Busdriver’s electrifying new album Perfect Hair isn’t traditional Hip-hop. It bounces from a dizzying amount of genres and rhythms. Picking the brain of the madman who made the album was just as fascinating as the album itself. We talked with Busdriver about the Hellfyre Club collective, his beat making process and his views on racism in America.
I had all these questions stacked up about your album, and lyrics and beats, but you recently posted a terrifying video on your twitter of a cop pulling over a black man at a traffic stop and shooting him. You talked about Ferguson on your song “Cop”.
You know, I don’t know. There are so many conversations we can have about this, and I feel stupid even having a conversation. You know, me being a black man, I feel obligated to represent a point of view, but, you know what, the problem, if I’m being honest about the problem…I don’t know. I feel like there’s a certain level of education that’s assumed then there’s a certain level of education about the matter that should be asserted, then there’s a scary amount of education that could be asserted that would really scare the fuck out of everybody. And I’m leaning more toward the extreme. Because, you know, I don’t what people even think about when they see this shit. I have no idea. When you see a grown man being gunned down—I mean types of people have been gunned down constantly by our—our fucking government. I don’t know how it makes people feel; I don’t know what kind of reaction, and you know that, to me, is what’s the most terrible, what the problem is. Like people’s initial reaction. ‘Cause that’s what’s happening, these cops are reacting to something that’s built into them, something that’s innate, something that’s prominent in them, something that’s so deeply hardwired into them that they can’t unmoor their personality from it. And that, to me, is where the real trouble lies.
What are you reacting to? Who do you identify with? All this shit, and the normalization of seeing black men just…perforated on Youtube…it lets me know that, not only do people not identify with these black people, but they do not want to think about this shit, at all, even liberals! And that’s understandable, I don’t want to think about this shit. I don’t want to be identifiable with these people, I really don’t, but when I see this shit permeate into my own life, and I see what it really, really affects…
Here’s my problem: We have a basic, fundamental language in the American side that’s rooted in colonial period nonsense. The only reason we call ourselves “black” and “white” is so we can divide the one force and create this whole embolden class of people that can have permanent dominion over this subservient underclass. And this is nothing new! The English have always done this, they did this with the Scottish…this is the oldest fucking play in the book. And, the fact that people won’t admit that basic reality just being very prevalent right now is like, if you can’t admit that, then we can’t even talk. We can’t even talk if you don’t realize that our very basic identity, how we identify with each other is poison, then we can’t even talk about this shit. I don’t like to identify myself as black, I mean, I’ll call myself black just for the sake of argument, but I’m not “black!” What the fuck is “black?!” Who came up with that shit? So it’s really important that we understand what we’re dealing with, who we really are.
The Civil Rights movement didn’t work, it was a fantastic try, and we did a bunch of incredible shit, but if there was a riot, and there were riots three years after the fucking voting right act was fucking passed because of economic disparity. I mean, it’s pretty clear that not much changed, you know what I mean? People knew immediately. Dr. Martin Luther King wasn’t viewed as a fucking savior up unto his death, he [was] vilified. He was speaking out against the war, and he was treated like a fucking criminal—period, up until he died. And it’s like, there is no full embrace of the lower tier of American society. And we have all this economic inequality that we have now, all this unbelievable amount of money has been amassed by this trans-national class of people…all these old prejudices that are hardwired into our way of being, they just bubble to the front, bubble to the forefront. You have white people just scared out of their minds about some black people just wasting them. And it’s unbe-fucking-levable, and I’m scared out of my fucking mind. Not that I normally am not, but I’m just more scared now than I have been. Because it’s like, I have to go on tour, I have to go to work, I have to go and fucking entertain people. And it’s like, every time I go out, I’m worried if I get pulled over this’ll be the last time I get pulled over. And I do get pulled over often, I get illegally searched often, and I’m just glad that they don’t fucking hurt me.
