For someone who packs an extravagant amount of words into every line of every song, Regan Farquhar, aka alternative hip-hop MC Busdriver, can be remarkably to the point. As he answers a question about why his latest album hates so hard on socially conscious hippie-types—a demographic that would seem to make up the majority of the erudite rapper’s young intelligensia audience, especially here in Missoula—he prefaces his full answer with a rare terse response. And, actually, he could answer any number of questions about his career the same way. With almost everything he’s done since emerging on the scene more than a decade ago with Southern California’s famed Project Blowed collective, the aggressively verbose lyricist has liberally employed a counterintuitive “Why not?” attitude.
“People have given me shit for it,” he says about the abundance of hipster slams on RoadKillOvercoat, “but I don’t understand where that comes from…I think what’s important about what I do is that some kind of debate is sparked, some kind of questioning is inspired. This isn’t about me trying to force-feed my ideas; it’s about at least thinking about what both sides, good and bad, could be. It’s about pointing out all the hypocrisies, not just the ones coming from the conservatives.”
Farquhar’s irreverent lyrics are the foundation of a career that’s catapulted him from open-mic discovery in the early ’90s to regular Project Blowed contributor to, in 2001, headlining solo act. Over the last six years he’s emerged as a steadily heady cultural pundit willing to spit rhymes about anyone and anything, including the holier-than-thou granola crowd. That unpredictability is part of the reason he’s avoided being lumped in with the typical alternative hip-hop, or “nerd rap,” crowd. Farquhar’s quick to point out that he doesn’t tour under socio-political banners like label-mate Boots Riley, nor does he hope to spur radical change with his lyrics. It’s a fine line distinguishing between nerd rap’s message-oriented music and Farquhar’s distinct commentaries, but he demonstrates a firm grasp of where that line is drawn.
“It’s message-oriented, but that’s just one facet,” he says. “Rap in the ’90s when I was coming up was really message oriented and I just accepted that rap had to be that way. But it’s not like we’re beating kids over their heads. It’s not like a Talib Kweli show where I say ‘black power,’ tell them to put their fists in the air and then run off. I don’t like co-opting scenes and ideas, or dressing up ideals certain ways, or dictating some kind of course of action with the music.”
In fact, Farquhar’s much better suited at dressing down than dressing up. Not many of his peers, for instance, would artfully antagonize those “with long armpit hair, sticking out like a sore thumb/smelling like dinosaur dung” or those who frequent “poorly attended peace marches, holding cold veggie dogs” in a song, “Kill Your Employer,” that otherwise agrees with their cause. In “Secret Skin” he makes similar jabs at two-sided activists, sarcastically singing that “working class heroism is stylish all season.” And in “Ethereal Driftwood,” he turns the same relentless commentary on himself, rapping, “I’m too caustic to run for office or to be expunged/for my agnostic plunge/So what I’ve accomplished and done, is viewed as an off-setted pun...I don’t have what you want, so won’t you accept my humble offerings.”
“Most of the indie rap guys come from a post-underground hip-hop background, as do I,” says Farquhar, whose father, Ralph, was the writer of the seminal 1985 hip-hop film, Krush Groove. “I find a lot of the conventions of indie rap have become repulsive. I don’t feel married to certain things like I feel a lot of other acts do. I can exude a certain kind of confidence because I pretty much have internalized most of the rules of how you do this kind of rap. There are a lot of people aspiring to hug the ideals and values that alternative hip-hop advocates. I don’t feel confined by those.”
That approach finds expression in RoadKillOvercoat. A marked musical departure from his previous work, the new album distinguishes itself in every facet of the production. First, it’s Farquhar’s major label debut with Anti/Epitaph. Second, he’s replaced his often unconventional musical arrangements—Farquhar has a knack for making the flute relevant to hip-hop—with more mainstream verse-chorus-verse structures, courtesy of producers Nobody and Boom-Bip. And rather than deliver just his signature dense rhymes, Farquhar’s slowed down and, most surprisingly, started singing, creating an almost radio-friendly, soulful feel. “My other records were clusterfucks of random brain farts,” he told Rolling Stone, in a quote Anti/Epitaph has widely repeated. “Now there’s a psychedelic pop thing that’s more palatable.” All of it adds up to an artist embracing transition.
“It’s more organized, more cohesive, more direct song structures and very concise musical directions,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s better. It may not be. A lot of artists who have a pretty firm base and produce pretty obscure, unhindered music, they hit a point where they do a more straightforward record. I think it worked, but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t be completely different.”
Busdriver appears with Anti MC and Daedelus at The Loft Tuesday, Nov. 20, at 10 PM. $8/$10 under 21.