The Voice: What Busta Rhymes Has Learned After Over 30 Years In Hip-Hop

Cheo Hodari Coker
·54 min read

Some voices are as indelible in your memory as cranberry juice on a white t-shirt. Busta Rhymes is blessed with one of those voices. Even in the old folks home as all other memories slip away, the nurse will play “Whoo Ha” for you on a holographic iPhone 40 and you’ll say: “Oh Yeah. Busta Rhymes.”

“I call it that Orson Welles War Of The Worlds moment,” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots says. In the legendary drummer and Tonight Show bandleader’s case, that moment was hearing Busta when he was still a member of Leaders Of The New School, particularly on “Case Of The P.T.A.” “When I talk about mind blowing, I’m talking about where you have to stop what you’re doing and look at the speaker.”

It’s the undiluted tone and texture of Busta’s voice that keep him in the conversation all these years later. On Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God, his new, ninth solo album that he’s been working on for the better part of a decade, Busta Rhymes is very much himself, perhaps more than ever. Paranoid. Conspiratorial. Braggadocious. Woke. Swagger personified.

His roar has a soothing burn like Appleton Rum: It smells like Jamaica, but mixes with anything. Busta rhymes in all caps, boldface onomatopoeia. On the new album, his voice either melds with the groove on a genetic level (“Boomp!”), or completely overwhelms it (“CZAR”). He can temporarily embrace his pure Jamaican roots (“The Don & The Boss” with Vybz Kartel) or play R&B Zaddy (“Where I Belong” with Mariah Carey) and it never feels like he’s pandering or forcing a gimmick. “Busta literally performs like his life and your life depend on it,” Questlove says.

Over Zoom, Busta Rhymes is just as energetic, gleeful and philosophic as he was the first time I met him 27 years ago. He’s the only black man I know, besides Barack Obama, who’s just as identifiable by his grin as he is his voice. He has touched parts of four decades with hits across genres. There was a time where people wondered if a rapper could be relevant at the age of thirty, let alone rhyme for more than 30 years, but rather than disguise his age, hip-hop elder is a role he revels in.

Not that it’s all been roses. The last time we talked at length, back in 2006 when he dropped The Big Bang for Dr. Dre’s Aftermath, he was dealing with relationship drama, the tragic shooting of his bodyguard Israel “Iz” Ramirez, and his father surviving a heart attack. Busta had bulked up from stringbean lanky to a linebacker’s frame of 230 pounds, standing in the middle of a Hollywood gym throwing around 90 pound dumbbells as easily as he does pugnacious metaphors.

The death of his father in 2014 hit his psyche hard and he put on weight to the point where he didn’t recognize himself, ballooning past 340 pounds at one point. Then friends made him realize that his sleep apnea was endangering his life, leading to the discovery and removal of throat polyps that were blocking his breathing passages. After the successful procedure saved his life and voice, Busta regained control of his wellbeing.

He busted his ass and moved to Jacksonville, Florida to train with renowned bodybuilder Dexter Jackson and continued coast to coast with his primary trainer Victor Munoz. He’s lost 95 pounds and counting, and he’s showing off his progress with Instagram selfies. He’s getting name checked by Obama on the campaign trail. Busta Rhymes is back.

<cite class="credit">Flo Ngala / Courtesy of Busta Rhymes</cite>
Flo Ngala / Courtesy of Busta Rhymes

GQ: I can tell from when you played it for me that you're extremely proud of this album. What took so damn long?

Busta Rhymes: Circumstances and my level of comfort and trust with who was being presented as options for me to be in business with, that I would have to actually give this body of work to. This is the first album that I've spent all of my money on recording, from the first penny to the last penny.

So you literally own this record.

Absolutely. I'm not saying that I haven't gotten financial support along the way, but I paid for the legal stuff, clearing samples and paying producers. Some of those expenses had to be covered by our people that I was trying to do business with. I tried to do business at Epic Records, I tried to do business at Ca$h Money. I tried to do business at Atlantic Records. I got a label deal over there with OT Genesis, but I knew how valuable this work was. It also felt important to me to see the comfort, the enthusiasm, the excitement, the balls to the wall desire that my support system had to really wanna treat this with the care and the nurturing that it deserved. And I did not feel that nowhere the way I feel it at Empire Records, with Ghazi and Fuzzy and Peter.

That introduction on the new record is pretty epic, with Chris Rock then Rakim. What was the goal of that song?

The goal of the first song was to set the tone. I didn't want people to feel like they were going to get beat in the head with a whole lot of just “science” records. I wanted to make sure that they were clear on the fact that you're going to get an incredible balance of science and heat. Because I never want to feel preachy. And I never want to be preached to. I still want to have a damn good time. In order to go into a battlefield and fight the war, you need a minute to send in the second string while you relax, kick back and recharge.

You go right from that to “The Purge”, which I guess would be considered a science record.

Absolutely a science record.

Was that influenced just by the general condition of black people or by the specific moment after George Floyd?

It's grim. It's a full circle addressing of what the condition of Black people has always been. You know, the riots and the burning down of the neighborhoods and the cities as a result of the disproportionate racial injustice in black communities and towards black people that has been going on since as far back as we can remember. So if this has been happening in 2020, I needed a song that speaks directly to the people that contribute to the reasons why this is happening and has been happening and will continue to happen.

This time around, there is a generation of activists that's really not falling back until we garner some kind of results. And there's some real accountability. And it's a beautiful thing to see, and I want to acknowledge the incredible efforts of all of the people that've been fighting this good fight in a very serious and aggressively accountable way: Tamika Mallory, Mysonne, their whole family and movement of the mobilization and the organization that they have been able to establish. They are going to these cities, they are in the field firsthand, doing what they need to do to help our people and help all of us for the greater good. They're in the line of fire getting arrested for this. For us.

