Busta Rhymes Returns to Rap About the End of the World (Again)
Ever since the start of his solo career, Busta Rhymes has been predicting grand, global, life-altering concepts such as man-made pandemics, holy wars, hidden government conspiracies and incendiary racial awakenings. None of Rhymes’ work, however, was as focused or ferocious as 1998’s mega-apocalyptic “Extinction Level Event: Final World Front.” Or as successful, as he received three Grammy Award nominations (Best Rap Album, Best Rap Solo Performance, Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group) and quickly went platinum for his — and the planet’s — troubles.
Away from commercially releasing records for over a decade, concentrating on his Conglomerate (formerly known as Flipmode) label deal and his family, Rhymes returns, right on time, with “Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God,” or “ELE2.” Along with showing how right he was on “ELE1,” Rhymes also found wild samples (a bluesy Melba Moore version of “The Thrill is Gone,” the original 16-track master of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”) for himself and old friends (Mary J. Blige) and new pals (Kendrick Lamar) to work through on the album’s finest moments. And though other guests on “ELE2” include Chris Rock, Mariah Carey, Anderson Paak and Louis Farrakhan, Rhymes is, by far, its North Star, the guiding light, the angry letter writer, the Boom Bap King and master of the speed rap few could equal.
If bad things are truly about to go down with his election, Busta Rhymes is going to be the guy doing the reporting.
Variety caught up with Busta before the “ELE2” release, days after he was unmasked on the Fox Network’s “The Masked Singer” (“I didn’t do much to hide my voice — how could I?”), but prior to missing out on Verzuz’ season two debut battle with T.I., after lobbying hard for that slot.
Before we talk about your new album: Stevie Wonder. He doesn’t release any music in 15 years, and when he does, he calls on you for a feature, “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate.” What’s that like?
Stevie’s my big brother, friends who communicate regularly. We’re both Tauruses. It’s been an amazing, continual relationship. I’ve been waiting to show my humility and respect. There’s always been this desire to show him how he molded my musical perspective from a consumer and an artistic standpoint. From childhood to being a grown man adult, I can track my life through his songs — what I was wearing, what I was thinking, who I was seeing. We did our first collab together on my “Big Bang” album, and I know he wanted something fast, something utilizing my speed rap. Shit, I would’ve collaborated with him no matter what he wanted, for infinity lifetime. If we come back as reindeer and rabbits, I would want to collaborate with Stevie. When I got the call to collaborate on “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate,” it was a surprise, and it needed to be turned around quickly as it was so timely. Plus, he gave me this incredible go-go beat to rap over. That is culturally important and significant to hip hop, that beat. What he was saying was just as incredible.
You managed to slip away for a minute, and not release music. Looking at what your contemporaries are doing or what newer artists are releasing, what are your observations? You pulled a new king, Kendrick Lamar, out of hiding for his first feature of 2020. You put contemporaries such as Rakim, M.O.P. Q-Tip and Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “ELE2” as well.
Working or not working, I keep my finger on the pulse, on the traditions, transitions, the evolution of the game. Could be the business, musical or the cultural side — that’s my job as an artist or as an executive. I am of the culture, a complete embodiment and representative of hip hop. What I have noticed, in a good way, is how every music must use some component of hip hop to matter. As garnish, or to get tracking or be part of an algorithm, you have to have hip hop in your shit. Every genre has hip hop in it. That, though, is challenging for hip hop. Keeping it strong. Like having so much melody on a track or having rappers trying to sing their entire songs. You don’t even know what to call R&B artists anymore. Trey Songz, NeYo — they used to be the singers we went to for melody lines. Now, Roddy Ricch, Pop Smoke, they’ve got the melody’s components all to themselves, Chris Brown is an anomaly in that he’s always used hip hop. A lot of other R&B artists are having difficulty playing the game. Plus, I’m noticing that artists are a lot freer now, unafraid to try different shit, different musical styles.
I would argue that your generation of rappers also dealt in diverse music such as Bop jazz, punk, metal, dancehall reggae and dub.
That was important for me as an artist coming up, trying to be different, looking or diverse influence — and getting pushback for it. That’s always going to happen. That’s evolution. And when you get the co-signs from the greats before you, that’s thrilling. It’s important that new artists today get the same thing – get encouraged for their courage. Even when people don’t get the shit right away, we get it enough to fuck with it and support it. It’s a marathon. You have to grow out the soil, water the plant.
You were signing new artists at Conglomerate based on that sense of risk and growth?
Yeah. O.T. Genasis. 5 million records sold, and he doesn’t even have his first album out. He just recently dropped a new record, “Back to You,” with Chris Brown and Charlie Wilson. It’s a smash. But, a lot people didn’t see what I saw in O.T. when he first put out “CoCo” in 2014. It was beautiful to watch an artist grow and become something special as I took time off from releasing music commercially. I did, however, need to pay attention as I was curating a new body of work.
Of all the albums in your catalog, successful aesthetically or sales-wise, why choose this one to sequel?
It’s bigger than me. I started working on this in 2009 as we were coming to the close to the “Back on My B.S.” album. I never stopped recording, and was sitting on enough incredible pieces to do another album and have it be “ELE2” as its themes were on my mind. I deviated from that theme, and recorded another album that – well, circumstances transpired. See, I went from Universal/Motown at that time, to Cash Money, and I left Cash Money without really putting out anything, and went to Atlantic Records, where I was able to set up my own label deal for Conglomerate. I made other projects for these labels because I wanted to see how they would handle them, how they would treat those projects before I handed them a magnum opus such as “ELE2.” I wound up going to Epic in 2016, when LA Reid signed me.
