Why Busdriver Is More Essential Than Ever

Ben Grenrock dives deep into Busdriver's impressive discography.
By    May 31, 2017

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Ben Grenrock has walked the bare moon from his air balloon.

Just seconds into any one of Busdriver’s songs, you can tell it’s him. Before you’ve even blinked, he’ll likely have spat a slew of expertly stacked rhymes, lambasted neo-liberal clichés, exposed a minimum of three loathsome aspects of institutionalized racist hegemony, dissed himself, and verbally rendered approximately fourteen sight-gags—all in a unique vocal cadence that sounds like a defrocked Baptist preacher calling a horse race in Wonderland. So yeah, he’s pretty hard to mistake for anyone else.

In Busdriver’s hands, the conventions of hip-hop bend into abstract shapes too intricate and jagged to fit neatly into the marketable-music assembly line or within many listeners’ preconceptions of what rap “is.” This is as much a result of the complex ways in which he grapples with big ideas in his songs as it is of the velocity he raps five syllable words over a Bach overture, jazz solo, or futuristic glitch-choir.

Race, Money, The Industry, Parenthood, Love, Politics; these issues have all been rapped about before. But they are typically approached from a place of simplified binaries. It’s good or evil, rich or poor, black or white, something or someone loved or hated, desired or discarded. Rappers tend to assume a position of absolute certainty, drawing on the personal truths of their experiences to tell either their stories or the stories that unfold around them from a perspective that’s infallible for as long at the mic is in their grip.

But Busdriver is too humble, too hyper-intelligent, and too honest to rap like he has all the answers. He feels that ardently choosing sides forces one to become, “too NAACP or NWA on GP,” so instead, at the expense of his accessibility, he, “Straddle[s] the fence ever nanosec,” until, “Canceled checks line the uteral walls of [his] music hall.” Driver’s opinions are strong and unmistakable, but they’re often conflicted, layered, and vacillate based on the context of a particular track. Thus his songs provide a highly realistic representation of comprehensive reality and of a person’s inner life, especially the inner life of someone living in an era such as ours—where the fractal complexity of modern existence plays out before our eyes over and over on comment threads and social media feeds.

Listening to his words carefully and letting yourself get whisked into his world, it seems it’s not just rap but—as he declares on the song “Answering Machinist”—that, “Reality is malleable,” his flurry of sardonic humor warping the real into the surreal like light speed bending space-time.

Like the Surrealists of the early 20th century, Busdriver obliquely critiques a modernizing world that is rapidly becoming more confusing and disjointed by reproducing it as precisely that: inscrutable, bizarre, twisted, a whole shattered into shards of symbol. And like a comedian, Driver draws his listeners’ attention to the absurdities of existence, putting hilarity in direct conversation with heartbreak and horror. If Driver’s weapons of choice are his biting wit, scintillating intellect, and blistering skill, they are rendered doubly effective having been dipped in the dogma-slaying elixirs of nuance and laughter.

Both Surrealism and comedy are forms of art that don’t gift meaning to viewer. Rather, what a Surrealist painting means or what a comedian is really trying to say about society when they tell a joke, is either diffused via osmosis into a viewer’s consciousness or understood through retroactive interpretation. Basically, the cost of a comprehensive appreciation of their art is time spent thinking about it.

Popular rap isn’t supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be easy—easy to understand, to memorize, to summarize, to spit along with in your car. Busdriver’s music is not easy. By “Act[ing] like a political cartoonist,”—as he describes himself on “Answering Machinist”—Busdriver requires his listeners to put some thought into drawing out meaning and humor from his prolific catalogue of poignant doodles.

Many fans of hip-hop would rather not expend much mental effort when bumping a rap album. Just look at the discrepancy between the twenty-one million views Migos’ “Versace” has on YouTube—a song in which the members of Migos repeat the word “Versace” over and over as if they’re guiding us through the contents of their oversized closets on a particularly boring episode of MTV’s “Cribs”—with the mere twenty-five hundred views Busdriver’s rework of the track has; although on his version instead of, “Writing frivolity,” he’s “Issuing policy,” dropping any and all posturing in favor of impeccable craft: “But to be honest my ni**a, no I can’t afford no Versace/ I shiver on trolleys and go home to a table full of glossies…Versace Versace, I’m sipping on lassi, my time is so costly/ ‘Cause my wage is a pittance my days are a sentence and I am no Chachi,”

As Driver spits on “Happiness’ Unit of Measurement,” his, “ideas,” can appear, “overshot and undersung…the kids don’t want to listen they just want to have some fucking fun.” And there’s nothing wrong with pure fun, or with extolling one’s favorite designers by simply chanting their name. But for those who do choose to listen actively, the ways in which Busdriver parodies our current reality in both his content and form makes him one of the single most thought-provoking social commentators currently creating art of any medium, and possibly the funniest.

