Q&A with Regan "Busdriver" Farquhar
Busdriver with Busdriver.
Photo by Brian Tamborello
Boasting may seem like a hip-hop requirement, but it's actually possible to play the rap game without overdosing on self-love every other line. For proof, direct your gaze to the following Q&A with Regan Farquhar, who performs as Busdriver. The subject of a Westword profile published in advance of his Saturday, September 5 at the Bluebird Theater, Farquhar actually has to be coaxed into giving himself a compliment during the conversation -- and the act of doing so seems to make him profoundly uncomfortable.
The chat begins with talk about Farquhar's artistically inclined parents, including his father, Ralph Farquhar, a screenwriter and producer whose credits include one of the earliest hip-hop features, Krush Groove. From there, the exchange transitions to the way loneliness fueled his early musical experiments; the importance of L.A.'s Project Blowed when it came to drawing him out of his shell; his sense that the lack of organic local scenes is restricting the development of rap talents; the complexities of his latest album, Jhelli Beam, and the reasons why he may take a different tack in the studio next time around; details about a lyrical critique of conscious hip-hop, and his opinions about being stamped an art rapper; and his mixed feelings about the inability to embrace braggadoccio.
For better or worse, deprecation seems to fit him more naturally.
Westword (Michael Roberts): When I was pulling together background information for this interview, I looked up your dad on the Internet Movie Database, and he's got quite a list of credits. Is there a project he's worked on over the years that particularly stands out for you?
Regan Farquhar: In the '80s, he wrote Krush Groove, the hip-hop movie starring Sheila E and Run-D.M.C. and all that. And he's doing a few interesting things right now. This an animation series called Da Jammies that's a kind of hip-hop-inflected children's show. He's done a lot of stuff. He did that Brandy TV show Moesha a few years ago, which was probably his longest enduring project.
WW: Speaking of enduring, keeping a career in film and television going for thirty years is really difficult in Hollywood. Has his success at doing that been an inspiration for you?
RF: Sure. He and my mother are both in entertainment....
WW: What's your mom do?
RF: My mother is a dancer. She mainly teaches and choreographs small theater pieces. And she does acting on and off, here and there. But that definitely asserts the understanding that pursuing the arts is actually a viable thing. You can make your pursuits practical and have them have real-life applications.
WW: I was going to contrast your dad's work, which has mostly been within the system, with your work, which has mostly been within it. But it sounds as if a lot of your mom's work has been outside the system as well. Do their careers give you examples that represent the best of both worlds?
RF: Not really. I don't have a lot of insight about how they've pursued their careers. I've never really took an example of how they did something and applied it to me. My own pursuits kind of dictated where my music has gone. I don't have the show business background they do for some reason. I never really got knee-deep into Hollywood-kind of institutions.
WW: It wasn't as if there were celebrities over at the house every weekend....
RF: There would be over at my dad's house every so often. But I feel I was too stubborn as a kid. It never really resonated with me. I never thought any of my output had anything to do with the entrapments of celebrity or Hollywood. Making rap songs has always been second-nature. Well, it hasn't always been second-nature, but it's always been the default thing for the way I spent my time. It just becomes more so as the years roll on. That's more at the heart of my work than being a torchbearer for my dad or my brother.
WW: You said rapping hasn't always been second nature, but I understand you started doing it when you were really young, around nine-years old. Is that right?
RF: Yeah. And I started recording stuff when I was about fifteen. I put out my first CD-R, a little record, when I was about twenty. I've been involved in it for a good amount of time.
WW: Do you have any of those first recordings you made? And if so, would listening to them give you pleasure or pain at this point?
RF: Somewhere, I have this big old box of four-track tapes, and I have my four-track still. Actually, it's in view as I look over my apartment. It's just right there. So I have the recordings, but I don't listen to them. I don't really have a need to listen to them. They hearken back to a lonely, desperate time, and sometimes I like not to rewind myself. I'm really selective about what points of my personal history I'd like to highlight, and stuff I did when I was ten or something, I'd rather not recall.
WW: Was that loneliness and desperation the spur to getting involved in rap? That you needed to express the feelings you were having, and that was the best way?
RF: Definitely. There were a lot of creative impulses in me, and I didn't know how to go about harnessing them. And rap music was right there. All my homeboys used to rhyme, so it was always right there. But my pursuit of rap, or my slant on rap, was always tinged by my kind of introverted personality. And so I wouldn't really share the songs with people. I'd just record them by myself and play them by myself. It wasn't really a collective effort until I joined the Project Blowed crew in my early teens. And then it became more of a collective thing.
