All Photos: Howard Huang
Patiently waiting at London's St. Martins Lane Hotel while his lost luggage and a missing Glyph hard drive are being sought by French authorities, Busta Rhymes is feeling anything but sanctified. Still in the tracking phase of his latest album, Blessed (Flipmode/Aftermath/Interscope, 2008), the celebrated rapper is already on the road in Europe, conducting press interviews, performing shows and generally attending to his legacy. But with the loss of an all-important hard drive — which contains rough tracks meant for the album — Busta's verbal flow is in full effect, and the rap is anything but calm.
“This has been one of the most grueling tour experiences of my whole career,” Busta barks. “The airport lost one of our Glyph drives. Every one of our drives has a backup drive, but that one drive hadn't been backed up yet. It's been catastrophic for two days 'cause we had to send one of our recording engineers back to Nice to try to track it down. The communication was poor; we didn't know if he got the shit or [not]. It was just grueling, and then having to deal with the different laws regarding baggage: They only allow you one bag at a certain weight, and over that they charge you. With an entourage of 13 people, 60 bags — that's 6,000 euros in overage charges every day. And I have six days left to complete the album! So between traveling, performing, full press days, minimal sleep in different time zones…but it's all a blessing. It's crazy when you don't have clean clothes and expensive gear can't be recovered, but fuck it, we're here and I'm happy.”
As you would expect, Busta Rhymes is not a man of few words. Articulate, quick-witted and thoughtful, Busta's legendary superspeed, ragga-inspired rapping style spills over into his conversation. These days, that conversation is tempered by what has been a punishing past two years of arrests, court appearances, bad press and nerve-rattling sentence hearings.
BLASPHEMED TO BLESSED
Beginning in late-summer 2006, Busta's world collapsed. He was arraigned in Manhattan on assault charges after attacking a man who reportedly spat on his car. Within weeks, the New York DA tried to add weapons charges (a machete) to the list. In early '07, Busta (legal name: Trevor Smith) refused a plea deal that would have included copious jail time and pleading guilty to two assault charges. Ultimately, the judge sentenced Busta to three years probation, 10 days community service, $1,250 in fines and enrollment in a DUI program. Busta expresses his travails — and his new perspective — on one of Blessed's songs, rapping, “This blessing is a gift and a curse/but the position I'm in/shit could be worse.”
“That statement sums up exactly where I am in my life,” Busta says. “As much as I might complain about trivial shit, I have to acknowledge that I am blessed tremendously. I went through a hell-driven period in my life, being locked up four times in 10 months. I was facing a year in jail; that is something you don't need when you have a blessed life that you wouldn't trade for the world. To be able to survive that, I have to be appreciative 'cause I could have been sitting in a cell and really been in a compromising situation.”
Busta's new attitude fills Blessed with a sense of triumph and overcoming adversity, as well as a more mature production aesthetic. Busta won't be trading rhymes with Sting anytime soon, but Mary J Blige, Common, Jamie Foxx and John Legend (on “Decision”) add to Blessed's expansive adult persona. Linkin Park's appearance on the first single, “We Made It,” produced by Miami's Cool & Dre, further broadens Busta's appeal. But sales expectations didn't entirely determine Blessed's more introspective mood.
“[Blessed] reflects my life and the way I need to approach the music,” Busta explains. “The shit you give off is the shit you get back. As a man, you get misunderstood. The press tried to make me out to be this menacing motherfucker, a threat to society. I couldn't even film a movie; they started to violate my civil liberties. [Busta recently wrapped shooting on Order of Redemption, with Armand Assante and Tom Berenger.] I couldn't do shows in New York for two years, but that is all behind me now. I can show everyone that I made it. [Maybe] it's something we all have to go through to be conditioned for those greater rewards that sometimes come sooner than you think.”
ASSEMBLING THE PUZZLE
Blessed's 10 tracks were produced by a veritable culture-mash of producers: Cool & Dre, DJ Scratch, Dready Beats, Focus, The Neptunes, Denaun “Mister” Porter and New York City upstarts, Sean C and LV. Considerable vocal star power lined up for the Blessed sessions, as well, including Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington, Akon, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Sean Paul, T.I. and T-Pain. Recording vocals at The Hit Factory and Circle House Studios in Miami, Busta followed the same approach that has served him well since his early days with Leaders of the New School to mega-selling solo albums The Coming (Elektra, 1996), When Disaster Strikes (Elektra, 1997) and Genesis (J Records, 2001).
“First and foremost,” Busta says, “I always write the song on the spot in the studio. When I finish writing the lyrics out, I have them in puzzle pieces. My lead vocals will go on one section of the paper. My group vocals will go on a separate piece of paper. I will highlight the words that I want to stack, usually seven to 10 tracks, just to add that bigness to the song. Then I have an ad-lib track on top of the lead. That's where I find all those little pockets that are like gaps in the verse that need to be filled. So I lay the lead first, then go back in and stack the highlighted words on the vocal-group tracks. I got that from the groups of the golden era of hip-hop — the Cold Crush Brothers, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. They would scream the lyrics together to show that unison of a crew. I maintain that traditional approach in my recording process.”
