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Breaking Down Busta Rhymes' "Break Ya Neck"

Rappers are the greatest musicians of our time. They may not hold an instrument, or perform without microphones, but the truth is there for everyone to see: rappers today are the ones who push music to new places, who explore uncharted territories of the human voice, who bring together types of music that wouldn't co-exist otherwise. This has been true for the past few decades, but as Hip-Hop continues to grow more and more popular, its obviousness is only increasing.

It's particularly obvious in the work of one man: Busta Rhymes. Busta has been criminally underrated for decades, but his music speaks for itself... and his 2001 song, "Break Ya Neck", basically shouts it from the hilltops: "BUSTA RHYMES CAN DO THINGS WITH HIS VOICE THAT NO OTHER HUMAN EVER COULD!"

From "Break Ya Neck"to "Get You Some," and from "Truck Volume"  to "Tear Da Roof Off," Busta always makes his voice way more than a voice: he makes it an orchestra — a diverse group of complementary sounds that together create something greater than the sum of their parts. But how is this possible, when humans can only speak one-word at a time?

The answer lies in a few musical techniques that the song "Break Ya Neck" shows off braggadociously: vocal layering, and call-and-response musical formats.

Any true Busta head knows that Bussa Bus always shows up most when his old friend Dr. Dre is on the beat, and "Break Ya Neck" is no different. Dr. Dre's love of simple drum beats under mazy minor scales perfectly supports Busta's ultra-quick, super-complex flow on this song. But outside of all those fast fireworks (which we'll get to later), this song is a perfect example of how rappers' are at the forefront of music today.

That's because, if you thought that there was just one Busta Rhymes rapping on this song...well, you'd be wrong. There are actually 2 Bustas on this song, and their back-and-forth interplay is exactly what makes Busta rap's sound fresh and new, even 20 years after this song came out. And we hear the two Bustas on this song, right from the very start of verse 1.

In the first bar of the first verse, Busta-the-rapper introduces us to his good friend behind him in the background: we'll call him Busta the backup. It happens at 0:35 in the song, when Busta raps the words "Come here, ma," right after spilling, "Tell me what you really want to do." We know that the words "Come here ma" come from their own separate Busta instrument, and aren't just a continuation of the words "Tell me what you really want to do," because of how they're placed in your headphones: they're super loud, and panned out to the far left and far right. They're also doubled many times, so that it sound like a whole choir of Bustas whispering "Come here, ma."But that Busta rapper in the front? He's actually dead-center, mixed way more quietly, and there's just one of him.

To visualize what's happening, check out the transcription of this part of the song. The top line is the Busta-rapper that's in the front, and the bottom line is the Busta-backup that's in the background. Even if you don't read music, that's okay, because I'll break it down for you:

Following along, you can see that Busta has set up two levels of music: one in the foreground, and one in the background. We should hear the top, foreground one — the "rapper" one — as being separate from the bottom, background one — the "backup" one — for a few reasons. The rapper-Busta is in the center; he's (relatively) quieter, and quicker; and he has just one layer of vocals. On the other hand, the backup Busta is panned wide left and wide right, it's louder, it's slower, and it has multiple layers of vocals. Just like we know a piano isn't a kazoo because it can play multiple sounds at one time, or a flute isn't a bass guitar because its pitch is so much higher, we know that the Busta rapper is a different instrument from the Busta backup because they don't sound anything like each other.

Now, sure. Sure. Maybe I'm making this up; maybe this is just chance, or a coincidence. But those 3 syllables — "Come here, ma" — actually do help us to unlock how the rest of the song works musically, because Busta keeps switching back and forth between his rapper-foreground and backup-ground level of music...over. and over. and over, in new and creative ways.

Immediately after that opening bar, Busta runs his two-pony act back by doubling-down on it. It happens at 0:46, on the words "Come on, come on, come on!" Here's the music for this part again:

I mean, just read the lyrics: for a good 3 seconds, Busta is just repeating the words "Come on!" again and again. What would make any backpacker ever wanna break their neck to that? Reading how repetitive these lines are, you would want to agree with those neanderthals who say rap isn't real music, maybe...maybe.

But the truth is that these lines aren't repetitive at all, because it's not the same Busta Rhymes rapping the words "Come on" each time. The first and third time, it's our backup Busta doing the rapper; the second time, it's our rapper Busta. At this point, Busta is starting to make the back-and-forth between his rap orchestra more complex: sometimes the one goes first, sometimes it's the other, sometimes one completes the other's line, and on and on and on it goes!

Busta starts to open up the possibilities for this 2-rapper set-up between 0:46 and 0:57. Here, the backup Busta takes the mic no less than 4 separate times. For example, the backup rapper might throw up an alley oop of a line that the front rapper then slams:

In the second verse, at 2:04, Busta starts to layer the backup rapper on top of the center-stage rapper, on the words "troops on" and "boots on":

But the third verse really brings it all together. There, Busta turns up the speed to a 10, while still staying right in lockstep with his doubling of the backup's rhythms:

But where did this back-and-forth idea come from? Well, it's hiding in plain sight in the chorus — this backup Busta is actually the same orchestra group that is unleashing the song's title during the hook!

And just think: we didn't even mention Busta's lightning-quick chopper flow once...

What this all adds up to is a deep, rich musical experience that's difficult to get anywhere else. It's the reason why you can listen to this song over and over, and never get tired of it. Still don't believe me? Then just check out this playlist, which has examples of 5 other songs where Busta raps in more than one voice at the same time:

And this is why rappers like Busta Rhymes are the greatest living musicians today. They might not shred a guitar like Hendrix, or conduct 100 different musicians like Mozart, but they do impossible things with their voices, and they do it in a way that makes you break your fucking neck.

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