Conscious Rap Failed Us: The Busdriver Interview
Imagine my surprise when I show up to the address provided for this interview and find an unemployment office. I figured there was a mistake, pulled out the iPhone to call the publicist but couldn’t get any service. So I go inside to use a pay phone, and there sitting in the corner wearing the promo shirt for his new album Jhelli Beam, is Ragen Farquhar, the Busdriver.
Apparently there have been some scheduling problems between Mac’s & PC’s at the label. The week before Busdriver tells me he showed up at his dentist’s office for a midnight concert. We decide to go ahead with the interview while he waits for his case to come up. Busdriver’s promotional contract with NASA expired at the beginning of the year, and soon his unemployment is going to run out. NASA, like many Busdriver fans, has taken issue with the lack of speed in his current work.
I cut right to the chase. “When you released Roadkillovercoat some said you were letting down fast rap aficionado’s. Not squeezing as many words into bars as you used to. They said you were trying to appeal to different audiences with all of the singing and songwriting.”
“My condolences to all who have had to witness the death of my former self,” he says clutching a copy of He is… I Say: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond by David Wild. ”My love for Neil Diamond has overpowered my usual set of influences. Expect a residency in Vegas following this years US tour.”
The singing and songwriting is back on Jhelli Beam, but it also has speed gems like “Me Time” giving glimpses of his former self. I try to taunt it out of him by mentioning Tonedef and V Double O, but he just smiles.
“What about the Guiness Record?” I ask.
“Guiness makes delicious malt beer,” he announces to the room, “AND records!”
“Do you think you could break the record,” I ask bluntly.
“I’m sure that I could break them if given half the chance,” he says confidently. I get the feeling there’s more to this but he quickly changes the subject.
“My ideas for marketing are fantastic,” I note a slight shift in character, “and impossibly costly. My new marketing blitz actually explores the promotional potential of suicide bombing.” There’s a gasp from the woman sitting on the other side of me.
“How it works is quite simple,” he continues. “We’ll hire an expert street team enthusiast, fill him with fliers, promotional CD’s, posters and silly string. Send him to the hottest festivals of the season, and then detonate him moments before the headliner plays.”
I couldn’t see who it was but someone in the room said, “oh uh uh.”
“Of course the expense would be hefty,” he says again to the room more than me. “The whole exploding person thing is quite pricey.”
There’s an awkward feeling in the room, not out of the norm for Busdriver, but his smile is so warm an innocent people can’t help but to feel reassured. I’m reminded of Busdriver’s little adventure in Avalon, Pennsylvania:
“So what was up with Avalon?” I ask and immediately his eyes perk up. “MILF Hunting?”
”All in a days work,” he says pupils drifting back towards nostalgia.
“Okay lets be serious for a second,” I say trying to bring him back. “How exactly did conscious rap fail us?” a reference to the opening line of the new album.
“By half-heartedly being the moral foil to mainstream rap,” he explains. ”None of the goals of conscious rap seemed rooted in reality, for the most part. High soaring rhetoric and the need to berate gangster rap are its central themes.”
I look at him intent on the subject as he pauses. “Which is fine,” he finally says as I note another character shift, “and not necessarily true. I was merely talking shit at the time,” he laughs. ”Which I tended to continue throughout the record’s 60 minute running time.”
“Has anyone ever called you a conscious rapper, because you’re anything but conscious?” The raise of his eyebrows as I asked this cued me in to the irony of the question.
“Plenty of times,” he replied letting it slide.
“You’re far more ironic than conscious,” I blurt out, “which leads into the next question. Hipsters?”
“What,” I say and he laughs.
“The thing most hipster rappers miss,” I try to continue despite the laughs, “that really separates them from true hipsters, is the irony. You’re a master of that.”
“Well the irony,” he says recovering from laughter while maintaining the smile, “is in the music’s inception. A guy’s leanings toward trance music and low-level materialism, when they’re supposed to be true school is where the irony peeks its ugly head. But ultimately, hipster rap is not about hipster sensibility, it’s the method in which backpack rappers of yesteryear have sex with hot indie chicks. Club culture is the greatest allure for such an end.”
“Since we’re talking labels,” I push forward, “wonky is a current one being used to describe the instrumental sound popularized by Flying Lotus and the LA Beat Scene. It’s often criticized by ‘rap’ fans as being stuff no one could ever rap on, but you’ve been rapping over the stuff for years.”
“Neither I nor Lotus knows what ‘wonky’ is,” he says. ”But I do know that the synthesis of hip-hop and electronic music is far from new. I’m just glad that there is a scene based on such principals.”
Sensing another shift in character I try to throw a curve ball. “Are you afraid one of your ex’s will get pissed at some of the content of your music?”
“I don’t know anyone who listens to my music,” he says without missing a beat, “especially ex’s. I’m fairly safe to say whatever I please. I’d only have to answer to the handful of music journalists who care.” Despite the apparent irony, my meter doesn’t go off.
“Any truth to the rumor that you’re on Steele’s payroll?” I ask.
“You mean Michael Steele, right?”
“Yeah, disinformation campaign to confuse liberals, or do you think liberals are just confused?”
“He did actually approach me in an attempt to render some of my services,” he tells me. ”I think his goal was to give the GOP some much needed urban friendliness via sponsoring a rap guy such as myself.” There’s a smile of pride as Busdriver says this. ”Little did he know that my fan base is about as black as his constituency.”
“You’ve been known to daze and confuse opponents in freestyle ciphers. Is that a compliment to you or a sign of the decline of the art.”
“I haven’t ciphered with anyone in a year or so,” he answers with a sigh. “Except for Michael Steele.”
“How do you think coming up in Good Life contributed to your development?” I ask finally ready to go nostalgic with him.
“It informed my abilities,” he says. ”All of my approaches are exaggerations or exact replica’s of what most of the Goodlifer’s were doing. I pretty much owe everything that I do to that place and those people.” At last the humble Busdriver has showed up.
“That scene had it’s time to leave its mark and it did,” he continues. ”Now we have a variety of scenes with different emphases. Like fore instance, the Low End Theory scene and Brainfeeder. That is pretty much the dominant scene in the LA hip-hop underbelly. There is always a need for these new set of ideas to take hold of people and set the world stage for what hip-hop is or is not.”
“To get even more serious, if someone thought Low End Theory resident Nocando got you on “Least Favorite Rapper” that would make him their least favorite rapper. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for your career?”
Busdriver smirks at this as he says, “He did ‘get’ me. But that was the point.”
The secretary at the front of the room announces, “Mr. Farquhar, we’re ready for you.”
She leads us down the hallway to an office, where we’re directed to the two empty seats in front of the case workers desk.
“Someone will be in with you shortly,” she says returning to the hall out the door behind us.
I’m not sure what I’m doing there with him. I’m out of questions but the silence is uncomfortable. “You’ve dropped something like twelve albums in ten years,” I break it. ”Any plans to slow down?”
“Jhelli Beam is actually my sixth official album,” he corrects me. ”And no I don’t plan to slow down. Why should I?”
“Mr. Farquhar,” the voice of the case worker booms. Neither of us heard her enter behind us. “Are you rapping again?” Busdriver starts shaking his head no almost violently.
“Who is this?” she points to my Run DMC t-shirt. I give a slight shrug. ”You are, aren’t you?” back at Busdriver. ”You’re rapping.”
She looks at me. I look at him.
“Get out of my office!!” she screams. ”Security!!”
“This interview is over,” Busdriver says to me racing out of the office.