Trae Tha Truth, I want to big him up significantly. He's been moving and shaking out here, really trying to ruffle all feathers that need to be ruffled. I want to big up Shaun King as well. Minister Louis Farrakhan and the significant role that he's played in fighting for our people for over 40 years. I wanna big up the Five Percent Nation of the Gods and Earths, doing what's necessary to raise the babies with knowledge of self and civilization and give them the fundamentals that we obviously ain't getting from the Board of Education.

“Strap Yourself Down” is also interesting because you have a Dilla beat. Was that a beat that you'd worked on with Dilla years ago, or was it something that you came across, or...

Well, it's actually a production combined of Pete Rock and J Dilla. You know it's two beats. The first beat of the song is produced by Pete Rock. And then it switches to J Dilla. J Dilla left me with over 300 beats before he passed. I'm extremely selective with who I give them to, which is why I haven't given them to anybody except Raekwon and that was for Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Part Two. I think he has about four Dilla joints on that project. I've always tried to represent and uphold the legacy of the late, great J Dilla, through all of my albums. You know what I'm saying? I think the only album I probably didn't have them on was Back On My Bullshit. I'm a huge fan of Dilla, I think Dilla is probably top three best producers in the world. To me, my top three favorite producers ever are Dr. Dre, Q-Tip, and J Dilla.

There's only about two others I would add to that list. Preemo's one of them.

Preemo was one. Pete Rock is the other. Large Professor is the last.

A record like “True Indeed”, I knew from the second I heard the scratches, it’s Preemo. Nobody scratches that clean and nobody does lyric cuts like Preemo does.

Such a proud moment for me, to be able to have Preemo on the album. I've never had a Preemo production on any album, I've never rhymed on anything Preemo produced before. And you know, there's been many a time throughout the years that I've tried to get with Preem. I remember one time I seen Preem on 34th street and 10th avenue, I think Preem was at the phone booth. I had asked Preem for a beat, and Preem told me, I think it was in June, that I had to holler back at him sometime in September. That just felt so crazy, almost like he was dissing me. But he wasn't, he just had a bunch of touring lined up, and he was moving around so much. And Preemo ain't the type of dude to send you no batch of beats. Preemo makes your beat, and that's your beat, and he sends it to you. Like it or you don't. I made the song, sent him the vocals, he mixed it at D&D, I made one change that he requested me to make lyrically. And that was it.

Also what's interesting is that you're making straight-up Jamaican records on this album. They're not Jamaican-American records, they're Jamaican records. Did you have to reprove yourself to the dons down there? Or did they already have that respect?

They always respected the fact that I've always incorporated representing Jamaica thoroughly in my music, from Leaders' first shit, especially when “Scenario” came out, and I hit them with the "Heel up, wheel up, bring it back, come rewind." They just know that it is a consistency with me when it comes to repping the culture. But me actually getting the respect for representing dancehall culture the right way is when I started really doing records with dancehall artists.

So, my collabs with Bounty Killer and Junior Reid, or my collab with me and Buju Banton on Buju's first album. My collab with the Marley family, Beenie Man, Ninja Man, Vybz Kartel. As the years would pass, I would get better. The respect came on a different level over time. But it had to happen through different instances, especially when it came to performing on stage. I had to perform at Sting in '96 when “Woo-Hah!!” first came out, and I destroyed Sting, and it was one of the first and last times it had ever happened on that level by an artist that wasn't born in Jamaica.

I would do my research. I would call Bounty Killer to get guidance on how I should approach my show. And I also know the Jamaican audience is hard as hell. They'll start throwing shit at you if you don't rep right. R. Kelly did a show out there and tried to drop his pants in front of people. That ain't Jamaican son, fuck is you doing? You gonna get your head beat off, bro. I feel so blessed and fortunate to have never had to go through that.

<cite class="credit">Flo Ngala / Courtesy of Busta Rhymes</cite>
Flo Ngala / Courtesy of Busta Rhymes

The last time you and I really hung out in person was during your “Touch It” phase in 2006. it was the first time people had ever seen you really big and jacked up. We met at a Hollywood Boxing gym and you blessed me with a whole science of drinking, at least a gallon of water a day. And all you were eating was El Pollo Loco, just chicken without skin. So I was kind of surprised when you got really big in recent years. What happened? Was there something going on in your personal life?

It was definitely a lot going on in my personal space. I think the thing that actually made me feel like I didn't care for a minute is when my father passed away. I'd never experienced a loss that close to me.

I've lost a lot of friends. I've lost other family members, but I never lost anyone in my house—I lost my first son, but he was, you know, a pre-term labor. And I didn't actually get a chance to know my son and live with him. That was a different effect. But I've known my father my whole life. And I loved him very much. We had a turbulent relationship, but towards the end it got really beautiful. And we connected in an incredible way. And, it was a shortcoming because damn, when I was finally getting good with him, I lost so much time not really being in the best place with him. To have lost him and not been able to enjoy the better times with him, I was kinda cheated out of being able to have that with him. And that messed me up for a long time, actually.

I actually found out the morning that I was going to the Grammys that he passed. He was doing all right, he had left the hospital and been home for a couple of months. He was doing dialysis. And I think when he found out that his kidneys weren't coming back, he just got tired of living in that space.

My father is a real man’s man, like super old-fashioned traditionalist. He took great pride in being a man that was able to establish his own business. Take care of his family. Be an incredible provider. And just a man of discipline in a manner of serious, real high integrity and respect.

