All Aboard

Alt-Rapper Busdriver veers towards the Mainstream, but how close?

Busdriver With RJD2 and Chichester. 9 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at the Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Cleveland Heights, $15, 216-321-5588.
Busdriver watches out for an owl called success.
Busdriver watches out for an owl called success.
There's music that reveals its intent and structure within the first 30 seconds, providing easy, straightforward thrills. And then there's music that proves puzzling at the outset, yet usually rewards a similar high if treated with patience.

The work of Busdriver (aka Regan Farquhar) typically falls into the latter category. One of underground hip-hop's more challenging artists, Bus' flow is both instinctive and adroit: lightning-fast runs, dazzling flashes of poetry, and impressive vocal shape-shifting. He leaps from impish, singsongy elocution to a haunted half-speed croon to a sporadically manic attack that, strangely enough, comes off like Mike Patton's distant cousin (during his early Mr. Bungle days, that is). Marry all that to peculiar imagery, confusing allusions, odd couplets, illogical tangents, and experimental production, and you've got the aural equivalent of a David Lynch flick: beautiful, if at times utterly baffling. And like that infamously aloof filmmaker, Bus isn't all that interested in offering keys to his kingdom. In fact, he figures few really care that much at all.

"Honestly, I don't think that people are really paying attention," he muses over the phone from his Los Angeles abode. Conveying neither bitterness nor self-pity, Bus follows the comment with a yawn, as if to punctuate his indifference -- or maybe he's just tired. It's a Sunday morning, and he only has a couple more days to chill before embarking on yet another lengthy world tour, this one in support of his seventh album, RoadKillOvercoat.

Relative obscurity (Jay-Z moves more units in a week than Busdriver has in a lifetime) is a topic the 28-year-old rapper explored at length on his last album, 2005's Fear of a Black Tangent. That theme lives on in RoadKillOvercoat. "My daily commute ends with a fender bender/Cuz no one acknowledges my 10-year tenure," Bus grumbles in "Casting Agents and Cowgirls." Actually, he's shortchanging himself: It's been 15 years since he started his first rap group, 4/29, and more than 12 years since he fell in with the Project Blowed collective, which includes Aceyalone, Abstract Rude, Pigeon John, DJ Drez, and other icons of the L.A. underground.

But truth be told, Bus has a bigger audience than ever these days. Released in January via Epitaph Records, RoadKillOvercoat is Bus' highest-profile release to date -- and by his standards, also his most accessible. Sonically, it's the anything-is-fair-game aesthetic, so common to underground rap, shoehorned into slightly more conventional pop arrangements: "Kill Your Employer (Recreational Paranoia Is the Sport of Now)" bridges the gap between IDM and grimy Baltimore club. "Ethereal Driftwood" launches into My Bloody Valentine-style dreaminess before tumbling into a cloud of quasi-psychedelic organ gurgles and clattering machine beats. And "Sun Shower," propelled by bass and synth, borrows its brooding throb from Depeche Mode and Joy Division.

Without the lyrics sheet, strange phrases like "oompa-loompa parachute troopers" and "synthetic mammary gland of a pop-cult nurse aide in a birdcage" fly by in a blur -- but with it, some of them come into focus. And where Bus waxes political, most of his ideas are crystal-clear. On "Less Yes's, More No's," he establishes himself as "undeniably left-leaning" and dissects Dubya over Iraq, election fraud, and general fearmongering.

Yet throughout RoadKillOvercoat, Bus mostly slices up the left -- not so much the message as the messengers, who are, to him, phonies, hypocrites, and hollow activists. These are sins Bus deems worse than apathy. On "Kill Your Employer," he charges, "Smelling like dinosaur dung/These hippies are holier than thou at poorly attended peace marches, holding cold veggie dogs . . . smearing a salad on a SUV/Can't save the black faces at the refugee camp." And later, "Let me guess, you're a macrobiotic-cuisine prep-cook/With a textbook-liberal outlook in an oppressed nook."

"When I think about it, going after the right seems so trite, like beating a dead horse," says Bus. "I know I do that here and there, but it seems so passé at this point. I tend to be a little more self-examining, and that's why I go after the left."

Is he worried about biting the hands that ostensibly feed him -- skewering a fan base that clearly skews to the left?

"Who's gonna say something? College kids? Come on, I can't take a twentysomething kid seriously. Sometimes the college kids are tryin' to one-up you on what they know. They'll be tellin' me about secret societies, and Donald Rumsfeld was shaking hands with whoever, you know, and it's just like they're tryin' to put me up on game. It's like a 'Whose penis is larger?' contest, and they can definitely win, 'cause I don't care."

Yet for all his jabs at "wheatgrass-fueled, rehashed, eco-friendly hippie freaks," Bus is still his own favorite target. "I got people to disappoint, I got mistakes to make/How can you believe that I'm not a waste of space?" he mopes on "Mr. Mistake (Bested by the Whisper Chasm)."

But if he feels he still has something to prove, it's to a fairly select crowd, he insists. "I don't really think about lyrics in the context of the audience -- I think about me, and the people I came up with doin' this kinda stuff -- you know, my peers -- and I try to wow them. That's pretty much it. Audiences change; over the past 10 years, it's transformed, and I can't consistently keep 'the people' in mind. I just do what I do for me."

And then he laughs sheepishly. "Well, I'm kinda lying, because I guess I was thinking about writing some catchy songs, you know -- things that were meant for more people to hear -- and I got my boys to help me make a record that was fit for that. If I happen to bring a few more people in, hey, I'm O.K. with that."

Ultimately, it's clear that Busdriver would like to be one of those exceedingly rare hip-hop artists who can retain his underground cred while maintaining healthy sales figures. But despite minor concessions to mainstream sensibilities, RoadKillOvercoat is still a bit too off-center to win him a larger audience. Whether or not he moves in an even more listener-friendly direction remains to be seen -- but to this point, at least, Busdriver's provided one hell of an interesting ride. All Aboard

Alt-rapper Busdriver veers toward the mainstream, but how close?

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