If there’s one area where Busta Rhymes is just as prolific as he is with the amount of breathless, tongue-twisting flows, it’s with his stories.
It’s been more than 30 years since he co-founded the group Leaders of the New School and was given his rap moniker by Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, and when Billboard sits down with him at a recording studio in Midtown Manhattan early November, it feels like he remembered every moment of his life and career since then. He recalls Big Daddy Kane welcoming him to his home in the ‘80s to mentor him into the music business, pulling over his burgundy Toyota 4Runner to Fulton and Flatbush in Brooklyn to purchase his copy of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx in 1995, and impressing The Artifacts at the studio when he rapped his preacher-inspired verse on “C’Mon Wit Da Git Down.”
But as much as Busta loves to share old memories, he’s just as dedicated to creating new ones. He spent much of this year on the road with Wu-Tang Clan and Nas on the New York State of Mind Tour, and joined comedian Dave Chappelle for spot shows in the duo’s Dave and Busta’s concert series. Last Friday (Nov. 18), he released an EP called The Fuse Is Lit, led by “Slap,” a single that features Conway The Machine and Big Daddy Kane rapping over Marley Marl’s “Just Rhyming With Biz” beat, which introduced Kane to the rap game in ‘88. He also honored Takeoff with a touching music video for “You Will Never Find Another Me,” the Mary J. Blige-featured highlight from his 2020 album Extinction Level Event Vol. 2, and is prepping to put his energy behind a buzzing single from longtime rap partner Spliff Starr, while also helping battle rap icon Murda Mook showcase his skills in the booth. Long story short, Busta wants to give everyone their flowers — and when possible, before they’re gone.
In a sitdown with Billboard, Busta talks about hitting the road with his fellow “senseis,” who he thinks has inherited his and Missy Elliot’s shared mantle for the artist with the best music videos, and his confident yet judicious approach to remaking hip-hop classics. (This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
One thing that stood out on the N.Y. State of Mind Tour was just how integrated all of the performances were. It wasn’t just one act going on after the other; you all hopped in and out of each other’s performances. It felt more like a DJ’s set than a concert lineup. What kind of preparation went into that for you to be able to just sort of work with each other so seamlessly like that?
First and foremost, big up to RZA. He pulled up on me and gave me the vision that he had for what he was doing with Nas. The first show that we did, we went to that city I think two days prior. We was all given as much time as we needed — we spent hours working with production to make sure that the sound was right, the lighting was right, the visuals was right. RZA was creating graphics for some of our shit. And the dope s–t was even if we make changes along the course of the tour visually, or we made changes musically just based on seeing what reacted better than other things on certain nights, it was just a matter of tweaking. Sometimes, muf–kas wouldn’t tell each other, but just surprise each other [with setlist changes]. That led to the competitive nature of shit. Muf–kas really was super supportive of everything when it came to each other.
This is a bucket list check-off for me. I don’t remember a tour that I’ve been on where you were able to use the full production to do what you wanted whenever you felt like it on any given night. But at this stage of our careers, it ain’t no egos involved. Everybody respects each other’s legend, because you went on tour with nothing but a bunch of legends and a bunch of gods and a bunch of Thanoses. My hat’s off to those brothers for rolling up the carpet in that same way that they would have it rolled out for themselves, to us. My moments when I wasn’t on the stage with the bros, I wish I had enough time to go right to the first three rows and walk outside of that black curtain on the side and just look at that shit like a f–king fan.
At the same time as that tour, you were doing Dave & Busta’s spot dates with Dave Chappelle. Where did that come from?
I gotta give Dave Chappelle credit on that. It actually was an idea that was out of a joke. Dave likes to do these impromptu random last-minute intimate events after he does stand up. Even if he’s just in town for a couple of days, you might hear about two, three hours before, “Yo, Dave is throwing something over here.” You get the word and you know Dave’s shit gonna be lit, because the most incredible muf–kas show up in the room.
On this particular night four or five years ago, I think the spot was called The Box, some burlesque type of venue in the city, he had me and Q-Tip come and perform. We f–ked that place up so incredibly, and you know Tip don’t come outside often. This particular night was just explosive; people don’t get to see me and him do “Scenario,” “Oh My God,” “One Two S–t,” just the many s–ts we have. When we finished ripping it down, Dave came over to me and he was laughing and joking about how dope it was. We’re high-diving and throwing drinks back. And he just starts joking about, “n—-a, we need to do a Dave and Busta’s.”
Years pass by, pandemic shuts down and those two years come and go. And then earlier this year, we started to really have the conversations about putting this thing together and curating what this experience is supposed to be like. I supported, but Dave led the charge on it and it was something that he really was ready to do.
