a long talk

Prophecy Fulfilled

Busta Rhymes returns with the sequel to his masterpiece, E.L.E., 22 years later — right on time.

Photo: Flo Ngala
Photo: Flo Ngala

The planet is cooking at a slow simmer. People in every nation are at odds. A deadly virus impacts world health, communication, travel, and economics. We should’ve listened to Busta Rhymes. In the ’90s, the New York rapper parlayed positive attention from his group Leaders of the New School and work with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest into a lucrative career as hip-hop’s foremost lyrical oracle. He warned of an eminent shift in the world order on early albums like his 1996 debut The Coming and its followup When Disaster Strikes… and dedicated his third album, 1998’s Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front, to the suggestion that a way of life we’d grown accustomed to was coming to a swift end. Our lives did change, not at the stroke of midnight on the turn of the millennium as many expected but in the smoke and fire of 9/11, a New York catastrophe eerily reminiscent of the cover art of ELE (which depicted lower Manhattan bathed in smoke and fire), and in the long tail of war, escalating surveillance, and exclusivist politics that followed. Busta revisits the concept this week in today’s Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God, an album examining our unusual cultural moment while inviting a summit of friends and frequent collaborators to toast to the Brooklyn rhymer’s longevity as hip-hop’s most unpredictable and unassailable lyricist.

I spoke with Busta Rhymes, 48, over the phone last week, on an afternoon where he got an unexpected shoutout from Barack Obama on the 2020 campaign trail, to catalogue the patient creation of the sequel to his finest album 22 years after the original. We also looked back on a career spent telling anyone who’d listen that there were dark tidings on the horizon. He’s garrulous and long-winded, as you might expect from the maker of madcap classics like “Gimme Some More” and “Woo Hah!! I Got You All in Check.” What comes through is a lifetime love of the craft.

You’ve been warning us about global catastrophe for nearly 25 years. Do you look at the state of the world right now like “I told you so”?
I never do the “I told you so” thing. What I’m grateful for is the fact that I don’t look like I was just being a conspiracy theorist gone crazy anymore to those who might’ve thought that I was just overly fascinated with that. I was fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time and around the right people, where information was prioritized in a different way. Having a crib at the World Trade, and living in Tribeca and Brooklyn right over the bridge from Manhattan, I always felt like, if I’m in the proximity of some shit happening for real, as far as my home is concerned, what would I do? My kids is with me. My loved ones is close by. My mom, dad, cousins, friends that I’ve known for 30 years, my whole life. What’s the saying? “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” You can’t prepare for the worst if you don’t consider the possibility of shit actually happening. We don’t believe shit until it’s too late 99 percent of the time. That’s exactly our problem now, and it’s always been our problem.

I always wanted to also offer that same kind of perspective through the music. When I said, “There’s only five years left” at the end of “Everything Remains Raw” as that record was moving and shaking in ’96, it was not me knowing or prophesizing. I was just paying attention to information that was accessible to everybody. I tried to do that shit again, in 1998, when I put out my third solo album, Extinction Level Event. That’s why when you see the album artwork, Wall Street is up in flames. You don’t see the World Trade. You see the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. You see the Hudson River. You see South Street Seaport on fire. Three years later, in 2001, we saw exactly what my artwork looked like in real time. I guess motherfuckers started to act like, “Maybe Busta Rhymes ain’t bugging out so much no more.”

I never thought about it that way. Your first four albums comprise a series, but in 2001, you hit reset with Genesis. I always wondered why the end-times theme switched up.
It didn’t actually switch up. It was the same. I was showing people that a whole new beginning is going to start. The world that we once knew and loved, as we knew it, was over after that World Trade shit.

Now it makes sense why the next one after Genesis was 2002’s It Ain’t Safe No More…
Absolutely. I knew that 2001 was a turning point for life as we knew it. The Patriot Act got implemented. Big Brother. Cameras everywhere. Civil liberties started getting taken away. I wanted to point that out by calling that album Genesis, that there is a new beginning happening.

You were right about that, too. 
It wasn’t Genesis the way they try to make it seem in the Bible. This was a fucked up Genesis. I dove in a little more with It Ain’t Safe No More… and then [2006’s] The Big Bang. I’m at a point [now] where I felt like I had to take some time away to reassess how shit was getting ready to pan out. I wanted to make a classic album that was also the most vulnerable, most informative, most thought-provoking, something that actually would speak directly to the times, as opposed to me talking about some shit that was happening in the future. And it felt like it was time to create Extinction Level Event 2.

