Busta Rhymes on Drake’s Grammys Misfortune: ‘At the End of the Day, People Respect Substance’
The iconic rapper sat down with Stereo Williams to discuss hip-hop OGs, young guns, and remaining relevant in the rap game.
Busta Rhymes is always busy. Since 1991, he’s been one of the most hyperkinetic forces in hip-hop: originally as the lanky, gravel-voiced toaster in Leaders of the New School, then as the cartoonishly creative solo video superstar of the late ‘90s-early aughts. He’s one of the most inimitable emcees in the history of rhyming and still one of the most visible stars in hip-hop as he nears 30 years in the game.
On a balmy morning, Busta is eating eggs in Midtown Manhattan—hanging out to talk about his new campaign with Doritos, a music competition called “Blaze the Beat” that sees the legendary rapper teaming with producer Terrace Martin—who creates an original beat from items including a hot sauce bottle, an onion and Doritos bag—to challenge prospective emcees to craft a song over Martin’s beat. But his mind is fixed on hip-hop and lineage. After breakfast, the 46-year-old acknowledges that he’s happy to hear music that requires reaching back a little further than most hip-hop seems to go these days.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with trap,” Busta says assuredly. “I’m a fan of trap. I’ll spit on whatever as long as its dope. I don’t categorize music. I’m impulsively gonna respond to what feels right and what feels dope. I don’t give a fuck what category you want to put it in. It’s just instinct.”
What Busta Rhymes wants to see is more reverence from the younger artists and more respect and mentorship from the elders. Back in fall 2017, a war of words between superproducer Pete Rock and rapper Waka Flocka Flame made headlines after Rock slammed Waka’s post-2010 generation as “not doing what we did” and “haven’t accomplished what we accomplished” following comments by Waka that older rappers didn’t create a better environment for the artists who followed in their wake. The sparring seemed to embody a widening chasm between the boom bap of hip-hop’s so-called “Golden Age” and the trap-dominated sound of today’s stars. Hip-hop’s transfer from the NYC-centered aesthetics of the past to the Dirty South’s contemporary sonic trademarks has bred as much resentment as it has reward.
But Busta believes that everyone is getting this thing wrong.
“I come from a time where it was extremely important to garner the respect of the elder statesmen,” he says. “Muhfuckas before you that was the greats, you needed to do what you needed to do to get them to sanction you, cosign you and endorse you. That bridged the gap between the new and the elder statesmen. A lot of muhfuckas running around complaining, talking shit about what these new dudes is doin’, but the question really is what is you older dudes doing to help the new dudes? Outside of popping and shit and being mad at them all the time for what they not doing that you feel they need to do?”
“I’ve been an advocate for putting artists on,” Busta continues. ‘Leaders of the New School, we had a buncha artists in a clique called New School Society—from the Rumpletilskinz to the Cracker Jacks. Then we broke up, I start my own shit: Flipmode—Rah Digga, Rampage, Baby Sham, Roc Marcs, that whole clique. 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. So at the end of the day, we ain’t doin’ as much complaining. The same thing with Conglomerate. That’s what I’m used to. So for me, its an honor to be able to pass the torch.”
He wants his generation—the “alumni,” as he puts it—to do the same thing. The concept of music-industry mentorship is something Busta Rhymes comes back to often. Throughout the conversation, Busta references Chuck D: the Public Enemy frontman was instrumental in shaping Leaders of the New School and Busta still applies advice the hip-hop vet gave him early on.
“Chuck D called it ‘CLAMP,’” Busta explains as he shares his approach. “That’s this thing he would always say when we was trying to get on: ‘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 that to everything: Concept. Lyrics. Attitude/Appearance. Music. Performance.”
