In this series, we’ll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in “greatest of all-time” discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Big Boi, DMX, and Ghostface Killah. Today, we’re holding it down for Busta Rhymes.
Few can boast as eclectic a repertoire as the irreplaceable Busta Rhymes. The rugged, old-school vibes of early Tribe Called Quest collaborations. The apocalyptic panic of When Disaster Strikes. The sinister Gothic overtones of Genesis. With nine studio albums on hand, Busta has never been one for stylistic stagnation. To dive into his discography is akin to backpacking through untamed European wilderness.
You might come face to face with a mythical creature a la The Ritual. You might simply find yourself fighting for your life against a renegade death metal band. Visceral. Intense. A hint of supernatural mysticism. Such is the way of Busta. While some may be quick to write him off as a rapid-tongued caricature, were this a horror movie (not unlike Busta’s appearance in Halloween: H20), they’d be first to perish. In truth, Busta is among one of the game’s quiet innovators; while his name is seldom thrown in with the usual GOAT staples, his pedigree and creativity are nigh unparalleled.
The origin story is a familiar one. A young Busta actually went to high school with Jay-Z, DMX, and The Notorious B.I.G; one might say his fate in hip-hop was predetermined. With a natural rhythmic aptitude and brash charisma, Busta soon emerged as standout member of his crew, The Leaders Of The New School. After the group caught the attention of Public Enemy (he actually got his moniker from Chuck D), Busta’s work on the Tribe Called Quest collaboration “Scenario” solidified him as an exciting rising voice on the New York scene. Plus, “like a dungeon dragon” became forever entrenched within our collective lexicon.
While Busta’s raw exuberance helped elevate him from the pack, his creativity kept him at the forefront. Conceptually, nineties New York hip-hop brought an influx of ideas to the table. Artists like Wu-Tang Clan based their identities around Shaolin samurai culture. DMX wove narratives of a Godly man battling the allure of the devil. As he evolved, Busta seemed to gravitate toward the apocalyptic. The iconic cover of When Disaster Strikes depicts a man having succumbed to insanity. The product of an urban wasteland.
While technically proficient in all aspects of the craft, Busta’s ability to craft memorable concepts are a slept on component of his arsenal. Consider the ominous Legends Of The Fall Off, the closer to 2006 album The Big Bang. Over a minimalist beat from Dr. Dre, Busta channels the Grim Reaper, chronicling the death of once-promising career. Busta delivers the eulogy with a subdued vocal performance; all the while, shovelfuls of dirt play the role of percussion.
“Despite I talk about it, I ain’t makin fun of them n****s
I give thanks cause I’ve been blessed and I ain’t one of them n****s
Can’t imagine how difficult it is, I know you suspect
That shit around you is lookin dumb, it’s gettin hard to accept it
Alone in the mirror, you look at yourself and you smile
Disregarding the fact your running’s been done for a while
Refuse to acknowledge the truth like the mind of a child
Continue frontin, like it’s nothin while you live in denial”
– Busta Rhymes, “Legends Of The Fall Offs”
Another equally macabre display of Busta’s Victorian sensibilities close out 2001’s Genesis. On the Nottz laced “Bad Dreams,” Busta takes a page out of DMX’ book, going to war with the devil in a Freddy Krueger-esque tete-a-tete. Few would label Busta as one of the game’s premium storytellers, but his foray into horror fiction is an admirable one. In fact, his daring aptitude for reinventing himself in so many different ways has managed to keep his music consistently dynamic.
Consider the dexterous rhyming on “When Disaster Strikes,” in which Busta takes to the beat with a dexterous, aggressive approach to flow. “You will never ever get no wins inside mi casa, we killin’ all impostors like we killin’ cucarachas,” raps Busta, “bounce to award ceremonies like we winnin’ Oscars, rhymin’ Rastas eating enough exotic pastas.” Fast forward a few years down the road to the legendary “Break Ya Neck;” to this day, has there been a mainstream hip-hop single this hard? Over an unconventional guitar-based beat from Dr. Dre, Busta Rhymes took “fast rap” to the radio, bewitching listeners with his effortless double-time.
From “Pass The Courvoisier” to “Make It Clap”, “Gimmie Some More” to “Worldwide Choppers,” Busta has exhibited a rare ability to adapt. Few artists can work so adeptly with such a wide variety of producers. His work with The Neptunes brought out a welcome edge to Pharrell & Chad Hugo’s traditional production; his work with Dre was among the Doctor’s most Gothic instrumentation (at least until Relapse came along). Yet in a way, the legacy wouldn’t be what it is without the rugged production of DJ Scratch, who imbued Busta’s early material with a rawness he would forever carry.
While his repertoire stands for itself, the words of his peers speak volumes on the man behind the music. Rapsody spoke with Sound Digest about her experience working on Laila’s Wisdom with Busta, and she showered the legendary Flipmode leader with praise. “He’s probably one of my favorite people to be around because he’s so loving and humble,” explains Rapsody. “He’s one of the funniest people ever…having him around, like, that’s probably one of the best memories I have of making this record. I wish I could tell all the stories.”
Add a sharp sense of humor to his already extensive toolkit. For the most part, the range is evident within his music. It isn’t uncommon for Busta to flex the comedic chops in his various music videos, from the man-vs-beast goat battle in “Break Ya Neck,” to the surreal physical comedy displayed in “Pass The Courvoisier Part 2.” While he’s no doubt well versed in both drama and tragedy, Busta, like fellow GOAT contender Eminem, is never one to take himself too seriously.
Unfortunately, plenty of younger listeners might not understand the depths of Busta’s catalog. If your introduction to Bus-a-Bus was through his iconic verse on Chris Brown’s “Look At Me,” you may very well be in line for a bit of homework. While Busta has admittedly become associated with the art of double-time rap, in reality, his flow is so much more layered than that. On his slept on album It Ain’t Safe No More, Busta repeatedly delivers one effortless flow after another; on songs like “What Do You Do When You’re Branded,” “Turn Me Up Some,” and the Dilla produced title track. In fact, the rapid-fire flow almost feels like an afterthought for Bus-a-Bus; what might feel dangerous for another artist is a walk in the park for the Dungeon Dragon.
“A n***a who think he the greatest son I’ll lock him in the fridge
And hang him from both of his ankles when we drop him from the bridge
Blockin your paper really stoppin that dude from gettin his
Poppin the safe and splurgin, havin the crew up in the crib
Block ’til these n***s havin ’em rockin gargle with a bib
Shittin and fartin, spittin and vomitin all in the crib
Fallin into shock from the bullets we shot up in they ribs
Hot up the block and blew up the spot and got up out the mix
Tried it a couple stops and spotted the Squad up in they whips
Plotted and then I signed on the dotted line and made a wish”
– Busta Rhymes, “It Ain’t Safe No More”
With a new album on route, it would appear that Busta isn’t quite finished donating to the game. Yet the man’s legacy is something he can, and should, be proud of. Though his name is seldom included in the GOAT conversation, the reality is that many of the typical contenders would feel compelled to bring their A-Game if thrown onto a track with Busta. With a repertoire that includes collaborations with Eminem, Lil Wayne, Rapsody, Nas, Nicki Minaj, T.I., Pharrell, Diddy, Wu-Tang Clan, Dilla, and countless more, Busta’s pedigree cannot be argued. Do yourself a favor, and next time you’re having the top-ten conversation, be sure to give Bus-a-Bus his due props.