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A reinvigorated Busta Rhymes skirts controversy, talks new album

February 27, 2009 | 12:28 pm

On 2006’s "The Big Bang," many longtime Busta Rhymes fans found themselves baffled by the veteran rapper’s new direction.

Under the aegis of Interscope/Aftermath and Dr. Dre, the rapper born Trevor Smith had buzzed his trademark dreadlocks and wore a menacing glower, a marked contrast from the gleeful anarchy that prevailed during his first decade as a solo artist. While the album scored a platinum plaque and his first-ever No. 1 debut on the U.S. pop chart, it featured a heavier, embittered-sounding Rhymes, prone to cocaine and crime boasts and morose paranoia.

What most didn’t know was that the music’s somber tone stemmed from extenuating circumstances. Over a two-year stretch, the Flipmode leader witnessed the murder of close friend and bodyguard Israel Ramirez; saw himself arraigned on charges of third-degree assault; faced weapons charges when police found a machete in his car; and was accused of attacking an ex-driver. To finish the unfortunate farrago, it was reported that a squabble over creative differences with Chairman Jimmy Iovine caused him to leave Interscope.

Rhymes was able to avoid jail time and found a new home at Universal Motown, reuniting with Sylvia Rhone, the ex-Elektra Records CEO with whom he began his solo career in 1996. Along the way, he’s sustained a creative re-birth of sorts, with last year’s single “Don’t Touch Me (Throw Da Water on Em),” commencing his comeback, and adding to an already deep greatest hits collection.

Despite attracting a minor controversy for its purported cultural insensitivity, more recent single “Arab Money” has earned heavy club play, while the Jadakiss and Young Jeezy-aided “Respect My Conglomerate” has cracked the top 10 most-played at New York hip-hop powerhouse Hot 97.

The buzz builds to his forthcoming, “Back on My B.S.,” slated to drop March 24 and featuring a cast of bold-faced names including Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Mary J. Blige, Common and John Legend. Rhymes takes the stage at downtown’s Club Nokia on Sunday night, and talked to Pop & Hiss ahead of the gig.

What makes this forthcoming album different from your prior releases?

It’s a reaction to the different space I’m in now. As you grow, you evolve and experience different adversities and learn how to make new adjustments to your life to accommodate the changes. “Back on My B.S.” comes as a direct result of the last few years, issues ranging from personal to professional. It allowed me to put things in a new perspective, and I think I put all that into the music.

I also switched record companies, going from Aftermath to back home with Sylvia Rhone at Universal. She helped me start my solo career and I’ve always had my biggest successes working with the woman. The last album I made with her was “Anarchy,” so it’s almost like a 10-year anniversary, a coming back together. While making the project, I just felt more creativity and energy than I’d felt in a long time. I’d had a lot of legal issues and being able to survive them gave me an incredible happiness and inspiration.

What led you to decide on this title after jettisoning “Before Hell Freezes Over” and " B.O.M.B."?

“Back on My B.S.” is the whole vibe to the music, from my delivery, to the edgy, creative risks I’m taking, to my desire to come back and take it again. The whole vibe of the project is that “I’m back on my ..."

The people who love me and who have grown to love me will love it. It’s definitely me back -- I’m in my space 100%.

Your material on Aftermath seemed much bleaker and placed more of an emphasis on drug and crime talk. What led to that decision to suddenly abandon your more party-oriented material?

When I was on Aftermath, I was going through a lot of stuff. It wasn’t that I was necessarily focused on crime but I felt as though I was being looked at as a criminal. I had a lot of legal issues that were pending. The loss of my security guard was with me. It was a darker time frame for me and I definitely didn’t enjoy life the way I’m enjoying it now. A huge weight feels like it’s been lifted.

That’s the one great thing about music, when you wear your emotions on your sleeve, people will connect whether it’s good or bad. Sometimes, as people, we go in different directions. You may not always agree with them, but at the end of the day, you’ve gotten it straight from me as an artist. I’ve refused to compromise and am always honest with the people.

Was there a conflict between the desire to make traditional Busta Rhymes party music versus a more serious reflection of your persona at the time?

I wear my emotions on my sleeve. “The Big Bang” was one of my favorite albums because I got the opportunity to get a lot of stuff off my chest that I hadn’t been able to communicate prior. Friends I’d known for 25 years had showed me a side to them that I never knew existed and I couldn’t believe that my friends would do things like that to me. It gave me an opportunity to share where I was at emotionally. I wasn’t angry, but I felt like as a man, in order to have things come out right, to go through love you have to go through a little bit of hell. There has to be a balance in life. For a long time, I’d had a lot of fun and a lot of love, that one album was my chance to be more human, to share my stresses, and to make music that felt good.

There was controversy surrounding the hook of “Arab Money,” when some people claimed it was culturally insensitive. What inspired you to write the song and were you frustrated that you were misinterpreted?

It was produced by Ron Browz and he sent me the track with the hook already in, and I didn’t even know what he was saying at first. In the end, we thought it was a good idea to play around with. If you look around, the value of the dollar is declining, Fortune 500 companies are falling on their faces. Companies we once considered rich are broke. The Arab world has invested $700 billion in the country and they have a rich culture that’s thousands of years old.

I have a lot of Arab friends and love and respect the Arab culture. I’m Islamic and I respect their close relationship with God and the value and significance of their financial and economic stability. At the end of the day, we need to increase our standards of cultural awareness. For the last eight years, we unfairly targeted Arab people and I thought it was a cool thing to do to promote and big up another culture. I’m acknowledging the greatness in another people’s culture, one that hadn’t seen much of a positive depiction during the last eight years. A lot of people loved the record and it was unfortunate that some media outlets don’t want to shine the light on the positives.

-- Jeff Weiss

Busta Rhymes performs Sunday at Club Nokia, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets available via Ticketmaster, $31.50, not including surcharges.

Photo: Getty Images