Working with recording engineers Rande Jackson and Rayshawn Woolard (who double as part of Busta's onstage crew), Busta prefers either a Neumann U 87 or Sony C800G microphone. Reporting that “Busta is very loud in the studio” (though he typically sits down to record), Woolard illustrates the rapper's technique of adding accents or “groups” to the main vocal.
“Busta records about eight tracks of groups or accents on his verses,” Woolard says. “Sometimes we will do effects on certain groups that he wants to emphasize. Working with Busta is easier than, say, Mary J. Blige. An R&B singer might need 30 tracks of vocals between harmonies. Busta's thing is more rhythmic than about harmonies. The EQ setting on his voice depends on the excitement in the song, so individual mic and pre settings always vary. We always listen and adjust accordingly. Sometimes he works a cappella if he has an idea; he will freestyle — it's all about feeling with Busta.”
“The U 87 is an old faithful,” Busta attests. “But as I had the opportunity to play around with different mics, I came upon the C800 in a session with Pharrell. When he got me on that microphone, I was able to hear my breathing in such a clear way that it almost scared me. The clarity is phenomenal. I could be in any part of the room; I didn't even have to stand up on the mic. I could say shit and the Sony mic would pick it up exactly how I wanted it to be heard. Sometimes if I wanted the ambience in the room to sound like 10 or 20 people, I would just stand in different parts of the room and shout or say shit at low to moderate levels. The C800 mic picked up everything so beautifully.
“I usually leave the vocal the way I record it,” he adds. “The only thing we might fix is a punch if it sounds a little rough. Then we go into Pro Tools and smooth out the punch. If I've done the punch 1,000 times and it's not coming out better, humanwise, then we make the corrections in the machine so that the punch doesn't compromise the performance and the song.”
COOL & DRE HEART THE '80s
“We are into the '80s, and a lot of people say that, but we really are,” exults Dre (Andre Christopher), who, along with Cool (Marcello Valenzano), is riding a serious streak of hit-making activity with everyone from The Game (“Big Dreams”) and Ja Rule (“New York”) to upcoming tracks with Queen Latifah, Lil Wayne, Gym Class Heroes, Young Jeezy, DJ Khaled and a remix for UK soul chanteuse Duffy.
“What is unique about those '80s songs is that they are very anthemic,” Dre says. “They're huge! Remember ‘Easy Lover'' with Phil Collins and Philip Bailey? [Sings sirenlike melody] Huge! I love the huge ['80s] sound of Chicago, or soundtracks like Streets of Fire, Top Gun, The Breakfast Club or St. Elmo's Fire. They had this larger-than-life feel. We are trying to create music that gives you the feeling that you got during that period but with artists that are relevant today.”
Cool & Dre created five tracks for Blessed, the duo's instrumentally layered, stacked-vocal productions giving Busta something fresh to sink his newly liberated teeth into. Citing influences from Prince and Tina Turner to Bananarama, Cool & Dre are historians of '80s pop, Solid Gold style.
“Cool & Dre have recaptured a moment in time that motherfuckers do not know how to do no more,” Busta believes. “Those brothers gave me incredible productions sonically, and they also contributed majorly to the writing of the choruses. We would discuss direction, and they would come back with chorus ideas that helped make the music feel that much bigger.”
Typically working at their own Record Room Studios in Miami (soon to be part of Cool & Dre Park, a three-acre complex complete with pool and chef), Cool & Dre stake their street cred on multitracking synths, Dre's vocals and brass lines.
“We'll stack five different synths and four different horns just to get that one texture that we're looking for,” Cool says. “We like it huge but not overproduced — keep it within a ‘less is more'' idea, but we definitely stack our sounds. Mike Shinoda was surprised 'cause when he opened the Pro Tools session for ‘We Made It,'' there were like a million vocal tracks. Dre will stack a vocal eight times; his hook alone might be four to five tracks. That sounds huge. You can pan them in every direction. We route Dre's vocal stacks through aux tracks in Pro Tools and add different effects on each aux track; that gives it a huge sound.”
A classic example of Cool & Dre's anthemic approach, “Blown” skitters over a rapid-fire bass drum, vocoded vocals courtesy of T-Pain, dribbling dayglow keyboard rhythms, tumbling live tom fills and Busta's perfect proclamations.
“‘Blown'' actually begins with an air horn from the Yamaha Motif XS6 doing that French horn declaration,” Cool explains. “The intro is a mix of a bunch of analog synths, bass synths, sub-bass sounds — Motif presets like Dirty Hook, Progressive Rock Lead. The melody is a Roland Fantom-X6. The Theremin sound is off the Novation SuperNova. We call that the ‘scary sound.'' We used that on the upcoming Young Jeezy record, too. It's one of our signature sounds. [As for vocals, we used] Auto-Tune on T-Pain. And that particular beat was created in the MPC2000, except for the intro. We brought in live toms from another session, just loaded them into the MPC. The gist of the track is the drums and all the sequencing of the musical elements, all from MPC.”
