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Bustin' Out of the Boundaries of Rap

Busta Rhymes is flamboyant, enthusiastic and ready to take rap to the stars. His big, gritty baritone might just do it.

May 26, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker

On the cover of his hit debut album, "The Coming," New York rapper Busta Rhymes is pictured blowing out the center of a picture frame with the force of his powerful voice.

The colorful image captures not only the way Rhymes has annihilated most of his rap competitors this year but also how he uses his spectacular gift of gab to expand the boundaries of rap music itself.

"There's no bounds to rap music, and there's no limit to what Busta Rhymes can express," the rapper explains, referring to himself in the third person in a booming baritone.

In fact, Rhymes, 23, becomes so excited during normal conversation that he invariably ends up shouting his views on virtually any subject that comes into his mind.

"I don't just represent a 20-block radius known as my 'hood, I represent the universe," he growls, combining the braggadocio of the young Muhammad Ali with the sheer exuberance of Little Richard.

"Busta Rhymes represents both the East and West Coast, every country in the world and every planet in the solar system. I'm the universal representative of this music, and when we finally leave this planet, I'm gonna be representing the aliens too!"

It's this kind of manic enthusiasm that has helped make Rhymes one of the most exciting figures to enter rap in the '90s.

On the video for his hit single, a rapid-fire burst of disarming onomatopoeia titled "Woo Hah! I Got You All in Check," Rhymes sports wild dreadlocks, multicolored outfits and exaggerated body movements. Most seductive of all, however, is his toothy grin.

Given his flamboyance, you'd think Rhymes would expect every one of his creations to sell at least a million, but he seems genuinely surprised--even a touch humbled--by the massive acceptance of the new album, which has sold nearly a million copies since its release in March. Rhymes will join Ziggy Marley, Cypress Hill and others on the "Smokin' Grooves" tour July 23 and 24 at the Universal Amphitheatre.

"I just do what I feel. . . . I don't go in the studio specifically to make hits," Rhymes says. "I just try to capture a feeling that everyone can easily understand."

Thanks to a gritty grumble that makes his voice among the most distinctive in rap, Rhymes' bold performances are masterpieces of phonetic execution. His voice rips through a rhythm track like one of the T-5 storms in "Twister"--sucking up time signatures and churning them around until they become something unique.

It's a style you could say he began working on in his early childhood.

Long before he adopted the stage name Busta Rhymes, young Trevor Smith--the son of a Jamaican mother and an American father--was a boisterous kid who loved being the center of attention and grabbed it at every opportunity, thanks in large part to his loud, commanding voice.

"My voice has my father's deep tone with my mother's volume," says Rhymes, whose family moved from Brooklyn to Uniondale, on Long Island, when he was 12.

"I come across strong and solid like my father did, but when it came down to discipline in my family, the true barker was Moms. That's where my real energetic side comes from."

While just a freshman in high school, Rhymes joined with his friends Charlie Brown and Dinco D. to form the nucleus of Leaders of the New School, which was later rounded out by his deejay cousin, Cutmaster Milo. The rap quartet quickly attracted attention around Long Island, and another Long Island group, Public Enemy, helped the Leaders get a contract with Elektra Records in 1989.

Leaders never had a gold album, but the group brought a lively energy to its shows and recordings by performing singsong routines in unison rather than the normal rap pattern of just one or two main voices. The music was accompanied by lively choreographed stomps.

One reason for the fresh approach was that the members' influences went well beyond the usual rap contingent of Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash. Among the artists high on Rhymes' personal list of favorites: Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton.

"Jimi's sound was always to the extreme," Rhymes says, his voice suddenly lowered in a way that suggests respect. "He created a sound so distinctive that regardless of who tried to copy it, it just couldn't be done."

And Clinton?

Rhymes laughs.

"He's the greatest dresser! That's such a key element as an artist because you want to be identified. You want people to notice you, no matter where you're seen. Once somebody sees me, they know what time it is. I love that."

After two albums with the Leaders, Rhymes decided to attempt a solo collection last year. He had already built something of a personal following through noteworthy cameos on such memorable tracks as A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario" and Boyz II Men's remix of "Vibin'."

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