I think the first time we heard that name mentioned was in 2014. Six years later, it’s finally coming out. Talk about that journey.
I started that album in 2009, right after I put out Back on My B.S. I didn’t say nothing to nobody about it until around 2013, to be exact, until I knew that I had the pieces that were solid enough to make me feel comfortable enough to say that I created enough strong material for this work that I’m sitting on to be worthy of being called ELE2. I’ve never done a sequel album up to this point. I wasn’t a strong believer in that. When you create these moments, these moments are just for these moments. If you’re gonna create a sequel to one of those milestone moments, it’s important that you supersede not only how great the last one was, but also everyone’s level of expectation. The standards are already set at a high level when you are doing a part two to an album that people hold in a very high regard. I didn’t want to be impulsive about that, so it took me a few years to feel comfortable enough to even tell the world that I was doing an ELE2. And then it took me years to actually complete it. This album is 11 years in the making.

So are you just sitting on 1,000 songs?
About 868 records.

Is there music from 2009 on the new album?
The first beat after the intro of the album is 22 years old. I wanted to make this album start off, sonically, the way the first Extinction Level Event album ended. If people go back and listen to the first Extinction Level album and then go into this one right after it, I wanted it to feel like we picked up exactly where we left off, like we never left the studio sessions from the first ELE. So, I took a beat that Nottz did for me that I ended up not getting around to using on that album, and I started this album with that beat.

Bringing everything full circle. Your song with Kendrick Lamar, “Look Over Your Shoulder,” is incredible. How did that come together?
What did that record make you feel like when you heard it?

It made me think about “Why We Die” [Busta’s 2000 song featuring DMX and Jay-Z] and all your thoughtful, reflective joints.
Thank you, bro. “Look Over Your Shoulder” is one of my favorite records I’ve ever made with one of my favorite MCs that I’ve ever worked with. Kendrick is a godsend to me, lyrically and creatively. He’s such a fucking force to be reckoned with. He allowed me the opportunity to rhyme with him on [the remix to] “Rigamortis,” on his [2011] Section.80 mixtape and we have always held each other in very high regard as MCs, as colleagues, as brothers, as friends, as peers. We don’t speak as regularly as we used to, but Kendrick is like that, and it’s part of why we love him. There’s a great deal of mystique around Kendrick. You don’t see him posting things on the ’gram. Very rarely do you find him being caught on camera, being out anywhere. I really appreciate that about him.

It means people listen when he speaks.
Yes! It’s important that people value the artist and their gift more than all of the bullshit that you’ve got to post every fucking day about shit that ain’t nothing to even do with your music. I come from that.

How this record came together was Nottz sent me the beat, but I didn’t listen to the pack of beats he gave me until six months later. It was a winter storm in New York. They declared a national emergency or some citywide shutdown, and put a curfew in New York City. If you wasn’t home, wherever you was at, you pretty much had to sleep there. I stayed in my studio. When I heard the beat, I couldn’t believe that I was sitting on the shit for six months. I was bugging the fuck out. It’s got to be one of the craziest beats on the planet. Nottz had the Michael Jackson sample chopped up, and I took it to a further place by getting my hands on the original 2” 16-track [recording] of the Jackson 5 singing “I’ll Be There,” which is the song that Nottz chopped up from the Michael Jackson vocals. I wanted to actually have young Michael Jackson singing on the record so we didn’t have to sample him, but no a capellas existed. I had to go through hell and high water to find a way to get my hands on the original Jackson 5 song.

When I did, it was magical, because I was able to sit in the studio and listen to the soloed vocals by muting all other tracks, and listen to the Jackson 5 laughing and joking and cracking jokes on each other between takes. That shit was such a bone-chilling experience, I ended up crying as I was listening to it. It was like, Damn, I am literally in a studio session the Jackson 5 recorded this song at. This actual moment is captured where I’m able to witness all of the behind-the-scenes shit of what was going on with them in the studio, in the process of making this song. It was emotional for me, so I ended up keeping a copy of the session. I had to send the reel back to the facility that keeps it, and I thanked the person that made it happen, a trillion, kazillion times. When I finally got around to recording my verse, I sent it to Kendrick, he loved it. He got on it and bodied the record. And when we completed that shit, it was a true magical moment and a testament to how great this incredible body of work was starting to feel like and sound like, and come together. Now the world got it.

