DON’T LET THAT MILEWIDE GRIN FOOL you – Busta Rhymes has a lot on his mind. “I’ve gone to the record company,” he seethes, “and some behind-the-desk motherfucker that don’t even know my songs is telling me he owns my master tapes. That shit is crazy.” He moves on to the present state of rap: “I don’t like seeing hip-hop artists copying shit. There are a lot of motherfuckers that know how to copy shit – from video directors on down. ‘Keepin’ it real’? I don’t understand that shit. It’s propaganda.”
The rapper is hanging out in downtown Manhattan, rolling up a blunt. His steely glare is closer to Dirty Harry than to the manic jester he plays on MTV. Nearby, his cohort Spliff Star is scribbling lyrics and rhyming quietly to himself, at one point muttering a request for a hamburger. “The natures of white and black people are different,” Rhymes continues. “There aren’t any nonwhites in positions to really dictate what’s being dictated, so we’re all like little serfs tied to the manor. It’s almost like God and the devil. You got to understand what you’re dealing with.” He does, however, relish success – and these days, Rhymes is at the top of his game. His second solo album, When Disaster Strikes, mixes party-hearty body rock with slower jams that showcase Rhymes’ rhythm skills and trademark gravelly roar. The album has propelled him into the upper echelon of hip-hop’s glitterati: He has toured with Sean “Puffy” Combs, dropped science with Martha Stewart at the MTV Video Music Awards, played a rowdy tough alongside Ice Cube in John Singleton’s Higher Learning. He’s working on launching Bushi, a clothing line that he hopes to debut in the summer, and has started a record label called Flipmode. At twenty-five, he could call it a day. But considering it’s taken him more than ten years in the business to get this far, he isn’t about to. “I love the money, I love the popularity, but I love being in the studio the most,” he declares.
Busta Rhymes’ mom calls him Trevor. His last name is Smith, and he was born in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, to Jamaican parents, both of whom are Seventh-day Adventists. The family later moved to Long Island to afford Trevor and his brother a safer existence than Flatbush could offer. Smith and his mother were tight. When he was thirteen, he had his first run-in with sperm. “I wasn’t even familiar with masturbation,” he says, looking floorward. “It’s just that one day when, like, a mood was there … it just happened. And that’s when I realized, ‘I’ve got sperm.’ So I told my moms, and she sat down and talked to me about it.” Smith took the name Busta Rhymes in 1986, when, along with his cousin Milo and two others, he formed the Leaders of the New School. That’s also when he developed his howling, growling vocal style. “It was just the vibe of the music – nothing is ever planned,” he says. “That’s my way of expressin’ shit. I try to make people feel shit, sometimes in ways that words can’t define.” In 1991, Rhymes appeared on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario,” a hip-hop summit of a single that put his skills beside some of the best MCs in the business. Rhymes made his mark with that song, and by the time Leaders broke up two years later, he was ready to launch a solo career. It wasn’t all good, though: In 1992, Rhymes lost a son during a premature birth. He has the boy’s name, Tahiem, tattooed on his arm. “He’s the one doing all this for me right now,” says Rhymes, his voice lowering to a humble whisper. “Him and the Most High are guiding it right through.” In 1993 his son T’ziah was born.
Rhymes’ cold glower softens when he talks about the four-year-old boy. “The movie Liar, Liar almost made me cry,” he admits. “Music sometimes keeps you away from your family. The work leaves a bad taste not just in his mouth but in mine. None of this shit ain’t more important than him, but it’s hard because music ain’t just my love, it’s my bread and butter.” As he relights the brown, stubby remnant of his joint, Rhymes ruminates on the best vittles for the baked. “Macaroni and cheese. Or some fried chicken. Or, like, a steamed snapper with bananas and yams. Maybe some pancakes and eggs. I love pancakes. I could eat that now,” he says, smiling for the first time. Then he opens his mouth wide and exhales a gale of blue smoke. “All right, I’m gonna get up outta here,” he says, disappearing before the smoke clears.