WW: Your style is so distinctive. Can you put a finger on when you developed a personal voice? Or was that there from the very beginning?
RF: Well, it was, but it wasn't anything that was cohesive. I don't know that it was unlike anyone else does. It was really loose, and it was unschooled. When I first went to the Good Life Café, and later on, when Project Blowed opened up, that's when I really started understanding what I was doing, and I started using approaches that actually had some potential to go somewhere. I mainly adapted a lot of things from people in that open-mic scene. I just adapted them to what I was doing and started to develop my approach.
WW: You referred to your early style as "unschooled." Was Project Blowed, in a sense, your school, then? The place that helped you come up with a personal vision you could share with people?
RF: Yeah, it definitely was. That's pretty much what it is. A kind of gladiator school of unhinged rap talent. People came there and they got put through the ropes, put through the ringer. And through freestyling and ciphers and doing songs and presenting them to people and competing with other people, it really forced you to develop at a pace that I think most people need. There aren't a lot of interesting rap songs out right now, and that may be because there's not as much of an emphasis on local scenes or open mics or things like that, or anywhere where people are regularly exercising their skills.
I think there's a deficit of any kind of robust talent in rap right now. I don't feel like there's an abundance of it. I feel like what's out there is kind of a fleeting thing. It's not bad, but there don't seem to be any Redmans or Busta Rhymes or Ice Cubes coming out of anywhere, and there might not be for the next five or six years. They all have a different array of skills, but I really appreciate how I came up, and my experiences with my rap crew and doing all the rap things. Battling, rapping with people, being told you're wack, and telling other people they're wack, is very essential to the hip-hop ethos. And that's one of the reasons why I feel confident in wielding hip-hop, and wielding music, however I see fit. I feel like I'm rooted in the essence of it. I'm rooted in the real-time practice of rap music. Not as an abstraction. Not as a mythologized, other-than thing. It was very much a groove that my life fell into.
WW: Do you think now that music is so accessible, because of the way technology has developed, that performers feel they can skip all of those steps you just talked about and go straight to being famous without putting in the time?
RF: Yeah. People definitely can do that, and people will do that. I think that's exactly right. And I think it's really hurt urban music a lot. Urban music right now seems so utterly disposable right now, and it has been for a while. And I can't say that it would ever change. I guess there's some emphasis on local scenes, but with rap music, it's hard. Any kind of emphasis on the mechanics of doing what you do kind of lends itself to an ugly side of rap, whether it be backpack-y or preachy or conscious rap or something like that. People are moving away from that, and they're moving to a more hip, fashionista-centric kind of outlook on rap. And I don't see a lot of forums for growth in that. Maybe they're there and I just don't know what they are. But I don't see that people are celebrating any forums for growth in this slightly new era of rap.
WW: Speaking of Project Blowed, the music that came out of that movement always seemed really accessible to me, and yet somehow, it was always confined to the underground. Does that make sense to you? Or were you kind of mystified why a wider audience didn't appreciate what was coming out of that scene?
RF: As a collective, we've never been that business-savvy. We've never had a comprehensive overview as to maximize our exposure or get the music through all the right channels. So I'm not surprised that it hasn't gotten super-popular up to this point. But there's been plenty of people who've taken those ideas, or similar ideas, and made them work. So it gives me faith. It let me know that the ideas themselves were sound. But, you know, I don't think the collective was supposed to garner any more attention than we did. It had its place, and it was there to inspire people to do whatever they did. There are plenty of scenes that need to play that particular role. I guess that's what the lost L.A. underground rap movement kind of did for some people. And that's it. Everyone can't be mega-stars. I think that's a big problem with music right now. There's so much emphasis on mega-stardom and less emphasis on the aesthetics of the work.
WW: The focus of people in Project Blowed was always on the work. It wasn't about commodifying it.
RF: People definitely wanted it to be commodified. They wanted things like that. It just never really happened. It was ill-conceived. It was a bad idea.
WW: I've read some interviews that suggest you see the new album as wrapping up what you've done in the past as opposed to starting something new. At least that's how I interpreted it. How do you see it?
RF: It's a return to a form, not that I've deviated too far. I've never really deviated at all. It's just a really zany assault on the senses in the one or two or three particular ways that I do it. And I may not return to making records exactly like this one for a while, because they're exhausting, and I'm not sure how rewarding they are for people anymore. They're rewarding for me, but I kind of would like to find pleasure in pleasing other people, or wielding our efforts to push people in certain directions. So I don't know if I'll make a record that are as cerebral, or has songs that have such a pressure cooker full of ideas. But Jhelli Beam hearkens back to my older records, like Temporary Forever and this record I did with Daedelus and Radioinactive, The Weather. That's kind of what I was going for. I wanted to make another record in that vein. It was very intentional. But I see things going somewhere else in the near future.
