The guy who goes by the name of Busdriver is used to being categorized. Rapper. Poet. Progressive hip-hop provocateur.
But the one that really struck him was what Spin magazine came up with to describe his style: emo-rap, a meaningless if media-friendly catch-all term for a new generation of bohemian, book-smart rappers who’d feel more at home in an Elantra than an Escalade.
“They write stuff in order to sell their articles,” says Busdriver (real name Regan Farquhar), 28, in a phone interview from his native Los Angeles, before heading off on a tour that includes South by Southwest on Friday. “No one had ever called it emo-rap. ... It has nothing to do with what I’m actually doing, but that’s fine.”
Certainly, the term doesn’t begin to reflect the thrilling ambition of his recently released fifth CD, “Roadkillovercoat.” With a tongue-shredding, rapid-fire rap style set against a musical background that careens through rock, funk, folk and `80-style synth-pop, he upends the notions of mainstream hip-hop. And that’s not even delving into his surreal lyrics, which reference Lou Reed, Noam Chomsky, pop art, Halliburton and Iraqi combatants.
“There are groups like Gnarls Barkley and OutKast who have kind of widened the spectrum of what audiences should want,” he says, noting there is often a dumbed-down expectation of what black culture should be. “Regardless of music, what’s really the problem is the marginalization of the black experience, and that’s just unfortunate ... (but) I’m not trying to save anybody. I just do what I do.”
Busdriver, who got his name as a kid when he and a friend would rap while taking the bus, says his style is not that unusual in LA. His dad is screenwriter Ralph Farquhar (“Krush Groove,” “The Parkers”) and Busdriver came of age around the black intelligentsia of the Leimert Park area where hip-hop acts such as the groundbreaking Freestyle Fellowship and more traditional jazz groups like Black/Note built a following. He ended up joining another legendary act, Project Blowed.
“Cultures overlap in California in a different way—black culture with college-kid culture with white-kid culture—and it allowed for something to happen. It encouraged groups to take chances,” he recalls. “It’s not like groups like the Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship came from a different place than NWA, but people took different choices and people in LA got accustomed to that.”
Busdriver was also influenced by his time away from LA. He lived with his fashion-designer uncle on the Brazilian island of Itaparica and followed that by attending a magnet school in Sedona, Ariz.
Back in LA, he has come to realize that the adventurous hip-hop he prefers is pushed to the margins. “People have been hijacked, not hip-hop itself. Hip-hop, as I know it, is as diverse as it’s ever been. There’s a wide range of stuff, but it’s underexposed. The industry has a skewed take on what’s important and what’s deemed valuable.
“I don’t mind being categorized (as an indie rapper),” he says. “I just wish it had an elevated platform. There’s a very tangible ceiling for all of us who do this kind of music. ... But it is a box and I don’t necessarily heed the rules of the box.”