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.”
#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.