So once he felt like he couldn't be that person no more, I think he had come to terms with the fact that this is not the way he wanted to live. He was at peace with letting go. But I just was so fucked up by that. And I didn't really realize just how much that I was bothered by it, because I drowned myself in work and staying in the studio and having to be in the right space for the rest of my family, that I didn't really get a chance to mourn his passing properly.

Even though you were mourning your father, you were already a father with what, four kids?

I had all of my kids at the point that I lost my dad. I’ve got six kids. So it was interesting to have to deal with that and have to still function and make sure that the stability of home was what it needed to be. And then, in the process of dealing with it, that's when I just lost myself. And I didn't care about a lot of things, I just wasn't in the mood to do a lot of shit, other than go to the studio and record. I wasn't into entertaining the idea of being on no diet, and eating meal-prepped food all the time and going to the gym. I just wasn't feeling myself. Being in the studio allowed me to process things in a way that I wasn't really comfortable enough to process it around my family. When you feel like you wanna cry, sometimes you wanna protect your family from your weak space. You gotta be strong for them all the time.

So being in a studio [while I was making this album] would allow me to get that off, I can just let a beat play or just leave the room silent. And I can have my moment to cry and I could have my moment to just say stuff that I felt and probably never put it out. So I would just talk just to hear back what I couldn't actually listen to myself say because I was just so focused on trying to get my feelings out. Sometimes I wouldn't put it in song form. I would just sit in a room in the studio and go to sleep.

So in a way the studio for you is almost like a womb.

That's exactly what it is. It's my place of sanctuary. The studio ain't gonna argue with you, the studio ain't gonna talk back .The studio ain't gonna question how you feel and judge you for what you’re going through or what you're dealing with. And the studio is not only a great listener, but it's a great capturer of whatever it is that you need to be captured because you can record documents. It can be kept private and have space, which is extremely important.

So you’ve been through some ups and heavy downs. The loss of your first son during the Leaders days. Your bodyguard Izzy got killed in 2006. The loss of your dad in 2014. Absolutely. And a lot of that was just so back-to-back, even getting arrested four times in 10 months. I definitely don't wanna do that again.

But doing all of that and the multiple court cases and lawsuits, the civil lawsuits and criminal felony charges, it was challenging because at the time Ray Kelly was still the Police Commissioner in New York City. And he had mandated this two-year depriving of all of my civil liberties, pretty much when it came to me being able to do business. I wasn't able to host parties in New York City. I wasn't able to perform at clubs. I wasn't able to shoot movies. We actually shot this film called Breaking Point, it starred me, Tom Berenger, Sticky Fingaz and Arturo Gatti, the boxer who passed away.

I had to shoot all of my scenes in Jersey and it was a New York based film because they wouldn't get the film production a permit for me to shoot. It was extremely challenging and all of this that I was going through at the time. I just really wasn't in a good place.

Finally, [in the last few years] it got to the point where I was just so out of control that I saw how it was starting to affect the people that I love. There was one specific situation. My oldest son T'ziah, I had him working with me as my road manager at the time. He's my oldest, he's 27 now. So we were in LA and I had just shot one of the videos for this album for this song called “Czar.”

And we went to this club called Poppy after to celebrate, on a Monday. I might've had one too many that night. So on my way to the crib, I fell asleep in the car. And I'm big in size at the time. I had an issue in my throat that I didn't realize, that was getting in the way of my breathing. I was growing these polyps in my throat, they started blocking 90% of my breathing passage.

I had bad sleep apnea as a result of my size, which is like, you can't actually inhale and your body is jerking because you're trying to inhale, but you're not able to take in any air.

I know, because I have a C-Pap, and that has been one of the motivators for me to lose weight. That was one of the things that I talked to with Biggie about before he passed, he told me he also has sleep apnea.

That's a serious thing when you accumulate too much weight and get to the size where it starts to complicate a lot of other things: blood pressure, your respiratory, all kinds of shit. So I was on two blood pressure medicines at the time, an acid reflux medicine, I had sleep apnea. And it was a real bad case of sleep apnea this particular evening. And my son got so scared at what he was seeing like, “damn, this is the closest to death that I've ever seen my father.”

The next day when I sobered up, I actually had to go to my vocal doctor, because I was losing my voice, and I had a show that Friday in Dubai. So I needed to get a quick fix so I could get my voice back so I can get on a plane.

As the doctor comes into the room, he's asking me if I was all right. And I said, "Why?" He said, "Because I can hear you breathing really loud outside of the door before I even walked in here." He ends up sticking this black microscope in my nose to see what's going on in my throat. And as he's looking, he just started saying, "Oh my God. No! This is not good. I need to call an ambulance for you. And you need to go directly to UCLA Medical right now. You need to go to the Emergency Room." He says, you have these polyps that have grown in your throat that are so big that have blocked 90% of your breathing passage. So if you go home this evening and you happen to catch a cold or sleep under a fan and a gland swell happens, that could block up the remaining 10% of your breathing passage, and you can possibly die tonight. I just started crying. I couldn't believe that this is what I was being told. I'm walking around here and not knowing that I'm actually one bad draft of air away from death.

This was when?

I shot the “Czar” video last year. March 10th was the day that I had the surgery and March 12th, I believe we went to Nipsey's memorial at the Staples Center.

Oh wow. March 9th, that's our national holiday, which might have also contributed to why you drank so much…

Absolutely. We was definitely celebrating Big. And we knew that Nipsey's memorial for his passing was happening too, it was just all of that combined,

I'm a strong advocate of being disciplined and being militant. I just thought, “Damn, I'm not representing none of that, and I haven't been for a long time, and didn't really realize it until it all came to a head of how horribly I've been representing myself and the people that I love out here.”