You’ve sparred with a lot of great rappers over the years; you’ve done songs with Jay-Z, DMX, Eminem, Redman, Kendrick, Biggie, and so many more. Is there anyone you regret not getting to rap with?
I don’t regret anything because I still got a lot of work to do. I still got a lot of contributions to make to the culture, to the art. I’ve grown to learn and love and appreciate God’s clock. When shit is supposed to happen, it usually happens best when it happens on God’s time. You feel me? This album ended up becoming as great as it is because I learned how to appreciate the significance of being patient. And I attribute that wholeheartedly to my experience at Aftermath with the good Dr. Dre. [Working with] Dre was the first time it ever took me three years to complete an album; I’d been putting out an album every year [between 1996 and 1999]. Then I left Elektra Records in 2000 and signed to J Records. In 2001, I put out Genesis; the success of that project lasted two years. I put out It Ain’t Safe No More… [in 2002], and then the world ain’t get another album from me until I got to Aftermath in 2006.

Before I got with Dre, I had a system going of how to look forward to securing my revenue every year and [knowing] what my tax returns was going to look like every year. I was able to move and shake on my own accord. Having to do it differently taught me a lot, not just professionally, but personally as well. And in a good way. So, I applied that shit times three, almost times four: We’re going from three years to make an album to 11 years to make an album? Shit, man, I think I might’ve had the most incredible sensei when it came to teaching me patience, and the importance of fitness and wellness, because I got in shape for the first time when I was at Aftermath. It taught me how to really be meticulous and micromanage my creative process that much more. Being with Dre made me a better everything. I don’t regret nothing. Whatever artist I’m supposed to work with, it’s going to happen when it’s supposed to happen. Sometimes you want things to happen when you want it to happen, but that don’t mean it’s meant to. And that don’t mean you going to get the best from the situation when you try to force it to happen.

I witnessed that firsthand with this project. I got the best from everyone; I got them in the space that made me fans of them. Mary [J. Blige] feels like how she felt when she was on the My Life album on this album. Rick Ross feels like when he made Teflon Don. I got Rakim on my album going into the sciences of the Quran, getting into shit that we haven’t heard him do in a long time. I got the Minister [Louis Farrakhan] speaking in the most compelling and powerful way I think you’ve ever heard a man walking the face of this Earth speak. I don’t think there’s a dull moment. And me and Mariah — lightning might’ve struck in the bottle twice for us.

You spend a lot of time cultivating talent. How do you find the artists you sign?
It just happens. I don’t go out there looking for it. I found O.T. Genasis when I was in the club doing the BET Awards weekend back in 2013. I was just hanging out, and O.T. came in the club and performed a record called “Touchdown,” and that shit turned that building into a fucking tornado. It was so crazy, he couldn’t even get through the first verse. They kept making him start the shit over.

I remember the first time I saw O.T., I think in 2014, because he played “Coco” four times in a row.
I used to do that when “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” came out. The last night that the Palladium nightclub in New York City was open, [my record] was the hottest record in the planet at the time, so they booked me to do the grand finale concert at the club. I performed that shit in there four times. The fifth time, we showed the video in the club. They had these fucking screens come down from the ceiling so that the crowd at the fucking floor level could look up and watch the video. That shit was one of the craziest nights I ever had in my whole life.

Do you feel like the city lost something with all the classic clubs closing down and regulations and hip-hop cops coming around?
Absolutely. When the clubs started to close and the hip-hop police started to fuck with artists, it definitely destroyed this city. It killed the heart of the city. It changed the pulse of the city. And I don’t think it ever came back. It became the city that the generations to come got used to. They didn’t know the experience before that, so they didn’t have anything to complain about. The ones that were complaining, wasn’t too much shit that they could do about it either. Then the tide of the music industry started to change. People got older, started to get out the way. The next generation came, not just artists, but new promoters and the new nightlife curators. All of that shit started to get ushered in in another way. That comes with time and evolution. Things can never stay the same, man. We got to appreciate the times when things were perfect and flawless, and enjoy it as much as we can until it goes to a whole other thing.

