Image: Colby Katz
Oh, you don’t know? It’s RESPECT. Week at Rap Radar. And here’s the second of my four formidable features. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the definitive history of the great Busta Rhymes—told in his own words. Salute legend!
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Feel So Good
Check the radio or the Internet and it’s clear: Busta Rhymes is relevant again. The 20-year-plus ambassador of hip-hop culture takes a moment to reflect on his chart-topping, sometimes controversial career. Listen up.
AS TOLD TO: ELLIOTT WILSON
Although he’s embraced the hip-hop blogs and has a heavy presence on Twitter, Busta Rhymes still has a love-hate relationship with technology. He’s a phone person by nature. He’ll send you a text that simply tells you to call him. Interaction is key. Trevor Smith loves to talk and he loves to listen.
A wise man who enjoys sharing his views and is a storyteller to his soul, Busta sipped some rosé Champagne on the rooftop of Miami’s Gansevoort Hotel and took me through his life in hip-hop’s spotlight. The road wasn’t always smooth, and Rhymes insists he’s got more goals to reach. A recent guest appearance for Chris Brown (“Look at Me Now”), a fiery freestyle over Nicki Minaj’s “Roman’s Revenge” and several songs with his young protégé, Reek Da Villian, prove testament. This legend has at least one more act.
IT STARTED LAST year with [DJ Khaled’s] “All I Do Is Win (Remix)”—just seeing the reviews from that and how niggas were really in love with the antics in the song. When I saw that, I was like, Damn. Niggas really do miss the old Bussa Bus.
“Dungeon Dragon.” Bringing that whole character back. You know, the bullshit that went down [in 2006]. I was getting locked up a lot. That shit had me in a space where I wasn’t in the mood. I wasn’t smiling every day like I used to smile.
But being Five Percent, you know I got knowledge of self. When I was about 12, one of the things that the Gods used to always tell me at the corner store was, “You gotta be swift and changeable but always remainable.” That just stuck with me. I gotta adjust to things, but most important, I gotta be able to remain in anything that I’m involving myself with until I choose to bow out of it gracefully. I applied that shit to everything in life.
I never really wanted to do the solo shit. But Charlie Brown had it in his head that he was the leader of the group. The way the group dynamic was—every decision was collective. The Leaders of the New School was owned 25 percent times four. We functioned and operated as a corporation. Everybody had to make decisions collectively, so there wasn’t no boss shit. Even creatively, when we were doing songs, we voted. The majority rule was the way we went with it, even if you ain’t like it.
But then when we started to put the records out, and the consumer started to pick who their favorite was, that’s when the bullshit started. Me and Brown had the outspoken personalities, and it made it seem like we were competing for the shine. It got to the point where me and this dude were bloodying up each other’s shit before the shows.
The defining moment was when we had to do this Yo! MTV Raps special with Fab 5 Freddy. When we’d introduce ourselves, we’d say a name and then, “We rep Leaders of the New School.” When it came to Brown, he was like, “I’m C. Brown and I represent myself.”
Everybody was kinda feeling cranky about it. So everybody stepped to Brown with some beef shit, ready to kill this nigga. He ended up bouncing, went to his crib. We went to his crib after—the nigga was basically on some “I don’t wanna be down with Busta Rhymes no more; it ain’t no problem with the rest of y’all, I just don’t like this nigga no more.” I guess he just got to a point where he was fed up with what was happening.
And the thing that was happening was that destiny was coming into fruition for a nigga. Because when [A Tribe Called Quest’s] “The Scenario” happened—I mean, we was getting opportunities. I get an opportunity and I come to them and ask if I should do it. Them niggas up front, like, “Yeah, it’s cool, go ahead.” But then when I’m going to do it the next day, niggas is mad. I used to say, “Listen, Brown, you ain’t got no child, nigga. And Dinco, you ain’t got no fuckin’ child neither.” And at the time Milo ain’t have a child. My son was coming. And my baby’s mom, the mother of my three boys—her mom, she wasn’t fuckin’ with me. So when she got pregnant, [her mom] put her out.
I didn’t have my own crib. So now I gotta go to my moms, “Yo, can I move baby moms in the crib?” She was on her Christian thing: “Ain’t no bastard child living in my house. You got to engage that.” So now I’m forced to engage a woman I wasn’t even emotionally—I loved her—but I didn’t love her in that way to wanna be engaged. I can’t leave my kid in the street; I can’t leave her in the street. I put the ring on her hand.
