By many accounts, Busta Rhymes shouldn’t be here. Not here in suburban Los Angeles, in a spacious recording studio, running through selections from his new album, The Big Bang. His first offering since splitting from Clive Davis’ J Records for Dr. Dre’s Aftermath two years ago, the album is unquestionably the greatest effort of Busta’s career. There’s the hit single, the schizophrenic Daft Punk–sampling “Touch It.” There’s the late Rick James (still here, bitch!) contributing a stripped-down interpolation of his 1981 hit “Ghetto Life.” And Stevie Wonder drops by for “The Storm,” sounding, as Busta hears it, “like he on the street corner standing in the rain with an umbrella in a black leather trench with niggas that are selling crack around him.” Produced by G-Unit’s Sha Money XL, “The Storm” may be the album’s best cut. This is no small feat, considering that there are some half-dozen tracks by Dr. Dre on deck, including one that uses a heartbeat and the sounds of a shovel digging and tossing dirt as instrumentation.

But Busta shouldn’t be here because, by common logic, rap artists shouldn’t be relevant 15 years in. Still, after two albums as part of Leaders of the New School, six solo albums (all but one have achieved platinum status), a couple dozen larger-than-screen music videos, numerous woofer-decimating club hits and countless host-upstaging guest appearances, 34-year-old Busta Rhymes is still at the forefront of the game. His continued success has created a new paradigm of success in the now.

This is what everyone would be focusing on, were it not for the fact that on February 5, a shooting at the star-packed filming for the video to “Touch It (Remix)” left one of his bodyguards, Israel Ramirez, dead. The New York Post, that bastion of journalistic equanimity, ran with the front-page headline “Bling Bling, Bang, Bang” and featured a story that referred to Ramirez as a “bling handler.” In the days following the incident, the New York dailies centered on Rhymes’ lack of cooperation with authorities in the murder investigation, quoting police sources that claimed that the rapper was hiding out in Los Angeles for fear of being subpoenaed. Still, Rhymes made several high-profile New York City appearances, including a performance at radio station Power 105’s March 5 “Birthday Bash,” which means that either the police or the papers—most likely both—are full of shit.
Over the course of two days in Dre’s studio, Rhymes sat with XXL to speak on the life, death and everything in between—including why he feels as if he’s just getting started.

busta2.jpgLet’s talk about the incident at the video shoot, where your bodyguard was killed.

Israel. He displayed a level of love to his friends that was unlike anything that I’ve seen. Iz was the type of dude, if we was going to a club, Iz would get out the car and walk right alongside the door that you was sitting next to, trying to keep you safe like you was the president. He passed away about three days before his 30th birthday. And that day, it was his first day being with us after not being with us for about three weeks. Iz, he didn’t travel with us too often out of town. Iz, he was the dude that would always be there to support those who were out with me all the time, especially if we were away from home for long periods of time.

The shit that I live with that is like the most uncomfortable feeling out of all of this shit, is like, Why on the first day after not being with us for so long does something like that have to happen, being with us? Who in the world would think that such a demon energy could come amongst that love energy and take the life of a man that in no shape, form, or fashion, not in the slightest way contributed to any of what was brought on? I could never answer that question. Every day since that day I been going through this thing that’s been really confusing the shit out of me—because it just doesn’t add up.

Why haven’t you cooperated with the police?
It’s a time and a place for everything. This man’s life—his name, his legacy, who he was—is not going to be misconstrued by the agendas that really don’t have the same value for this man’s life the way we do. I need to be real clear, real patient, real understanding and real focused of the way this situation needs to be dealt with. And I have to consult with a team of people that advises me in the most appropriate manner necessary. I’m not gonna jump out of a project window and kill myself in the process, because that point will serve no purpose to adding to whatever support that I have already obligated, and have already effectively executed, concerning the support that’s needed by my man’s family. I serve no purpose in killing myself in the process of handling the situation in the way that it needs to be handled.

Continue reading this feature in the June 2006 issue of XXL (#81).