Reid was bringing hip hop to Epic big time then – you, Travis Scott, Future.
Yeah, and I wanted to put out different records with Epic too, to see how they treated them before giving them something monumental. Again. Things didn’t go the way they were supposed to go. Interestingly enough, I REALLY wanted to put out “ELE2” at Epic because, 22 years earlier, Sylvia Rhone (Chair/CEO of Epic Records) and I released “ELE 1” at Elektra. That would have been a dream come true. You couldn’t make that story up. When she found out there was an “ELE2,” she didn’t even want to hear about my other album – she wanted to put out “ELE2” on the 20th anniversary of the first one.
Didn’t happen. I left Epic, went to Empire. When I got there, Ghazi (Shami, CEO), we talked everything: the business, the music, the excitement. We married our ideas. It went beyond conversation into something that could be implanted company-wide. Through the actions of this man and his support team — and how well they could work with my management team — THAT level of energy and connection made me want to do “ELE2” with Empire.
Were there songs you were writing in the present connected to the first volume’s end times theme, or was the current news cycle worth examining through the lens of “ELE?”
Without question there is no more appropriate time than now to release “ELE2.” The responsibility to social awareness and social challenge that I take on required that I do this. It is clear that I have been talking about these times – the moment we find ourselves in – sine my first solo album. The ‘what ifs’ alone from “ELE1” were fascinating enough to examine, seeing what came to fruition. I wanted to talk, and not in a preachy way, about all my end of the world theories because they’re not theories anymore. That shit is going on now.
What were the most recently written tracks on “ELE2,” those perhaps affected by a pandemic, BLM, and a divisive political landscape? And do you think that the worst of our current events altered what you were saying in the first place?
I think the last song recorded was “Freedom?,” and was probably written middle of September. I turned the album in first week of October. I don’t believe I was ever playing at being a prophet. I just paid attention. I asked questions. The answers were fascinating, and ironically, those responses came true: Big Brother shit was implemented. Civil liberties were questioned. Phones got tapped without permission. Remember too, 1998, the cover of “ELE1” featured the Wall Street area on fire with no World Trade Center in sight. The biggest difference between now and then is that now the shit is happening in front of everyone. It ain’t just talk anymore. We all have to pay attention, now. We don’t have a choice. I just hope that people are here and present enough, this time, to accept the information.
You made an interesting decision with this second volume to work with many of your producers from “ELE1” such as Rockwilder and Nottz. Plus, you brought in newer producers like Terrence Martin. What’s your thought about making “ELE2” sound freshly present while maintaining the old boom bap?
First, I have to give credit to everyone who was on that first “ELE” 22 years ago — for staying alive — to be a part of “ELE2.” I am super grateful to God for that. There are not many people in our business lucky enough to be able to still have every single ingredient that made them great available to them in the present. The only person who is not with us is the late, great J Dilla. Yet, he is still a part of all this. His contribution is here. See, I vowed to his family, his mother and his memory to keep his name as part of the culture. I will always incorporate J Dilla in any recording I do. I am fortunate enough to have an incredible stash of his music and beats that he personally left with me.
I know that you and Drake discussed a J Dilla produced song for him, “Stay Down,” that’s still unreleased.
I’m very selective with whom I share it with. The only artist that I have given some of my J Dilla stash to — other than myself — is Raekwon, after he blessed me with the role of executive producer of “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II.”
Certainly helping Raekwon make a sequel to his classic guided you on “ELE2?”
It did, because I didn’t want him to re-do the first one. Just move the feeling further along…. I’m grateful too that these same producers from “ELE1” that I have here never abandoned their sound, the sound that we have grown to love them for. Get what I’m saying? They have a lot to do with preserving the essence of what “ELE” was in the first place, as well as in the here and now. They persevere the nostalgic feeling — the reason that I got those same guys — but, allow too for the refreshed vibe to the record. That was crucial to me. And I’ll fill you in on a secret: the very first beat that comes in after the end of the world bit in the intro — when you hear Chris Rock talking — that first beat is a 22 year old beat, from the first album that I never got to.
Waste not, want not.
I’m picking up socially and feeling-wise, where we left off on that first “ELE”. We’re capturing that exact moment in time, but now, I’m put some new sprinkle dust on it. We’re not trying to recreate it. That first “Extinction Level Event” is out there. You can’t re-do that. We’re just doing some time-travelling. Maybe get some answers for the present. I just want that feeling again. That was the most exciting challenge.
“ELE2”’s big proclamations nearly overshadow the more nuanced, tender parts of the album. The fact that you’ve given Mary J/ Blige and Kendrick Lamar, respectively, their hottest and most supple tracks in ages with “You’ll Never Find Another Me” and “Look Over Our Shoulder.” Neither of those songs fit your end-times narrative. What is the most personal track here?
Alright. I think the most emotional, challenging song here was “Best I Can.” I lived that experience. Every single word is one that I lived first-hand. I have children and went through hell with their mother of my three boys to keep them.
A far worse Hell than the Apocalypse you portray on “ELE2.”
Indeed. Look, there is always going to be differences with girlfriends, wives, lovers, but, as a father and a black man — being a good father as a black man — by design, you are set up to fail in this society. The opportunities are minimal for a black man with a black family in a black neighborhood to be a good father, no matter how much he tries to be there for his children. That’s a truth stranger than any fiction I could come up with.
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