WW: So are you looking to strike a balance, where you get creative fulfillment for yourself even as you make it easier for an audience to plug into what you're doing?
RF: I don't know if I want to make it easier. I just want to emphasize different layers or different approaches that I employ. And that's it. I could say I want to make it more accessible for people, but I can't necessarily do it that well. I don't think it would come out that way. There's just an array of pictures and different things that I'd like to emphasize, and I'd like to present them in a different way. Different deliveries and textures. I don't want to be pigeonholed as much as I am currently, and I'd like to broaden my scope. But I'm having fun. This is all a very self-indulgent practice, making music, and I'm just trying to figure something else out to entertain myself.
WW: Rap is a topic on a lot of the songs on the album. Practically the first words you say on "Split Seconds" is, "Conscious rap failed us." What do you mean by that? Did it fail us because so few people are making it these days? Or are performers staying away from it because of mistakes made in the past?
RF: Conscious rap's role in kind of being the counter-assault against all amoral types of music, it just seems to ring false. I don't know. It feels more so now. If you listen to a Common or a Talib Kweli say something like, "Ah, mainstream rap is poopy," you can't really take them completely seriously anymore. And in that, it kind of condemns one whole pocket of rap, deems it merely reactionary and irrelevant. And, you know, underground hip-hop gets put under that umbrella. So I don't think there's been enough counter-myths to mainstream rap or whatever. And honestly, in my own life, I don't really care to make a distinction between any kind of rap. I can't really go about making those distinctions in my life. But for the sake of the album, I said that, which I probably shouldn't have.
WW: In talking about labeling different styles of rap, you've dovetailed into another song I wanted to mention. In "World Agape," you talk about "Art rap! Art rap!" in way that comes across as almost satirical to me. Is that the label people slap on you? The one you want to get away from?
RF: I don't mind that one, no. I didn't really think about much when I did that. I was just in the booth, doing, like, my seventh take, and I was trying to do something to get motivated. And me and the engineer thought it was funny, so it stayed. I was being sarcastic and kind of losing myself under the weight of the physical demand of the actual song. The song was pretty exhausting. Actually, Greg [Saunier], the drummer from Deerhoof, made that music. Me and him made that song, and I really didn't want to disappoint him from what he wanted me to do with that. There was a lot of pressure to get that song in the right place, to execute that song with a certain amount of verve. But I don't know. I just say shit on the album. I'm not really that thoughtful of a guy.
WW: I'd have to guess most of your fans would differ with your claim to being not that thoughtful of a guy. Are you just being modest? Or are you being straight-forward?
RF: I don't think I'm being that modest. I think I mean it. I'm not really that thoughtful. 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.
WW: On "Least Favorite Rapper," which is also on the album, you seem to revel in the idea that you're an acquired taste. Is that the case? Do you actually take pride in the fact that not everyone's going to get what you do?
RF: That song plays on a couple of things. It plays on the standard-rap idea of rappers taking the role of the underdog. Like, "Oh yeah, you really like these guys, but we're better! No one likes us, but guess what? We're better!" It plays on the notion of that type of song. But at the same time, we're taking jabs at ourselves. It's a really kind of sardonic dirge to throw into the middle of the record. Even the title, "Least Favorite Rapper." Like, you're still a favorite rapper, but you're the least favorite. I don't know. It was a fun song for me and my friend Nocando to knock out. We just kind of went with it. I just wanted to do rapper songs on this record. Like, "Rappers are this, rappers are that." Everyone needs those rapper songs, and that was ours.
WW: Self-deprecation isn't a quality you hear in a lot of hip-hop songs. Do you think hip-hop in general would be better if there was more of that quality?
RF: I doubt it. It's a pretty easy place for me to float to. I don't know. I guess the kind of writers who influenced me have something to do with it. I read a lot of Bob Kaufman, his poems and shit, and a lot of other typical shit. The kind of reading I used to do exemplified the author's faults rather than his successes. So authors like that became more intriguing than they should have been. I should have just gone with the braggadoccio....
WW: Along those lines, what do you consider your greatest attributes?
RF: I don't know. (Really long pause.) My greatest attributes? I think it's probably just my ability to rap. I think that's really all I know how to do. Everything else is just hearsay. I know how to rap a little bit, so I think that's probably the best thing I can do in my life. Period. That's my bread and butter. That's all I have at the end of the day is a bit of rapping know-how. Everything else is just subjective.
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