Los Angeles has spawned countless permutations of revolutionary, from NWA’s gangsta rap to Dr. Dre’s G-Funk to Kendrick Lamar’s self-described “human music.” But ask anyone in the LA rap scene about who really pulls weight around town and you’ll get one answer: Regan Farquhar, more commonly known as Busdriver. His father Ralph wrote the screenplay for 1985 cult film Krush Groove, and seven years later young Regan began his rapping career with 4/29, a group inspired by the 1992 LA riots.
Three years later, Busdriver began working his way up the ranks of Project Blowed, an open-mic cypher that encourages sword-sharpening battle raps while discouraging violence, homophobia, and the glorification of gang life. Through that, Busdriver fell in with avant-garde producers like Daedalus and Daddy Kev, who synthesized far-flung strains of house, drum ’n’ bass, jungle, and industrial dance music into their hip-hop, choosing a path may have narrowed his commercial prospects while broadening his creative horizons.
“That’s how it was always supposed to be—Afrika Bambaataa told us that,” Busdriver told Fact Mag back in 2014 for what they described as “the definitive interview” with the artist. “The reason why rap music is so great to me is because [it’s] rooted in the lower tier of the socio-economical ladder. Being able to make do with what you don’t have,” he added, “is born out of disadvantage, so it’s all-inclusive. Taking that ethic with me and being introduced to all these scenes, it opened me up—I was like, ‘Why doesn’t everyone do this?’”
Forward-thinking record labels like Big Dada, Ninja Tune, Polyvinyl, Epitaph, and ANTI- appreciated Busdriver’s renaissance man skills, however, releasing a string of excellent genre-eschewing albums over the last 15 years: Temporary Forever, Cosmic Cleavage, RoadKillOvercoast, Jhelli Beam, Hoofdriver, Fear of a Black Tangent, Beaus$Eros, Perfect Hair. Each creates a sonic world with multiple jumping-off points and no safe grounding on easily identifiable ground, flitting with hallucinatory pleasure through everything from pre-war jazz and blues to post-apocalyptic electronica.
“It’s good to find a world in which you can be isolated,” he told Huck Magazine in 2015. “It’s good to have a context. I think a lot of why I do the music I do is because I grew up with heavy jazz being a huge component of my endeavor as an ‘MC’ or ‘a rapper.’ Rap music has always been protest music to a certain extent. As protest music, the rudiments of the blues still instruct us on how to write songs. [That’s] lent itself to a kind of freewheeling creative outlook. I haven’t really changed how I’ve done things in a long time so I don’t really know what’s new. I’m just playing out the ideas, the wealth of material. I’m influenced by places I go, but the influence is less overt. It’s more subtle—just language and governance and injustice. Points of view influence me.”
What hasn’t influenced Busdriver, however, is any sort of outside management or artistic meddling. More popular rappers regularly marvel at the fact he’s built up a 25-year career without an agent or business handler, securing label deals himself while giving younger artists a leg up through production and promotion via the Hellfyre Club collective he now belongs to. Of course, what’s empowering to a young artist could be intimidating or even stifling to another from a different era, as Busdriver has made clear in past interviews. “The rap economy is based around the presumption that you’re going to be a superstar,” he told Fact Mag in 2014. “It’s fantastic because it creates a lot of amazing work—people are out there busting their asses and making amazing records. But it’s based on, ‘Imma be that guy this year.’ That’s fantastic, but it’s also really manipulative.”
Busdriver often describes his mellifluous career as patterned after older jazz artists, who performed for the joy of it and recorded as often as they were afforded the opportunity. “It’s not about being a star, but rather making sense of what you’re doing,” he said in the Fact Mag interview. “I’ve gone beyond the rap mold, I don’t know any rapper who’s supposed to have more than five records in their whole career. You’re supposed to die after that, or be taken out back and shot.”
Yet very few rappers have experimented with language on the level of Busdriver. Sometimes his rhymes address grand societal issues; sometimes, as they did on his last album Perfect Hair, they link the eugenics-driven social Darwinism of colonial Africa with the Instagram-dominated streets of modern-day LA. “That’s what I like most about rap,” he told Fact Mag, reflecting on his reputation for groundbreaking cross-genre work. “I feel more emboldened and responsible now to tie all these things together, even as those connections are now more readily available.”