This cover story is part of Hip-Hop Is Life, a series of profiles and features that revisit key moments in the intersection of hip-hop and Black men’s health over the last 50 years. Read the rest of the stories here.
BUSTA RHYMES APPEARED to be in a coma—40 minutes had passed and he was non-responsive in the back of a car after a heavy night out in May 2019. Less than two months earlier, Nipsey Hussle had been killed. It was also the 47th-birthday weekend of the late, great Notorious B.I.G. The linguistic magician born Trevor Smith just wanted to celebrate his fallen comrades and the day’s successful video shoot for his single “Czar.” He hit the L.A. nightclub Poppy with friends and overdid it with libation—so much so that once Busta was back at his residence, it took about 45 minutes for his eldest son and his security detail to pull him out of a stupor.
During that weekend, Busta was in the worst health of his life. He had eaten and drunk himself up to 340 pounds, leading to an array of medical ailments; the most detrimental of these threatened to kill the rapper, if not literally then professionally. Polyps had developed on his vocal cords, blocking 90 percent of his air passages and causing sleep apnea so severe that his breathing, whether he was asleep or awake, resembled that of a dungeon dragon. He was fearful of surgery due to the risk that it would forever alter one of the world’s most signature baritones. His surgeon had warned that it could change the octave of his voice, “closer to a chipmunk kind of n—-a.”
The next morning, Busta was hit with the truth. “Security was like, ‘Your son is very disappointed and concerned by what he saw last night,’ ” he says. “I felt ashamed because I wasn’t in the right mind to even be aware of what had happened the night before. I set up a doctor’s appointment the next day.” With help from family and friends, he transformed his health, and today, Busta Rhymes is living his best life. Four of his six children are college graduates; in late June, he received a lifetime-achievement honor at the BET Awards; “Beach Balls,” featuring Bia, is a sizzling summer single in advance of his 11th studio album, executive-produced by Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, and Timbaland. He’s also on a 50-plus-date Final Lap tour with 50 Cent. We sat down with the hip-hop icon, prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike, to talk about his health journey.
Men’s Health: Take us back—which hip-hop artist first inspired you?
Busta Rhymes: Slick Rick, because he embodied everything that I identified with, being raised around a very diverse community of Caribbean people as a child in a Jamaican family: dancehall culture, big jewelry, colorful clothes, matching from head to toe. He understood what it was to be a character, not just an incredible lyricist. Before him, it was Grandmaster Caz and the Cold Crush Brothers and Run-DMC. But when I saw Slick, that’s the closest thing to what I wanted to be.
You entered the rap game as a teenager with Leaders of the New School in the late ’80s. How did hip-hop help you become a man?
I was the youngest in Leaders to have a child. That forced me to understand the seriousness of what becoming a man was. Hip-hop provided the means for me to be a man, a father. The bittersweet part was that hip-hop demanded time away from my baby. In order to be a good provider, I had to miss magical moments with my baby.
My skill set wouldn’t allow me to be home with my child and still be able to provide in the way that they needed to be provided for, right? I didn’t have a nine-to-five skill set. Being able to wake my son up, give him breakfast, dress him, take him to school, go to work, come home at five, help with his homework, read him a bedtime story—I didn’t have a skill set that allowed me to deliver in that way.
Were the streets the only option other than hip-hop?
No, my father was a licensed electrical contractor. He tried to make me become that, but I wasn’t interested. He had me going to work with him when I was 12 and 13, pulling sheetrock, routing cables, putting up light receptacles, and nailing stuff into the walls. I’d be banging my fingers and getting calluses on my hands. We worked in abandoned buildings in Bed-Stuy with basements flooded with water, with rats and cockroaches running around. I didn’t wanna do that. Hell no! That didn’t feel like what childhood was supposed to be.
But I understood what my father was doing—and appreciated it later. I wanted to experience, you know, popping wheels on the block on my bike. My father was so beyond that. He felt: “You could have your fun with that, but you have to understand, I have to pass this business on to you as my oldest child. I don’t know what else to teach you that I know works.” Because that’s what he knew. He just wanted me to learn his trade.
That was his way of loving you.
Exactly. It was the right way, yeah, to love your son. For sure. I love my father so much for it, and in hindsight, I wish I’d appreciated it a lot more when I was younger. My pops was definitely an amazing human being on that level, because he just wanted to make sure that he did his part as a dad.
Were you always into looking diesel?
I always wanted to be an action-figure-looking n—-a when I got of age. I loved the action figures I used to play with in elementary school: the He-Man characters and all of that. I loved to see the muscles on the Incredible Hulk doll. Needless to say, my father was diesel. He built his own gym in the basement of the crib. When I came home and I saw what was going on, it was almost like an acquired interest—I’m looking at this and I ain’t thinking nothing of it. One summer I went to Jamaica on vacation, and when my father comes to Kennedy airport to pick us up, he just looks strong. He carried me and my younger brother out, one of us in each arm horizontally, through the whole airport like we was luggage.