Eventually I tried to go to Brown, have a one-on-one, like, “We spent a lot of years sacrificing to build this shit. Come back. Let’s work this shit out.” He wasn’t trying to hear that. He was like, “Nigga, I ain’t fuckin’ with you. As a matter of fact, get out my crib.” I left it alone. I was nervous because I’d never had the responsibility of writing a full song on an album level.
I was confused about how to approach the solo album. And at the time, I think Low End Theory was screaming in the streets. Q-Tip came to L.A. and was whippin’ around in a 300 CE coupe, white with tan ragtop, convertible. He was like, “Book a studio, get the SP12 and a keyboard, and I’m-a come in there and make some beats, and we gonna create something.” And I’m telling him, “I don’t know what the fuck we gonna create. I ain’t got shit written.” He was like, “Don’t worry about it. Just go in the booth and whatever come off your head, we’ll try to figure it out.”
I get in the booth and I’m like, “Yo, yo, yo, yo, Busta Rhymes flipping, niggas must be tripping, people do not understand, yo, yo, yo, craps in the ground, more and more sound, oh, oh, sh-sh-shit natural disasters, yes, I got too old with my masters.” That was the freestyle randomly. The reason I kept it as a skit on The Coming was because that was my defining moment. It gave me confidence—knowing I was going into a situation for the first time in total control.
The “Woo Hah!!” record came out and that was it. The tax bracket changed. Living conditions changed. The kids were good. It was the happiest thing in the world. The first thing I did with my bread was tell my mother she ain’t gotta work for nobody anymore. I also wanted my mother to supervise my business. My mom signed my deal! When I was 17! If she ain’t sign it, you know the opportunity for me to be Busta Rhymes the next year probably never would have came. I owed my whole shit to my mother. Word.
From the success of The Coming, I had hardware on my wall. I was coming home looking at a platinum album and a platinum single. Seven-figure money was starting to hit the account, constantly. And then When Disaster Strikes was done, and I had “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.” I was like, Jesus.
We were at the Roxy, and Kid Capri was DJing. I came in there with one of my mans, and Kid Capri played the shit for the third time, for the fourth time, for the fifth time, for the sixth time, for the seventh time, for the eighth time. By the eleventh time straight, no other song in between, I damn near started crying in the club, because I couldn’t believe that I’d done something that was so compelling that warranted that kind of love from the DJ. And the club was demanding that he keep playing it.
Roc-a-fella and Terror Squad crossed paths in that spot that night, and you just started seeing bottles wildin’. Capri stopped the music: “Yo, y’all niggas chill the fuck out, man. Don’t fuck up the party.” Niggas still wildin’. He was like, “I know what’s gonna stop y’all from beefing”—[makes beat noises] for the twelfth time. That song stopped the beef.
I said, “Oh, my God.” I was like, What am I gonna make to follow up that record? And if niggas was gonna want this all the time, I just hoped I could meet that standard, meet that demand. And after that, the “Dangerous” record came, and that shit took on a life of its own. The video budgets went from $200,000 and $300,000 to 500-something thousand and 700-something thousand, to $1 million, to $2.4 million by the time we got the Janet Jackson video on Extinction Level Event. Money wasn’t a factor no more.
As much as Sylvia [Rhone] was getting shit from the corporate bosses for it, me and Missy were her poster children. Still, it got to a point where we exhausted the situation so bad that not only was it creating problems with us and Sylvia, but it created major problems with Sylvia and the label. So in ’99, when I made The Anarchy album, I ain’t wanna give it to them ’cause I knew that they weren’t gonna support me no more, because they ain’t got no more albums to recoup from. I didn’t like the success of Anarchy, even though it went gold. So in ’99, after we put that album out, I was like, I wanna leave.
I went to J Records. Over there with Clive [Davis], they gave me an unbelievable multimillion-dollar deal. They gave me support and excitement. We put that Genesis out, and that shit did 1.8 million at the time, ended up rounding off to 2.2 million—that’s where “Courvoisier” and all that came from.
