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Enter the Dungeon Dragon: Busta Rhymes’s Classic Debut, 25 Years Later

A quarter-century ago, Busta parlayed two modestly successful group projects and a string of bar-raising guest appearances into ‘The Coming,’ his solo introduction to the music industry. Today, he reflects on what made the album so special—and why he still has many years left.

Richard A. Chance

No year in hip-hop history sticks out quite like 1996: It marked the height of the East Coast–West Coast feud, the debut of several artists who would rule the next few decades, and the last moment before battle lines between “mainstream” and “underground” were fully drawn. The 1996 Rap Yearbook, a recurring series from The Ringer, will explore the landmark releases and moments from a quarter-century ago that redefined how we think of the genre. Today, we’re going deep on Busta Rhymes’ legendary debut, The Coming, which incinerated the rap game when it arrived in March 1996.

The writing was always on the wall, but in 1993 it was on camera for Yo! MTV Raps. Leaders of the New School were disintegrating in real time. You can read the tension on the face of a then 21-year-old Busta Rhymes, who was appearing on the show with the group that provided his entry to the music industry. And you hear the defeat in his voice as he stands opposite his group and says to the cameraman, “Please don’t film this, B.”

The group’s post-show split confirmed what everyone on staff at The Source magazine already knew: 16 bars could no longer cage the roaring dungeon dragon from East Flatbush. Leaders of the New School, or L.O.N.S., didn’t have to go up in flames, but Busta needed room to spread his wings and scorch the earth before the end of the millennium.

“I hate to be the one to put it on paper and shit, but Busta needs to do a solo album,” dream hampton wrote in her 1993 Source review of L.O.N.S.’s sophomore album, T.I.M.E. “[The] problem with an L.O.N.S. jam is you can’t help waiting for Busta to get on the mic. … You want more of him than the group can provide.” She then suggests Busta record an EP but remain in the group, comparing his “polyrhythmic flow” to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker solos. Discussing the album, though, almost seems like an afterthought. Hampton’s praise was likely personal opinion, but it also cohered with the company line at the publication then considered hip-hop’s bible.

Dante Ross—the renowned A&R who worked with De La Soul at Tommy Boy before decamping to Elektra to sign Brand Nubian, KMD, Leaders of the New School, and, eventually, Busta Rhymes—remembers talking to Source cofounder Jonathan Shecter around the time the review ran. “He’s like, ‘When is he gonna go solo?’” Ross recalls Shecter saying. “We were watching [a L.O.N.S.] show at this club called Building, and he was like, ‘When is that going to happen?’ Straight up. It wasn’t a surprise.”

Whispers about a Busta solo album turned to deafening exclamations after L.O.N.S. appeared on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” in 1991. The third single from ATCQ’s all-time classic The Low End Theory, “Scenario” peaked at no. 57 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1992. The world heard Busta become the “dungeon dragon” and never looked back. The future was his alone, with or without a past.

According to Busta Rhymes, the Recording Industry Association of America is wrong. They maintain his 1996 solo debut, The Coming, was certified platinum on January 13, 1999. “I don’t know where you got that information from, my brother. The Coming went platinum within the same year of its release,” Busta says, speaking via phone from his Brooklyn condo. “I got my plaques before I put out When Disaster Strikes ...” The bass in his voice never disappears. Though he speaks calmly, every word is in bold typeface, any change in octave—however slight—the equivalent of adjusting the font size. Thoughtful and sometimes intense, Busta chooses his words carefully, processing every question before responding and occasionally pausing between sentences. Over the course of an hour, his focus doesn’t waver.

The Coming, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend, was a culmination and a confirmation. After two L.O.N.S. albums, all the public and journalistic conjecture, and years of song-stealing features, Busta proved he could wreck the discotheque solo, remain raw, and bring the ruckus for an entire album. When the L.O.N.S. smoke cleared, he had more fire. The dragon had evolved, becoming “the Dread” (“Do My Thing”). A nod to his character in John Singleton’s Higher Learning (simply named “Dreads”) and his towering locks, the moniker also has an allegorical ominousness. Busta personified the fears of his competitors.