Yo, his protein shakes were banana, peanut butter, and two raw eggs. Have mercy! And my pops put a little Guinness in his shake, a little dragon in his shake—and he did that two or three times a day. He was a fucking god, a lion. He’d wear jeans with a slight bell bottom, a tight button-up shirt, and Adidas sneakers. He was whipping a Thunderbird with a burgundy leather top, and me and my brother would be in the backseat and we’d listen to everything: Bob Marley, Sugar Minott, Big Youth, Black Uhuru, Dennis Brown, all that. But also Lionel Richie, the Commodores, the Heptones, soft rock, ska, and even stuff like “My Sharona.” He was an old-fashioned super Jamaican. At the end of the day, Pops was just like, “Man, you gotta be a Superman, a real man. You gotta be strong. You gotta be in shape and healthy to protect your family and protect your kids.”
You’ve struggled with your health. During the pandemic, you gained a lot of weight, topping 300 pounds, which led to health problems. What was the reason for the weight gain?
That had to do with me never properly dealing with the loss of my father. My dad died in 2014 and I drowned myself in work. I just kept drinking, smoking, eating bad—the whole nasty—and recording a bunch of songs just to escape the pain. I also had a 90 percent blockage in my throat because of polyps on my vocal cords, and my breathing was bad. One night I was getting ready to have, make, you know…I was getting ready to have an intimate moment with my ex. I had a breathing issue after the intimate interaction.
Wow, really? You couldn’t catch your breath?
Yeah. I was having a really difficult time breathing, so I got up and I walked out of the bedroom so she wouldn’t panic seeing me trying to keep myself calm.
I was trying to inhale, and it felt like it wasn’t working. I felt like I was having like an asthma attack—but I don’t have asthma. So I walked out of the bedroom and went into the living room, and I was forcing myself to inhale, to relax. That was scaring me so much that it was a mindfuck, because I had to stay calm and make sure she didn’t hear me panic or hear me struggle to breathe. I’m butt-ass naked in the living room, trying to calm myself down.
When I came back in the room once I got right, I laid back down next to her and she said something to me that really fucked me up. She was like, “Yo, this is not who I fell in love with.” She didn’t know what had happened outside, but she was looking at my body and the weight. She was like, “You gotta lose this weight. This breathing is scaring me. When I met you, you wasn’t like a musclehead, but you, you was slim, you was cut, you had your shit right. I need you to get back to who I fell in love with.”
A day or two later, I came out of the bedroom. I put my hand out to give my son a pound, and this n—-a slapped me on the stomach. I was like, “Man, don’t touch my body. If I reach you to give you a handshake, don’t touch my body or touch my side or my stomach.” He was just being funny, but these things never happened when I had a six-pack. Those are two moments that really made me say, “Right, I gotta fix all of this.” The third moment was when security and my son took about 45 minutes to get me up in a crib [when he passed out in the car in 2019]. I was also scared about surgery for the polyps on my vocal cords because my voice is how I feed my family—the voice is the dragon. I ran from the surgery as long as I could, but after that weekend I saw the doctor and he looked at my throat and he said I could die in my sleep. That’s when I got surgery and started to get back in shape.
You lost 100 pounds, right? You training hard now?
Yeah, I’ve actually transformed my body three times. Now it’s ‘my season’ again, I’m getting ready for the tour. I’m trying to lean out, chisel that six-pack up, build the pecs, cap the shoulders, get the traps, triceps—you know, get your waist small, stomach flat, get your back muscle so you can take the T-shirt off on the stage. I’m gonna be on stage with 50 [Cent] and don’t want to be weak link. I’m doing two-a-day workouts, everything: weights, circuits, sauna, cryotherapy. Also, it’s gonna inspire people when they see you in shape when you walking around here moving and shaking. Me, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, a lot of artists now, understand the seriousness and significance of self-preservation: a healthy diet regimen, significant water intake, getting your sleep so your body can repair itself when you beat it up and you tear that muscle from the workouts. The most important thing in life is self preservation.
Mind, body, and spirit: make sure that you’re in the healthiest space that you can be in so that you can use your better sense of judgment at all times. Go to the gym, eat good, sleep,—get it right cuz it’s important. Find that balance mentally and spiritually so that you can find that peace of mind and that happiness to be your best self. Not just for you, but for the people that you love, bro.
You’ve gone through a lot, both good and bad, and recently received a lifetime-achievement award from BET. What do you attribute to you being in this beautiful space now?
I’ve been super blessed to have people that actually love me so much that they refuse to let me die, people you can be honest with when you’re comfortable enough that you know they genuinely love you and they will protect you. Not just professionally but personally, and you can be vulnerable and honest with them and truly ask for some guidance and truly ask for some help. Sometimes, bro, you know, especially in this industry, you’re not allowed to be that, because you don’t know what to trust from what not to trust, who to trust from who not to trust. I’m able to be honest with [my friends and family], even in times of crisis. I don’t have to be afraid to ask for help.
Lastly, which three rap albums would you bring to a desert island?
That’s not fair—that’s too hard a question. But off the top of my head, not overthinking it: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle.
A version of this story appeared in the September 2023 issue of Men’s Health.
All shoots and interviews for this cover were conducted prior the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer and Brooklynite who co-wrote award winning film, created and produced digital and feature-length documentaries, while earning titles at publications such as MTV2, XXL, The Source, and SLAM Magazine. In 2019, Bonsu became a fellow of both Winter and Summer 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Labs.