Even when paying homage to artists he admires, SoCal emcee Busdriver can't help but let his irreverence show through. In 2005, some 15 years after Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, he released his own Fear of a Black Tangent. An earlier album, This Machine Kills Fashion Tips, plays off "This Machine Kills Fascists," the slogan that once adorned Woody Guthrie's guitar.
Still, the artist born Regan John Farquhar (and whose father, Ralph Farquhar, scripted the '80s hip-hop film Krush Groove) is too intelligent and inventive to resort to Weird Al Yankovic parody. He's much more inclined toward irony and derision, along with wicked wordplay and a healthy dose of self-awareness.
On the opening track of the newly released Jhelli Beam, his second album for Epitaph's Anti- label, Busdriver's opening volley is an attention-getting assessment of his backpack-rap brethren: "Be real," he intones, "conscious rap failed us." So much for his chances of scoring an opening slot on Erykah Badu's next tour.
"No, actually, I'm gonna get that," he deadpans. "I don't know — it was just some obnoxious shit to say at the time. I think what I was trying to say is that, to me, conscious or any kind of alternative rap's place as the moral foil to mainstream music has kind of lost its bite. And I think I was doing that in the spirit of a spoiled brat. Because that's what I am. Hip-hop has spoiled me."
But when it comes to Messrs. D, Flav and Guthrie, the 31-year-old rapper is genuinely deferential: "Public Enemy pretty much invented, at least in my mind, how you express disdain with public policy in a song, especially in rap music. And later I discovered Woody Guthrie who, in essence, did a similar thing, but with less of a direct approach. He had a way more playful, whimsical slant on it. And I sometimes try to strike the middle ground when I address those things in a song."
Kill your employer
Actually, Busdriver seems to spend less time seeking the middle ground than swinging back and forth before extremes, frequently within the same song. This is, after all, an artist who can rhyme "recreational paranoia" with "kill your employer," and insist that "even though you tried to put my face in a hot waffle iron, I still know that you love me."
As on previous albums, he employs a rapid-fire delivery and convoluted rhyme schemes, like some unholy offspring of Jamaican dancehall deejay Bounty Killer and light opera savants Gilbert and Sullivan. Asked which he found more influential, Busdriver says he appreciates rap's debt to "old-school Jamaican toasters, but I never really sought that out. So I would have to say the latter. Unfortunately, I don't spend enough time with [Gilbert and Sullivan's work], but I know what you're talking about and I do shoot for things like that."
That said, he confesses to being disappointed by his own "sheer quantity of verbiage" and says he'd prefer a "less convoluted" approach. "It probably would be better for me and everyone else who listens to my records."
But don't hold your breath. The new album's experimental bent and breakneck pace manage to defy easy comparison: A more hyper-accelerated MF Doom? A more art-damaged Busta Rhymes? There are even traces of Frank Zappa's outlandish snark on tracks like "Scoliosis Jones," which Busdriver says was inspired by an appearance at Austin's South by Southwest festival, "watching aged roadies develop these humps in their back from constantly loading in and loading out these fucking huge guitar and bass amps."
Puppet on parade
As befits the son of a screenwriter whose credits range from the lily white Happy Days to the predominantly black South Central, Busdriver also makes videos that are bizarrely eclectic. The latest, "Me-Time (With the Pulmonary Palimpsest)," features an oversized, rapping robo-puppet whose self-destruction — at a kids' birthday party, no less — falls somewhere between the Terminator and the Muppets.
Stranger still is a recent promo video in which Busdriver is given the keys to the apparently all-white town of Avalon, Pa. Busdriver isn't actually from Avalon, but his filmmaker friend is, and also happens to be the mayor's son.
"He was able to entertain his son's wacky and ambitious film project," says Busdriver who, during the course of the ceremony, was also given a hat from the local police department and a T-shirt from the captain of the Avalon volunteer Fire Department. "I sobbed openly and uncontrollably several times that day," he recalls.
But the crowning moment was yet to come: In the closing moments of the ceremony, Avalon's hip-hop honoree was presented with a special commemorative baseball, signed by each and every member of the local Little League team.
"I still have that autographed ball," he says wistfully. "Actually, I'm looking at the back of it, and it's got one of the kids' moms' phone numbers on it."