Great MCs are like great character actors – they master a persona, then corner the market. Want a supercool gangsta-hustler? Jay-Z. Need a sassy, sexy ghetto Mae West? Lil' Kim is it. Gotta have a party sparker? Someone with a turbocharged voice that'll make you lose your mind? Seek only the superhero character who keeps a frenetic dance-hall-ish vibe in his hip-hop: Busta Rhymes.
His latest solo album is Extinction Level Event. "The event," Busta says, "that stops everything." The man's career has been long – a 1998 group album with his Flipmode Squad called The Imperial; two previous solo LPs, 1997's When Disaster Strikes and 1996's The Coming; various movie roles; and two early-Nineties albums with Leaders of the New School – though I bet half of Busta's current audience thinks he was born solo. Nah, kid. He's just matured in front of our eyes from a hyper boy who bounced into hip-hop alongside his high school pals to a full-fledged bouncing icon.
On Extinction Level Event, you remake Ozzy Osbourne's "Iron Man." Where did that idea come from?
Clark Kent [the song's producer] said, "You need to do this record from Black Sabbath's Paranoid album." I was feelin' the idea, but then I went through some bullshit with people I thought was friends of mine, and the experience of the betrayal and the disloyalty is what confirmed me doin' that song. Because the original composition, "Iron Man," is about people turning their backs on Ozzy and him becoming the Iron Man and seeking his revenge. I was goin' through the premise of the record in my life, and doin' that record was the best thing to capture exactly what I was goin' through.
How did the Janet Jackson collaboration come about?
I just heard her say on the radio that she wanted to work with Busta Rhymes out of all rappers, and I took that as an invitation to step to her. I had a crush on her as a little nigga; I was on her shit from the days she was on Diff'rent Strokes. I always had desires of working with her, but the realities of those desires seemed so far-fetched. But hearing her say that on Hot 97 really confirmed that there wasn't anything to be insecure about. The only time that you have a limitation is the one you create for yourself.
You've been at it for a long time. What do you attribute that to?
I attribute that to having no Plan B. No other plan of survival. A sense of determination that's so extreme, I can't accept failure as an option. I dropped out of school in the tenth grade; I don't know any trades; I don't know any particular fields of business. If I don't win at this rap shit, then I'ma really be fucked up.
Who's your favorite rapper ever?
I'd probably say that my favorite rapper of all time would be Biggie.
Who's the best MC right now?
Being that Biggie is dead now, it would be between Nas and Jay-Z. Jay-Z has flows and ways of articulating metaphors that Nas don't do. And Nas has a way of placing his words and illustrating stories with fine detail that Jay-Z don't do. If it really came down to it . . . [long pause], I would be stuck between those two.
How do you feel about the NBA lockout?
I think that shit is dope!
The players are sticking together to stop one of the most powerful things in the world. That shows that motherfuckers like us – little prostitutes that get ho'ed all year round for these major corporate structures – need to get the respect. We are the source of what is happening for these corporations. We are the reason these motherfuckers have value, and if they don't start catering to us, then we need to stop shit. I'm feelin' that. Hip-hop can do that, too.
Should MCs unionize?
We shoulda formed a union a long time ago. If we all got a similar agenda, why not pool together, get a little account where we all pay these union dues? When one nigga gets fucked over at a label, we all take some money from the union dues and go outta the country – relax, vacation, treat each other to piña coladas and live, party, all day, by ourselves. When they come to terms, then we resurface.
You made your name on A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario" in 1991. What happened with them?
I don't know what happened. I just know they broke up and I'm not with it. It's one of the worst shits that coulda happened. They never gave off a clue that they vibe was bad amongst each other. Maybe they didn't even break up with a bad vibe. Maybe they just broke up because they got other agendas they wanna get into and this is the way they had to go about it.
How's your son?
My relationship with my son is dope. The only problem is, my schedule is so hectic – but he loves this rap shit. He's just a little B-boy. I guess it's in his blood. He likes my shit, he likes DMX; Puff, Mase, Big. I'll put a tape on and he'll be boppin' on beat like I do with my niggas. Then he'll start rhymin' along with certain punch lines that he think is hot. He's dissecting the whole shit at five years old. It's amazing to me. Having him allows me to share a part of my life that I never had the opportunity to share with anybody before.
This story is from the December 24th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.