Show Busta Rhymes Some Damn Respect

Twenty years later, the dungeon dragon is still going strong.


So much new music drops these days that if you blink, you will definitely miss it. It’s tough for that to happen, however, when someone like Eminem does much of, well, anything.

And that was the case yesterday, when Slim Shady appeared on “Calm Down,” a duet with rap legend Busta Rhymes. Busta teased the collaboration in a photo posted to Twitter last week, which made thousands of people who ordinarily don’t follow his day-to-day musings instantly pay attention.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cklwGaNKMCo

I was one of those people. I haven’t exactly been waiting with baited breath for new Busta Rhymes music. Perhaps the reasons for that range from my own indifference to a lot of music that rap’s older guard releases, or the fact that Busta Rhymes himself has fallen off.

Or, has he?

Late last year, Busta and Q-Tip dropped a collaborative mixtape, The Abstract and the Dragon, something fans of A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School felt like they’d been waiting on since 1991. Releasing a project and getting people to listen to it are two very different things, though, and older rap fans tend to not be glued to music blogs, anxiously anticipating when they can download something off of datpiff.com.

Luckily, New York rap radio quietly supported the single “Thank You”— featuring non-rapped cameos from Kanye West and Lil Wayne— which liberally borrows its feel-good backing track from Alicia Myers 1981 classic “I Want to Thank You.” The song got some light mixshow play and that’s how I even became aware of its existence. Thank you, Hot 97.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhIrzbhEGvs

But even months before that, Busta was quietly releasing some great music. To that end, there was“#TWERKIT” (officially released last August, out in the streets way before that), which may have gotten lost in the sauce, considering its obvious attempt to cash in on an urban subcultural trend about to be mainstreamed (and subsequently killed) by millennial icon Miley Cyrus.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j47MYli8pj4

It’s interesting just how under-the-radar “#TWERKIT” went, considering the fact that it was produced by Pharrell and featured Nicki Minaj, but maybe it was the mashup of dancehall and trap, rapped almost entirely in Jamaican patois, that made it too ‘cultural’ for mainstream music audiences, not to mention New York’s transplanted music critics. The city’s large West Indian population could appreciate something like this, but that demographic is far less concentrated in other parts of the United States, vastly limiting its crossover potential.

Despite that, Busta Rhymes has been very active over the past few years. To wit, his tongue-twisting verse on Chris Brown’s 2011 hit, “Look At Me Now,” inspired thousands of YouTubers to try emulating his flow. That sort of success showed that Busta was surprisingly relevant, even in the twilight of his career, and nabbed him a record deal with Cash Money Records.

A year later he tried tried to copy the “Look At Me Now” formula on “Why Stop Now.” Perhaps because it looked like he was courting virality— he shamelessly stopped the track mid-song and asked people to make YouTube videos— “Why Stop Now” didn’t really catch on. Still, there was a certifiable amount of YouTube activity surrounding him, so that lead to an album, Year of the Dragon, which he dropped via Google’s Play store.

Reviews of Year of the Dragon were largely mixed, but on the surface it did what it was supposed to do— it got some people to sign up for Google Play (this, despite the fact that you can barely find it in the store nowadays). More importantly, it was an early experiment in the streaming music space, a sign of where things would eventually be heading. In a sense, it foretold what the real value of a Beats/Apple merger is. To that end, we’ve already had a Jay-Z remix available exclusively on Beats, and there is likely more to come. Not enough people give Busta credit for jumping out on a limb and starting that trend. He was also way out ahead of the Rap/EDM conversation, doing songs over Tiesto beats before every rapper wanted in on the festival demographic.

That aside, let’s just put it out there— Busta has displayed a dramatic improvement overall. Because he’s been around so long, and the average rap fan these days is fairly young, most people can’t remember that when Busta Rhymes first emerged as a solo artist, he was something of a novelty act. He was respected as a character— a guy who could liven up any particular song, just with his voice— but not exactly an artist in his own right.

I was in 8th grade when “Woo Ha!! (Got You All In Check)” was released in 1996. By then, Busta was already a celebrity in hip-hop’s inner circle. He was a member of Leaders of the New School (who released two great albums before famously broke up on air while filming an episode of Yo! MTV Raps) appeared on a handful of big rap songs at the time— A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario”; Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix),” among others— and had cameos in movies like Higher Learning and Who’s The Man?

But I can remember kids who had no interest in rap— mostly white kids, if we’re just being honest here— being taken by Rhymes’ outlandish act. MTV embraced “Woo Ha!!,” its colorful video standing in stark contrast to the darkness that typically clouded most rap visuals at the time, and he subsequently became a star. Soon, I couldn’t walk down the halls of I.S. 72 in Staten Island without hearing some crazy white kid shouting out the song’s catchy refrain. He’d crossed over and was never coming back.

Maybe that’s been Busta’s biggest problem, that his mainstream popularity has diminished his creative importance. Busta released a handful of strong LPs in the late 90s and early 2000s, each of them filled to the brim with forward-leaning thematic arcs— he’s always been a futurist; the 5% lessons bubbling beneath the surface— and though it’s tough to credit him in hindsight, the sound of these albums was nothing if not progressive at the time.