And that's when it had to happen on a divine level. A couple of days later, I had this listening session with Sylvia Rhone [CEO of Epic Records], and she looked at me and said, "You gotta take care of yourself. You made your most incredible album, but you don't look healthy."

I didn't like that conversation. I'm driving back to the crib and on the way I see Dexter Jackson, the Olympic bodybuilder. So I hit him in the DM and asked for help. And he said, "If you're serious, I need you to move to Jacksonville for 30 days." And we ain't going to no clubs, we ain't drinking no liquor, you ain't smoking no cigarettes, you might could have you a little bit of bud. But the way, I'm gonna deal with you, you're gonna need your respiratory right."

Money is a beautiful thing, isn't it?

Oh, that's a muthafuckin’ fact! And, also making a decision to be determined enough to invest in yourself is an even more of a beautiful thing. So, when we get out there Dex trained me three times a day, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And then two times a day on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. And then I continued for months in New York with Victor [Munoz]. It was really excruciating. I was so beat up that I would just eat, train, and sleep. I didn't really have the strength to do anything else. From June last year all the way to this picture that y'all seen that, with the six pack, which we took that picture about four weeks ago.

The thing I say about saxophonists—a lot of people play tenor saxophone, there's only one John Coltrane. There are a lot of MCs, but immediately, Busta Rhymes—there's a sound, there's an attitude, there's an agility that only you do. Was that always in the making?

My voice was always what it was. My moms always told me when I was born I sounded like a little dinosaur. My father had a deep voice. The attitude, the charisma, the showmanship, and the animation, that always was a part of who I was. I'm of Jamaican descent, so reggae and dancehall culture, this is what was what I was raised on. Even watching rock bands, back in the days, the way them dudes would perform, jumping off of shit and laying down on the stage? I always wanted to be a part of those big, over the top moments. That's just a part of my personality.

The way for me to be able to stay up past curfew, in particular when my parents were having company, was to be a showman. I mastered the James Brown split and did all types of different dance moves, so I became entertainment for the adults. And that spilled into me being introduced to hip-hop, falling in love with that and feeling like I didn't have do the James Brown split no more just to the music my parents listen to. I could start pop locking and breakdancing, something that's more for me, and my age group.

That turned into me wanting to learn how to DJ, which turned into wanting to learn how to MC. Whatever was the thing that was gonna get the most spotlight and shine.

So, your pops and your moms, they were both native Jamaicans? Which province? Clarendon? Trelawny?

My mother and father were country people. My moms was from St. Ann and my father was from St. Catherine.

Bob Marley's from Saint Ann.

Yeah, absolutely. And I was always around that whenever I went to Jamaica. I went to my mother’s oldest sister’s crib to spend summers. My Aunt D and Uncle D, which is short for the Distin family, they stayed in Havendale, Kingston, in the “townside” of Jamaica. That's where they would consider the upper echelon to live. But they owned a sewing factory which used to manufacture clothes and they owned this big manufacturing plant, so my Aunt D and Uncle D were the more wealthier and successful ones.

You also spent some time in England as well?

I didn’t live in England. My mother's other sister Aunt Velma, she lived in Morecambe, England at the time, so we went down there to spend two summers. One summer when we went down there I was 12, my brother was eight, so my aunt made sure that we actually went to school in England. Regular school and then we went to karate school too.

We also were on some breakdancing that was so crazy, we ended up actually getting work to breakdance in clubs as minors. And our cousins used to run us around and they used to advertise us as TJ and Paul because my government name is Trevor Junior. We actually got memorabilia still from then, we got the flyers, a couple of newspaper clippings. My moms held onto all of that because she thought, "Wow, my kids are turning into little superstars.”

In terms of hip-hop, what was your revelation moment? What was the first record that you heard where you said, "I gotta do this"?

I would have to say it was “Rapper's Delight.” When I heard that song, man, I just knew. That was the defining moment for me when I said, "This is what I wanna do for the rest of my life. And I'm gonna learn how to do it and Imma be nice as a motherfucker.”

What was the verse that you heard and you're like, "Okay. That's me"?

It was really Master Gee and Big Bank Hank. Those two over Wonder Mike were the ones for me. Master Gee, to me, was the best MC outta all three of them. Until I later found out that ain't none of them write their verses . It was all written by Grand Master Caz from the Cold Crush. But I just loved the way Master Gee sounded.

“Rapper's Delight” is probably the first record that most hip-hop fans of our age listen to and memorize back and forth, right? How do you go from that to then writing your own rhymes and then having enough courage to be in a cypher and then freestyling?

I think that just comes once you decide you wanna do it, for real. Once you make that decision and the ship leaves the dock, it ain't no turning back, right? Especially once you start walking outside your house and telling people that this is who you are and this is what you do now.

Especially from our time, and our era, wasn't none of this social media people can hide behind that and get an algorithm jumping even if they not rhyming seriously and get the biggest buzz just because they got a bunch of numbers on the views. We had to actually substantially back up the shit we say. Everything was show and prove.

So as you embark on this uncharted territory of tryna create this reality that you have to make people believe? First hand? You go through enough situations, whether it's battling, whether it's just free styling in friendly competition moments, whether in the middle of somebody's show you get out and do your little one song at some of those, you know, hole-in-the-wall spots somewhere.

