As rap goes straight, Busdriver takes a left

ON POPULAR MUSIC

January 11, 2007|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

It used to bother him when he'd step on stage and see hardly any black faces in the crowd. But Regan Farquhar, better known as underground rapper Busdriver, has long gotten over the fact that folks who look like him don't generally dig his twisted, highly idiosyncratic style of hip-hop.

"I'm hard-pressed to find anybody black at my shows," he says. "Black people have moved on. In the early '90s, they were there. But the industry itself is gearing black people to subscribe to whatever mainstream rap is out there. [Black people] feel they have no choice."

Well, this black man knows he has many choices, particularly when it comes to music. I'm always opening my ears to what's out there beyond the hype. So much of mainstream hip-hop -- what stays in steady rotation on commercial radio -- fries my nerves. But it still takes some patience to get into Busdriver's latest effort, Roadkill Overcoat.

On the album, or on any of his five other CDs, the Los Angeles rapper is as far removed from commercial hip-hop as one can get. Busdriver's energetic, way left-of-center approach is often refreshingly imaginative, if hard to grasp at times. The manic flow, the oddball metaphors, the complex, stream-of-conscious-like rhyme patterns that set him apart from any rapper before or after him are still intact on Roadkill Overcoat. Only this time, the music -- a synthetic, neon fusion of pop sensibilities, punk attitude and jazz-like improvisation -- seems to mesh better with Busdriver's wild, advanced rapping. "There are a lot of times where I was shadowing the riffs," says the 28-year-old artist, who's calling from his Los Angeles home. "I wanted to have a different relationship with the music this time. I wanted to complement it more. The production itself gives me a lot of room."

Overseen by L.A. beat master DJ Nobody and multi-instrumentalists whiz and Boom-Bip, the beat-driven arrangements swirl with skittish, psychedelic synths and other odd noises. But unlike on earlier albums, the music never interferes with Busdriver's work on the mike. His social and cultural critiques are still warped and absurdly humorous: "Kill Your Employer (Recreational Paranoia Is the Sport of Now)," a swipe at left-wingers, is the best example.

"The production values this time are beefed up," says Busdriver, a name a childhood friend gave him one day while the two were rapping on a school bus. "The record is not afraid of pop music. A few songs embrace the format. It's more of a polished effort."

Which doesn't necessarily mean that Roadkill Overcoat (the title just came to the rapper while he was on tour) is immediately accessible. The first half of the album absorbs some remnants of '80s pop. For instance, the first cut, the quirky "Casting Agents and Cowgirls," rolls on a swinging, slightly New Wave groove. "Less Yes's, More No's" features a catchy, almost hypnotic hook over a bed of fuzzy, buzzing synths and a heavy palpitating beat.

The inspiration for Busdriver's musical surrealism comes from an unlikely source: the great Jon Hendricks, the vocalese master and underrated songwriter perhaps best known for his late '50s-early '60s work with the revolutionary jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

"I do what he does," the rapper says. "I lifted his zany content mixed with the dexterity of his singing, the playfulness. He interjected his brand of humor in those great Dizzy Gillespie songs. He's like the father of this vocalese approach that was adopted by a lot of MCs."

But Busdriver has taken it to another place, where the colors are blinding and the stories are seldom linear. Unlike his musical hero Hendricks, the rapper lacks that certain conversational warmth that instantly draws you in. But his wild verbal twists and turns on the mike are still intriguing -- even if half the time you may wonder, "What is this brotha talking about?" Sadly, that elusive black audience Busdriver would love to have probably isn't going to stick around and try to dissect his multi-angled approach.

"The irony is that this music that I do is still made by black people, but the black audience isn't there," Busdriver says. "Hopefully, this record is a better record than the ones in my past. But ultimately I think this music is for everybody."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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