Not your average MC.
Definitive Jux rapper, Mr. Lif, is everything but your average MC. All about B-Boy-ing, this Boston lyricist (along with the Talib Kwelis and Mos Defs of the world) is revitalizing hip-hop’s underground with mind-blowing beats and conscience-shattering rhymes. Lif’s recently released EP, Emergency Rations, takes 9/11 and the “War on Terrorism” head-on while his debut full-length, I Phantom, is a highly personal, detailed autopsy on the American Dream. A microphone mage with a lot on his mind, Lif riffed on everything from his adopted name to the state of hip-hop-and the state of the Union.
Explain the name.
Well, back in ’93, I went to a Phish concert with some friends. They had this song, “Liftedly Man,” with this incredible bass line. I don’t know what it was, but the character really got to me. I thought of him as the “ultra you,” someone that is perceptive, trying to gain knowledge of self, surroundings, and situations. I know, it sounds corny, like “ultra you,” but that’s where I was at the time, striving for self-realization. “Lif” was a terrible name, but, later, some other friends added the “Mister.”
What happened in ’93 that got you seriously into hip-hop?
I’ve been listening to hip-hop since ’86, but I’d never tried writing. Then, I went to college in ’93. It was a time for me to take a step back. I’d gone to prep school, was a year-round athlete. That time off gave me time to reflect. And the music, there was Wu-Tang, Tribe, De La Soul, and in ’94 there was [Nas’s] Illmatic, Jeru, Leaders of the New School, [KRS-One’s] Boom Bap. Hip-hop helped me to become blacker, in a way, and those folks really helped open my mind. I started reading only the shit that I had a deep connection with. I started crafting my flows. And by the end of ’94, I dropped my first cut.
Who were your biggest influences at the time?
Nas, Black Moon and Buckshot Shorty. Shit, everything. Ultramagnetic MCs, PE, KRS-One. These brothers were powerful black men, really saying something. And, of course, best of all time has got to be Rakim.
OK, this is a debate raging with some of the fellas and me: what do you think are the five most influential hip-hop albums?
Well, PE’s Nation is the greatest album ever made. Tribe’s Low End Theory. NWA’s Straight Outta Compton drastically changed the face of hip-hop. De La’s 3 Feet High and Rising fucked everybody up. And I gotta give a shout to Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full. That shit’s so incredible.
Yeah, that’s pretty much how my list came out.
Oh, wait. Replace De La Soul with [BDP’s] Criminal Minded. It’s hard to shuffle. I mean, you’ve got to acknowledge Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap.
Yeah, no shit. Tell me, what’s the Boston scene like?
We got a lot of young, hungry cats going for theirs. A lot of us get to open up for bigger acts when they come to Boston, which is giving the town a lot of exposure. It’s fresh and representing the boom bap sound.
Speaking of which, your song, “Return of the B-Boy.” What does it mean, being a B-Boy, to you?
It’s an honest love for hip-hop, the hard-ass drums, the boom bap. It’s that early hip-hop, that search for creativity and artists who are sincere. As a hip-hop purist, I’m going through that psychological warfare, always battling myself to find that sincerity. But that’s a B-Boy, the pop-locking, and nuff respect to the breakers.
With the popularity of rap, what exactly is “the underground” these days?
It’s a style of music. It’s got nothing to do with finances. Shit, Eminem, Jay Z on a good day, Nas is gettin’ sick with it again. His cadence is so unorthodox, his poetics laser sharp.
The majors used to put out that shit because that was all there used to be. They’ve gotten away from that. Now, it’s more chorus-oriented, shiny-beat, dance music that depends less on lyrics.
But we’re bringing back that old school, the battle music. The underground, it’s a rite of passage, flipping old school rhymes, busting your head with cadences and flows, giving you the best rhyme flows on wax. Shit, if you want to know what the underground is, just listen to EPMD’s first album. That’ll explain it to you exactly.
So, what do you think of the commercialization of rap?
You’ve got to have content in your music. Most musicians should never forget that they have an incredibly powerful tool that can be used for communication. They’re making records that will be heard all around the world by millions of people. You can’t talk fucking dribble, that “Ooh Baby” shit. Sure, people need love songs, whatever, but don’t make 15 of them.
Do you think the major labels are ruining hip-hop?