Last time I got pulled over and got searched illegally, I don’t know why I was; I think I was in Wisconsin or some shit. And, you know, the guy was just like going through my whole shit, he was talking to me, trying to keep my attention, looking through my whole shit for no reason, and you know what? He didn’t find anything, ‘cause I don’t do anything, and he did give me a ticket, he said his bit and he just left. And I was so fucking happy, that was like the luckiest day of my life. I don’t want to admit I’m like one of these guys who are blown away on all these news items, I don’t want to admit I’m one of them, but I am, it can happen to anybody. And what really people should be understanding is—if you’re a white male, it can happen to you, it can happen to anybody, and that’s what’s important. People need to identify with the victims, and that’s what’s not happening. People don’t identify with these people, we’re all a bunch of dark monkeys exercising black rage up in our corners of the internet, in our slums. That’s really a problem, but it’s too big of a problem for me to deal with, I’m just scared.
I personally wanted to thank you for posting that video, it was like a bucket of cold water, it made you take note of what was going on, that all the talk about how far we’ve come so far and no, no we haven’t.
Yeah ‘cause, it’s alright if people think the Civil Rights movement was positive because it definitely was, and there’s all kind of progress and, honestly, the fact that our president is half black, or half Moor, or half African Moor is fantastic. That’s crazy, that’s a crazy accomplishment, of course it is, everyone should know that, but—but what’s the reality? Why are we the world’s superpower? I mean, do people ever ask themselves that? Why is America the world’s superpower? Because of cotton. Because, before we had oil, before oil was the absolute fucking golden currency—before we had oil as the most valuable export, we had cotton, and cotton made this country incredibly wealthy during the 1800s and some of the richest people in the world we in America during the 1800s due to cotton. And that kind of advantage, that kind of jump start for a country can’t be ignored. That’s why we are as wealthy as we are now, I mean, Lieman Brothers, they worked in the cotton trade before they became what they became. That’s what they did, they dealt in slavery, they dealt in cotton. Those games were never taken back, it’s built into how this country developed. The fucking New Deal left black people out, exclusionary zoning laws kept black people out. You cannot have a home; white families can have homes, black people could not have homes, that’s how ghettos were created. People just need to be honest about where we come from. All this shit, you can’t really divorce yourself from it. People are so used to it now…I feel like all the shit I’m saying is obvious, and that’s why I haven’t really been taking about it in recent years, but it’s like, people don’t know it any more, I can’t assume people know. They just think black people are just stupid and white people are just cooler, and that’s what’s up. It’s so weird, we’re not separate, we’re just people and we’re being shoved into these oppressive, aggressive economic programs that are rooted in imperialism, that the English have always—it’s crazy, it’s crazy.
The playbook has always been open, we just don’t want to read from the ledger, it’s just inconvenient. It’s just a big lie. I think that doing music is the best thing, the best therapy for this type of shit because, through music, you need people of all cultures and races, and you guys have a common thread, a common goal and you really can break down those evil, insidious programs that are built into our way of being. I really need music to work through this ugliness.
On Perfect Hair it seems like you tap into that. There’s a theme, or lines, about being willfully ignorant or outright lying like “I’m decent liar, but that’s a lie in itself” or the back and forth on “Ego Death” with “We can make this better/No we’re not/Yes we will.”
Yeah, there are various types of lies, not necessarily lies about racial bias, but yeah, everyone lies to themselves. When I first came up with the idea for Perfect Hair it was supposed to be about some unobtainable ideal that people try to reach…That was kind of what I was going for, everyone is kind of reaching for this unobtainable version of themselves. I think we do have to lie to ourselves a lot in order to sell ourselves into thinking we made it or are going to make it.
Yeah, it seemed funny at the end of “Ego Death” that you say that you don’t have perfect hair, Danny Brown doesn’t have perfect hair, Aesop Rock doesn’t have perfect hair, even though you and Danny have awesome hair and Aesop Rock has perfect beard.