All of these things combined get you to a place where you have gotten enough reassurance that you're ready to actually do it on a bigger level. And, those reassurances help you to continue to get the confidence you need to push the envelope that much more. And you walk into those situations, or you nosedive head first without a parachute into them situations, feeling confident enough to just let the outcome be whatever it's gonna be.And it gets to that place where it almost don't even matter how challenging it is to turn that crowd up. You start to figure out what you gotta do in the moment to turn them up, even if nobody else could. At least, that's what it was for me. You know what I'm saying?

You’re doing cyphers, getting more confidence and you end up at Westinghouse High School. At the same time, there's this kid, Christopher Wallace, who's also starting to rhyme. And another kid named Shawn Carter is also getting a little reputation. Were you in actual battles together?

Well, I never saw B.I.G. rhyme at school. His name was buzzing as an MC for sure. I never actually saw Hov rhyme at school, outside of the little battle me and him had in the lunchroom. It was definitely clear that he was on because he had one or two videos circulating that he was doing with Jaz-O, “The Originators.”

Hov and B.I.G. were both super charismatic dudes, just in different ways. Hov was more laid back, but still had this big iconic charisma about him because Hov was getting money in the street. B.I.G. was a little more on the rugged side. Hov was already kinda looking like he was bossed up. Hov was clean. His Tommy Hilfiger game was crazy. And he used to come to school with the big Gucci length chain that Kane wore on the Long Live the Kane album. Hov had one of them shits in school.

Hov was smart, he did his thing with class but when he was walking through the hallways you know he just seemed like he was on his boss, cool shit. You never saw Hov perspire. He wasn't like the dude playing sports, he just was on some “Imma be fresh to death and handle my business in school and then when I'm not at school I'm getting to the money.” It’s a testament to what he exemplifies today.

Hov was already on the “Hawaiian Sophie” speed rap thing and you hadn't quite mastered the style yet?

Yeah, that's the truth. I was pretty much just getting my feet wet with it. And he had the edge that day. And it actually was a good experience for me because I'm so competitive that it turned me into the speed rap God that I am now.

Whereas Big you never really encountered in school, rhyming-wise.

We blew tree in school, and Big definitely moved with the goons in school. I didn't see Big rhyme until he was done with high school. When me and Big did “Buncha Niggas,” that was Big’s very first step out on record. I thought wow, finally the bro found his way. And when I really knew it was real—one day me and Big had to go to Bert Padell’s office. He was going there to get a check, as was I, and he needed a ride back to Brooklyn. I was with my man and the car was so small there wasn't any real space in the back seat. Big ended up getting in the back seat. And it was the funniest thing to look at with him back there. New York City streets were super screwed up so we hitting all type of potholes.

When Big got in his crib he told me to come pull up. So I come in the crib and see Ms. Wallace. And this is right before Ready to Die came out. And Biggie had a double cassette deck, a JVC boombox, and he was dubbing his cassette, his whole album on Memorexes.

He had this line, just like a drug spot, waiting to get copies of his album. And I was looking at him. This is during the era when the bootleg niggas was around and we used to try to beat them up, and Big was the first person that I ever saw do this. He was giving his album away for free. I was completely confused by this. I said, “What are you doing? And why you doing this? Like you ain’t trying to make no money?”

And he said, "Yo Bus, look. If every nigga in the hood is playing my shit and I gave it to them? First of all, they gonna want to bang my shit because they got it from me personally. So they gonna be that much more enthused. Now Imma have the whole hood playing my shit and the nigga that's gone look crazy is the one that's not playing it. And turn the perception of how big my stuff is, into the stuff that makes everyone feel like something wrong with them if they don't got it."

I said this guy’s brain is something that I've never seen or heard before. That was one of the most genius marketing and promotion campaign mindsets that I've ever seen and have ever seen in my life to this day in the whole history of this culture.

I’m just imagining if he had survived to see the mixtape era in terms of online or social media…

Big was a forward thinking muthafucka. I can't even imagine what he would've been. Because if he was on that plane of energy back then, bro? When none of us was with that like even right now ? Even right now. Giving away my album to the distributor is one of the hardest things for me to have to do. Because damn, I'm finally detaching with this album that I put every thought, emotion, part of my soul, my blood, my sweat, my money unto, it’s a hard thing to do.

<cite class="credit">Flo Ngala / Courtesy of Busta Rhymes</cite>
Flo Ngala / Courtesy of Busta Rhymes

Big and Jay were making gangster rap records. You were also in the street, you could've made gangster rap records. But you had the courage to make a different kind of record with Leaders Of The New School and wear bright colors, and smile in a video. I'm wondering how in the middle of the “Keep It Real” era, you had the courage to be happy. But then at the same time still have the respect of everybody?

Imma be honest with you, a lot of it was circumstance. And the first circumstance was where I was coming from and the dudes that I was involved with, they were still doing a lot of things that I wasn't allowed to talk about because I was liable to get people in trouble. I actually tried to go that route initially, but I had to always go and play songs for the bros to get it sanctioned for me to be able to release those records. And it was always, “You gotta talk about something else. You aint supposed to talk about what we doing in these streets. Find some other shit to talk about.” That’s how they used to talk to me.

The beautiful thing that gave me the opportunity to create something else to talk about was actually moving to Long Island. There was dudes hustling, but they weren't doing it at the level of the dudes that I really respected and was involved with in Brooklyn. So we just focused on what the reality of the situation that we were dealing with based on our truth, combined with being around the influence and the guidance of Chuck D and Flav and Hank Shocklee and Keith Shocklee and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, the whole Bomb Squad. We felt like we wanna mix our truth and make sure it includes the conceptual value of how Public Enemy was doing their albums.

[Public Enemy] had that whole theory about how you rhyme, and how you give a show.