You have an interesting balance of exalting your legacy while also looking forward. You released Extinction Level Event 2 in 2020 and executive produced Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 for Raekwon. You released “Slap” for this album, and you’ve also got the “Hot Sex Pt. 2,” which is a sequel to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Hot Sex.” What do you think is that sweet spot between recognizing what’s already happened and relying too much on it?
I’m doing it because I’m not trying to allow current generations to miss out on the s–t that we love and that helped shape the s–t we do. And interestingly, I’m inspired to do it when I do it because of what the [younger] generation starts to do. Every couple of years, as the generations create a new wave, they always come back to this place where they start trying to redo the classic shit and put their spin on it.
You got muf–kas making over all types of shit that came out in the early 2000s and the ‘90s right now. You’ve got the YG single (“Toxic”) [that samples Mary J. Blige’s “Be Happy”]. You got Latto doing over the Mariah s–t with the “Genius of Love” sample from the ‘80s from “Fantasy.” You got Armani White with the “Billie Eilish” shit, he made over N.O.R.E.’s classic [“Nothin’”] that Pharrell produced, that’s one of the biggest records on the streaming platforms right now. There’s a long list of s–t that the new artists is doing over, so they obviously feel the need to tap in with the timeless greatness. If that’s your way of paying homage, we salute it. But even beyond that, we just like the fact that y’all think it’s dope enough to do it on your own. It’s almost like when you see a mufuckas taking the initiative to do something, that encourages you to want to help push them in that direction even more.
A lot of the times, the young’ns actually still do want the big homie to put their arm around them and give them the jewel, school ‘em, do some shit with them, and give them the cosign. [Young artists] always respected the OG and the godfather that’s still looked the part. But if you don’t look the part in the current time and space, a lil’ ni—a is going to look at you and be like, “We respect you, OG, but I don’t know if I’m going to listen to you. Because it looks like what you’re telling us to do, it ain’t even working for you no more.” But the respect still has to be upheld. That doesn’t give you a green light to disrespect a [elder] that might not look like they’re holding themself together. That same [artist] might have had to sacrifice a lot not knowing better, whether it was through business or just being a knucklehead, but still trailblazed a way for you to do what you do.
That makes me think of the backlash that DJ Akademiks got for saying that young artists don’t respect the OGs because they look dusty. Did you hear him when he said that?
I’m not really one to react to things impulsively anymore. Sometimes I gotta sit down and think about how and why and what caused that. I got a different perspective at the age that I’m at than the perspective I had at his age. So I try to not make myself react impulsively, even though what he said and how he said it rubbed people the wrong way. But my way of responding to that is to not respond. Y’all can look at the god Kane [in the “Slap” video], and then you see what my response is right there.
I didn’t do that to respond to Akademiks, let’s be clear. I did it because I love Kane. He’s a hero to me. We rocked on his record, and he gifted us with his presence on this record. And it felt like it was deemed worthy to make this f–king moment eventful, because it was eventful to me. And I felt like this shit was eventful to the culture. And let that s–t speak to everyone it needs to speak to — young, in-between, demo-wise, elder statesmen.
N—s ain’t seen Kane in a long time in this likeness. Big don, godfather shit, stepping out the Phantom, furred up, diamond’d up, hard bottoms, tuxes, looking like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, as he should look. He don’t just look great, he will still f–k y’all n—as up, bar-for-bar. We invigorate the God, give him his flowers, and let him feel inspired, that much more incentivized to want to go in and probably even give us a new motherf–king project. That’s what it is for me.
Got it. But to go back to what you were saying, there’s a difference between sampling you and making actual sequels the way you do. I was making a playlist recently, and I couldn’t choose between Public Enemy’s “Shut It Down” and your “Shut ‘Em Down 2002.” This new EP has “Hot Sex Pt. 2” Making a sequel brings standards and expectations with it.
You come from what we were raised to think and function on, that same mentality right there. Don’t f–k with the classic if you can’t meet the standard of the classic or make it f–king better. That’s a blasphemous act, bro. Number one, I like to make sure that the homage is paid. The only reason why I share it is because I’ve went through the roundtable councilmen that’s gonna thumb it up or thumb it down. Because I know what it means to f–k up the classic. N—as don’t let you live that shit down, you’ll hear it forever. “You fucked up the classic, bozo! The fuck you touch that for and then f–k it up?” [Laughs.]
I’m gonna test that s–t, and quietly the world will never know it existed, for as long as it takes, for me to get the right approval. I will go back and tweak the song, change this line, I will change that line. I’m going to play with it until I successfully get a general consensus that I want from the most credible ears. Whether it’s Preemo, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-Tip, 9th Wonder, Rapsody, Pharrell, Swizz, Cool and Dre, Khaled. This is the circle of friends that I’m gonna play s–t for. Those rooms have changed throughout the years, some of them haven’t though.