When searching for Surrealist parody in Driver’s lyrics, you won’t have to look very far. Intricately experimental even by his standards, 2009’s Jheli Beam is a good place to start. The track “World Agape” finds Busdriver raping meticulously controlled chaos over a beat made up of jazz solo drum samples, dolling out quips at the expense of self-important bloggers and neo-hippies:

“No godhead in the blog thread stringing this harpsichord
No tasteful tunes, just tablespoons of parsnip porridge
Of the bleeded ether from the Greenpeacer’s alarmist lore”

Similar to interpreting a Surrealist painting, it’s not so much that absolute meaning ought to be wrung from these lines, but more that they communicate a general sense of specific absurdities endemic to the modern world. As the beat shifts from “Art Rap” oddity to full on jazz-groove, Driver continues his rhyme stacking standup in a visceral, syncopated delivery, lampooning Nightly News tropes with an even heavier Surrealist lilt:

“I’m rushed to hair and make-up on the war-torn beachfront
Where I narrate stuff like a foreign-born creampuff
But I forewarn the teen pups, that their core’s worn and pre-shrunk
Then in poor form I triple lutz and I land on my gristle hump”

The switch in perspective to that of the conservative news anchor he’s spoofing adds yet another layer of complexity. It’s a technique Busdriver often employs to great effect, donning the exaggerated identities of those he’s making fun of and getting into character to create miniature SNL sketches set to beats.

The wide range of victims that Driver selects for a brief mini-roast can seem unfocused at times. In the opening track on Jheli Beam, “Split Seconds (Between Nannies And Swamies),” Busdrivers’ attention flits from Dane Cook, to anal beads, to the obsession with increasing one’s “YouTube viewership.” Then he drops, “Between two, choose your pick: rule Zimbabwe/ Or improved computer chips become your new Yahweh,” a tongue-in-check comment on, not just colonialism in general, but the practice of extorting African nations for minerals like Coltan and Palladium which are then used to manufacture cell phones and computer chips. All of this occurs over the course of about nine seconds.

There is no universe in which Busdriver’s rapid-fire attention span facilitates understanding of his social commentary. Anyone who can catch and unpack every reference in one of Driver’s songs on a first listen should either be inducted into Mensa or immediately and dramatically decrease his or her caffeine intake. But while this element of Busdriver’s style makes multiple listens essential, it is itself one of the most effective examples of his societal parody that roots him in the Surrealist tradition.

In the 1924 essay, “Manifesto of Surrealism,” André Breton (think of him as Surrealism’s Kool Herc) defined the burgeoning movement as:

“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

In other words, Surrealists seek to capture the functioning of the human mind with their art, no matter how weird or avant-garde the resultant art is. This is precisely what Driver does. Maybe the ease with which he does so is due to long years as the crown prince of the legendary Project Blowed ciphers, something about free-associative freestyling that got hard coded into his neural pathways and has manifested in his written work ever since. Whatever the reason, Driver’s verses are an unfiltered glimpse into the mind of a sardonic genius: comedic, conflicted, complex, and also impactful, accurate, illuminating.

Busdriver’s mind can’t possibly be as fractured and velocious as the way in which he presents us with reference after reference in his songs; not only would he be unable to create tracks with well-defined stories on a cohesive topic (“Unplanned Parenthood” “She-Hulk Dehorning The Illusionist”), he wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation. Driver may be presenting us with an exaggerated caricature of the way the brain thinks (non-linear, free-associative, emotionally driven), but his borderline ADHD song-writing is an almost perfectly literal representation of the way our minds are forced to behave when interfacing with social media.

In the song “Eat Rich” on 2014’s brilliant Perfect Hair, Busdriver hits us with glamour-shot selfies, self-pity, and George Takai in the span of two bars. He then segues into a half-serious hook about class warfare. This overwhelming flood of information and the sarcastic, self-aware tone of “Eat Rich” and really of all his songs, feel almost unnervingly culturally familiar.

That’s because Busdriver is rapping like a Twitter feed; disparate ideas all stacked on top of each other, representing every crevice of the collective consciousness from pop culture, to social justice, to news media, emotional outbursts, humble-brags, self-deprecation, and absurdist humor. It’s all there. The flippant posts fly by and elicit a chuckle, while others rich with depth and information are there to be delved into if you have time to click on the attached link—but be honest, you usually settle for a quick scan of the article’s headline and leave it at that. This is our digitized reality in a Surrealist nutshell.