It was called CLAMP: Concept, Lyrics, Attitude, Music and Performance. Chuck always said, "When you have all of those areas of your career mastered down to the science of each one of those elements separately, you become even more dangerous when you know how to incorporate that collectively. That's when you got a clamp on your career, that's when you got a clamp on your legacy, that's when you got a clamp on securing the win." I live by that to this day. That has never failed me. I teach it to everything and everyone that is under my tutelage.

But it seems like your home base for most of your career has been Quad Studios.

Yeah, absolutely. I've been working in Quad throughout my entire solo career run.

Quad is the studio where Tupac got shot on the night that Junior M.A.F.I.A recorded “Players' Anthem.” Did you come through that night?

No. I was working between Chung King, Sony Studios, and Battery then. I wasn’t there when that transpired.

It’s interesting that you were tight with Biggie, but also with Pac.

Absolutely, and was friends with both of them. Obviously I knew Big before I knew Pac. So I was closer with him than I was with Pac. It was very fucked up having to watch how the situation played out, because there was just a lot of frustration that never really truly got addressed. The seed of all of that could have probably been resolved if they had a conversation about it, and Pac had been able to express what his real frustrations with Biggie were directly and honestly.

What do you think it was? Was it the fact that Pac got on before Big did and because he was around Jack, and then eventually when Big made it and went from being Biggie Smalls to “Big Poppa,” Pac felt like Biggie was kind of “sonning” off of experiences that Pac had?

I think it's exactly what you said. I don't think Big sonned it off though. I knew Pac didn't feel that Big acknowledged him as much as he wanted for the role that he might have played in giving Big jewels, or being there for Big at times when Big really needed a mentor or a brother in the game. I think we can all agree that if you play a role in someone's life and you don't feel that they're acknowledging you the way that you deserve, it fucks with you.

Do you think the combination of what happened at Quad, Stretch's death, and ultimately “Hit Em Up” prevented either one of them from ever being able to sit down and have that conversation?

I definitely think that all of that contributed significantly. But I think ultimately Tupac decided he didn’t want to have a conversation, whereas I think Big still did. Big wanted to talk, Big wanted to connect with him. And Pac just wasn't letting it happen. And it got fueled even more when he got next to Suge.

Did you ever try to be an intermediary?

At the point when they got to their level of frustration, I wasn't seeing Pac as often. Leaders [of the New School] was when me and Pac used to see each other a lot, and during the filming of Higher Learning. Me, Pac, and Omar Epps used to stay in these fully furnished apartments called the Oakwood Estates on Hollywood Boulevard and Fuller Street . After that movie was done and I left LA, that's probably the last time that I ever saw Pac again.

At that point was Pac just too far gone, or did you just run into each other and talk and smoke? What's happening in terms of those conversations?

Believe it or not, in his personal space he wasn't like that. It was a lot when he was around his homies that he advocated that stuff. But he really wasn't like that in his personal space. Pac was really high on respect, and respecting his peers, and I told this story before, but he had a beef with Q-Tip. This was when at the Source Awards, Tupac actually started performing in the middle of Tribe's Best Group of the Year acceptance speech. Maybe it looked like he was disrespecting them because Pac had already had his reputation of being a loose cannon. But the truth is, the stage production manager wasn't communicating with the talent coordinator that was downstage. So while Tribe was doing their acceptance speech, the stage production manager pressed play on Tupac's DAT tape. Pac ain't hearing the acceptance speech clearly, he's backstage focusing on his performance.

They press play, he goes out there, and it just looked like he was dissing Tribe in front of an audience full of people—celebrities, executives, fans, so it looked like flagrant Tribe disrespect. Pac gets off the stage and Tribe was in there heavy with Zulu Nation and they put the pressure on Pac. Fortunately it didn't lead to no blows, but they didn't walk away from that situation really resolving anything. So when Pac got back to LA and reached out to me, he knew what my relationship is with Q-Tip. And he told me to pull up on him.

And I'm in Pac’s room and he's writing to an Isley Brothers sample that was looping and a MPC60 beat machine. Mad weed on the table, he just steaming L's and he ended up writing three to four songs, an insane sample. I never saw that before. I write one song to a beat, I'm turning the beat off and then I'm getting to a different beat. He's writing three, four different songs to the same beat. That was interesting to me.

After sitting around and smoking and joking a little bit, I got him and Tip on the phone, and they spoke. They had an incredible, beautiful conversation, and I think at the time, Donnie Simpson was still on BET. And they wanted to do a public truce and it never happened.

This is also not too far from around the timeframe when Pac had fully restored a '67 Impala or something. Sent it to Atlanta, this was during “Jack The Rapper.” Pac went down there, popped the off-duty police, came back to Atlanta. He was super paranoid. He definitely thought the cops were going to have some cops from LA come and get him or whatever.

So, he started to get his gun game right and he just was always pacing and smoking and writing a million songs, and constantly looking out his window because of his paranoia. He beat the case, I think that started to turn him into a little bit of that Bishop shit. Because obviously, ain't no black man shooting no white cop, as a rapper with records out, and beating the charge. That has never been done before? And it'll never happen after. And it turned Pac kind of into a superhero.

Although it wasn't official until the very last Tribe record, you were also a member of A Tribe Called Quest.

Yes, absolutely! I actually always wanted to be a member of Tribe. Tribe, Q-Tip and Phife and Jarobi and Ali are really my big brothers. There would be times when Q-Tip would say, "You can't come to the studio today, and I'd say, "Fuck that, Imma call Phife." And if Phife say I could come, I'ma pop up anyway. It was almost like how we did our parents when we wanted to go outside. Every Tribe record I ended up on, and I just love the fact that they held me in this high regard.

