In Los Angeles, when someone calls to say that they’re running 10 minutes late, it’s safe to say that they won’t arrive for another 20. Why bother with picayune pleasantries when 10- to 15-minute tardiness is the standard operating procedure — the byproduct of torturous traffic, sunstroke summer lethargy and pervasive, characteristic, municipal flakiness? So when Busdriver phones to say he’ll be 10 minutes late for a sit-down at the Casbah Café in Silver Lake, I immediately lament not bringing a book. After all, he is a rapper, a breed of musician whose regard for punctuality is only matched by Mediterranean models, cable guys and, well, bus drivers.
But the MTA could use someone with the timeliness of the Mid-City–raised Regan Farquhar, who not only beats me to the coffee shop but introduces himself as “Regan,” an ostensibly small tidbit that immediately suggests an iconoclastic temperament. Rappers don’t normally refer to themselves by their government names — a nod to the genre’s propensity for mythopoeia and consensus culture that values cool above all else.
But Busdriver isn’t a regular rapper. He’s too careful to say he has completely lost interest in his peers, but he’ll freely admit to his lack of interest in “subscribing to the common channels of hip-hop delivery,” which, as far as I can tell, means he won’t be downloading the new Drake mixtape anytime soon. When I ask him what he’s been listening to, he lists 10cc, Animal Collective and Scott Walker. Most rappers scrounge between sofa cushions to purchase Lil Wayne guest spots; Busdriver’s collaborating with Bianca Casady of CocoRosie, Nick Thorburn of Islands, and John Dietrich, the guitarist for Deerhoof. When asked if his approach is rooted in a desire to pursue a more diverse and far-ranging sound, he answers point-blank: “I just fuck with people who fuck with me.”
Sure, this eclecticism has been au courant since Kanye West discovered Daft Punk eight years late, but Busdriver’s actually been doing it since Discovery. And West’s mantra may be “You can’t tell me nothing,” but Busdriver’s favorite phrase is “I don’t know.” He uses it the way that Valley girls use “like,” as a strategy for buying time to properly assemble his thoughts. But he also seems skeptical of everything, a brand of intellectual insularity that can be both a strength and a weakness. Most rappers as hypercritical of humanity as Busdriver seem hectoring and self-righteous. But somehow the Anti/Epitaph–signed artist has sustained a decade-long solo career without plunging into those pitfalls.
Maybe it’s his unerring self-awareness and wry sense of humor. The guy did name his sixth album Fear of a Black Tangent, and opens his latest, Jhelli Beam, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, declaring that “conscious rap failed us.” When asked about it, Farquhar laughs, and mentions that he probably wrote it “after seeing Common in a Gap ad. I was just pouting and being a baby — I’m a baby on most of my records.”
Rather than recycle trite bromides about “wack rappers,” or “fake thugs,” like most of the perpetually aggrieved underground class of ’99, Busdriver’s more apt to write a song like “Least Favorite Rapper,” where he inveighs against your “favorite dude who champions every Chicago city song/from his condominium/while brandishing his implausible minigun.” He then describes himself as “your least favorite rapper, with a haircut like a pineapple/wearing khakis torn/with a voice like a high soprano.”
It’s this unorthodox voice, polysyllabic vocabulary and auctioneer velocity that maybe inhibits his mass appeal. His adenoidal assault has been tagged everything from “David Alan Grier with amyl nitrate” and “Cheshire Cat on Ritalin” to “Twista after a six-month binge on off-brand candy and Anticon records.”
But Busdriver shrugs off the critical-darling/niche-artist reputation he’s been saddled with throughout his career: “I’m surprised by the little bit of attention I do get. I don’t think what I do is for everybody or even a lot of people; it’s very specific and very niche-driven.”
Clad in red corduroys and a thrift-shop sweater, the 31-year-old rapper fidgets alternately with a potted plant and a copy of the Weekly, while laboring to articulate exactly why his fan base is more Jim James than Jim Jones.
“My silly records tend to pretty much corral one unified sea of geek. Whether it’s Seattle, Berlin or Paris, it’s always the same guy.”
Then again, that’s the crop you harvest when you decide to rap (well) over Mozart’s Sonata in A Major. While the contrast with his coevals might be chasmal, Busdriver’s hip-hop bona fides are unfuckwithable. His dad, Ralph Farquhar, wrote the seminal hip-hop film Krush Groove, and his experimental chops were honed in the notoriously discerning Project Blowed scene.
A regular of legendary hip-hop night Good Life by the age of 14, the young Busdriver received mentoring from scene staples C.V.E. and learned to rock shows at a tabernacle graced by underground royalty like Freestyle Fellowship, Rifleman Ellay Khule and Abstract Rude.
“I got inducted early — the Blowed was stratified like gang culture. I was the little homie, and they let me in. Now when I go back, people speak of me like I’m an O.G., even if I don’t really feel that way,” Busdriver says, trailing off, glancing away.
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Though he claims his pool of friends is shallow, his list of collaborators would insist otherwise. Indeed, Los Angeles’ best beatmakers litter his liner notes, including Daedelus, Omid and Low End Theory mainstays, Nobody, D-Styles, Daddy Kev and Nosaj Thing.
“I’ve always been amazed by his performances and the dynamics in his music,” says Nosaj Thing (a.k.a. Jason Chung). “The way in which he manipulates his voice, the way he can both sing and rap — he’s on another level. We didn’t even need to talk about the track we did, there was just a common understanding and an innate musicality to him. He’s a unique talent.”
Which is to be expected from the only punctual Busdriver in town.