His discography also reveals just how in the thick of things he was once. He was just as quick to collaborate with Wu-Tang as he was with Diddy, showing how deep his feet were in the underground, as well as the mainstream. And the guy clearly doesn’t get the credit for embracing future production legends like J. Dilla (then still producing under the Jay Dee moniker), Just Blaze, the Neptunes, Scott Storch, Megahertz and DJ Scratch, among others. He was really a step ahead of most other artists.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf3R-GL8Vfo

It wasn’t just music, either. Who can forget the $2 million video for “What’s It Gonna Be?,” his 1999 duet with Janet Jackson. The Hype Williams-directed clip, which featured Terminator 2-like visual effects— all shape-shifting liquidity and body-morphing— put Busta at the vanguard what was happening in music videos at the time. He also launched a clothing line, Bushi, which was a mix of high fashion with eye-popping color palettes and clever designs. It never really took off, but at least it was something different. And long before artists would willingly shill for brands, there was “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II,” a veritable blueprint, organically-composed at that, for the modern day record business.

That isn’t to say there haven’t been bumps in the road. There was Busta’s crew, Flipmode Squad, which released one album in 1998, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to become a real launchpad for artists like Rah Digga, Rampage, Lord Have Mercy and others. Lord Have Mercy defected early on (ed note: I produced a handful of cuts on The Runaway Slave, Lord Have’s 2004 independent album), Digga dropped Dirty Harriet in 1999 and Rampage had Scout’s Honor… By Way of Blood in 1997. But outside of them, the crew has been largely unremarkable. Busta has spent the past few years rebranding the failed Flipmode Squad as The Conglomerate, but you’d be hard-pressed to really hone in on who is who in that merry group.

Busta also potentially erred in the mid-aughts by signing with Aftermath Records. In 2004, he inked a deal at the house that Dr. Dre built, which lead to him riding the pine while 50 Cent and G-Unit turned hip-hop into a dangerous game of rap beef and bulletproof vests. After two years toiling away in obscurity, he emerged as a muscular superhero— Busta Rhymes, as impersonating 50 Cent— and released The Big Bang. By then, though, the sound of hip-hop had changed— out with Dre’s clever arrangements, in with Southern rap’s 808 subs and synthesizers— and the LPs steroidal aggressiveness failed to connect. Still, it’s a great album; probably his best. Go back and listen to it some time.

Which brings us back to “Calm Down.” The 6-minute song finds Busta and Eminem trading 64-bar verses, essentially conducting a verbal workout. It’s not a song for the pop charts; rather, it’s for hardcore hip-hop fans who love lyricism, and love to see their favorite artists get busy. It’s a display of virtuosity, for virtuosity’s sake. People showing off because they can.

And yet it in a weird way it seems like nobody really cares, and that maybe the song is pointless (it’s not even the first Busta Rhymes/Eminem collaboration). Right now, when legends like Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest are being celebrated— taking victory laps based on albums they made twenty years ago— that level of adulation eludes Busta. His past work is not being celebrated, his name rarely comes up in the conversation of legendary rap artists, and you get the sense that in 2014 he’s still miraculously trying to prove he belongs. Like he’s still that guy on “Scenario,” desperate for attention.

I saw Busta Rhymes perform in August 2011, at a Perez Hilton event in Los Angeles, around the time of Video Music Awards. He was headlining a concert that featured Far East Movement and a few other acts that major record labels were trying to make relevant at the time. Though he had top billing, by the time he took the stage, with his longtime sidekick Spliff Star, the place had emptied out somewhat.

Ever the professional, his energy was still fairly high, and he didn’t seem to mind that people at a Perez Hilton concert probably weren’t there to see him. He performed a bunch of his hits and got a loud reaction from his “Look At Me Now” verse. Still, he appeared overweight, thick in the belly, large in the neck, and between songs you could vaguely tell that he was out of breath. Even at his most energetic, he seemed tired. And though he thanked Perez for having him— Perez thanked him, too— it felt weird, like he didn’t really want to be doing that sort of thing at his age.

And maybe he shouldn’t have to. Songs like “Calm Down” make me applaud Busta’s effort— he’s still competitive, still creating, still hungry— but at this point he should be able to kick back and put his feet up. He shouldn’t have to be doing this to make us take note. Maybe if we if appreciated him more, gave him the respect he deserves, he’d have that good fortune. Okay, maybe he hasn’t made one truly great album, but how many artists have? Let’s give it up to Busta Rhymes instead for what he’s accomplished over the course of his entire career, one in which he has undoubtedly given us more great songs and more great memories than most. He can hang with the best, he may be one of the best. Let’s acknowledge that. Finally.

Paul Cantor is a writer, editor and music producer based in New York. Formerly an editor at AOL Music, his writing has appeared at Rolling Stone, MTV News, VICE and Billboard, among others outlets. Throughout his 10-year career he’s written/produced records for dozens of artists and provided creative services to brands like Disney, the CW Network, Verizon, Converse and HBO. His commentary has been tapped by the likes of CNN and Al Jazeera, and a selection of his recent work can be found HERE.

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