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.
"But, at the same time, I never really focused on that primarily, 'cause at the end of the day, there was nothing too different about me, know what I'm saying? The way the kids acted at school, we were all pretty much the same. The only thing about me was I was a little more outgoing. I always wanted attention, I wanted to do the things and be in the places where I could be acknowledged for those things. So I started to discover that I needed to grab a microphone and be on the stage."
In 1983, Rhymes moved from East Flatbush to the more sedate Long Island, where he developed under the tutelage of Public Enemy. In fact, PE leader Chuck D coined Rhymes' stage name, taking it from a former Minnesota Vikings player named Buster Rhymes. To this day, Rhymes splits his time between Brooklyn and Long Island, two of the most fertile sources for the East Coast style that Rhymes perpetuates. Yet, as proud as he is of his East Coast pedigree, he's equally tired of the coastal rivalries that have fueled so much hatred in the hip-hop community, and may have contributed to the murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. That's why Rhymes waxes so rhapsodically when discussing his current participation in the mammoth Puff Daddy arena tour sweeping across America.
"This has definitely been a step in the right direction from the hell-driven shit that hip-hop and entertainment had to encounter on a whole," he says. "We're all out here for each other, we're all out here in the name of hip-hop. We're all out here to get money, and do it the right way, you know what I'm saying? You ain't gotta get money by unnecessary means, and you ain't gotta be out there advocating any violence. As far as entertainment is concerned, we can address issues that are violent issues, no doubt, because the truth is undeniable. If we've got violence in our areas, we can talk about that all day. But it's the way you go about it.
"So far, this tour has been the symbolism of the unison that's needed in entertainment as a whole. It's a predominantly East Coast rasta tour, but the artists that are charting the most are the East Coast artists right now. But I would love to see a tour with a bunch of East Coast and West Coast artists. We've all just gotta come out and chart together."
The chart success of When Disaster Strikes firmly elevates Rhymes to the top echelon of hip-hop icons. The week after its September 16 release, it debuted in Billboard at No. 3, and has already sold more than a million copies. The album gets off to a slow start (with an overly long cameo from blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore as Dolomite), but once it kicks in, with the ultra-phat KC and the Sunshine Band homage "Get High Tonight," it rarely lets up. "Turn It Up" takes an Al Green sample to beat-pumping euphoria, and the surreal nonsense-rhyme single "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See" draws sharp parallels between exuberant party rituals and scary police commands. The haunting "One" lifts a choral harmony from Stevie Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love Today," and features a scat sermon from Rhymes' friend Erykah Badu on the importance of family unity. But such social statements are always secondary to Rhymes' unflagging mission statement: to use music as a source of escape from life's pressures.
"When I'm in the studio, I can put a beat on, and turn that shit up real loud and smoke me a blunt, and whatever was bothering me outside of that studio can't even get in there," he says. "Go in your room, turn your shit up real loud, and nobody can even get into that world until you let them, know what I'm saying?
"That's what this music does for me. That's why I've always got something out there, because there's just so much bullshit in life to deal with, from a personal level to a business level to a general level. My salvation is music, as far as happiness, 95 percent of the time. Music, my son and my mother. Those three elements right there help me stay happy. Until I find another source of energy that can provide happiness for me, this is where it's gonna remain for me."
Busta Rhymes is scheduled to perform on Monday, December 15, at America West Arena, with Puff Daddy and the Family. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.