This connection to Twitter is directly addressed in the song “Two Feet in the Layered Cake.” The song is designed as a frenzied scroll through a forest of tweets. We’re first invited to “Behold the…gargle of influenza…botched tracheotomies, and mole colonies and misused Splenda,” attention grabbing images whizzing before our ears. In the next line Driver begins to live-Tweet to, “Turn this party into a caption happening/ with my wagging tongue as a single flapping wing,” a clear reference to Twitter’s mono-winged logo. He then aurally posts a pic of himself “getting a baby baboon swaddled,” and anther with “nipples in the JPEG,” more fodder for followers and part of his strategy to “make friends aggressively.”

Eventually something more politically inclined is posted when he raps, “We’ll talk about the black man as a concept/ and how Ms. PacMan is just PacMan cross dressed.” Even the title of the album on which this song appears, Thumbs, is a reference to the icons with which we “like” what we see on social media.

I have a feeling that Busdriver wouldn’t be particularly thrilled to be labeled as representative of a heady art movement from the last century or to have his work presented as a personification of the internet. And I’m sure this isn’t his intention when he sits down to write a verse. As he declares on the intro track of Fear of a Black Tangent (2005), “Yawning Zeitgeist Intro (Freestyle),” “Some of your friends will reboot the computer then do a Google search/ and be discouraged when they find that the truth will hurt/ when they see that I am not their zeitgeist, nor am I Christ-like.”

Driver is not consciously trying to be some sort of cultural prophet or a modern day Surrealist, and yet in spite of himself he becomes precisely that. And this is just one instance of how it seems that Driver truly can’t help but do the things he does. Paradoxically, this makes his work even more classically Surrealist and even more impressive.

Busdriver repeatedly describes his career as an unconscious outpouring of his inner-self against his better judgment. “The attendance is always subpar, when I perform at club or bar/ Why did I choose to do weird shit I steered my career off a cliff in a flaming stunt car,” he wonders on Fear of a Black Tangent’s “Cool Band Buzz.” But rather than switch up his style to something more accessible, something that would increase his oft maligned album sales, Driver continues to stay true to himself.

His anxiety about his lack of marketability and how difficult it is for him to economically sustain himself makes it seem like his adherence to the avant-garde isn’t so much a conscious decision as it is an inability to be anything but exactly who he is; which isn’t for lack of skill, but rather for lack of interest.

It seems that while he’s, “Frustrated that my records don’t sell, and I can’t seem to book a decent gig/ and my Indie label is understaffed, and these midi cables won’t connect to drum pads/ of the P.A. system, and my D.J.’s missing, and I’m barely able to feed my kid,” all of these stressors (outlined on “Happiness’s (Unit of Measurement)) are not enough incentive for him make music that doesn’t move him or feel true.

Breton and his treatise on Surrealism can provide some more insight as to why Driver keeps to this path. On “Can’t You Tell I’m A Sociopath” off of Perfect Hair, Busdriver asks himself why he “Stuff[s] urns with buzz terms,” answering his own question with the concise retort, “Cause I’m crazy.” Writing about how a certain degree of mental instability can actually facilitate creating effective Surrealist art, Breton says of mad artists, “they are, to some degree, victims of their imagination, in that it induces them not to pay attention to certain rules…These people are honest to a fault.” He means this as a compliment. And Busdriver seems to be entirely deserving of that compliment; he’s a victim of his own crazed imagination and gymnastic rapping ability, eschewing all the rules in order to keep his music authentic. But this unflinching honesty is rare in the music world, further compounding his inaccessibility.

Unfiltered ruminations on this very unmarketablity are just one example of Driver’s breed of blatant candidness. He wears his heart on his sleeve in a way that is almost unheard of in hip-hop, self-describing as, “so oversensitive my crotch is blood-soaked.” 2004’s Cosmic Cleavage is rife with examples of honesty-bordering-on-over-sharing—which might keep Driver from selling more records, but is such a humanistic portrait of experience it can only be viewed as brilliant art. “Nagging Nimbus” sees Busdriver exploring his guilt and feelings of inadequacy as a parent while he and his partner try to sort out their relationship and their own personal issues, always putting his young daughter on the “receiving end of this shitty situation.”

What’s so brilliant about the execution of this song, and that of Cosmic Cleveage’s “She-Hulk Dehorning the Illusionist,” in which Busdriver admits to his own shallowness having “weaved a myth of a decent person around,” a woman’s, “good looks,” is that they manage to be incredibly funny while simultaneously exploring common struggles without pulling a single punch. It’s a similar effect to a Louis C.K. bit or to a David Foster Wallace story—the depressing or embarrassing is made easier to swallow, both for the listener and for the artists themselves—by drawing attention to inherent absurdity via self-depreciative humor. When Driver gets real like this, the result is often more shocking and always more unexpected than hearing mainstream rappers spit about murder.

