Long before Busta Rhymes passed the Courvoisier to Diddy, before he was Janet Jackson’s robot lover, and before he joined Dr. Dre and LL Cool J in the aging-rapper gym club, Busta was a lanky 24-year-old and one of the most promising young MCs on the east coast. That’s when he released The Coming, which turns 20 tomorrow: his first album after leaving the Leaders Of The New School, and the one that proved he was more than just another member of an early-’90s rap crew.
Busta’s solo career entered him into a hip-hop world that arguably belonged to Tupac. All Eyez On Me came out in February 1996, just a month before Busta’s album dropped. All Eyez On Me sold more than 500,000 copies in its first week, and Pac was at the peak of his powers. Those would have been tough waters to enter for an East Coast rapper, but Busta has a knack for making an entrance.
That entrance came when the video for “Woo Hah!! (Got You All In Check)” started churning through heavy rotation on MTV. In the video, Busta stomps around in several different outfits, each more outrageous than the last: a shiny yellow coat and matching hat; what seems to be a black leather Santa outfit with a hole in the hat for his dreads; a robin’s egg blue getup with white stars that matches the blue-walled room he’s dancing in; a kind of medieval purple velveteen lounge outfit — and that’s not even all of them. All the while Busta moves about in the way that only Busta can move; as if filmed using stop-motion, his limbs repositioned by each drum beat and sample repetition. The song and video are, quite literally, classic Busta.
The “Woo Hah!!” video’s popularity on MTV gave Busta his first real exposure to a mainstream audience, though he had been in the hip-hop scene for years. He was, of course, one-third of the Leaders Of The New School, a group that formed when the three members met in Long Island. Around 1983, Busta’s family moved from Brooklyn to Uniondale, Long Island in search of a life away from the city streets. The families of Charlie Brown and Dinco D, the other two members of L.O.N.S., moved to Uniondale for the same reason, so when the three met in high school in 1986, there was an instant connection.
L.O.N.S. put out two albums, A Future Without A Past (1991) and T.I.M.E. (1993). Both were par for the course in terms of the early-’90s East Coast sound. Complex, jazzy, with tag-team rhyme schemes to-go, L.O.N.S. were nonetheless overshadowed by worthy competition like KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest, and Wu-Tang Clan. The one thing that always stood out for L.O.N.S. was the dreadlocked, loudly dressed Busta Rhymes. As VIBE wrote in ’97: “[B]ack in his days with Leaders Of The New School, Busta stood out like a red apple in a bushel of green ones. He was ripe ahead of his crew. No disrespect; it’s just true.” It’s hard to rival Busta’s presence once he takes ahold of the mic, and that proved to be too much for L.O.N.S. to handle.
In 1993, Yo! MTV Raps visited the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to interview the Leaders Of The New School. During the interview, it became clear that relations in the group were strained at best. Whenever Busta spoke, Charlie Brown looked toward the camera with a sort of bored exasperation that said: “I’m over this.” As the interview ended, the group retreated into a huddle of heated conversation. Busta looked toward the camera, “Please don’t film this, B.”
The Leaders Of The New School broke up right there. The trio had outgrown itself, or Busta outgrew the trio, but it felt inevitable. Between the breakup of L.O.N.S. and the release of The Coming, Busta popped up with legendary appearances on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Oh My God!” and a remix of Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear.” He also capitalized on nearly any opportunity to flex his lyrical prowess, including a fantastic freestyle battle in a mall with ODB, in which he raps a few lines that would become the third verse of “Woo Hah!! (Got You All In Check).”
To put it plainly, the man can rap. Busta creates cadences that seem impossibly complex as he dances around the beat like it’s a simple nursery rhyme. Busta’s mouth has always been his greatest asset, but it’s not just the speed at which he operates or his ability to turn several phrases on a single dime that’s so impressive; it’s his ability to take even just two syllables and make them his own. His dungeon-dragon “Rahrr Rahrrr!” that first appeared on the ’91 L.O.N.S. track “The Case Of The PTA,” the “Woo Hah!!” refrain, or his “Oh My God!” exclamation, the list of notable Busta ad libs and one-liners is nearly endless. Something about the energy and individuality with which Busta can deliver even a simple couplet make his choruses and hooks seem more like ageless samples than lines he actually delivered. In ’97 Busta told VIBE “[S]ometimes I hear shit in a beat that ain’t even there … I put my rhythm inside the rhyme flow and make it feel like a sample.”