Yeah it is funny, but you know…I think it has to do with acceptance. Danny Brown is—other, I’m other, even Ian-Aesop is other. It’s not a big deal, I think we’re—I mean shit, I’m fine with that. I just mean in the general sense of settings that we’re other. I just kind of play with that idea on Perfect Hair. I’m not trying to victimize myself, I’m just trying to…I just think it’s an interesting idea to toy with.
There’s another theme that seems to run through Perfect Hair. You’ve talked about incredibly dark things in the past, but Perfect Hair seems to have a lot of melancholy in it, with lines like “Admit how sick I’ve become” or “She thought I was better when I was less me” it cut deep. What were you channeling there?
Well “Motion Lines” is just like a love song, kind of just apologizing to your love, that’s all I’m doing there, being a little melancholy and what not. Every time I write I try to go there, you know what I mean? I try to write bars that will hopefully be effective and, thank you so much for picking up on that because sometimes I think that a lot of my imagery is just viewed as nonsense. I get too mired in writing sometimes. I lose myself in the details.
One of the best things about Perfect Hair was that it felt like it had a very strong emotional center. It’s all anchored by an emotional weight that these songs have.
I think a lot of that is informed from kind of being in this Hellfyre Club, where we all have this kind of similar feeling of constantly kind of threatened. Whether it be a metaphysical threat, or a real one or a philosophical threat we all feel like…I guess the sense of being in that community allows me to embellish some those thoughts. I mean, writing with people like Milo and Mike Eagle, my whole self-deprecation is—that kind of strand in my writing that’s always been there writing has been magnified, and I’m able to magnify it and turn it into other things because I get so many examples of them magnifying it in their own way. I really think with writing it really helps me so much to be around such strong writers in Hellfyre Club and it also reinforces shit I’ve already been doing so it’s really kind of interesting and fun.
Another thing about Hellfyre Club is that, at its base what y’all are doing is hip-hop, but it seems like you guys are just doing what you want to do, regardless of genre.
Well that’s the thing. I don’t know what people think about rap. If I kicked a rap over drone, if I kicked a twenty minute rap over drone—that shit’s been done, we’ve been doing that shit in ’93. I don’t know what people know about rap. People obvious don’t like rap that much, ‘cause they don’t know about it. It goes there. So being in Hellfyre Club lets me be honest. There are all these tools and there’s so much you can do, and people who don’t understand that Hip-hop music and Electronic music go hand and hand…that’s good, that means that we can seem more interesting.
Not that our whole thing is dealing with Electronic music, but I feel like a lot of producers who we work with, a lot of that stuff can be categorized in that vein. It’s really about a culture, the Hip-hop culture as like a foundation for an expansive amount of music because all my homies who do techno, who do beat music, who do fucking indie rock, whatever—a lot of us have a common thread: Hip-hop. Hip-hop informs writing like a mother fucker, Hip-hop helps me appreciate Leonard Cohen… Flying Lotus is a Hip-hop artist, people think he’s an Electronic dude, but hip-hop is his base and so is Yoni Wolf from fucking Why? that’s his base. That’s the common thread and where you go from there is anyone’s guess.
Some of my favorite lines on the album come from this mini-rant over “What does Hip-hop check in the gender box” “What did Hip-hop have for breakfast this morning” people worrying over the state of Hip-hop and it reminded me of Aesop Rock’s “Save Yourself” when he says “Maybe you should stop worrying about Hip-hop and Hip-hop will save you from the pitstop.”
