Regan Farquhar began cultivating his interest in hip-hop early on. The 30something Los Angeles-bred MC known today as Busdriver had his first ties to the genre come via Ralph Farquhar, his father and the screenwriter of Krush Groove, a 1985 hip-hop-related movie that featured Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, and Beastie Boys. The younger Farquhar began rapping at 9; by 13, he was part of 4/29, a group inspired by the 1992 LA riots that made, in his own words, “a really hokey form of conscious rap.” At 16, he grew immersed in Project Blowed, an LA collective/scene that included Aceyalone and Nocando among its ranks.
Farquhar’s first full-length as Busdriver came out in 2001, and his best-known track comes from 2002’s Temporary Forever. “Imaginary Places” makes a strong Busdriver primer: It’s delivered at a frenetic pace, packed with bizarre and complex rhymes, and demonstrates his predilection for unusual beats by sampling Bach. Now touring in support of his new, seventh album, Beaus$Eros (pronounced “bows and arrows”), he performs Saturday, Feb. 4 at the Marquis Theater. We spoke to Busdriver about freestyling, LL Cool J, emo rap, his “privatized universe,” and what makes him an idiot.
The A.V. Club: Your father wrote Krush Groove. Was that your first exposure to hip-hop?
Regan Farquhar: No, my introduction to rap wasn’t exclusively through Krush Groove. It was mainly just through friends in a neighborhood on the fringe of mid-city and Koreatown. Actually, no, let me think back. Actually, you know what, Krush Groove did have a huge impact on me because I got to meet LL Cool J when I was, shoot, 10 or 11 [He later clarified he was actually 7 or 8.—ed.], so it did make rappers and that whole thing a lot more accessible. It probably did embolden the rapper phenomenon a bit more for me, so I guess it did help a lot.
AVC: Got any good LL Cool J stories?
RF: Yeah, I’ve got one. For his part in Krush Groove—this is probably not the best story—they offered to pay him a certain fee, but he said that he just wanted the equivalent of that fee in tennis shoes, so he got some odd dollars in Adidas or Nikes or Pumas. I don’t know what the fuck he wore, but that’s what he got for his appearance in Krush Groove.
AVC: When you were in 4/29, your first group, you wrote about the LA riots. What appealed to you about that subject?
RF: It was a hot topic. It was smack-dab in my front yard, so it was something to capitalize on. I think it was mainly because we had a Korean guy in our group, and there was so much tension between blacks and Koreans during that time, it was really kind of alarming, so we just went with that. We were all unified and we all cared about stuff, and we held hands and we sang songs and we skipped in the park.
AVC: During your time with the Project Blowed crew, you and others practiced freestyling by turning on a jazz station and rapping over whatever song was playing. When you do freestyle, what’s in your head? What do you focus on?
RF: Well, if I'm lucky, several things go through my head. Sometimes, nothing goes through my head, and I have to rely on muscle memory and just throw words out there. I think my freestyling ability has diminished. I don’t do it as much as I used to, but you try to pull from things the crowd can relate to. You try to meet an energy level of the crowd. But I’m looking for good combinations of words, things that are topical. I don’t really have any good insight into that, it’s just improv and you simply go for what you know.
AVC: In a 2009 interview with Westword, you said, “I just don’t have the sense to make accessible music all the time, and that truly makes me un-thoughtful. I’m living in this privatized universe of my own creation. So, yeah, that’s a problem.” Do you still live in that privatized universe?
RF: Yeah, I’m an artist. I would hope so.
AVC: What’s your privatized universe like?