If you reined in Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s besotted and eccentric mania and ratcheted up Redman’s blunted menace, you might get close to the Busta who appears throughout The Coming. But you wouldn’t get the man who made “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check,” the album’s platinum single bolstered by an indelible Hype Williams–directed video. Busta was pulling panache from George Clinton and aesthetic influences from dancehall, reimagining the booming cadences of toasters he heard growing up in a Jamaican household and a community of Caribbean immigrants. His voice cracks your skull and slinks down your spine. You’re dazed but moving, vibrating. Like a mushroom cloud after a nuclear detonation, the damage from every syllable envelopes you. Busta matched all fervid theatrics and force with battle-ready metaphors and similes on songs like “Do My Thing” and “Everything Remains Raw.” He gave you the energy of the most intense cypher, the feeling of nearly wrecking the whip as you and your squad break your neck to the beat. Seemingly bringing his vocal cords to the brink on virtually every song, he wanted you to feel his energy on a molecular level (“I make you feel my proton, neutron, and electron,” he spits on “Everything Remains Raw”). And, somehow, he sounds suave in the company of R&B duo Zhané on “It’s a Party.”

There are moments when Busta plays doomsday oracle, yelling about the end of the world like a street-corner zealot. He prophesizes the next four years of his career and the end of the world. Peers were falling off (or were about to) and pre-millennium tension was on the rise, but Busta was prepared to execute his plans until the digits in every computer system hit double zero and all the elevators stalled, planes fell from the sky, and credit cards failed. The closer you listen, though, the more you realize The Coming was less concerned with global collapse than where Busta was headed. It was raw, supremely confident rap made to carve his name into the pantheon.

“I just appreciate the culture, the art, and the architects,” Busta says. “We have some level of responsibility to make sure we all represent the culture right, represent ourselves right, and represent the architects of the culture right. Even in the evolution of [the culture], we still have a duty to represent it the right way.”

In the years leading up to The Coming, however, Busta was worried about his responsibility to and the future of his family, unsure whether he was capable of making a debut that would serve as the foundation of his solo career. So let’s bring it back. Come. Rewind.

Ross saw the end of L.O.N.S. at the beginning. When group member Charlie Brown entered Elektra HQ in 1989 to discuss a deal, Busta had already been kicked out of the group. But Ross was adamant about signing the lineup he’d seen at Payday, a roving and short-lived hip-hop party in New York’s late-’80s club scene. “They were performing with one mic, and it was three MCs, not four. Busta also did the beatbox. It was just ill. He was controlling the mic and certainly the star of the show. He was completely amazing.” Brown and Busta, who was still in high school at the time, patched things up to sign the deal, but the former’s bruised ego wasn’t ready for the beating it would take in the years ahead.

“I think [the friction came from] the competitive nature in Brown feeling like he was the leader of the group, and having to compete with the attention that I started to get was challenging. It started to create other petty shit to justify removing me,” Busta explains. “But it was nothing serious enough that should’ve led to breakups.”

Discerning rap fans heard what Ross witnessed at Payday on L.O.N.S.’s 1991 debut, A Future Without a Past ..., a title that now seems like an ironic inversion of their trajectory. Busta was already roaring and commanding attention on the lead single, “Case of the P.T.A.” “Wicked and wild,” he launches spitballs at classmates and spits game to a girl named Cheryl. Still, this might’ve been a time of relative peace for L.O.N.S., one when Busta’s undeniable talent and presence didn’t dominate the conversation. But only a few months elapsed before the world heard “Scenario.”

The last song on A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory, “Scenario,” actually wasn’t released as a single until March 1992, almost six months after the album dropped. In hindsight, it’s amazing they waited so long. Busta’s verse comes last. Who could’ve rapped after inhaling the smoke and ash he leaves in his wake? He saunters over the breakbeat at first, tempering his rasp and matching Q-Tip’s mellower voice as they trade lines. Then Tip unleashes the dungeon dragon for a three-alarm blaze of punch lines, varied cadences, and James Brown–esque grunts. Once the “RAWR! RAWR!” was out of Busta’s esophagus, it may as well have been the death knell for L.O.N.S. In The Source’s five-mic review of Low End Theory, Busta was the only member of L.O.N.S. singled out for his “incredible lyrics.” The group worked through their infighting to record T.I.M.E. (1993), but the clock ran out when they went to promote it on Yo! MTV Raps.

