Before our interview begins through our respective screens, Busta Rhymes grins wide. “If this goes smooth, I can get to the gym and get another workout in,” he says, rubbing his hands together, each pinkie adorned with a large ring. Even in this setting, distanced and virtual, Busta is as energetic at 48 years old as he was in the early-to-mid ’90s, when he first emerged as a show-stealing member of the group Leaders of the New School before setting off on a successful solo career, selling more than 10 million albums. Busta’s longevity has been due, in part, to his ability to stay ever present, to adapt to the times without sacrificing himself to them. It makes sense, then, that Busta refers to all aspects of his current health change as “transformation.”
I catch up with Busta, real name Trevor Smith Jr., as he’s celebrating the recent acclaim for his ninth album, Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God. It’s his first release since 2009, and it took him 11 years to produce. On the album, he sounds sharp and focused, but its creation took place over a tormented decade for the rapper. “Believe it or not, I made the album when I was at my most unhealthy,” he tells me. “I was so focused on the music being the best that it could be, I didn’t put any time into taking care of myself.”
When Busta began making the album in 2009, he says, he was still in good shape from the daily training he did during the recording of 2006’s The Big Bang. But then dual tragedies struck. First, in 2012, his friend and longtime manager Chris Lighty died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Then in early 2014, Busta’s father also passed. “Those were the two most important male figures in my entire life,” he says. “Early on, Chris Lighty was telling me that this was the best album that I ever made. He never came to my studio sessions in 22 years. And during the making of this album, he started to come. I was waiting for him to tell me that I was making something special, and then he tells me, but he dies before I could put the album out? And then my father dies before I could put the album out? I felt cheated. The two people I wanted to see me win were no longer here to see it.”
It began a spiral for Busta. He locked in on his “strict obligations” to take care of his family (he has six children) and neglected his self-care. His diet slipped; his workout routines ceased. Busta recalls a turning point that came in early 2019: He fell asleep in the back of a car after a long night of partying. One of his sons, then acting as his road manager, noticed his father struggling to breathe, due to his sleep apnea. It took his son and his security team 20 minutes to wake him up and get him into the house.
The next day, Busta went to a throat doctor with concerns about consistently losing his voice over three years. He had been taking prednisone to shrink the swelling in his throat. The doctor made a startling discovery: There were polyps in Busta’s throat, restricting 90 percent of his breathing. The doctor urged Busta to go straight to the UCLA Health emergency room for surgery. “That’s when I knew shit was serious,” he tells me. “The doctor told me that if I caught a cold or slept wrong that I could die. . . . It felt like this was on me now, and I had to steer things in a different direction. I was too young to be on all of these blood-pressure medications and acid-reflux medications.”
After Busta’s surgery, the Internet fate machine cranked into action. On the way to the airport, he got an Instagram notification. Professional bodybuilder Dexter Jackson had tagged him in a video—Jackson was riding around his home base of Jacksonville, Florida, playing “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.” Busta took it as a sign. “I hit him in the DM, I told him I needed his help, and I gave him my number, and he hit me back right away.”
A plan was born. Busta told Jackson he needed to get in shape, that he was impatient, wanted to see results, and was willing to do anything. Jackson countered with a demand: Busta would have to move to Jacksonville for 30 days and commit to Jackson’s training program. Less than a month later, Busta rented a home for himself, his chef, and his security guys. He and Jackson got straight to work, training three times a day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and two times a day on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Busta’s diet shifted dramatically—he ate every two and a half hours, meals like 12 egg whites and oatmeal followed by a workout, followed by a ten-ounce steak. Initially, Busta’s weight increased from around 290 to 340 pounds, but he was gaining muscle and kick-starting his metabolism. “Also, I stayed inside,” Busta says. “We didn’t go out. We just watched movies and recorded songs. Went to bed early, got up, and got back to work.”
After the 30 days ended, Busta and Jackson went to Los Angeles, where Busta trained as Jackson prepared for the 2019 Mr. Olympia competition. Then he transitioned back to New York and trained five days a week with his coach Victor Munoz at PROEdge in New York City. Busta’s still watching what he eats, emphasizing oatmeal and eggs at breakfast, salad for lunch, and fish or steak with vegetables for dinner. It’s a stark change for the “Pass the Courvoisier” hitmaker, but today he weighs 254 pounds. More important, he is sleeping better, moving better, and, as he says, in a better position to support and protect his people. When I bring up the summer’s uprisings and the growing tensions closing in on the country, Busta offers another motivation for his pursuit of health: staying alive.
“I ain’t just getting in shape to look good with my music,” he tells me. “We are in the eye of the storm of some real shit happening. And I was raised to protect and provide for my family and my people. I don’t know how to be any other way. I have to contribute in any way I can, even if that means engaging in physicality to ensure survival. There’s no one part of survival that you leave out when you are talking about your family and the people you love and have to walk among if shit hits the fan.” He pauses before offering a slightly more optimistic conclusion. “I’m a strong believer that it won’t come to that. When our people are on the same accord, that’s a power that the world hasn’t seen yet. And when all people are on the same accord? That power is even more incredible. We’ve lived through a lot of bullshit. I think we’ll get to live to see that one thing.”
BUILD BUSTA MUSCLE
Busta Rhymes whipped himself into shape in old-school fashion, focusing on bodybuilding exercises from trainer Victor Munoz. Try these two supersets for a Busta-level pump.
Directions: Do the exercises back-to-back with no rest. Rest 30 seconds between supersets. Do 3 sets of 12 for each superset.
Exercise 1: Hammer Curl
‣ Moving only at the elbow, curl the dumbbells upward, keeping your palms facing
each other. Pause, then lower.
Exercise 2: Triceps Pressdown
‣ Stand in front of a cable column, torso hinged forward, hands gripping a bar or rope attachment at chest height. Keeping your upper arms perpendicular to the floor, straighten your arms, driving the attachment downward.
Exercise 1: Close-Grip Bench Press
‣ Lie on a bench, holding a loaded barbell, arms straight, wrists directly above your shoulders. Lower the weight to your rib cage. Press back up.
Exercise 2: Spider Curl
‣ Lie with your chest on a bench set to a 45 degree incline, a single dumbbell in your right hand, arm hanging naturally. Keeping your upper arm perpendicular to the floor, curl the dumbbell up, squeezing your biceps. Switch arms.
This story appears in the January-February 2021 issue of Men’s Health.
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