Akon and T.I. get loose and frisky on Cool & Dre's “No. 1,” which features one of Dre's '80s-styled piano intros, blaring Eddie Van Halen-ish guitar, Hall & Oates-like lyrics and a pummeling half-time beat programmed in the MPC1000.
“We used an '80s grand from the Motif called Power Piano Bright Rock, a real thinned-out sound,” Cool says. “We counted out those guitar parts; it's a very specific rhythm for that song that we showed the guitarist. The guitar sounds real plastic-y because we added processing and effects to his Paul Reed Smith. He used a little DigiTech box, and we messed around with its presets till we found this mono tone. There is a lot of movement and energy in the drum track; that was programmed on the MPC1000. We did an eight-bar loop on the 1000, then dumped it into Pro Tools. All the music you are hearing was recorded live into Pro Tools — not MIDI. Only the drums were quantized. The synth sub bass is from Spectrasonics Trilogy Total Bass Module.”
“We Made It” finds Busta pronouncing his new-found wisdom with Linkin Park's Shinoda and Bennington. The track is pure Cool & Dre, from the poppy '80s melody and DX7-modeled keyboards to its undeniably huge soundscape.
“It begins with that vinyl crackle; we do that a lot just to give it that dirt,” Cool says. “Sometimes when you start messing around with keyboard sounds, they can be really clean, so we go for darker sounds that we have to actually EQ to make sound good. We like that grit and static; it runs throughout the track. We did the beat on the MPC2000XL routed through the 3000. We've used all the MPCs, but the 3000 is the best sounding for drums. We use the 3000 drums and EQ them like crazy, and they don't break up or sound thin or transparent. It keeps going, no matter how much you add to it.
“The chords in the beginning were taken from the melody of the song. Mike Shinoda just played them up front to give it that dramatic intro,” Cool continues. “The grand piano is again from the Motif. We made sure the piano was big sounding and the drums smacking like hell. Once you add the textures to back up that huge-sounding melody, it makes for a broad-sounding record. We use D-Verb in Pro Tools and the Renaissance Reverb in the Waves Platinum bundle. But we keep most everything dry until we go to mix. Then the mixer might add outboard Lexicon reverbs. We EQ the drums; we might add a particular spread, but it's usually pretty dry.”
TRUTH IS UNDISPUTED
With millions of albums sold and a new lease on his professional life, Busta Rhymes joins good judgment with his famous sense of humor and legendary rapping skills on Blessed. Though Cool & Dre's pop-oriented production sometimes paints Busta in a nostalgic '80s sheen, other tracks — like Sean C and LV's James Brown-worthy “Don't Touch Me,” The Neptunes' manic “G-Stro,” Focus' revealing “If You Don't Know, Now You Know” and Dready Beats' freaky fun “Hits 4 Days” — prove Busta has given nothing up to time, nor to the ravages of the U.S. justice system.
“At the end of the day, I ain't scared to contribute greatness to the game by being different, by taking chances,” Busta asserts. “I think that the greatest rewards come to those who are willing to go against the grain and make the changes that are necessary to better the music. If you don't dig this, then fine. But we are going to watch you slowly come around and dick ride when it's too late because that bus is going to be already packed up with everyone that has been loving the music from the beginning. You'll have to be a little more open-minded and willing to embrace it. God bless ya'll anyway, 'cause I still love ya. The truth is undisputed: If they don't get it in the beginning, they'll get it in the end.”
cool & dre's record room tools
Apple Mac G5, Logic Studio, Logic Pro 8
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 and LE
Solid State Logic SL 4000 G+ console
Gemini PMX-02 mixer
Rane Serato Scratch Live, Serato Audio Research Pitch 'n Time Pro
SoundToys Speed plug-in
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables
Mics, preamps, EQs
AKG C 414 mic
Avalon Design Vt-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ
Neumann U 87 mic
Neve 1073 EQ
Sony C800G mic
Tube-Tech CL2A dual compressor
Yamaha SPX990 multi-effect processor
E-mu Vintage Keys
Roland Fantom-X6, XV-5080
Yamaha Motif XS6, Motif Rack ES6
Antares Auto-Tune 5
Waves The API Collection, Platinum, SSL 4000 Collection and V-Series bundles
Arturia Analog Factory
EastWest Quantum Leap Colossus
Native Instruments Kore 2
Spectrasonics Trilogy Total Bass Module, Atmosphere Dream Synth Module
Samplers, drum machines
Akai MPC1000, MPC2000XL, MPC3000
Mackie SWA1501 Active Subwoofer System