Every rapper has producers who bring out the best in them, but I feel like you have this chemistry with almost everyone. In addition to Dre, which ones through the years have kept you on your toes?
Nottz, Swizz Beatz, Rockwilder, DJ Scratch, J Dilla.

There’s enough talk about how well you handled Swizz Beatz production in the early days. And I wish you rapped on more Dilla joints. You two were an underrated duo.
Well, you’re gonna get more shit from me and Dilla. That’s a fact. You’re going to get a lot more shit from me and Swizz. You’re going to get a lot more shit from Nottz, DJ Scratch, Rockwilder, and me and Dre.

So, what you’re saying is you’re itching to get back in after ELE2 and keep the music flowing?
Yeah. See, recording music for me, at this point, is not just about making the album that I’m going to give to people. Recording music for me, at this point, is my peace of mind. I go to the studio every day. It’s part of my daily routine. It’s not even about records at this point. I go into the studio because this is what I have dedicated my life to. Thirty-something years of dedicating my life to the studio, and I’m a 48-year-old man. That means my whole life has been given to this work and being in the studio and making music. So, it’s therapeutic for me. It’s my sanctuary. I love it beyond description. I’m never stopping or taking a break from the studio, my brother. Especially after 11 years. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do with my day! If I ain’t going out with my queen or ain’t hanging out with my kids, I’m in the studio. That’s my routine, so I’m going to probably continue doing it this way until I just one day wake up and don’t feel the need to be in the studio that much no more. But that ain’t gonna be no time soon, so I’m already recording for the next project and the project after that and the project after that. It’s a never-ending process. You never can have enough hot shit. You can’t never have enough dope records.

You mentioned Minister Farrakhan earlier. What affect has he had on your life?
I love that man. I love how he represents our people. I love how he represents the truth. I love how he represents Islam. I love how he represents what’s right and what’s wrong. Minister Louis Farrakhan addresses everything when it comes to our people, when we’re not doing the right shit. There is no singling out one group of people because there’s no hatred in that man. None.

But that’s his reputation in the news. People either say he’s brilliant or they say he’s a historical hatemonger, with no ground in between. How do you address people who say the latter?
I actually don’t address them. I don’t need to address them. There’s nothing to address. The truth speaks for itself, brother. See, the truth is undisputed. Always remember that. There has to be a reason people try to demonize such a godly person when they have nothing evil, wicked, or even criminal in their entire life’s history. This man has been on the planet for 86 years. Minister Louis Farrakhan don’t got a traffic ticket. He ain’t got a jaywalking summons. He don’t got nothing that you can hold him accountable for as far as breaking the law, being uncivil. You’ve never heard the man curse outside of maybe saying “damn” in 86 years. Something else is making people feel the need to speak negatively about him, if we really can’t point out what the negative thing is that he’s doing.

I think there’s a disconnect for people outside of the Black community who maybe don’t know his rep within the community, but I also feel his rhetoric can be divisive to a point that it invites the negative attention he gets. It’s more complicated than everyone is making it.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this for a while: When Mac Miller moved to New York City in 2015, I asked what local artists he was looking to link with. Your name came up. Did the two of you ever work on anything?
We never got a chance to work on any music, but we absolutely had a great friendship. That brother was full of respect and honor and love when we first linked up. We exchanged numbers and kept in touch for a little bit. We definitely had plans on working on some shit because that’s a real hip-hop motherfucker. Mac Miller understood the fundamentals of real hip-hop. He valued boom bap. He valued slapping-ass, real filthy, under-the-nail, gritty boom bap. He loved music. He just loved good music. The motherfucker could rap his ass off. I miss him. I appreciate him greatly. I really wish that there was an opportunity for me and him to rock out the right way, because I was also a fan. I really fell in love when I saw him with the Tribe logo tattooed on his arm; that shit was just like, damn, he really fucked with what we was doing. He loved what we loved, and it felt good to see a brother of his age really grow to have the appreciation for the shit that we lived, to share and uphold the integrity of. I hope he’s resting easy.

Thanks for that. I almost forgot: Have you heard Barack Obama shout you out?
Yeah. It’s crazy, bro. I got the clip in my phone. The stars are aligning for me right now. I can’t even front.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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