Were you at the [KID] Hood recording session?

Absolutely.

That was always one of my favorite stories, and it's a tragic story about this guy that had one of the best moments in the history of hip-hop, and he was just gone right after.

Immediately after! He didn't stay alive long enough to hear the record mixed, that's how soon he died. It is crazy, bro. And what's even crazier was, he was being set up in position to possibly be one of the most incredible milestones in rap, because his first look was such a huge moment. And he was homeless. Hood was living in the street, for real for real. And Tip didn't even really know him like that. He just brought him in his studio [for the “Scenario” remix] and gave him a shot, and his rhyme is completely opposite from every one of ours. He was talking some real dangerous and gangster shit with his verse. He was the only one talking that.

And that was a beautiful thing Tip did. Yeah, I don't think people really realize how much of us came through Q-Tip. And Ali, me, Mos Def, D'Angelo, Consequence. Tribe and countless others. Q-Tip, if he would've signed everybody, he would've been the East Coast Dr. Dre.

Busta Rhymes and Cheo Hodari Coker circa 1993
Busta Rhymes and Cheo Hodari Coker circa 1993
Courtesy of Stephan Apicella-Hitchcock

Is it true that you and Leaders broke up for the first time on the set of Yo MTV Raps?

That's the second time we broke up. First time we broke up, it was either before the first Leaders album came out. Which is why when the Leaders album did come out, I had two solo songs on there and one called “Feminine Fatt” and one called “Show Me A Hero.”

This is no disrespect to Brown, but its still your verse on “Saab Story”it's damn near a solo record.

I mean you know Brown had a solo song called “My Pinocchio Theory,”and Dinco had a solo record called “My Ding-A-Ling.” And he had a song called “Too Much On My Mind,” without me. So when I got kicked out of the group the first time I started working on the solo album then. And when Dante Ross first saw us at Payday in Lower East Side Manhattan. We did the show. We ripped it down. He was at Tommy Boy but he was leaving Tommy Boy. Took him about 6-7 months to finalize his negotiation before he went to Elektra.

By the time we got to Elektra, I was kicked out of the group. So they went up there without me, and Dante said “I'm not signing this group if it ain't exactly what I saw 6-7 months ago.” I then got a phone call from Charlie Brown, and he said “Yo, we got this deal on the table at Elektra Records, do you wanna come back and be in the group?” And I said cool. The deal, from what I understand, wasn't happening without me being there thanks to Dante. And I said I need to have these two records on the album that I recorded on my own because I love them. They said I could have my two songs, but they kept me off of “Too Much On My Mind” so it would balance out.

You guys were like Sam and Daveyou were already breaking up while you were together.

That's a fact. So then the second time we broke up, it was definitely on Yo! MTV Raps, Fab 5 Freddy. We had signed the release forms before we even started filming because that was a part of the formality, and then we were all introducing ourselves and then shouting “Leaders of the New School” after we said our names because we wanted everybody to know we were repping the clique. And when they got to C Brown, he just said his name and he said he represents himself. On camera.

We all looking at him like what are you doing homie? You crazy? And then I just turned around and said “Yo, can y'all stop filming this for a minute?”

And we stepped to Brown right there. And he was on some real ghoul shit that day and he wasn't budging. He said, “look, check this out, I'm not fucking with you no more, and I don't wanna be in this group with you no more.” He was just directing that to me. The album was coming, it still wasn't out yet, we had done the “What's Next” video. We did the “Classic Material” video.

And I remember that day, I wanted to stay with my group so bad, I went to Brown's crib and I was in tears like, “Yo homie let's fix this.” Because I was the first one to have a child out of everybody in Leaders, so I was really scared about not being able to provide for my son.

So it was very challenging for me to wrap my head around and I still love them dudes, even in the midst of me being kicked out the group and being shitted on at the time. But I was too determined to see this success and claim the divine that I knew I warranted. Especially having this new young life that I was responsible for, that I created, failure just wasn't an option.

It was a bittersweet moment because I never wanted it to end with Leaders, but it was the sweetest joy to be able to venture off on my own and find my true self with the support of all of the relationships with my peers that were really genuine, like Diddy and Q-Tip, and particularly Large Professor. Pete Rock. Brand Nubian. Big Daddy Kane. Chuck D still stuck with me.

Heavy D for sure was one of the first to give me a huge look with the features as well, with “A Buncha Niggas,” and these relationships helped me really become a guy that damn near pioneered the feature. Because I was the first artist to really be on everybody’s record in the dynamic that I was.

It's blowing me away because I never really thought of it like that, but you're absolutely right.

There was nobody on ten, fifteen different people’s records at the same time. It got so crazy, I was just being hired to talk on people’s records. It was like, we don't even care if you rhyme, we just want you to say some shit. Missy Elliot got me on her album and I just talked, Mary's [J Blige’s] first album I just talked. It was a lot of kinetic energy all happening at the same time and it turned me into becoming the one to really set this new standard as far as artists setting themselves up for their moment. Everything led to “Woo Hah” going platinum in 4 weeks.

This new record is really fascinating to me, because it's not an old man's record. It's got a young spirit, but at the same time, this record could've dropped in '98 and been just as hot back then. Do you feel a certain responsibility? Do you feel like you ought to be like Moses coming down from the mountain with the tablets saying, "This is what hip-hop is." Or is your attitude towards the youngsters more like, "Okay, your flow is different. Your drugs are different, your vibe is different, and I'm just trying to understand what you're doing."