“I didn’t want to leave the group, and I didn’t want the group to end. I wasn’t really happy about the situation,” Busta says. “I had invested a lot in the group at that point, and we started building something. Anything where you invest your time and your passion, and you put your soul into it, I don’t think it’s ever easy to walk away from.”

The loss of his temporal and emotional investments cut deeply, but Busta had little time to dwell. He was the father of a newborn son, one whose central source of income vanished that afternoon when the MTV cameras rolled on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Though he needed the money, Busta was hesitant about accepting the Elektra solo deal brokered by Ross and Chris Lighty, the famed record executive who died in 2012. Busta didn’t know whether he could captivate listeners for the length of an entire song, much less an album.

“He was scared. Straight up,” Ross says. “He was really young, and he was scared to do it. He wasn’t necessarily ready for it.”

Guest features existed before Busta Rhymes, but he set a new precedent between the end of L.O.N.S. in ’93 and the release of The Coming. He turned the final minutes of Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear” remix to cinders and appeared on over half a dozen songs for artists like the Artifacts, TLC, and Brand Nubian. But Busta’s motivation was monetary as much as it was creative. There were no mixtapes in the ’90s. Features afforded a chance to experiment and find himself on someone else’s dime.

“I was like the first artist to really start rhyming on everyone else’s record. And I was doing that because it was a quick way to feed my kid,” Busta says. “That’s what was going on until, you know, I got to a place where I felt comfortable enough with doing a solo album.”

To get comfortable, Busta also flew two hours to Atlanta. Dallas Austin, the writer and producer behind hits for Brandy and Monica (“The Boy Is Mine”), TLC (“Creep”), and Boyz II Men (“Please Don’t Go”), had a plush new studio: D.A.R.P. (Dallas Austin Recording Projects). Busta absorbed game from Austin, who helped him land a production deal and create the logo for his nascent label, Flipmode Entertainment. D.A.R.P. was also a creative hub for musicians from and passing through Atlanta. When he wasn’t with Austin, Busta kicked it with Goodie Mob, read Behold a Pale Horse—Bill Cooper’s scripture for conspiracy theorists and a foundational text for a certain era of hip-hop— and attended informal lectures with Dr. Funkenstein.

“George Clinton was always a creative inspiration to me for just being over the top and outlandish and brave as far as his showmanship,” Busta says. “[He] used to make the time to talk to us and school us, put us on to shit that was going on in the music industry back in the heyday of Parliament and Funkadelic. ... It was a surreal thing for me. He gave me a lot of jewels that I walk with to this day.”

When Busta was back in New York, though, he still felt trepidation about his new beginnings. For a final boost of confidence, he turned to Q-Tip, the architect of three lauded Tribe Called Quest’s albums, the man who’d catapulted him to greater heights with “Scenario,” and, most importantly, a friend.

“Q-Tip was just always there as a supportive big brother. … I came to him for some guidance and support when it was time to go into this solo album,” Busta says. The pair collaborated on only “Ill Vibe,” but Tip offered reassurance before and throughout the recording process, offering Busta a “thumbs-up” whenever he played Tip a new song.

The initial recording sessions began in late 1994 in Los Angeles, where Busta was wrapping his scenes for Higher Learning. When shooting ended, he flew back to New York, bouncing between three studios: Chung King, Music Palace, and Soundtrack. After he sourced beats, he wrote solely in the studio, afraid to lose lines or ideas for flows. Everything was on paper. Arrangements, concepts, choruses, and verses. There were no half-mumbled takes. Cadences, intonations, ad-libs, cartoonish vocal quirks—he had them in his head before entering the booth.

“I just let the music inspire the way that I would flow and how I would attack the record,” Busta explains. “I try to do what the music isn’t doing and what will sonically complement what the music is doing. The music dictates it.”

Somehow, he summoned all the energy while recording most of his verses alone. More often than not, there was no one to hype him up before or after he incinerated the booth.

“Beyond his talent, he’s the most driven I’ve ever seen,” Ross says. “Nobody works harder than that dude at his craft. Nobody.”

