.”

Others are jumping onto the trend as well. Meek Mill announced in February that he was founding an esports team, and personality DJ Akademiks now hosts a Complex show called On The Sticks where he plays video games with celebrities (guests so far have included artists like Yachty and A Boogie, comedian Chris Redd, and baller Iman Shumpert) while speaking to them about music, gaming and more.

“Esports is Vegas when it was still a desert,” concludes Kevin Mitchell. “I see esports having the same appeal that owning a basketball team had in the Rucker Park or Above the Rim era. I see Floyd Mayweather’s team facing LeBron’s team and bets being placed on mobile phones. I see esports leagues being as prevalent as Little League and AAU. And I want to help athletes create a new model, similar to a ‘Déjà Vu’—make that impact that the industry really needs without getting permission. Just kicking in the door.”

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Then & Now: The O'Jays Highlight Their Rich Discography, Trump And New Album 'The Last Word'

Soul legends The O'Jays have seen a lot throughout their time in the game and displayed the state of the world through 31 albums. Their latest and final album The Last Word is no different as the trio dedicates tracks like "Above the Law" towards social injustice and callings of a love movement on "Enjoy Yourself."

For this session of VIBE's Then & Now series, group co-founders Gerald Levert and Walter Williams take a trip down memory lane with their biggest hits. It wasn't easy as the group has a slew of Top 20 Billboard hits like "Love Train," "Used Ta Be My Girl" and the stirring "Backstabbers," but the duo made sure to share how the tracks were made with spiritual undertones thanks to Philadelphia songwriting icons Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

"That song had a big fat message of love, the bible speaks of love throughout it," Williams says about their 1974 hit "Love Train." "It was an idea when we went in the studio. They had the track and we recorded the background but no verses. But [Kenny] Gamble wrote the first and second verses and we went in the studio and tried it out and went on to do the adlibs. Because of the lyrical content, you can feel where it was going."

The two also showed love for those who have sampled their work like Angie Stone and Drake. The rapper cleverly interpolated 1972's "Backstabbers" in his 2016 hit, "Fake Love" while Stone lifted the track for her 2002 single "Wish I Didn't Miss You."

"I like him, I like his message and I liked his delivery," Levert said about Drake's approach to the sample. "I like where he's going in his music. There's not a lot of profanity and cursing and saying a lot of negative words. There's a message in his music."

Often praised for their political undertones, Williams and Levert say their ability to stay consistent allowed them to make some of the most timeless music in R&B.

"It's tough to get around but you have to be persistent," Williams said. "You have to go after what you want today. You have to stay relentless and then you get action."

Levert notes that today's artists are holding back when it comes to speaking up against the political machine. "I think the younger artists are too afraid to hurt their fanbase by taking a stand," he said. "They're too afraid to offend or think, 'It's not my fight. Things have changed, we don't need to address that.' Things are not gonna change as long as you don't speak out on it. If you just keep letting things go on and you never have anything to say, they will continue to go that way."

Watch Then & Now with The O'Jays up top.

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Scott Harrison

Music Sermon: The Divinity Of Luther Vandross

“There are voices in this world and once they sing, it’s a stamp on everybody.” Bravo producer and personality Andy Cohen was asking Patti Labelle about her dear friend Luther Vandross on talk show Watch What Happens Live. “Luther’s done that.”

Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. was the preeminent urban pop singer; the essence of ‘80s quiet storm R&B. He was called “the velvet voice” and “the Black Pavarotti,” but there’s not really a male predecessor he compares to because he didn’t pattern himself after the soul men like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, or Teddy Pendergrass. He studied the divas. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Patti Labelle were the voices that fascinated and inspired a young Luther. Seeing Dionne Warwick live at the Brooklyn Fox Theater made him realize he wanted to sing. “She came on stage and just killed me; the music was more serious, the song value was more serious. 'Anyone Who Has a Heart' was a masterpiece,” he told The Washington Post. “I decided at that point that I wanted to do something in music."

The difference informs the distinction between him and most other men of R&B. Luther sang from a softer space, topically and tonally. He usually sang from a gentle, easy place. Not urgent. Not aggressive. Never suggestive. His first greatest hits compilation was titled The Best of Luther, The Best of Love because his entire catalog was love. Romantic and devoted love, not sex or lust. Adoration. And while his voice is appreciated–he’s featured on every greatest vocalist list of note–the full range and depth of Luther’s vocal craftsmanship are not. He was a writer, producer, and one of the greatest vocal manipulators in the game, as well-known and sought-after from early in his career for his vocal arrangements as his singing. The New York Times once described Luther as having an “obsession with the human voice, bordering on clinical.” Some people’s gifts are leagues beyond the old talent-plus-preparation-equals-opportunity equation. Some are truly called, anointed even. Luther was divinely appointed.

