Woo-Hah!! Teller Bank$ talks Busta Rhymes, the passage of time and his new album 'The I & I'
The Ed Glorious-produced album wraps up a trilogy begun by the pair in 2020 with The Grotesque & Beautiful.
In the first half of 2022 alone, Teller Bank$ released five Skull Face albums in rapid succession. One, The Real Skull Face, was made available exclusively on Bandcamp for $100. His latest effort, The I & I, is a separate collaborative project with producer Ed Glorious that's been in motion for years. It is not $100.
The I & I’s predecessors, 2020’s The Grotesque & Beautiful and 2021’s The Part & Parcel, represent different stages of the protagonist’s life from ages 8 to 10 and 18 to 20, respectively. Now 30, real-life Teller’s age reflects that of The I & I Teller, whose exploits in the earlier two albums are now up for fresh examination.
Let’s start in the middle
Albums are a snapshot in time. Teller Bank$ would prefer that snapshot be taken out of focus, upside down and when you least expect it.
“The reason why I put this song, that everybody thought would be the outro, put it right in the middle, is because life is not chronological all the time,” says Teller Bank$. “Your highest point in your life is not always the climax.”
That song, called “Finders Keepers,” is the seventh of The I & I’s 14 tracks — located “smack dab” in the album’s center. It’s a triumphant frolic through a field of hip-hop poppies, with a joyous, cloudy sample repeating “even thoughhhh” just right. A perfect ending, if one chose to employ it as such. Teller even muses, “Just want my son happy, just want my daughters happy / Depression carved a valley in me, love flowin' through it / I put blood, sweat and tears in the music." What a way to say goodbye.
Instead, “Finders Keepers” strolls on, making way for the album’s next two songs with features from distinctive underground voices AJ Suede and Aakeem Eshu. But, we’ll get to that later.
The I & I
On Aug. 22, Teller Bank$ released The I & I, his third of three collaborative albums with Indiana producer Ed Glorious. Set roughly 20 years after the events of the first record, The I & I reflects on a troubled two decades with mature eyes.
The album’s predecessors, 2020’s The Grotesque & Beautiful and 2021’s The Part & Parcel, represent different stages of the protagonist’s life from ages 8 to 10 and 18 to 20, respectively. Now 30, real-life Teller’s age reflects that of The I & I Teller, whose exploits in the earlier two albums are now up for fresh examination.
“As a kid, you see things in one way. It's kind of like you're viewing it [from] a third person perspective,” says Teller. “You're very much active and involved in it, but you're also from the outside, you can't really see it, or participate in it, even though you're living it.
“Then you get old enough…to get drafted and really go to war, and you live and experience it and that's The Part & Parcel. And then, The I & I is the reflecting on and picking up the pieces. Dealing with your trauma that happened to you as an adult. Childhood trauma is one thing, but adult trauma is something else. So, it really just is about, you know, reconciling with your own trauma and moving forward.”
Rather than wrap his series up neatly with a hopeful bow on top, Teller took a Mad Men-style approach. A nod to the series’ Blaxploitation-y, sample-heavy roots (see The Grotesque & Beautiful’s “The Cycle” and “Appeals Freestyle”), the album’s antepenultimate song “The Heart” is an intentional fake-out. While the song swings around with a declarative swagger, even ending with the boastful and repeated refrain “I made it up to the majors, started out in the minors,” it’s all a ruse.
“Just when you thought everything was starting to really, like, look up and be very cheery,” says Teller, “it's like all of a sudden you have this — the darkest song on the whole album pops up like right near the end. But before that, it was kind of like the smooth ride, almost made it out.”
This “darkest song on the whole album” is called “Supernatural” and it’s as haunting as the name would suggest. Menacing both in tone and its measured restraint, the song was crafted for a clear, black night. Grave-digging music.
“I wanted to make the album kind of leave people with questions,” says Teller. “Like, well, what happened? What's the conclusion? Did he turn out all right? Is he a good dude, is he a bad dude? What happened to him?’”
With the album’s last lick, “Fed Block Illuminati” delivers a twinkly finish wrought with distrust and an attitude of “you really thought.” In the song, Teller posits:
“On crip, my best blood cousin [tried to] set me up / So lately I don’t know who to trust / Or who to give my love to, who true enough / The one time you can’t do for 'em, now you don’t do enough”
While not a definitive answer to the questions posed in prior albums, “Fed Block Illuminati” and The I & I as a whole explore the clarity that comes with time and distance from pain.