If I’m gonna make a “Shut ‘Em Down 2002” or if I’m involving myself with a Cuban Linx 2, I’m doing these things because I remember what those records did to me to make me love that artist at that time when they were their best selves. Being blessed to be a fan, that affected me in this way to be brave enough to even want to f–k with any follow-up of what their classic was. Understanding the importance of meeting the standard, I’m going to revisit all of the moments that I still hold onto to this day.
You pushed back the release of your EP to make space for Takeoff’s funeral, and it seems clear that there’s a fraternity among artists — you see his loss just as much of a loss as Biggie or anyone else. Did you get to spend much time with Migos personally?
We haven’t had a lot of personal time to just sit down and hang out, but we have personal time when we’re out and about. We’ve been in the studio, we made songs together. I got shit with me, Takeoff, Quavo, and O.T. Genasis sitting in a hard drive while Offset was actually still in jail. Plenty of times me and Offset see each other, either he’d be by himself or with Cardi. But at the end of the day, what I really don’t like to do is have so much conversation about anybody during the tragedy. It almost feels like if the tragedy didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have to talk about our camaraderie. That’s something that I think we should start changing, too.
Tame One (of The Artifacts) and Hurricane G just passed away. The Artifacts, I did one of the first hot records with them 30 years ago damn near, “C’Mon Wit Da Git Down,” Buckwild produced it. I’ll never forget that day, man. I remember walking into the studio and hearing the record, and I wanted to get on it right on the spot so bad, because the beat was so stupid. It kept reminding me of a beat that I wish I had for myself. I remember late-night during that time, I’d be flicking through the channels on TV, and a preacher is on at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Sometimes I used to fall asleep with that shit on, but never really watched it. Hearing the preacher say “Hah! Hah!” So I just put that same style and my flow on a beat for that record. “I continue to deliver flows, hah! Busta Rhymes bringing body blows, hah!” I will never forget that moment because I did that rhyme on the spot in the studio, and I watched the way the bros was super excited about that verse.
I’m guilty of it too. We ain’t post nothing about [Tame] in mad years, now all of a sudden we all posting cuz he passed. It’s a little f–ked up to me that in times of crisis, that’s when we all want to acknowledge the existence and the greatness of the ones, when it’s too late.
I love my Migos brothers, and I love every moment that I had to experience and cherish with Takeoff and the Migos. Super rest in peace to Takeoff, and love and light to his family and loved ones. Love and Light and rest in peace to Tame One. El Da Sensei, hold your head, sending love and light to to both of their families. Love and light to Hurricane G and her beautiful family. I love my sis. Big up to E Sermon, and the daughter that they had together. God willing, we do what we should do and can do to keep their legacies alive with respect to how their families want to do it. And just add to that, with a presence that’s respectful, delicate, and sensitive. I like to follow the lead of the families and how they choose to keep the legacies alive, and we’re gonna continue to do our part in whatever way that we are deemed fit to do it.
When it comes to music videos, you and Missy Elliott are in a league of your own. What do you think it took to make a memorable video in ‘97, versus what it takes to make a memorable video now?
That’s my twin sister. I love her on undescribable levels. She has been moving out here in such a phenomenally iconic way. She just got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this year. She just got a street named after her. She got a doctorate, I believe. And I just seen that she recently got her Madame Toussaint Wax Museum statue. Her s–t is on a whole ‘nother level of icon right now. So I’m super proud. Congrats to Missy.
It really starts with the vision and thinking outside of whatever was considered the norm, which was easy to do when you were never the norm to begin with. But then to be able to find an incredible director that knows how to help you execute that. I’m not gonna front, let’s add the fact that the budgets were disrespectful back then as well. We was throwing money out the f–king window, million-dollar budgets left and right. And we was able to get that because we was doing our numbers. We was just killing s–t so crazy, that we started to become competitive on every level. Diddy was the only one that was spending like me and Missy. We frustrated the industry for it, because a lot of labels was getting pressure from their artists to spend like that, and they didn’t want to hear it or deal with it.
I think the same thing applies now. The only difference is, technology has allowed things to be done a lot more cost-effectively. You could still pull off these magical ideas, but there’s definitely ways to be smarter about the spend. I’m fortunate enough to be able to still pull off some amazing visuals that look like million-dollar spends, but they’re no way near those spends, but I’m still able to impact s–t in the way that people have grown to know and love me for doing.
What is the last video you saw that impressed you? And which artists do you think are taking on the mantle that you and Missy built?
What was the name of the Kendrick joint over the Marvin Gaye sample? “The Heart Part 5.” That video was special, and they set a bar for the new generation when it came to the revolutionary visual impact that me and Missy were always successful at executing. The balance of simplicity and complexity in it is so incredibly powerful, and that’s not an easy balance to find. I’m still looking to see who will come up with some s–t that’s gonna f–k with that. So visually, I’m giving Kendrick the crown. And that’s just one of the many things that Kendrick gets the crown for from me right now.