The Coming typifies what had changed in hip-hop since ’93, when the final L.O.N.S. album came out. Focus was shifting from groups to individuals, and the beats were getting darker. The playful back-and-forth of hip-hop crews was giving way to the inner-theater of the solo artist. Busta’s first solo effort is full of plodding, woozy, Wu-Tang-style beats, juxtaposed by Busta’s frenetic energy. In “Everything Remains Raw,” a strong backbeat props up a wobbly sample that sounds like a pitch-shifted toy accordion while Busta spits classic boasts and images using rhymes that only Busta could conjure: “Yo (yo), I burn your food like Florence/ Run up in your crib like my name was SEARCH WARRANTS!” There’s even a L.O.N.S. reunion track on The Coming. The marathon 7:33 of “Keep It Movin'” features verses from both Charlie Brown and Dinco D over a lumbering backbeat and meandering bass line.
The Coming reached #6 on the Billboard 200, and #1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-hop chart. It’s a classic, but the image of Busta Rhymes that’s communicated in The Coming is different than the image we have of him today. Tracks like the 2001’s “Pass The Courvoisier” and “Break Ya Neck” have a polished sheen that isn’t present on The Coming. That trend toward radio-readiness continued through the rest of the decade, with Busta slowly trading in the rasta-colored parachute pants and matching hats of his mid-’90s wardrobe for heavy chains and more mainstream hip-hop wear. In 2006 he cut off the locks he’d been growing since ’89. Busta told VIBE in ’97, “I’m gonna make records that I know are gonna get me money, more so than just making records for props … even though I value hip-hop music and the culture on the same level, I value my life and the life of my family first.” If The Coming sounds like an underground rap record, every subsequent album crept closer to the pop-rap realm.
Busta continued, “I think at the age of 45, I’ll want to make songs. I’ll be a disgustingly filthy-rich asshole cat, watching my children as adults with my grandchildren runnin’ around and shit … dancing to the songs I put out at that time. Putting out stuff people feel is the hot shit. Just like I am right now.”
Over the course of a career that spans three decades, Busta has become one of rap’s household names. But Busta turns 44 this year, and his prediction that he’d still be making the music that everyone is dancing to hasn’t exactly come true. The last time he made a truly big splash in the rap game was probably when he dropped that tongue twisting verse on Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” in 2011. Hip-hop is a genre full of Lil Durks and Young Thugs, and has always had a strained relationship with age. Hip-hop is a young man’s game, largely because of the value placed on vitality. Take the hip-hop tradition of the brag or boast. Nearly every faction of the genre — from socially conscious backpack rap to 808s-heavy trap rap — engages in the boast. It’s one of Busta’s specialities. The boast is literally a declaration of self-value, vitality, and power. As rappers approach 40, they’re forced to come to terms with the beginning of the end of their vitality. It follows that middle-age is a negative concept in hip-hop.
It’s interesting then that some of Busta’s recent work seems to have shifted back toward the classic sound of the ’90s. In 2013 he released The Abstract And The Dragon, a collaborative mixtape with Q-Tip. It features a few new tracks and a good deal of Busta rhyming over old Tribe beats, including a notable verse over “God Lives Through.” He starts, “I always wanted to rhyme on this shit.” Rather than trying to join in the cadences of modern rap (Busta would be more than capable of Future-style delivery on a Metro Boomin’ beat), Busta embraces his past and, in doing so, acknowledges his age and the many changes he’s been through.
The album art for The Coming features a framed image of that young, lanky Busta, his mouth stretched wide, mid-shout. His locks are fanned-out wildly behind his head and there’s a white dove perched above him. Busta had shed the Leaders Of The New School and now occupied the center of the frame. But the whole image is blurred and foggy, distorted by the haze of the accompanying beats. Or maybe it’s just that in ’96 Busta was vibrating too quickly for the camera. The Coming is a 20-year-old time-capsule snapshot of an artist before the trajectory-altering explosion of fame.