The world was officially introduced to Luther in 1981, but he was already an established singer’s singer on the professional circuit. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, teenaged Luther was part of youth performing arts group sponsored by the Apollo Theater called Listen My Brother. Their music was largely social commentary, and they performed in and around New York, including on the very first episode of Sesame Street.

In 1974, Luther accidentally landed a gig as a background singer and arranger for David Bowie. He visiting a friend in Bowie’s band at the studio, and talking about an idea to improve the hook for “Young Americans,” unaware that the singer was standing within earshot. Bowie loved the idea, hired Luther, and quickly became a champion for the young singer’s budding career. Luther handled vocal arrangements for the entire Young Americans album, and additionally wrote the album cut “Infatuation.” He also performed a 45-minute opening set of his own material each night on tour, at Bowie’s insistence.

Luther’s singing here on the far left.

Bowie then introduced the crooner to Bette Midler, who took him on tour, and Luther’s career as an in-demand background singer and arranger was underway. His study of great female vocalists helped him develop an ear that set him apart. “One of the contexts you have to understand was that the background singing has always been a female-dominated area,” Luther explained in an early interview. “I was bringing stuff on my own to the sessions that was kind of unique in terms of how to do background vocals. And later I learned never to give away anything you can sell, so I started charging for this extra bit of approach, which was fine, because by this time everyone wanted it so bad that they were willing to pay for it.”

Over the years, Luther sang with Carley Simon, Chic (“Everybody Dance”), Average White Band, Chaka Khan, and Roberta Flack, who chided him for getting too comfortable as a background singer and encouraged him to finally put a demo together. Due to his own intimate relationship with excellence in backing vocals, Luther was famously known to always use the top talent in the business for his albums. A read through the personnel of his catalogue will reveal names including Cissy Houston, James Ingram, Darlene Love, Tawatha Agee (lead singer of Mtume), premiere professional backing vocalists like Fonzi Thornton, and Lisa Fischer, who Luther pushed to get out of her comfort zone and record as Flack did with him.

During a recording session for Quincy Jones, Luther was introduced to a commercial producer, who then helped him break into the jingle-writing business. He’s always been credited with his ability to write an infectious hook–that talent was honed with jingles.

Before Luther took the solo leap, he tried the group route. He briefly had a deal as part of a group called, appropriately, Luther. They recorded two albums, but neither made any noise. Then, he joined disco group Change as their frontman and had two hits, including one of my favorite mood-boosting, make everything right anthems.

Luther had a little money in his pocket from commercials and background singing, and from writing and producing a song for the Broadway musical-turned-major motion picture The Wiz.

Oh, you didn’t know Luther wrote “A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice)”?

He had the means to record and produce his demo himself, and assembled what became his career dream team. While in the group Listen My Brother, Luther met pianist Nat Adderly, Jr., son of jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley and nephew of saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. As a session singer, he met bassist Marcus Miller and recommended him to Gladys Knight, and the two bonded while on tour. He recruited them both to put together the songs that eventually became Never Too Much, and they were key contributing architects to Luther’s signature sound.

Miller is responsible for those slappin’ basslines that were prevalent in Luther’s early work, and for most of Luther’s uptempo cuts. “I never had any official responsibilities with Luther because we used to just work,“ Marcus shared in an interview, “but I felt like one of my (unspoken) responsibilities was to make sure Luther had tracks on his album that could be played on the radio during the day time.”

Adderley’s genius came through in Luther’s trademark covers. In Luther’s case, “remake” is a more apt description than “cover,” because he and Nat would take the original songs apart, stretch them out, invert them, slow parts down, add sections, reverse some sh*t… it was a whole different composition when they were done. The lush string and woodwind arrangements in Luther ballads are Nat’s handiwork. Incredible piano flourishes and solos, also Nat.

When both Miller and Adderley worked on the track, magic ensued, starting with Luther’s forever-a-bop solo debut “Never Too Much.” Coming out of the funk band driven ‘70s landscape, labels were doubtful of Luther’s smooth solo style. Epic finally took a chance, and it hit just as popular urban music went through its next evolution, which happened to be right in Luther’s sonic pocket.

“Luther, Marcus Miller and I had a real musical connection,” Nat has said. “We saw stuff the same way. We thought of things in the same way. When we came together, we really learned about each other and fed off of each other.”

Luther knew who he was as a singer and an artist. He wrote and produced the majority of his early material, and continued to co-write and co-produce through most of his career. He was clear on what worked for him both vocally and formulaically. Marcus Miller shared, “One of the things I used to hear him say was ‘I don’t need to compete with any other singers. Other singers sing hard, high, and with a lot of riffs. That’s not me. That’s not my thing. I’m just going to style these people to death.’” And he styled us to death, honey. Luther was the king of melisma and dramatic effect, but without oversinging. Where most vocalists would build towards a climax in the song, Luther’s structure was often reversed. He’d start easy, build during the middle, and come back to a soft, light, but emotional close.

This careful, deliberate singing was part of his genius. There’s a reason Black folks yell “Take your time,” to soloists when they’re in their bag–mastery isn’t rushed.