Two syllables. Two exclamation marks. “Woo-hah!!” On his first single off The Coming, Busta called back to Big Bank Hank’s line on Sugarhill Gang’s “8th Wonder” and encapsulated the joyful aggression that defined his music. He’s elated to check the competition. You can hear it in the way he relishes dragging out the vowels at the end lines while affecting a Jamaican accent: “Body blows busting your shit, making you bleeeed-ah / Just feed off dynamic flows and take heeeed-ah.”

On certain sound systems, the slowly meandering Galt MacDermot sample that creates the melody for “Woo Hah!!” is almost inaudible. The original, which eventually moves into a quasi jazz-funk fusion, sounds like something that might play in a hip French bistro more than it does something that would provide a bed for one of the most dynamic voices in rap history. But the juxtaposition of the almost dainty melody was perhaps necessary. The instrumental had to be something so innocuous that it didn’t distract from Busta’s many cadences and irrepressible personality competing with the drums.

If GIFs and Twitter existed in ’96, clips from the music video would’ve flooded the timeline. Compared to the later Busta and Williams collaborations (e.g., “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See”), however, it’s relatively minimalist. Per Busta’s vision, he and Williams adapted the photoshoot for The Coming album packaging, creating sets to match every vibrant outfit. But you feel the energy through the screen every time Busta swings his arms and stomps his feet, turning otherwise static scenes into controlled chaos. Every aspect was an homage to dancehall.

“I think a lot of what made it intriguing is what I got from dancehall culture. I gave that to the performance and the colorfulness of the video. That’s how the dancehall artists were dressing. Really colorful and over-the-top shit,” Busta says. “The animation of the performance—that all comes from dancehall culture.”

For the second single, Busta went left. “It’s a Party” is a down-tempo slice of R&B-leaning boom-bap crafted by Easy Mo Bee. There are moments when Busta sounds relaxed—or at least as relaxed as Busta can—smoking with the Flipmode Squad and seducing a woman back to his “dungeon shack” as R&B duo Zhané enhance the mood with a smooth, soulful hook. In retrospect, the song presaged his collaborations with Janet Jackson (“What’s It Gonna Be?!”) and Mariah Carey (“I Know What You Want”). In ’96, however, he risked alienating fans who wanted everything to remain raw.

“At the time, those kinds of records were risqué. … It was looked at like a sellout move, like you were trying to do things in that way to sell more records or garnish more success because you didn’t feel confident in just keeping it raw rap shit,” he says. “For me, the goal is always to make great music. I kind of didn’t give a fuck about those opinions at the time, fortunately. When the record actually did come out, those kinds of opinions was out the window. ... I think people also respected Zhané in the culture for what they represented as women and what they represented through the music. ... Ultimately, it allowed girls to appreciate Busta Rhymes outside of ‘RAWR, RAWR! Like a dungeon dragon’ shit all the time. It worked out well.”

Outside of making an R&B-friendly record, Busta took another risk. In 1995, J Dilla was Jay Dee, a relatively unknown Detroit producer whose biggest credits were on the Pharcyde’s underperforming Labcabincalifornia (including the singles “Drop” and “Runnin’”). Compared to Easy Mo Bee (“Everything Remains Raw,” “It’s a Party”) fresh from the platinum “Flava in Ya Ear” and six songs on Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, Dilla’s name didn’t carry the same weight on a tracklist. Once Q-Tip introduced Busta to Dilla’s beats, though, his résumé was irrelevant.

“He was creating a sound that nobody else was doing. I loved it, and it reminded me of that hard-slapping, creative way of sampling records that Q-Tip was already doing, and Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Preemo. But he sounded closer to Q-Tip more than anybody else. Tip was one of my favorite producers at the time, and Dilla sounded like a young, iller version of Q-Tip. That was it. I just fell in love with his work.”

His faith in Dilla, which forecasted Busta’s unfailing ear for budding talent—he worked with Swizz Beatz, Nottz, Just Blaze, and The Neptunes early in their respective careers—led to “Still Shining” and “Keep It Movin’.” The former is slightly more rigid than later Dilla beats, but his forever-imitated swing is still there. Dilla’s crushing kicks and snares pair well with the bass of Busta’s voice as he disses the counterfeit and “Ice Capades all over” the beat.