Well, there’s always a love/hate relationship between the underground and the mainstream, but the gap is closing quickly. You can’t say that the Neptunes don’t make dope beats or that Nas ain’t rappin’, ain’t droppin’ bombs. And Outkast is a brilliant group.
Sure, the majors are making money on no-talent artists with good hooks and no message. It’s the largest music right now. But it also helps the underground, keeps us inspired, in opposition. It keeps us pissed, so that we write harder shit.
So, who’s doing it for you right now?
Outkast, Gang Starr.
Well, I understand Gang Starr on the Premier side, but Guru?
The man writes about something. He writes topical rhymes. He’s a great storyteller. Not a lot of MCs can do that. “Check the Technique,” “Step into the Arena.” Guru’s got a rich, black intellect. He’s dropping gems. I think he’s got the best overall demeanor. Hell, he was talking about Islam when only Rakim and King Sun were doing it. And “Tons of Guns.” He brings shit to life. He writes anthems.
Of course, I’ve always like rappers, like G. Rap, who’ve got that borderline speech impediment. You can say that Guru’s not the most poetic or the most dynamic, but he’s got a vibe, an aura, a vocal presence. Yeah, Premier may be the best producer, but you put Craig Mack on top of his beats, and Gang Starr wouldn’t have been shit.
Back in ’99 you released the banging battle rhyme, “Triangular Warfare.” But now you say it’s one of your least favorite songs.
Actually I did the song with Insight back in ’96. It was resurrected back in ’99, but I really wasn’t into it at the time.
Well, it’s a good song, but it’s no longer my main focus. See, I’d dropped out of college, and my self-esteem took a hit. I’ve never really recovered. I’m still trying to repair it. But I’d also quit my job. In retrospect, I’m glad I did. At the time, I didn’t realize how much courage it took, to be honest with myself-that it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. But people who do that type of shit are considered a vagrant, a lunatic, someone without any direction.
So, now, I’m more about self-exploration, trying to provide commentary about our situation as a people. My work is definitely more social/political-the meek shall inherit the earth. I’m focusing more on the downtrodden, the impotent, the ignorant, how money translates directly into power, the labor system.
Like in the song, “Success?”
Yeah, I was trying to explore what the typical blueprint for success is in our society: you’re born, go to school, job, family, retire, and keel over dead. If you follow that path, you’re made to feel included-and shamed if you should deviate from it.
You explore much of the same themes in “Daddy Dearest.” I think the thing that impresses me with that song and I Phantom, in general, is that yours is a more introspective style of hip-hop, that explores some very personal stuff.
That’s the challenge for the listener on this album: to try to figure out what’s autobiographical and what’s not. With that song, a substantial part of the decline of the character is that he left school and quit his job. To feel self-empowered, he tries the social scene and fails dramatically. So, then he adopts the myopic view of success. He focuses on material possessions and his family falls apart as a result.
He’s given a second chance to redefine success with a new family, but he’s still myopic. His daughter wants to be a great pianist, a ballerina, but he causes her suicide. His son from the first marriage wants to have a father, but Dad’s too busy crushing his new family to notice.
We live in this extremely difficult, extremely demanding society where it’s hard to balance your personal life with your business life. As a result, we have high divorce rates, suicide, family dysfunction. These are things I want to speak about in my music.
You’re releasing an EP, Emergency Rations, about 9/11. I know a lot of people feel the need to comment about what happened. What made you decide to say something?
I was on tour with Cannibal Ox and Rhyme Sayers in Montreal when it happened, and I was really shaken up. When I got back to California, I was hooked into the news 24/7. I was extremely pissed. All the propaganda: who flew into the Towers, the Middle Eastern scapegoat. We may never find out who did it. And, then the anthrax. Who can’t smell the bullshit there? The U.S. government can find a nickel with a satellite, and yet they can’t find out who did this shit?
So, I went down to Revolution Books here in Berkeley and grabbed some pamphlets: about U.S. involvement in the Middle East, bin Laden’s connections with the CIA. I started checking the facts out with my girlfriend, who has a bunch of good friends who are professors here at Berkeley. Then I just cracked some verses about the frustration, what I was feeling at the time.
So, what are you feeling now about 9/11?
I think I’m still a little shell-shocked. People are feeling a lot less safe and are sizing each other up. I travel a lot, and it’s really nerve-wracking. I’m a hermit by nature. But, you know, the world will decay whether I want it to or not. I just have to keep my eyes open.