Born Busy is rap group formed in Baltimore with Tupac Shakur, Gerard Young, Darrin Keith Bastfield and Dana Smith aka Mouse Man.
At age 13, Tupac moved to Baltimore from New York City in 1984 with his mother, Afeni, and younger sister, Sekyiwa. The family lived in the first-floor apartment of a brick row house at 3955 Greenmount Avenue in the small, North Baltimore neighborhood of Pen Lucy. Tupac went to Roland Park Middle School for the eighth grade.
That year’s photo for Mrs. Gee’s class shows him in the second row, near the center. With close-cropped hair and dressed in a light-colored, short-sleeve shirt, he looks lanky, even scrawny, among his classmates. Still, it’s easy to spot him thanks to his thick black eyebrows and dark eyes. And then there’s the mouth. While the other kids sport tight-lipped smiles or teeth-baring “say cheese” grins, Tupac strikes an altogether different pose. Actually, he doesn’t appear posed at all. His mouth is open wide, and he seems engaged, not docile or mindlessly compliant. It looks like he might be talking to the photographer.
Dana Smith sits in the front row, to Tupac’s left. Smith, nicknamed “Mouse Man,” forged a musical bond with Tupac and remembers the first time he spoke to him on the bus home from school. That day, in September 1984, the No. 8 bus was nearly full and Tupac took the only open seat, the seat beside Smith, who was itching to get home and listen to WEBB’s Rap Attack show at four o’clock.
“He kicked a rhyme to me, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’”
Smith, a talented beatboxer, asked the newcomer if he was into hip-hop and knew how to rap. “He kicked a rhyme to me, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy. It was really good.” He later learned the rhyme wasn’t original—it was actually lifted from a Kurtis Blow song Shakur knew from New York, which hadn’t made it to Baltimore yet.
Their friendship blossomed, rooted in a shared love of hip-hop acts like Eric B & Rakim and Run DMC and an appreciation of different types of music. As Smith recounts the story, he walks around The Sound Garden, the now venerable Fells Point record store, and points out some of the nonrap music Shakur enjoyed. Kate Bush? “Yes, indeed,” says Smith. “‘Wuthering Heights’ was the song.”
Sting? Yup. Steve Winwood? Yup. “Hey, we were also listening to Brian & O’Brien on B104, playing the hits all day long,” he says, referring to the then-popular top 40 radio program.
Smith picks up a CD copy of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. It, too, was a favorite, but not for hits like “Money for Nothing.” Smith starts singing lyrics from the title track that resonated: “Through these fields of destruction/Baptisms of fire.” The tune, sung by Brit Mark Knopfler, traces a protagonist who faces death and treasures his comrades’ loyalty—ground Shakur covered in songs he later wrote.
When asked about this type of music’s appeal back in the day, Smith claims much of it was practical, a lesson in song craft: “For us, it was all about identifying transitions in songs and how smooth they were.”
They would meet up every afternoon to write rhymes, after Smith finished his homework. Sometimes, they’d hang out at a rec center on Old York Road, but Shakur wasn’t into playing basketball or pingpong, because “he sucked at sports, all sports,” says Smith. Most often, the two of them simply composed raps, either sitting inside a plastic bubble on the playground behind Tupac’s house—“the acoustics were so good in there,” recalls Smith—or hunkered down in Smith’s basement on nearby 41st Street.
Smith’s house was lively, populated by an array of family members including grandparents, his mother, an aunt, and two uncles. Music was always playing. Smith was the youngest of his group of friends, a self-professed “good kid, the freshest kid on the block” who had all the latest fashionable clothes and sneakers, thanks to his uncles, who dealt drugs in the neighborhood.
Tupac, on the other hand, came from poverty. His father wasn’t around; his mother had been arrested and charged with conspiracy to bomb New York City landmarks while a member of the Black Panther Party in 1969. A month after being acquitted of the charges, she gave birth to Shakur, on June 16, 1971. Afeni, who passed away in May and was the inspiration behind the song “Dear Mama,” struggled with substance abuse issues (“And even as a crack fiend, mama/You always was a black queen, mama”) and with supporting the family (“You just working with the scraps you was given/And mama made miracles every Thanksgiving”).
Tupac wore hand-me-downs, including pants that were so big they had to be stapled. He slept in a small bedroom, while his mother and little sister slept in the dining room Afeni had converted into a bedroom. Smith says the Shakur house was “always dark, dim. They had lights and it was clean, but it was dark with not a lot of stuff in there.”
Smith’s family and friends razzed him for befriending the raggedy newcomer. “This guy is cornball—everything about him is corny,” he recalls them saying. “Why are you hanging out with him?”
The answer, says Smith, was simple: “We loved to rap.”
Darrin Keith Bastfield, CEO of Born Busy Films and BecomeAPatron.com is currently working on developing projects in television and two upcoming theatrical film projects that he’s written and will debut direct such as ‘Shakurspeare’, inspired by Bastfield’s painting ‘Shakurspeare’ that the late Tupac Shakur posed for at age 16 is a romantic comedy/drama that’s centered around the controversial world of art, and ‘Born Busy’, a coming of age true story based on his memoir ‘Back in the Day: my life and times with Tupac Shakur’ published by Randomhouse/Ballantine in 2002 (Hardcopy) and Perseus/Da Capo Press in 2003 (Paperback). Bastfied is also a featured artist in the upcoming ‘Black Artists on Art’ Catalogues Volumes 3 and 4 published by Samella Lewis, renowned Art Historian/Artist/Art Collector.