I'm more embracing than trying to understand. There's certain things that I'm not gonna be able to understand and there's certain things that I'm not trying to understand. I can never understand the drug use thing. Because even when we was young, and there was all type of drug options, we was raised in a way where it was forbidden to mess with anything outside of weed and a little bit of liquor, and a cigarette. There was no experimental drug part of our culture.

I'm not saying that it wasn't happening at all, you know. Del the Funky Homosapien used to take shrooms and acid. He was really a direct descendant of the era when Hendrix and the hippies and all of that was moving. And he was from the Bay, so that was a part of their culture. In New York, nothing was respected outside of a little bit of weed, and then after that, your whole respect level was compromised: You were a crackhead, a junkie, and that's the way we saw it. And that's not gonna change for me.

I've never seen, in the history of our culture, this much drug death from overdosing in hip-hop, ever. It just seems like there's a bunch of young artists that don't live to see 25 years old. Not because they were killed by beef. They dying from drug shit. There are a few artists obviously that's getting killed by the hand or the gun. That's also part of the reason why I'm so gung ho about the fitness and wellness journey and I'm trying to inspire so many people by my journey. The only other way that I can show them what I'm talking about is when I do what I do when we gotta get on these records together. When we put these records out and they see the feedback that I'm getting, they see the feedback that they getting, they see the feedback that we're getting, together, it makes them that much more willing to lean in the direction of what we trying to show them and share with them.

The early 90s’s to me were the real golden era. And with records like this, the energy is coming back.

It actually feels dope that it's coming back from the younger MCs. You got Stove God Cooks out here that made an album with Roc Marc[iano] and I aint just bigging him up because he’s my artist. I truly believe he made one of the best albums of 2020 just making boom bap shit. Benny the Butcher, Westside Gunn, Conway, GxFR, they shaking things up crazy out here. Roc Marc fathered the whole resurgence.

There's a lot of dope MCs out here doing they job man, and I'm proud of the J. Coles, Kendrick is my actual favorite MC as far as the generations after us go. I even thought Juice WRLD was incredible, he really was able to spit. You know he made his melody songs but this footage that I've seen of him actually going off the head with real bars for ten minutes at radio stations for real, for real. Dave East is another one that I'm a huge fan of as far as just really rhyming. Rapsody is a godsend lyrically. She's so incredible that I don't refer to her as female MC, I refer to her as just one of the dopest MCs we have period. She's a different kind of gem. I really appreciate her.

You have another classic Mariah record on the album, you got the Mary J Blige record which you produced, and also you got a new discovery like Nikki Grier. “Freedom” was another record that I thought could be a really interesting anthem to have out.

Nikki Grier is finally getting her just due, she's like the lead music director and writer in the whole Sunday Service Gospel choir. She really heads up that whole thing on Kanye West’s' side and she's been very instrumental in Aftermath. She was there with all of us from like '03, '04, '05, writing hooks for a lot of the superstars that were artist features on everybody's albums that came out in that Aftermath catalog. Get Rich or Die Trying to The Documentary to The Big Bang album and she’s done Eminem's projects. She has always been one of the behind the scenes, important key components as a writer.

You've preserved your voice the way that Frank Sinatra preserved his voice. If you look at Sinatra’s career, he only got better as he got older. When he was your age, he was making records with Count Basie and Quincy Jones like “Sinatra at the Sands,” “Fly Me to The Moon,” and so on. So working with your engineers, knowing what you know about your voice, do you have full control now? Do you treat your rapping voice like you're singing?

I adjust my music with how my voice changes. There's certain high-pitched things that I used to do that I don't do any more. Some of that just comes from wear and tear over the years, some from the smoking and the drinking. But the texture is never gone. The Dragon vocals are still the Dragon vocals. It's just what I know that I'm completely capable of being at my best self, creatively and sonically. I work within that space and I finesse it to levels that are beyond description. And I also understand technically, when it's time to EQ, I don't like to put too much on me so that people can appreciate how I truly sound. So there's a little bit of highs, a little bit of mids, some nice little balance of bass, and I don't really use special effects without putting the echo on it. That's probably the extent of special effects you're gonna ever get from me. I'm not a auto-tune guy. Nothing against it, I just don't really know how to freak it the right way, because I don't come from that.

And I never felt the need to play with it. I know how to hold a note when I need to sing, youknowwhatimsaying? So I work within the constraints of what I'm capable of doing at a masterful level at this stage, of what my voice still allows me to do, and I stay there. And it's important for me that I keep as close to the original sound as possible so that when I do a live, it ain't no reach for me to try to accomplish that.

Outside of drinking tea and honey, and sometimes needing to just shut your damn mouth and going on vocal rest for a few hours,I don't really do anything unless my throat doctor specifically has instructed me to do something.

But those polyps are all healed?

Well, we didn't cut all of the polyps, because there were some that were on my vocal chords that, if they would've cut them, they were probably going to alter the way that I sounded forever.

Right.

So we got rid of everything that was complicating my breathing passage. I'm not even on the blood pressure meds no more, you know what I'm saying? That's gone, acid reflux is gone. I feel incredible. You know, I'm being told that I look incredible. I'm grateful to my trainers. I'm grateful to my chef for my meal prep. I'm grateful to my family for being supportive of me through this journey. And I'm grateful to all of the fans and my extended family, you know, that been supporting me through all of these years and just been riding with Busta Rhymes, and every movement that I've given birth to, from Flipmode to Conglomerate. From day one to day now. That's giving me more support and more excitement to want to continue this journey and transform even more and to continue inspiring and feeling good about myself.

Cheo Hodari Coker is a Seattle based screenwriter. He created and was the showrunner of Marvel's Luke Cage and has co-written Notorious and Creed II.

Originally Appeared on GQ