RF: Umm… [Long pause.] It kind of looks like Los Angeles, but it smells like Pittsburgh. I can’t really say. It’s just a lot of—well, things change. Like right now, things have changed a lot, and I’m dealing a lot more with production and larger-picture stuff, and I’m less dealing with the minutia of the double, triple entendre metaphors in every line, and more with works as a whole and songs and how they flow. It’s not that I’m always going to be into that, but I’m less obsessed with micro-managing my raps. I’m letting all that background stuff come into play when it needs to, and it’s gratifying to know that I have that to pull from, regardless of how good it is. I feel bad because I feel like [with] hip-hop and rap guys, there’s a different space that we inhabit. My tastes have always been different from what they were supposed to be, or seemingly different. I think that now those archetypes of rap have been challenged a good bit, and it’s not as destructive as it used to be. I don’t feel the way about rap I think a lot of hip-hoppers feel about rap. I don’t feel like it’s something I have to subscribe to. Hip-hop is made by people like me, and it’s something that’s there. It’s not something that I’m afraid to deviate from or afraid to please at every waking moment. I don’t really care. I know I’m a hip-hop guy. I can’t really fight that even if I wanted to, so not a lot of hip-hop per se happens in my sphere, but a lot of hip-hop or hip-hoppy-type stuff comes out.
AVC: Has your view of rap changed from when you were introduced to it as a child?
RF: No, just the whole around me has changed. My idea of rap hasn’t really changed.
AVC: Why have you drifted to focusing on production instead of focusing on metaphors and lyrical details like you did before?
RF: Because I don’t care about impressing MCs, solely because I’m not good at it. It took me 10 years to figure that out. I can impress MCs, but it’s not really going to come about the way I need it to. Probably if I don’t focus on trying to impress MCs, I’ll impress MCs. I just got out of that mindset. It doesn’t necessarily change the songs much, but it frees me up. It puts less stress on my shoulders and allows me to just be myself more.
AVC: How do you feel about conscious rap nowadays? Your feelings on it have gone back and forth. You’ve gone to bat for it before, but at the beginning of “Split Seconds,” you say, “Be real: Conscious rap failed us.”
RF: I don’t care about that. I don’t care about that question. I don’t care about those distinctions. I don’t care.
AVC: To touch back on your metaphors, what’s the most tangled metaphor you’ve put together that you had trouble wrapping your head around after reading it again?
RF: I have two songs. One song is new, one song is old. One song is called “Thousand Words” and it’s on The Weather album. Another song is called “No Blacks No Jews No Asians,” and it’s on Beaus$Eros. Those songs have lots of layers meaning-wise. They’re pretty convoluted for me. Definitely exhibits me just writing and going for it.
AVC: What’s the crux behind “No Blacks No Jews No Asians”?
RF: Playing with racism. It brings up things that minorities could be excluded from. It just is all about exclusion—things are sometimes absurd, sometimes they’re very concrete and rooted in stuff. One line is—I think it’s, “Number 10, Birth Of A Nation remake, Disney pitch: No blacks, no Jews, no Asians.” It just started off things that are possible that relate to things that still have that undercurrent of exclusion and racism. That song was actually just a poem I turned into a song. There’s no rhyme in that song. I usually don’t write songs with no rhyme.
AVC: There are a couple of other subjects you enjoy tackling: classism and playing with ideas of class warfare, and stupidity, where you rail against idiots.
RF: I don’t really rail against idiots, that’s just that MC brand of hubris I interlace in songs. I myself am an idiot, so in real-time [I] have a hard time chastising people for being idiots. I assume that role sometimes in songs, but I think stupidity is something that can be inflicted on people. Living in the States and seeing the lack of investment in education, no one really champions that intellectual curiosity like they do in other places. When you have those experiences to contrast, it’s kind of mind-numbing, so I think a lot of people are victims and become stupid. I’m definitely one of them. I have little to no skills and that’s my fault.
AVC: Doesn’t being aware that you’re an idiot lessen your idiocy?