Darrin Keith Bastfield: Although rap was Tupac’s true love, the variety of music he listened to was amazing. This became clear to me one Saturday morning when he, Richard, and I sat around the living room of the apartment in our boxer shorts and undershirts talking about music.
[Richard was an older white roommate who liked Tupac so much that he allowed Tupac to stay at the Reservoir Hill apartment with the understanding that Tupac would pay $350 a month. Tupac and I paid that together with the money we made as busboys at the Fish Market Restaurant.] Richard was definitely a cool guy, who had a pleasant disposition and a free-flowing approach to life. His bedroom door was never closed, even when his girlfriend was in there with him. In the mornings I would see them lying on a single mattress on the floor (no box spring underneath), still asleep. I showed him respect, and he was always cool to me. No matter how much time I spent there at the apartment, he never gave me even the slightest hint of a bad vibe. We periodically had chill sessions when he was around (which wasn’t a whole lot). And when I wasn’t there, he and Tupac would bond.
In this Saturday morning discussion, Tupac floated along with Richard easily, unmoved by any of his older roommates’ detours in various directions that were completely unfamiliar to me. Despite Richard’s dramatically different background and social orientation, Tupac never once lost his footing, and comfortably expounded upon many of the different artists who came up over the course of the conversation which spanned the full spectrum. From LL Cool J to Peter Gabriel, and Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters, Tupac had something meaningful to say. I tried to imagine where he had gotten this exposure, how he had become so familiar with all of the divergent artists, but was unsuccessful. The picture of him listening to much of this stuff in his mom’s apartment did not fit, nor could I see it occurring up in New York among his family or friends up there (whom I would later meet). In fact this is still a mystery to me. The best answer I have managed is that he absorbed it all in a few months of his residence at the apartment. There the large collections of the two older roommates (Richard and John’s brother) would have been available to him and played regularly in the apartment.
Dana Smith aka Mouse Man was Tupac’s friend during his teenage years in Baltimore. Together, they created rap groups East Side Crew & Born Busy. Which is where Tupac’s first recorded audio came from. At the young age of 14 years old, “Born Busy” created their first song “Babies Having Babies.
Gerard (High School Friend): “First time I ever saw Tupac, he was in eighth grade. I seen this kid that had this shirt with the old school iron-on letters, MC NEW YORK. And he was rhyming. All these people was around him — even back then. We was adversaries at first, but we formed a crew. Born Busy and shit, MC New York, DJ Plain Terror, Ace Rocker, and my man D on the beat box. Taking mad peoples out–the invincibles. Then we started writing little rhymes for Jada (Pinkett). Jada was rhyming a little bit too. Don”t Sleep.”
Songs recorded during ‘Born Busy” era:
Babies Having Babies ft Dana Mouse Smith (Acapella)
Produced by Born Busy
Check It Out ft Dana Mouse Smith (Acapella)
Produced by Born Busy
Terror On The Tables ft Ace Rocker (Acapella)
Produced by Born Busy
That’s My Man Throwing Down ft Ace Rocker (Acapella)
Produced by Born Busy
I Saw Your Girl ft Ace Rocker (Acapella)
Produced by Born Busy
Girls Be Tryin To Work A Nigga
Produced by Born Busy
Songs recorded featuring Mouse Man:
N.I.G.G.A., Black Cotton, What goes On & Niggaz in the Pen
”In the mid-1980s, rap wasn’t yet the commercial juggernaut it has become—it was gaining popularity, but hadn’t arrived in the mainstream. The Enoch Pratt Free Library, ahead of the curve, sponsored a youth rap contest in November 1985. Tupac spotted a flier with “Calling All Rappers!” across the top, urging anyone under the age of 18 to “write the best rap about the Pratt Library and be eligible for a cash prize.” All entrants had to submit a written copy in advance (“No Profanity Allowed”), and the finalists performed at the library at Pennsylvania and North avenues.
Tupac and Mouse Man created “Library Rap,” which Shakur wrote out in longhand, in black pen, on a piece of lined notebook paper, and Tupac and Mouse Man’s group The East-Side Crew entered the contest. Deborah Taylor, then the Pratt’s young adult services coordinator, organized the contest and remembers Tupac and Mouse Man as “very polite boys. They were nice kids.” She drove them to the contest because they didn’t have transportation.
Tupac and Mouse Man’s winning performance opened with Tupac declaring, “Yo’ Enoch Pratt, bust this!” and urging Baltimoreans to get library cards. They told kids to stay in school, learn to read, and “get all the credits that you need.” (Tupac’s handwritten verses now reside in the Pratt’s Special Collections archive, alongside works by H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe.)
Taylor, who still works at the Pratt, recalls all the judges commenting on the same thing: The scrawny kid lit up the room with his rapping. “When Tupac performed,” she says, “you could not take your eyes off him.”
Tupac and Mouse Man performed whenever and wherever they could: for the drug dealers working on Old York Road, opening for rap group Mantronix at the Cherry Hill rec center, and even at neighborhood funerals. They also wrote rhymes with titles like “Babies Havin’ Babies” and “Genocide Rap” that reflected the political and social awareness Shakur inherited from his mother.
“Tupac was always conscious of that shit,” says Mouse Man. “He schooled us on those sort of social justice issues, and hip-hop was the perfect outlet. It allowed us to say what was on our mind, and people listened.”