Chuck is there again when Busta admits that he’s been willing to work for free if the artist or the track is promising enough. “There was a time when I couldn’t afford to pay nobody, either. Chuck D still had me come into the studio, still had me record in the facility, he gave us our group name—‘Leaders of the New School’—we had to battle the Young Black Teenagers to get it, but he gave us an opportunity to earn the shit. We didn’t have no money to pay this man for schooling or his time,” he recalls. “But they gave us shit that we couldn’t put a price tag on. So I apply the same guidance, molding and shaping I was given. It’s like you fuck around and could miss the opportunity to maybe cultivate the birth of the next Biggie or the next Pac when it wasn’t no money involved. Don’t miss that opportunity because you just about the bag. I think it’s all about how you conduct yourself and show these young dudes that you’re willing to embrace them with grace. It’s a mutual thing though.”
For all of the chatter about ageism and generation gaps, Busta Rhymes is one emcee that seems to transcend generational and regional specifics. He acknowledges how rare it can be (“Snoop is one of the best at that shit”) and Busta is certainly proud of his ability to navigate those waters. From his perspective, the biggest impediment to connectivity between rap eras is bad blood being stewed online. “We come from a time when you had to earn your voice. You couldn’t just hashtag some shit or ‘@’ a muhfuckin’ celebrities name and pop shit to ‘em,” he says. “It’s different now. I think that [social media] created a difference. But I think the primary basis of human interaction, muhfuckas get to sit with each other and it strips away all the bullshit at the end of the day.
“The media and the internet plays such a significant role in this… divide and conquer shit. One muthafucka could say this shit and it gets magnified, like it’s the representation of everybody from that muhfucka’s [generation] and it’s false! Then it creates this impression that gets blanketed across the board that this is how we feel.”
Busta’s hopped on tracks with everybody from Rapsody to A$AP Ferg to Justin Bieber. Busta recently turned up on Anderson .Paak’s “Bubblin’” remix in mid-July. That tendency to be everywhere has kept the Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised rhymer omnipresent in the public consciousness despite not having dropped an official studio album since 2012’s Year of the Dragon. But 9th Wonder got fans buzzing online in early July when he tweeted across social media that Busta was prepping a new album. But Busta isn’t backing up 9th Wonder’s claims. As a matter of fact, he isn’t offering much of anything in terms of album details.
“Absolutely nothing,” he says with a chuckle when asked what’s cooking on this project. “There’s so much amazing shit that’s getting ready to surround it, I just don’t wanna do nothing conventional after 27 years. I gotta create a new approach.
“Between all of the amazingness with the Lauryn Hill tour and this Doritos partnership and the new album coming—it’s just a lot of amazing things. [The Tribe album] was bittersweet because our brother Phife wasn’t able to be there with us. But Phife also made it his business to not leave us until he got what he needed off his chest. He held out eighteen years to get his shit off before he went home. So I’m super grateful for that closure in his life.”
But it’s clear that Busta is most inspired by the future. He talks about the current wave of hip-hop stars with sincere admiration and sounds beyond hopeful for where many of the game’s biggest names under 35 have taken the music.
“To be able to see Meek Mill finally embracing what his role and responsibility [is]—what is preordained. What he’s doing now, I think he just needed some time to come into understanding that this gift that has been bestowed upon him is greater than him. He got a whole other purpose that he needs to shift the climate with out here,” says Busta.
“J. Cole is doing his job. Kendrick doing his job. Chance the Rapper doing his job. Childish Gambino is doing his job. These are the newer dudes. They’re doing it more than the older dudes as far as the music is concerned. They out here talking that shit! They shooting the videos. They’re making those messages speak volumes. They’re having super success with it. Kendrick ain’t got no records in the club—he taking all the Grammys home. You might hear Future in the club. You might hear Drake in the club. But Kendrick took all the Grammys home. Chance the Rapper taking all the Grammys home. Childish Gambino. At the end of the day, people respect substance.”
“It’s amazing to see the younger guys do it and I hope it inspires the elders to get back on they shit,” he adds.
Busta Rhymes has never had to worry too much about staying inspired, and he’s happy that he can still inspire. Vets in hip-hop are in a unique position these days with more visibility than ever. But Busta understands there’s a fine line between relevance and trying too hard to “look cool.”
“The beautiful thing is our alumni have finally figured out how to stay in tune with what’s poppin’ without compromising who we are as elder statesmen,” he says, before laughing. “Because it’s another thing to look like a muhfucka goin’ through a midlife crisis out here!”