Friday, November 13, 2009
Fast Forward to Back In The Day: Chief Rocker Busy Bee
by Barry Michael Cooper
(originally published in the Village Voice:11 September 2007)
Bee Kind, Rewind
The exuberant wild style of Busy Bee still resonates three decades later
That grinding sound in your ears is the gears of nostalgia down-shifting into a golden backspin. Forty may be the new 30, but 2007 is not the new and improved 1977, our Twin Towers still intact. This Scared New World has us anxiously coveting the lost continent known as Before. Before the echo of a modern Pleistocene Epoch—the New Ice Age—sent peals of Bling! Bling! ricocheting around the world; before Jay-Z became not only Jigganational but hip-hop's Magna Carter; before 9-7-96 and 3-9-97 bodied the innocence of "Rapper's Delight"; before nine bullets and a hot mix tape parlayed itself into a blue-chip stock portfolio at Goldman Sachs.
Before all that, there was the Boogie Down, there was the Black Door, the Furious Five, the Cold Crush, the L Brothers, the Mercedes Ladies, the Zulu Nation. There was Herc, Flash, Bam, Theodore, and Caz. There was Lee and Phase II turning the subway yard into a third-railed Sistine Chapel. There was the Alps Hotel. There was 123 Park. There was two turntables.
And there was Busy Bee, among the stars of Charlie Ahearn's landmark 1982 film Wild Style. Now honored with a 25th-anniversary DVD re-release, it's the movie that really established hip-hop not only in the mainstream, but around the world. But Busy still remembers where it started. "I lived across the street from those abandoned buildings that you see in Wild Style," he told me one afternoon as we sat in the Starbucks in Pikesville, a suburb of his adopted hometown of Baltimore. "I grew up on Holmes Street. I fell in love with hip-hop from the time I used to see Kool Herc rocking the community center on Sedgwick Avenue around 1975."
Busy grew up the oldest of four children, to two hardworking parents. "I had a solid family life, but I also knew all of the scramblin' guys in the streets, the dudes who were getting money," he recalls. "I wanted to be fly, too—dress nice, get the girls, drink champagne-—and I felt hip-hop could be the avenue to those things."
Busy's true epiphany came when he watched Grandmaster Flash perform one day with his three MCs, pre–Furious Five. "It was Kid Creole, Melle Mel, and Keith Cowboy. They gave me inspiration. Flash used to play this jam called 'Seven Minutes of Funk,' and Melle Mel and Kid Creole had a routine to that song that was amazing. Watching them, I was like, 'Yo, that's what I want to do!' " From there, Busy hooked up with a DJ by the name of Disco King Mario, who helped the rapper develop his unique, booming, singsong voice. "Disco King Mario had the system to understand my voice," Busy says. "He used to tell me, 'Yo, Busy Bee, I'm-a make you a star! You'll sound so vee-shus! You'll sound so vee-shus!' That was my man."
MCs—from Grandmaster Caz to the Cold Crush Brothers to the L Brothers to the Funky Four +1—were true icons at the dawn of hip-hop, and they all had one thing in common: They were all part of a group. But Busy Bee was a man apart. "My thing was just rapping on the mic," he says. "All I wanted to do was get on the mic and knock out all bums."
As a personality, though, Busy prefers exuberance to menace. When he smiled, grabbed the mic, and yelled, "Now where's that place we work it out?", and the crowd screamed back, "At the Alps!", Busy not only put that East Bronx motel on the map, but kept the crowd moving and kept everyone's minds off their problems waiting back home. And as the nirvana of gangster rap enters its death cycle, people are looking for hip-hop's bliss once again—even 30 years later, Busy's bubbly enthusiasm is the closest thing to euphoria we've got in this age of crack-house sympathies recast as street-corner symphonies.
Folks are tired of mourning; Busy is a cause worth celebrating. His march to the title of No. 1 MC was an exciting one, shutting down shows from the Bronx's Crotona Park to the Black Door (where he could melt the ice-grilled silence of the Casanova Crew—the most fearsome stickup kids around—and goad them into a humid call-and-response of "I got sperm/That jingle-jangle- jingles"), the Audubon Ballroom, and, of course, Harlem World, the site of the infamous 1981 show where some say the Treacherous Three's Kool Moe Dee sabotaged Busy's career in a scathing rap battle.