After Genesis, I went to a Grammy Awards show with my mother. Dr. Dre and [Aftermath A&R] Mike Lynn were there. I had exchanged numbers with Lynn. I was like, “Yo, I only got one album left over here. I’m going to turn this album in, and let’s start talking.” Turned in the It Ain’t Safe No More album—Mariah Carey–featured song, “I Know What You Want,” is still my biggest record on radio ever. So Chris Lighty and I went to Dre’s crib, we played about 30 songs. I was like, “I got a done album.” We signed, we did the deal, everything going down right. Three years pass by, you ain’t heard shit from Busta Rhymes. I was going crazy in that situation.
I never had to wait that long to put out no album. But it helped me get really in shape. I got all my muscles. I had just won my court case with the mother of my three boys. We were going through family court for custody. I felt like shedding at the time. I could let go of this grief that I’d been dealing with for 10 years in family court with her. I chopped my shit off, I was buffed up, I was like, “I’m going into this new shit as a rejuvenated nigga.”
We put out that “Touch It,” and that shit just popped off. And then the remix—that popped off. Then we came with the “I Love My Chick” record, which wasn’t necessarily my choice for that album, or for it to be a single. That started to also change the dynamic of that situation.
That whole time killed my spirit for a while, but it didn’t stop my drive or my desire to wanna do what I was doing. It just compromised that feel-good excitement and that energy that I was on. I caught multiple assault charges because niggas was provoking me, and my temper was short because I was frustrated all the time. I had police waiting in front of my cribs everywhere I went, but after a while, the stress [in NYC] became a little less.
For the next album, I put out “Don’t Touch Me Now (Throw Da Water on Them)” and the Linkin Park record, “We Made It,” but it was a little bit of confusion, and it just seemed like things couldn’t be resolved. I was able to have a discussion with Jimmy Iovine, and it was worked out. I was able to take my masters. I appreciate Jimmy to this day for that. I salute him, and I salute Dre [for] giving me a shot.
I learned a lot. I’m grateful to Dre and the whole Aftermath. It was a cool transition. But Sylvia Rhone—I loved Sylvia. As much as I said we had our little beef toward the end of our deal…she went balls to the wall for me and Missy. She’s a passionate person, and if she rocks with you, she’ll get in trouble for you, son. I was like, “Yo, I miss that!” She was in L.A. for one of the MTV awards, and she invited me to a dinner that she had. I went over and she was just showing off to everybody that her baby was home. That shit made a nigga feel like, Yeah, this is gonna be good.
“Arab Money,” boy. That shit was major, and I didn’t realize how much that song offended some people. Honestly “Arab Money” was inspired by [Kanye West’s] “Jesus Walks.” It ruined the homecoming with Sylvia. It was a hit record, but ramifications came with it. But Sylvia, the die-hard lady that she is, she just wanted it to go away. We put out the “Conglomerate” video, and Wayne came through and jumped on it. Me and T-Pain did “Hustler’s Anthem” and banked that shit. She definitely tried to make it sell, but the rest of the building just wasn’t behind it.
We got some announcements to make real soon about how this whole thing is gonna play out. Again, Sylvia’s the most incredible person that I’ve ever had to do business with as a boss of a record label. And I’m just waiting this thing out, because there are a lot of chairs being moved around over there. We just trying to make sure that before we get caught up in a climate shift that can affect niggas in a strange way, we gonna let all that shit settle. The next four to six weeks, you gonna hear some very interesting announcements made. Who are the new chiefs and who are the new head honchos and who are the new dons of all dons. It’s like a big chess game.
If I don’t get another thing from this business—I don’t lose no sleep. Because my family is so comfortable financially, stability wise, spiritually, emotionally—everybody’s good. That ain’t never been compromised in my 20-year run. I may not put a record out for a year, and I still generate four, five, six million dollars just touring with no current records out.
I’ve never lost, and I don’t think I’ll ever lose, that fire and that passion and that drive to wanna hear myself dismantle a beat. It’s as simple as that. It’s the biggest feeling in the world. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the kind of money that could really explain how priceless that feeling is. I’m cut from the cloth of that competitive shit, which was primarily the greatest reward you could get as an MC. Before money became the thing niggas was really able to capitalize on, the respect of the bars and the punchline and the metaphor was what gave you your rank in the street. And that competitive nature is what warranted and commanded whatever you could receive in return.
It’s definitely my primary focus to make sure that I position the Busta Rhymes legacy in music. That and my perspective of where music should be going. That’s really what it is with me and this whole “Conglomerate” thing. I’d rather be part of a team than just be on my own. I’m real proud of it, and I’m proud of them. We can make the world proud of all of us, too. Salute.