No long, verbose, Eminem-type rhymes — the two-syllable rhymes of “squadron” and “pardon” are almost the longest you’ll get; no tear-wrenching, heartbreaking parables of triumphs of the human will in the face of tough obstacles, as can be found on 2Pac’s “Changes”; and no otherworldly, mystical poetic symbolism that might blissfully transport the listener to another, supernatural world, à la Aesop Rock… Instead, only awesome boasts and brags.
If many of the elements that define a standout rap performance are fairly mundane on Busta Rhymes’ verse on Tribe Called Quest’s legendary 1992 track “Scenario,” (at 2:48) why is his featured verse so famous in the first place?
I guess it’s worth mentioning that “Scenario” is considered by many, including Pop Matters writer Matt Cibula, to be “the world’s greatest posse cut.” The song features verses by a number of rappers, each bringing their own unique style and attributes to the track. I’ve transcribed the entire song in rhythmic notation, which you can view here.
And while each verse in the track features some seriously individual stylings, Busta’s verse, the song’s closer, stands out from the rest, and has become deeply influential, even outside of hip-hop. The verse has been quoted by Nicki Minaj and the Beastie Boys. Afrika Bambaataa sampled it. Black Hippy members Ab-Soul and Kendrick Lamar covered it. Hell, even the Barenaked Ladies refer to Busta’s line, “chickity-choco, the chocolate chicken” on their own hit single, “One Week,” changing the verse slightly to “chickity-China, the Chinese chicken.” And even Busta himself turned one of the most famous lines from the verse into the chorus for his 2001 single, “As I Come Back.”
But to really answer this tricky mystery, we need not examine what Busta says on this verse — his poetic symbols, his rhymes, his story — but, instead, how he says what he’s saying.
Busta’s verse on “Scenario” is famous worldwide because, for one of the first times in the history of rap, a lyricist emphasized and underscored not the story that words can tell, but the rhythm of the words themselves — that is to say, the straightforward arrangement of syllables within the bars of musical time as it moves forward. All over Busta’s “Scenario” verse, it is clear that this NYC lyricist thought first and foremost about his rhythms, as shown in three main ways: his word choice, his extremely radical range of rhythms, and the untraditional way in which he articulates his words.
Busta asks his listeners to pay attention to how his words sound, not what they mean, even right from the very start. The first word of the first part of his real verse — “watch” at 3:01 — is rapped in an abrupt staccato, separated from the rest of the sentence. Busta treats the sentence in a musically unique way, adding to it syncopation, staccato, and a comparatively long eighth note. As a result, his words’ standard role in communicating information is undercut, while the role of his words as pure sound events comes to the forefront.
Busta continues to make all of his syllables very abrupt, short, pointed, and staccato, through syncopation that is constantly taking him off of the meter’s quarter note pulse at odd rhythmic angles. That untraditional opening receives its partner at 3:11, when Busta fragments and unravels the meaning of his sentences even further by fracturing the word “vocabulary” across two whole quarter notes. By rapping that long, five-word syllable in a staccato manner that’s spread out over an entire half of a bar, he further privileges how his words sound at the expense of what his words mean.
He continues to do this all over the verse — next, it happens through the repetition of simple exclamations. “Oh my gosh” gets repeated twice over a whole bar, with each repetition getting its own signature rhythm.
The onomatopoeia of a growling dungeon dragon, as Busta imitates it, goes on for almost half a bar. The sonic effect of the repeated, meaningless word “uh” receives the spotlight for two whole bars. Busta even suddenly changes his flow into unexpected, unrelated triplet groupings at 3:47. There, Busta once more underscores the importance of sound over sense by rapping so quickly that the words’ meaning is largely revealed only after several listens. At times, he subverts the relative meaning of his words more strongly, such as when he places the accent on the first syllable of the word “observe,” at 3:51, instead of the second, as all native English speakers would do in everyday conversation.
His triumphant “boom!,” rapped at 3:14, might be the clearest example of Busta’s focus on his words’ inherent musicality. That “boom” is much more than Busta explaining the force of his rap, as the words imply: “powerful impact / ‘boom,’ from the cannon.” The loud sonic effect of that single, intrusive word on the listener’s ear is the perfect musical compliment to the poetic imagery that Busta has used over the course of this whole verse (referencing cannons, dragons, squadrons) to describe the nature of his rap: It is impactful, forceful, and uncompromising.
This is what people love about this song: how musical and melodic Busta’s rap is. A Tribe Called Quest recognized it, for sure. It’s no wonder that they saved the commanding verse for the very end of the song, where it could fully shine, and be most easily remembered. It’s even further set up by a deliberate interlude from Q-Tip, who acts as a kind of master of ceremonies, introducing Busta’s rapturous verse: “So here’s Busta Rhymes with the scenario.”
This hyper-musical rap, first heard from Busta in 1991, is something that would go on to define this lyricist’s career. Whether it’s the quick rhythms of the Dr. Dre produced single “Break Ya Neck” in 2001, or the repeated rhythmic motives that are carried across multiple verses on his 2006 song “Don’t Get Carried Away,” Busta has always been a rapper who cared more about the effects of his words as sonic objects, than as carriers for straightforward semantic meaning.
Given his revolutionary style, it’s no surprise that Busta Rhymes has influenced the most important names in rap; his “decedents” include Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Young Thug. In this way, maybe the greatest line of Busta’s entire “Scenario” verse, and the most literal, is one that is buried towards the end, in a syllabic explosion of glorious, tongue-twisting acrobatics:
“The rhythm is in sync / The rhymes are on time.”