Boasting is an essential element of hip-hop; the verbal technique, honed through countless on-stage battles, epitomizes the idea that a rapper can go from nothing to something B.I.G. if only he can spit better than anyone else. But while Regan Farquhar, better known as Busdriver, loves such traditions, he can't seem to get the hang of trumpeting his own excellence. Take "Least Favorite Rapper," one of the key songs on Jhelli Beam, his ultra-quirky new album for Epitaph Records, during which he and cohort Nocando engage in humorous back-and-forth about their lack of popularity. At one point, Farquhar declares, "Your favorite rapper's brawny/Wearing a French-braided hair shirt/My bank account be scrawny/Since I was a tenth-grader square twerp."
Not that Farquhar would advise his more egomaniacal peers to follow his lead. When he's asked if hip-hop in general would be better if more MCs exhibited a little self-deprecation, he mutters "I doubt it" with all the enthusiasm of Eeyore, the depressive donkey from the Winnie the Pooh stories. "The kind of reading I used to do exemplified the author's faults rather than his successes," he goes on. "So authors like that became more intriguing than they should have been. I should have just gone with the braggadoccio."
Later, Farquhar describes himself as "not really that thoughtful of a guy" — a statement that contradicts his entire discography, which is crammed to overflowing with intricate imagery. Nevertheless, he insists that he isn't simply being modest, adding, "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."
If so, his artistic upbringing in Southern California didn't make things any easier for him. His mom is an actress and dancer who teaches and choreographs small theater pieces, while his father, Ralph Farquhar, has had a thirty-plus-year career in the film and television industry, with a list of credits that includes writing stints for Married With Children and Moesha, as well as his current program, Da Jammies, an animated series Regan describes as "a hip-hop-inflected children's show." Still, the younger Farquhar was most impressed when his dad was chosen to write the script for 1983's Krush Groove, one of Hollywood's first attempts to capitalize on the rap revolution; stars included Sheila E. and members of Run-D.M.C.
This background suggests that Regan enjoyed a privileged upbringing, and he admits there were times growing up when he'd trip over the occasional luminary. "But I feel I was too stubborn as a kid" to become intoxicated with fame, he says. "It never really resonated with me. I never thought any of my output had anything to do with the entrapments of celebrity or Hollywood."
Instead, Farquhar's early forays into hip-hop, dating back to his days as an elementary-schooler, grew out of what he calls "a lonely, desperate time.... 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."
An offshoot of the open-mike sessions at the storied Good Life Cafe, Project Blowed was conceived by hip-hoppers such as Aceyalone and current Busdriver tour partner Abstract Rude as a public workshop where MCs could challenge themselves against the toughest competition in L.A. Farquhar describes it as "a kind of gladiator school of unhinged rap talent. People came there and they got put through the ropes, put through the wringer. 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."
The absence of scenes like Project Blowed in many cities today helps explain why "there's a deficit of any kind of robust talent in rap right now," in Farquhar's view. "It's not bad, but there don't seem to be any Redmans or Busta Rhymeses 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."
By the dawn of the decade, Farquhar had developed a wordy, offbeat, frequently surrealistic style that informs albums such as 2002's Temporary Forever and 2003's The Weather, a collaboration with Radioinactive and Daedelus — and he explored similar territory on Jhelli Beam. He refers to it as "a really zany assault on the senses in the one or two or three particular ways that I do it," and along the way, he doesn't shy away from criticizing the very medium in which he works. Virtually the first words he speaks on the album, at the outset of "Split Seconds," are "Conscious rap failed us," and he doesn't back away from the sentiment. "Conscious rap's role in kind of being the counter-assault against all amoral types of music, it just seems to ring false," he believes. "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."
Seconds later, however, Farquhar rethinks this statement. "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." He also has doubts about the wisdom of following up Beam with another album along the same lines. "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," he maintains. "They're rewarding for me, but I kind of would like to find pleasure in pleasing other people." Predictably, though, he's uncertain about his ability to achieve this goal: "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."
Of course, Farquhar's fans understand that his uniqueness is actually a good thing — but at least on this day, he seems to have difficulty recognizing it. When asked what he considers to be his greatest attribute as a performer, he takes a pause long enough to time with an hourglass. At last he replies, "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."