RF: That’s a good idea. You say that to yourself to comfort yourself, but unless there’s action behind it, it doesn’t do that much. All it does is gives you your perch to be smug upon, and I do that a lot. It’s like complaining about not being famous if you want to be famous. I don’t feel that it emboldens you to say, “Oh, I was cheated at yada yada.” Of course, you are cheated all the time, but that’s part of the mechanism that allows people to be famous, and you should become aware of that at some point if you want to try to be famous. I’m very aware of it and it’s soul-crushing, but it’s the truth. I don’t feel like I’m better than someone because I say, “I’m this good and everyone should revere my stuff.” That doesn’t make me feel good, or, “I’m stupid because I acknowledge that I have these common traits with other stupid people, but guess what? I know about it.” That doesn’t make me feel better. If I’m not stupid, then I’ve done some shit, so I’m still stupid.
AVC: Are you doing anything to make yourself less stupid?
RF: I’m taking classes.
AVC: What kind of classes?
RF: I can’t say. It’s part of something that’s going to happen later.
AVC: Changing subjects, I have a friend who doesn’t like hip-hop at all but is really into technically complicated prog rock and metal. He was very impressed by your speed rapping on “Imaginary Places.” Along similar lines, some people on YouTube film themselves speed rapping. The focus is not on flow or original lines—just the speed—in a way similar to videos all about guitar skills. Is there any common ground between speed rapping and technical guitar playing?
RF: Of course there is. I love prog rock, and I’m a huge Yes fan as of late. I like other types of bands. I was about to tour with Tera Melos. They’re a proggy indie band, but it didn’t work out, but they’re friends of mine. Look, I—yes, musical virtuosity can apply to multiple genres of music. People who don’t understand that, I don’t know what to tell them. People who don’t like rap—I don’t like country music, but I listen to it. If I find a gem, I really like it. But yeah, of course it does. I spend a lot of my career transferring what I do to other people. I’ve played a lot with Deerhoof and mirrored their riffs in songs. Actually, none of those songs ever came out—those are just sitting on someone’s hard drive—but mainly, a lot of the chopping that I do is rooted in bebop. A lot of the patterns and inflections are kind of rooted in virtuosity in other genres of music.
AVC: During shows, you make some wild motions with your free hand that go beyond just moving it up and down. Where do they come from?
RF: It’s learned behavior. If you look at footage of Good Lifers and Project Blowedians, we all do those. It’s kind of like the air guitar.
AVC: What do you enjoy about doing those motions?
RF: I don’t enjoy it, it’s just what happens. It helps me hit the patterns and emphasize the words and translates what I’m pushing out of my head. It gives it a physical component, and that’s helpful.
AVC: A press release for Beaus$Eros says that it’s based on “a devastating break-up and personal failure,” but doesn’t go into that at all. Can you go into that a bit?
RF: Yeah. My fiancée left me and it took me aback. That happened while I was doing this record, so it became a huge part of it.
AVC: Did the experience have a significant effect on the record mood-wise?
RF: A few things had a large effect on this record. A lot of my infrastructure—the people that put out or make Busdriver things happen—left me a couple of years ago. On top of that, I was having a lot of issues with my fiancée, then she left me. A lot of that made me A. focus on a lot of break-up or love-related songs, and B. I felt less creatively shackled because I felt like [with] what I had done thus far, I had failed to a certain extent. I owed it to myself to either discover something more worthwhile or be more honest with what kind of songs I wanted to write. So in that, we have a lot of sappy love songs on the record.
There’s more of an emphasis on melody and less convoluted rapping. The lyrics have been pared down because they’ve been written from more of an instinctual place rather than a verbiage chop shop. A lot of the structures are more fleshed-out and bigger because we just wanted more satisfying rides with every song that you were hearing in the song, not just the vocal performance. Like everyone else, I go through shit. It’s kind of similar to Cosmic Cleavage. Cosmic Cleavage was kind of a break-up record. It’s not all jazz-infused, it’s kind of synth-poppy here and there. It’s more electronica and post-IDM and beat-music informed. The break-up did bring me to a logical conclusion of writing love songs. I felt that was very apropos of me to turn a break-up into love songs. I figured I was doing the adult thing.