The I, (Myself) & I
Back when Teller Bank$ first conceived of The I & I, he was sure that it’d be a solo venture. Just, as the title implies, Teller & Teller (and Ed Glorious). Ultimately, a local Des Moines rapper would change the trajectory of the album and open up space for more voices on the project.
On the album’s third track “Pop Star,” Rent Money — the artist formerly known as H the Prodigy — delivers an untouchable verse that honestly gives him the right to call himself whatever he wants. Together with Teller, the two bounce along to a brassy, nasty speakeasy beat with an incessantly catchy hook.
“Originally, I wasn't gonna have no features on the album,” says Teller. “And then [Rent Money]... he was just here kicking it and bullied his way onto the song and showed out. And then I was like, I can show some love to some other folks on here.”
Those other folks included AJ Suede and Aakeem Eshu, both of whom shared verses on the latter half of the record. Suede, whose ability to weave effortlessly in and out of uncomfortably busy beats has become a trademark of his, is gifted a fittingly offbeat instrumental. The song, called “Pages,” is a labyrinth of Ed Glorious’ design.
Teller says his “Pages” verse is one of his favorites.
“Everything about [the beat] is kind of, like, off,” says Teller. “It was hard to rap. But that's when I knew…Like, okay, this is gonna be a good one that catches people. There’s something just a little off about it that's gonna make people who are really into rap run it back and listen to it and really catch it. And a lot of the sh-t that I'm saying in it is just some sh-t, man, I got some bars in here.”
The I & I’s final feature comes by way of Aakeem Eshu and the song “Hitman.” Like the opening theme for the blacklisted Idris Elba Bond project, “Hitman” is a covert operation disguised as a rap song.
“Man, younger me wouldn’t have been able to execute no sh-t like this, honestly,” says Teller. “Just the album itself is like, it has layers to it. That's my favorite thing about the album is like, if you don't know anything about anything, right, you can listen to the album and just vibe out and just ride.”
The influence of the Bus a Bus
“Busta Rhymes was always a big inspiration to me,” says Teller. “One of my favorite artists…When I was a kid, Busta Rhymes was like the Lil Wayne. He did sh-t that nobody else was doing. He was really, like, off-the-wall, in your face. He wasn't even like a real person and it was like nobody could rap like that. He was like a f-cking alien. It was otherworldly.”
On “Cain & Abel,” Teller reaches new depths of unease. Its first act trudges along to the beat of an undead drum machine. By the second act, Teller is busting out the Busta and making heads bop.
“Aye when I step up in the place you know I step correct / Woo-Hah! I got you all in check! / I got that head nod sh-t to make you break yo neck / Woo-Hah! I got you all in check!”
Inspiration for this passage was ripped straight from the early Busta classic “Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check,” off his debut solo album, The Coming. While Teller Bank$’ work has been heavily influenced by Busta Rhymes over the years, this is his most overt allusion yet.
“I just felt like a lot of people don't really give that homage back to Busta Rhymes and I wanted to make sure that I did that,” says Teller. “Because, you know, thinking about it, he shaped a lot of my tastes and everything.”
Teller is able to pinpoint exactly where his love for Busta Rhymes began. It’s 1998, and fingers pass through a twinkling wind chime. A little girl asks, “Daddy, what’s it gonna be like in the year 2000?” to which the father replies, “Well sweetheart, for your sake, I hope it’ll all be peaches and cream…” What follows is not peaches and cream, but rather apocalyptic scenes of chaos. Cracking thunder, blaring alarms foretelling nuclear catastrophe and screaming townspeople help score this introduction to Busta Rhymes’ seminal album Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front. The album’s second song “Everybody Rise” was a turning point for Teller.
“He shouts out Denver in the song,” says Teller, who moved to Des Moines from the Colorado capital. “At the time didn't nobody give a f-ck about Denver. So hearing that from one of my favorite artists, it was like, yo. I was so locked into that whole album. Just because he shouted out where I'm from and I'd never heard where I was from on a record before Busta Rhymes said it. I was like, yes! N––––s came to Denver!”