As I mentioned before, Luther was also a transformative cover artist. Would straight Deebo your song – that was his song, now. And artists didn’t even mind, because he elevated it so incredibly. Some of Luther’s biggest hits are covers: “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” (The Carpenters and Aretha Franklin), “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Dionne Warwick), “Since I Lost My Baby” (The Temptations), “Bad Boy/Having a Party” (an interpolation of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party”), “If Only for One Night” (Brenda Russell), “Creepin’” (Stevie Wonder). He was a repeat offender with Dionne Warwick’s material from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, jacking not just “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the song that blew him away at a young age, but also “A House is Not a Home”–on the same album. And she didn’t even care, look at her.

Luther’s capabilities as Mr. Steal-Your-Song also translated to his strength as a duet partner. He knew how to blend voices so perfectly, he was outstanding when paired with another strong vocalist. Luther produced Cheryl Lynn’s 1982 album Instant Love, and took the opportunity to use a Tammi and Marvin classic to showcase the singer’s strength beyond uptempo dance hits.

One of my favorite Luther duets and covers is an album cut with the tragically uncelebrated Martha Wash. Their version of the torch song standard “I Who Have Nothing,” is a little heavy on production in some places, especially the early ‘90s R&B sax, but their voices are perfect together. And the breakdown at the end? Whew. All the feels. All of them.

But Luther could also do very sweet and simple arrangements, like his duet with Gregory Hines. This song always makes me wish Gregory had done more professional singing after he left musical theater.

Don’t get it twisted, though, Luther specialized in controlled vocals, but he could act a fool when he wanted to. Especially when playing off the energy of another singer, like his dear friend and my favorite Auntie, queen of extra just because she can, Patti Labelle.

Jenifer Holliday and Luther messed around and pushed poor Paul Simon out of his own damn song.

Luther was a balladeer of elite caliber, but he’ll also get an uptempo jumpin’, literally. When Aretha’s career was in a lengthy lull and facing the challenges of a new musical era, Clive Davis called Luther to write and produce for her. Luther, who once called himself an "Arethacologist," was thrilled to work with one of his biggest idols and inspirations. But Luther was a very exacting producer; he would tell vocalists specifically what and how to sing. Auntie Re wasn’t playing that at first, and even stormed out of the studio at one point, but the end result was her biggest hit in seven years.

Luther himself has several cookout and red cup party classics. Tunes that me, you, your mama and your cousin can dance to. That’s part of the beauty in Luther’s music; there’s no content too mature–or too immature–for anyone. While recalling Luther, Marcus Miller remarked, “There is no greater feeling in the world than walking down the street in New York City and hearing a Luther song blasting in the street.” I can personally confirm, as someone who’s heard Luther blasting while in these New York City streets.

What I don’t believe is acknowledged enough is Luther’s longevity. A 20-year career is a rare feat for any artist, but especially for a core R&B singer who started in the ‘80s. Luther did have pop hits–“Here and Now” was one of the biggest wedding songs of the ‘90s–but he was always a core R&B artist, and always stayed on brand and on topic. He was somewhat inactive in the latter ‘90s after ending his contract with Epic Records; he released one album with Virgin records in 1996, but it’s not usually included in his definitive material. Whispers and speculation about his health began, as he’d spent much of the ‘90s going up and down dramatically with his weight. But he made a fierce return in the early aughts. His final two albums, with Clive Davis’ J. Records, were two of the biggest in his career, with material that was relevant and contemporary without sounding contrived.

This song makes me want to put on some white linen and go on somebody’s boat ride.

As secure as Luther had always been in his artistry, he still felt overlooked as a writer and producer and longed for critical recognition beyond R&B. Out of 33 career Grammy nominations with eight wins, only two were in the Pop category. It wasn’t until his final album, 2003’s Dance With my Father, that Luther earned the elusive Song of the Year nomination and subsequent win he’d been longing for, for the album’s title track. But he also suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2003, before the project’s release. Since he was unable to shoot a video, artists who loved him stepped in with their children or parents as a tribute. Warning: this video may cause severe allergy flareups.

I have no doubt that barring health issues, Luther would at minimum still be touring. He was one of the most thorough live performers I’ve ever seen, with production simple enough to keep the vocals as the centerpiece, but extra enough so you were visually entertained as well (lots of sequins). Luther was touring in 2003 until his stroke (do yourself a favor and listen to his Live at Radio City Music Hall album, his last live appearance), and was scheduled to perform at Essence Festival that year. Can you imagine Luther at Essence Fest?

When news of Luther’s death broke, my mother and I–both huge fans–were driving to a family reunion, and we played and sang along to his music for about four states. I still play Luther when I need a boost, or when I want to burrow deep down into my feelings. When I want to go into chill mode, or when I want to dance around the house. Luther is all-purpose. He is all-emotion. He is everything. He was a gift.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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