"It's a widely held belief that Moe Dee beat me that night, but that's not true," Busy says now. "You can only beat somebody if they are prepared for battle—anything else is a sneak attack. I had done my set at Harlem World that night and had gone downstairs to celebrate and drink some champagne. Moe Dee, who was still with the Treacherous Three, told his crew, L.A. Sunshine and Special K, to fall back.
Then Moe Dee took the stage by himself. He did his thing, unawares to me. When I got upstairs, the place was buzzing with, 'Oh shit, you know what just happened?' I was like, 'No,' and when they told me, it was: 'Whatever.' I look at it like this: Moe Dee made that move because I was so powerful; he used that as a jump-off for his career. And in hindsight, he actually made the both of our names ring even louder and longer. I respect him, because he made my name ring that much louder."
That scandalous night only cemented Busy's mythos, helping to land his role in Wild Style. Who can forget him rocking the mic with Funky Four's Rodney C, or fashioning the letter "B" from a sprawl of cash on a hotel bed as he, Fab Five Freddy, and graffiti marvel Lee Quinones are about to have a love-in with three groupies from the club? "Busy remains the most magnetic performer in hip-hop," Ahearn says. "Guaranteed to warm up any crowd, no matter. Busy kicks that old-school party style because that's who he is. In this age of bling, people need to reconnect to what this culture was about. The chief rocker Busy Bee gives people that glimpse at that legendary golden age of hip-hop, with its genuine innocence and creativity."
Fab Five Freddy concurs that Busy is a true original. "The scene where Busy asks the audience gathered at the band shell on the Lower East Side, tells them to clap their hands like whoever was murdering all of the little kids in Atlanta was between their palms, that speaks volumes," he says. "Busy Bee weaving that bit of social consciousness into a party rhyme—at the height of the Atlanta child murders in the early '80s—was nothing short of brilliant. He is a true MC in every sense of that word: master of ceremonies, mic controller. A few weeks ago, at the 25th-anniversary celebration of Wild Style in Central Park, there were a lot of incredible performances, but in my opinion, Busy Bee stole the show.''
The last few years haven't been all roses for the rapper, however. His beloved parents passed away in the late '80s, just when he was blowing up with his hit album Running Thangs and its hit single, "Suicide." Then came the arrest on the Nitro Tour—headlined by LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and NWA—where Busy was accused, along with two other suspects, of sexually assaulting a woman in Minnesota.
It took six months to clear his name. "I could've been bitter," Busy says now. "But I knew God was protecting me the whole time. And I found out who my true friends were. To this day, Russell Simmons and Ice-T are two of the most stand-up dudes I ever met in my whole life. They put money on my commissary, sent me clothes, took my calls, kept my spirits up. They never once doubted my innocence."
Out of jail but now uncomfortable in New York, Busy and his wife, Michelle (one part of Kool Herc's Herculords crew), relocated to Baltimore. In a panic to make ends meet, he hustled weed—potent weed. He laughs at the memory. "People in New York thought I was getting shows, because I was still dressing fly and I had money in my pocket. It was crazy. I had firemen, bus drivers, even cops as my customers. I had an uninterrupted run from 1989 all the way to 1996, when one of my customers who was a detective told me I was about to get pinched. And that was the last day of me being the Branson of B-more. Thing is, none of my customers knew me as Busy Bee. They knew me as Scorpio. Scorpio with that fire 'dro and skunk."
The doting father of two daughters, Busy works with his manager, Roland Russell, and records for the Urban Gold label in addition to doing shows around the world. Mos Def is rumored to be interested in portraying him in a feature film that hip-hop and soul impresario Andre Harrell is producing. In October, Busy will be one of the performers at VH1's Hip Hop Honors 2007 awards show, as part of their Wild Style tribute. He's also a judge on The Next, an online hip-hop version of American Idol, sitting alongside his junior look-alike, Lil Wayne.
Vintage concert clips available on YouTube have only broadened his folklore; he also recently guested on KRS-One and Marley Marl's Hip Hop Lives, a backward-looking CD that's nonetheless one of the best hip-hop albums in several years. But the most resonant praise that Busy gets comes straight from his wife. "Busy lives and breathes hip-hop," Michelle says. "It's not a game or a passing fad to him. Busy is a great MC, but more than anything else, my husband is a true survivor."