Well that song, “Bliss Point,” was about being high and finding your own center, finding happiness. And I guess that line about Hip-hop was about examples of the irreverent conversations you can have while high ‘cause I end that rhyme with–“What does Hip-hop check in the gender box” and then right after that I say, “and other inane fluff” I just say it real offhandedly, ‘cause that’s pretty inane to me [laughs], to have those old Hip-hop conversations. “Where’s Hip-hop going?” ‘Cause to me that’s in reference to Mos Def’s intro for his debut album where he’s like you know he was having that conversation “’Where’s hip-hop going?’ People always ask me ‘where’s hip-hop going?’ talk about Hip-hop like it’s a giant in the hills out to get the townspeople. Even then I thought that was the most clever shit and I still think it’s clever, and I feel the same way, I don’t have those debates about Hip-hop, I don’t feel that way about it; it’s just something that we do.
I wanted to ask about two other lines on the album, not related to the state of Hip-hop, but your work ethic and how you work in studio. There’s one on “Ego Death” where you say “Down time is never met with an overjoyed grin/Because sleep and death have always been conjoined twins” and on “Blink” you say “Using home studios like panic rooms.” Are you one of those people who has to be working constantly?
I guess I don’t feel satisfied with stuff when I come out with it. I don’t really—I feel like at this point because of the economy of things releasing records is less personally gratifying. They’re just kind of like markers in the grander scheme. With that in mind there’s always stuff to do. I mean, eventually there point be anything to do, but, for the time being, there seems to be stuff to get done, and I’m grateful for it.
I wanted to touch on some the beat you made for “Bliss Point.” The ending segment has this triplet feel, but the entirety of that song—the rhythm is insane. It reminds me of a more energetic version of some of Shabazz Palaces’ work; it doesn’t sit in one time signature or tempo. Where did that sprout from?
Well I think that’s one of the advantages of getting to produce your stuff, if I have a rhythmic idea in my head I can get it done if I want to. A lot of my stuff in my old record Temporary Forever would play with rhythm and time signature. I’ve just always been a fan of that noise—really wanted to do that more. To be quite honest when I don’t do that in my songs I feel lazy, so when I get the opportunity to I feel it’s important to…frankly I felt kind of bad because I haven’t done enough of that to be quite honest, but yeah that second verse on “Bliss Point” was something that I wrote with a lot of intention. There was actually a part after that that was supposed to happen where it slowed down and there was a string part and there were these 16 note stabs…I don’t know, there’s a bunch of other shit happening, but it’s just fun man! I feel like growing up, the jazzman play book was always open to me and I always emulate it and pay homage to it…it’s really a part of how I write songs. But yeah it’s just fun to get to do that sometimes. But I think that the head of that song of “Bliss Point” is kind of based on two step, trying to do a little two step drum pattern for most of the song because I used to love two step; I used to love early dubstep too. Like Burial, and then we got kind of a cheap version of that.
On “Can’t You Tell I’m a Sociopath” it seems like you’re making fun of scenes like “I’m dressed up like a punk singer.” It just feels like you and Verbs are laughing and making fun of some people while rapping.
No, it’s just a fun song. That song isn’t really about much, we’re kind of just going for it. That song’s message is very clear. I’m basically just saying ‘This is me’ ‘Don’t you know this is me’ ‘Can’t you tell that this is me?’ It’s just a pretty self-declarative rap song there’s not really much too it. I guess we’re talking about dress because it’s kind of an engaging of the moment song so we’re talking about what we’re wearing in the sense of being right there in your face, but that’s really it. I think that the beat on that song is what I really needed on the record. When Mike Gao passed it to me it was a no brainer. That song’s all energy.
That beat sounds like Alice in Wonderland.
Yeah isn’t Mike Gao great? Mike Gao is one of the best guys I mess with now, he’s being doing for a while in L.A. and beyond. He’s a super dope guy and an incredible internet personality as well. Young nerd killing it, don’t fake your data, Mike Gao.
Yeah, I have a condition called synesthesia where I see colors when I hear music and that beat, and “Blink” and a few others have a lot of colors. It’s a super colorful rap album.
Oh dope man! I was surprised…I’m super glad. I really didn’t know how people would receive the record. I just trusted that, Milo said that it was tight, so I trusted him.
Might as well trust Milo if you’re going to trust anyone.