But despite those songs, the interesting Dilla-Busta collaboration never made it to the record. In a parallel universe, you can hear Busta, Method Man, Nas, and the Notorious B.I.G. rap over a Dilla beat. But “The Ugliest” never materialized as envisioned. On this cursed timeline, Biggie’s Lexus truck doesn’t start. Fast forward and Lil’ Cease loses control of dealer-loaned Chevy Lumina with faulty brakes, the crash shattering Biggie’s leg and plaguing him with the cane-assisted limp of his last days. When Meth and Nas show to record, B.I.G. can’t walk up the stairs to the studio.

“Me, Method Man, and Nas was in the session, and nobody wanted to lay their verses until Biggie came in the session,” Busta says. “When Biggie did eventually come—because Nas and Meth showed up for two sessions and Biggie didn’t—Nas and Meth didn’t come back.”

If someone had thought to send the freight elevator when B.I.G. arrived, we might’ve heard “The Ugliest” as intended. Then again, maybe not. When Busta heard Biggie fire shots at 2Pac (“And the winner is, not that thinner kid / Bandanas, tattoos…”), he pulled the song from the album. “I didn’t feel like that was smart at the time. They were having such a serious back-and-forth. As a friend, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing nothing to add to that. I was friends with both of them, but I was closer to B.I.G.”

(Listen to “The Ugliest” on YouTube and you might recognize Biggie’s verse from “Dangerous MC’s,” a posse track on 1999’s posthumously released Born Again, featuring Snoop Dogg, Mark Curry, and Busta, and produced by Nottz. There’s also a version of “The Ugliest” with a young Flipmode affiliate named Roc Marciano.)

The Coming was as short on controversy as it was autobiography. Many rap debuts are the sum total of all lived experience combined with any drama, angst, or struggle that exists during composition. On Ready to Die, Biggie narrated everything from his birth to his death, rapped about providing for his child, the drug game, and suicidal thoughts. Busta wouldn’t tell you the year he was born. (“It was a dark night, pitch black, May 20, 19…” and then it cuts out on the intro.) And he seemingly attempted to dead the L.O.N.S. breakup rumors, featuring the group on “Keep It Movin’.” The sole reference to his son comes in one line on “Woo Hah!!” (“Yes, I catch wreck and that’s word on my seed”). The lack of personal revelation wasn’t an oversight on Busta’s part. It was intentional.

“I don’t think [The Coming] was too autobiographical because I wasn’t really comfortable sharing a bunch of my personal shit at that time in my life. During that time, it was very important to keep your personal life separate from your industry life. I might’ve talked about things from the perspective of things I grew up around or saw, but not from the perspective of personal shit that I was going through. I was just trying to make sure that people got the energy that they knew and loved from me with Leaders and through my features … As time passed and I got older, I got more comfortable sharing the personal shit,” he says. “It’s a little easier to talk about shit when you’ve gotten past it, or when you’ve come to terms with it.”

A quarter-century later, The Coming remains timeless partly because it isn’t narratively tied to the past, because the world is always ending, because you can revisit it whenever you need a jolt of skull-cracking energy. Busta preserved the integrity of the art form while creating a new voice. Similarities with his peers and influences exist, but no one sounded identical.

“Back then, shining remotely like each other was almost like a blasphemous act. Biting was a serious crime in hip-hop. I made a conscious effort to make sure that when I did what I did, I didn’t sound like nobody. Ever.”

As we end our interview, Busta isn’t sentimental. He got his plaques for The Coming in ’96 (or ’99), and he continued to rack up more. His remarkable run between 1996 and 2002 warrants another piece. But he doesn’t reflect on that, either. He recently released the deluxe edition of his 2020 album, Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God.

“I feel great about [The Coming] for the time that it came out,” Busta says. “It did what it was supposed to do. That’s it. I don’t really put no other thought into it.”

I ask whether there’s anything we didn’t discuss, anything he’d like to add.

“Happy 25th anniversary to this motherfucker,” he says, chuckling and audibly smiling. After expressing my admiration for his catalog, he assures me there’s more music, more time left.

“We got a lot of work left to do. I ain’t going nowhere no time soon.”

Max Bell is a writer from Santa Monica, California. His work has appeared in NPR, the Los Angeles Times, SPIN, and more.

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