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Everyone has a different definition of grace. To some, it's Joe DiMaggio effortlessly roaming the spacious center-field grounds of Yankee Stadium. To others, it might be Mikhail Baryshnikov pirouetting onstage at Carnegie Hall. Basically, you know it when you see it.
Few who saw this year's MTV Video Awards could deny the presence of true grace when rapper Busta Rhymes--obviously saddled with the short straw--made his way to the stage to present the "Best Dance Video" award with handywoman Martha Stewart. While the stiff Stewart struggled to prove she had a sense of humor, with a painful "shout out to my homies" in New England, Rhymes kept his equilibrium. Good-naturedly watching as Stewart's street talk sank like a lead dirigible with the MTV crowd, Rhymes smiled and responded in the only reasonable way.
"Yo, Martha . . . What the dil-y-o?"
That's all it took to confuse, disorient and therefore neutralize Stewart. Score another one for Rhymes.
Ever since joining the Long Island-based Leaders of the New School in 1991, the Brooklyn-bred Rhymes has employed absurdist humor to take the air out of uncomfortable or stress-filled situations. With his recently released second solo album, When Disaster Strikes, Rhymes has made it clearer than ever that he's toiling in a grand tradition of R&B and rap artists who fronted as clowns so they could sneak serious messages into the unwitting minds of the masses.
George Clinton did it in the '70s, mocking America's social inequities while his band members partied in adult-size diapers. Flavor Flav did it in the '80s, taking some of the sting out of Public Enemy's revolutionary rhetoric with his b-boy shtick. If you wanted to stretch a theory, you could even extend the tradition back to the Coasters and Louis Jordan, but the point is that Rhymes values music for its power to lighten--not burden--the spirit.
"People leave their work from being beaten in the head by what their bosses ordered them to do all day, and they come to entertainment to be entertained," Rhymes says. "People leave from going to school all day, and being told what to do by instructors, to be entertained by entertainers. So you can give people information and channel the truth through entertainment. But you don't have to have the most depressing mind state. We can have fun solving problems, in other words.
"Sometimes we get so stressed when we address certain issues, because we do realize that the issue is a stressful one, or a depressive one. And sometimes it makes you so angry that instinct or your initial reaction may be to just fuck up things, or destroy something. But sometimes you can address an issue in an entertaining way where you almost have fun suggesting a solution to solve a problem. That's the way I like to go about things, particularly."
For years, Rhymes willingly played the part of hip-hop's boisterous cameo artist, turning up on a variety of projects by people like Mary J. Blige and A Tribe Called Quest, while occasionally appearing in films. When he somewhat reluctantly took the solo plunge in 1996 with The Coming, the results were immediate: The single "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check" became a dance-floor sensation, making Rhymes both a certified star and a foil for people like Howard Stern and Chris Rock. They poke fun at Rhymes' raspy slang delivery, and the apparent impossibility of deciphering a single sentence that comes from his mouth.
In conversation, Rhymes is a toned-down version of his stage self, talkative and excitable, but surprisingly serious and always coherent. Appropriately for someone who makes a living off his mike skills, Rhymes loves to express himself. Just take a look at the sleeve notes for When Disaster Strikes. Rhymes' involved list of "thank yous" reads nearly as long as Moby Dick.
On the day we spoke, Rhymes was almost an hour behind his interview schedule, probably because of his willingness to give five-minute answers to even the most mundane questions. He seems genuinely gratified by the opportunity to unload his thoughts, and he's unfailingly inclusive when it comes to his audiences. "I want country-and-western mo-fucking fans, too," he insists. "I'm not just making my music for hip-hop; I'm making my music for the world."
If there's a reason Rhymes is so frequently lampooned as an exotic, otherworldly freak, it may have something to do with his background. Born in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, to Jamaican parents, he retains traces of a West Indian accent, as well as an odd staccato delivery that feels like he's emphasizing every single syllable he utters. His Jamaican roots set him apart from the hip-hop crowd, giving him a natural feel for the reggae and dance-hall riddims that dominate his albums.
"Reggae was definitely something that I heard around the house a lot, it was something that I heard in the area a lot," he says. "It's something that I've always been around, 'cause that was part of my cultural significance. The people that I was closest to were in Brooklyn. Those people were all pretty much West Indian. A lot of the people that's involved in my business are West Indian.