AVC: The production on the record was handled by Loden, a Belgium-based producer you hadn’t met until after you finished the record. How do you maintain a creative relationship with somebody when you don’t get a chance to hang out with them? How did you do your communicating?
RF: Everything was via e-mail. I never saw him or talked to him ever. It worked out fantastically. A lot of musicians have similar touchstones that makes it easier for them to work with each other, and we were unified around a common goal to make beats interesting, and hopefully it has bizarre songs. We both respect what we do, or at least I respect what he does immensely, and for some reason, he respects me, I guess, so it’s a lot easier than you would think.
He would send me a beat—just 30 seconds of something with an A and a B part. I would just structure it and make up the C part and do vocals, and I would send it to him, then he would change it and send it back to me, then I’d add something and send it back, and it was done. It took a while for us to arrive at the approach [for] the vocals for Beaus$Eros. At first, the record was silly. There was a lot of funny, wacky songs that were full of wackiness, but then it got a lot darker. It more took a while to write what we felt was the best mood for the record, which is something I love doing, but it threw me into financial ruin. A year and a half making this record is not really something I recommend a lot of people do if they don’t have the support they used to. But it was a lot of fun. I would say it’s one of my best records.
AVC: It’s interesting that you’re willing to do this project with someone you’ve never met. The A.V. Club has an interview with a member of Painted Palms, a band made up of cousins who made their music in a similar way while in Louisiana and California. The interviewee said that he could never do that process with a stranger.
RF: I mean, all these people are strangers I work with. It’s a sea of strangers. I’m used to it, and now Loden is far from a stranger. He’s one of my better friends even though I never talk to him.
AVC: In Feb. 2004, Spin published an article called “Emo Rap: Up from the Underground” which was about Slug, Buck 65, you, and other rappers. It seemed like that was a moment in the sun for indie hip-hop or “emo rap.” What do you think of when you look back at that period, and do you think of that music as “emo rap”?
RF: Um… I don’t care. I was just glad to be in Spin. That’s all. I had nothing to do with that, but emo rap is very present. I mean, Odd Future is an emo rap group. Tyler, The Creator is an emo rap guy. Most of his shit is emo rap. It exists. But yeah, any representation in the public with rap [seldom] has any real bearing. I don’t care about that. All I care about is people getting the opportunity to be heard. If that helped me be heard, I was really grateful. But yeah, I’m not part of anything. I’m part of some shit in LA right now that’s under-reported, and it’s fine. As far as emo rap is concerned, emo rap is Tyler, The Creator and Atmosphere. Those are America’s top emo rap acts. Eminem’s pretty emo.
AVC: What makes Tyler, The Creator emo rap versus any number of other things?
RF: Mainly, he raps about his father not loving him, wanting to get with girls. On his raw, raw shit, he raps about random shit, like raping people and shit, but that’s just some of his shit. Most of his shit is about his dad or his family or trying to blow up, and it’s really emo-y. The mystique in [Odd Future’s] PR is rooted in, “Oh, they’re homophobic, they’re anti-women” and shit, but the only thing that Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt do is they try to emulate shock shit Eminem used to do, except with 40 percent of the imagination. They make up for that imagination and they say more vile shit. Tyler, The Creator more so than Earl Sweatshirt; Earl Sweatshirt is actually really imaginative in his rhymes, and Tyler has to make up for the places where he lacks by saying vile shit like, “Oh, a pregnant bitch. Rape her,” which ain’t shit.
It’s just some rap shit—I mean, it’s not a big deal—but to a lot of people who don’t know rappers or skate dudes, it comes off as shocking. It’s brilliant that they’ve made something out of it. I give it to ’em. But yeah, he’s emo rap. It’s amazing that people don’t see that, but it doesn’t matter because they’re just another rap group. There’s no larger issue in it. They’re a bunch of good kids, and they’re making fun music for kids. But yeah, there’s a lot of emo rap out there, but not me. Or maybe this record I just made about me boo-hooing over my fiancée is emo rap, but I don’t even think that’s emo rap.