Most rappers cultivate a specific identity through which they diffuse their lyrical content. Their listeners expect a certain persona whenever they hear a rapper’s work, be it the Observant Everyman (Slug), the Brutal Gangster (Big L), the Comic Book Villain (MF DOOM), or thousands of others that range from straightforward to nuanced. Songs about love, violence, capitalism, or food are all filtered through that fixed persona. Busdriver is different.

With him, listeners are presented with a complex person rather than a character, with a conflicted mastermind who often explores issues from various differing perspectives. Again, this can be disorienting, but it is yet another mode of unintentional Surrealist parody. In Breton’s words, “The absence of any known restrictions allows [the artist] the perspective of several lives lived at once; this illusion becomes firmly rooted within him; now he is only interested in the fleeting, the extreme facility of everything.”

While there are many examples of Busdriver’s mercurial personality in his body of work, the most clear and repeated is his love/hate relationship with the neo-liberal lifestyle. It would be hard to find a more hilarious and scathing critique of left-leaning college campus vibes than “Kill Your Employer (Recreational Paranoia Is The Sport Of Now),” where Driver describes the modern breed of hippy as:

“Riddled with neo-expressionism omitted words and idea erasure
You pass out your Green Party favors
Smoking kush-hash algae at the Bush-bash rally
Mocking army brigade verve
Barbequing sorts of meat substitutes
Arguing at your bleak study group
Shunning pop art in your turtle-necks
Shopping carts with turbo jets
Write Red Cross personal checks
Yet no relief money’s en route”

And yet Busdriver ascribes to many of these clichés himself. Whether he’s reworking Chance the Rapper’s song “Juice,” making it literally about seaweed infused smoothies laced with the nutritious contents of his “Spirulina dime-sack,” or whether he’s rapping about environmentalism (“When corporate lacky grunts/ violate antitrust/ I won’t back hydrofracked/ grounds under white snowcaps”) in the triplet-packed ending of Perfect Hair’s “Upsweep,” Busdriver is very much a part of the culture he loves to poke fun at, sharing many of their core views.

But instead of letting his complexities undermine him, Busdriver just uses them as opportunities to extend the roast to include himself, rapping that he’s, “as angst-ridden on Thanksgiving/ as you are when your favorite rapper gets dissed on an opinion-based site,” including himself in a culture he often finds ridiculous.

This is Busdriver’s holistic view towards complex issues at work. Unwilling to buy any ideology wholesale, he looks at things with a nuanced view, supporting what he believes in and parodying the rest. This may seem like simple common sense, but looking at any hot-button issue these days, bi-partisan dogmatism is the overwhelming norm. And Driver refuses to subscribe to this. He hates on hippies and happily munches on kale. He makes fun of slam poetry, but hears the poems’ contrived lines because he’s attending a poetry slam in the first place (though only too find a hemp-clad date). He’s disgusted by the focus on the monetary and marketing side of music-making, but he frets over how well his records sell because he has to survive. He takes his craft seriously, yet uses it as a venue to poke fun at himself.

In the context of rap this may seem like Busdriver has too many personalities—that his ideals are too tangled to unravel. But once again, they are just an example of his out of control honesty, which manifests as an almost autonomic reflex for Driver even when it bogs down his message (“A verse drowning deep within my flooded lung/ A song dying deep in a pit of my blood and cum”). It’s like an ejaculatory Tourette’s of the soul, or as he’d say, “an overflowing toilet in my heart.”

Though he’s been a force in the L.A. underground scene for decades, there has never been a better time than right now to listen to Busdriver. Not only are his ideas more relevant than ever or his sense of humor in the face of depressing issues more necessary, but the longer social media remains central to our culture and daily lives the more primed we are to digest his maximalist style. His last three releases, Arguments With Dreams, Perfect Hair, and Thumbs are each masterful compilations of thought provoking societal critique, Surrealist comedy, and some gorgeous production that seems to have been plucked straight out of Los Angeles’ verdant garden of beats known as Low End Theory—many of the best of them produced by Driver himself.

There is something even more dazzling, even more aggressively “Busdriver” about these new releases and he knows it, spitting, “Now I just spit hot game ‘til my teeth taste like shell casings,” early in Arguments With Dreams. Without changing what’s at his core, Busdriver continues to evolve into a better and better artist, remaining hip-hop’s reluctant post-modern Marxist—part-Karl, but predominantly Groucho—while deploying his ideas with even more vividness and weight than before. With his head in clouds comprised equally of L.A. smog and laughing gas, but his feet firmly on the relentlessly gentrifying ground, he juggles syllables in one hand and stacks rhymes with the other, daring you to judge him for being different. It’s high time he was judged wisely.