Siobhán Kane talks to Mr Lif, who plays the Sugar Club with Edan, Paten Locke & Willie Evans Jr on Friday night as part of the Trap Door Rapp Tour.
Jeffrey Haynes, (or Mr Lif, as he is more widely known) grew up in Boston in the “golden era” of hip-hop, drawn towards the more socially and politically conscious rappers such as Chuck D, Rakim, and KRS-ONE. Their individuality, lyrical dexterity, and reflectiveness of thought inspired the young Haynes, who has made these three things a cornerstone of his own creativity.
This cornerstone anchored his first single “Elektro” in 1998, which brought him to the attention of both Grand Royal and Def Jux; but Def Jux won out, and he was the first signing to the brilliant New York label founded by El-Producto. He subsequently went on to release various EP’s on the label, such as the brilliant Enters the Colossus (2000), and two full-length records – the concept album I, Phantom (2002) and the mammoth Mo’Mega (2006) which was mainly produced by El-P, and featured some labelmates including the brilliant Aesop Rock.
In this period he also collaborated with old friend Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One to create The Perceptionists, who released the interesting mixtape The Razor in 2004, and the stellar One Black Dialogue record in 2005 (also on Def Jux). Within the last decade he has worked fruitfully with Edan, who has produced some of his work, as well as guesting on it – a particularly good example of their union is on the 2002 EP Emergency Rations, which sees them playing out an MC abduction scenario, but that is part of Lif’s talent – as politically engaged as he is, he still has time for a spot of tomfoolery, something Edan continues to draw out of him. However, 2009 saw him go back to his reflective roots for the state of the nation record I Heard it Today, which was released on his own label Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises, which coincided with the closing of Def Jux, or at least a more traditional way of doing things.
There is a duality in Lif; he is an underground legend, and an outsider, but also an award-winning hip-hop artist. However, his true impulse (like Edan) is to expand his own consciousness as well as our own, so it comes as little surprise that he is busy working on his next record which goes back to his narrative roots and employs the expansive soundscapes of Thievery Corporation, as he tells Siobhán Kane.
You were on Def Jux for the duration of its existence. It is one of my favourite labels. What was it like? Def Jux closed its doors around 2009. I thought it was properly timed as the environment had changed so much. Having been there for so long….I think I was the first signing – after El-P of course, there was a split maxi single with Company Flow on one side and Cannibal Ox on the other, and that and Enters the Colossus were the first releases. Having seen the label from its infantile stages was interesting, there was a golden era around 2004 in terms of the camaraderie between all of us, it was at an all time high,but then it started to fizzle a little bit- everyone had their own lives, and we weren’t as tight. I’m not saying that anyone was an enemy, but we weren’t hanging out as much, and what made Def Jux special was the bond between the artists, and it was important as a movement, so I feel it was appropriately timed to close the doors on it.
Edan and I were talking about the pace of work, and the work ethic – and how youth can really propel you on, that obsessive quality, yet sometimes life can change so subtly, but powerfully, and suddenly everything is different. Yes, it’s interesting, I think there is such a different environment when you are younger. For me personally you go through a stage of being satisfied, and when you are a young hungry artist looking for recognition, you have all the time in the world to craft what you do, behind the scenes. And then you are swinging for the stars, because you want that recognition, you want to make your mark in the world of music. Once you start to receive some critical acclaim, the thinking shifts a little, you start wondering if your new record will be as good as the last one, and you have to find your own path to realise you have to be happy where you are now, and express yourself and let the world take you as it will. When speaking with Edan, I am a big sports buff, so I often use the comparison, and say that if the Boston Celtics or New England Patriots win the Superbowl, they don’t have the choice of going into hiding for four or five years because they have the championship, they have to go out on the field the next year and win it all over again.
What about your own journey in music, it seems to have taken a slightly different course in the last few years? There is a certain sound I have been trying to make for a long time. I think I started a journey around 2007, where I was trying to seek something larger in my sound, and it was elusive in my work, and I feel it has to be executed properly to be fulfilling. I think the experience of making the Mo’ Mega album, which was my last one on Def Jux – well, the whole thing felt like a let down for me, because there were some team chemistry issues, and also getting into that tour bus wreck I was in when I was promoting the record didn’t help – those were huge factors, and I felt differently about a lot of things after that. For years I have been writing about these issues which affect America and the world, and I felt and feel what I am saying would touch more people if I could make some adjustments to my overall sound. Typically I think my production from people like Edan or El-P has been dark and very cerebral, so I think that the fact I am working with Thievery Corporation is a blessing right now for a different reason. There is a way for me to be absolutely myself but different. The record I am working on with Thievery is full of live instruments, it’s different, but when people hear it they will still hear my “sound”. One of the songs I am working on with them right now has somewhat of an old Portishead feel to it. Portishead….gosh, back in 1994 when Dummy came out I was blown away. I used to rhyme over “Sour Times”, I learnt how to freestyle rhyming over “Sour Times”.
It’s interesting, because there is a common ground with you and Portishead in that you work within hip-hop and are responding to their work, and Andy Smith brings his love of hip-hop to bear on the he has done for Portishead. There is something there in the soundscape, You’re right, and it’s lush and beautiful. The song I am thinking of that I am working on doesn’t sound exactly like them but carries a torch of loving them. At its best I think this record will maintain my dark edge [laughs] but have a delicate balance of greater instrumentation, The track I am working has a dark woody beat, and my lyrics are introspective, and there is a woman singing the hook in French, a lot is going on, it is a shining example of what I would like to happen with the whole record.
And then work with Portishead. [Laughs] Oh my God, that would be great, right? If they are working on a new record. I am kind of inspired by how long it takes for them to make a record. I don’t know how Third was received in Ireland, but in the States I feel it wasn’t given much of a chance, a few people I know just listened to the first few tracks which are so heavy, and gave up, it’s a heavy album, but it’s one of my favourites.
Unfortunately the way people are listening to music is changing, though I still listen to music in terms of whole records – a lot of people don’t give whole records a chance now, they want to be drawn in early on, yet that seems incongruous to me, because if an artist makes a whole record, then you should listen to it wholly. People’s attention spans are getting shorter, it is dispiriting, as great records can reveal themselves to you further over time – all those hours spent living with the nuances of a record, listening to its heartbeat, the way it breathes. I love that. Absolutely, and now that you are saying that it brings me back to Third, because that is a record that took time for me. It came out in 2008, and it was toward the end of 2011 that I feel I had an epiphany where I truly understood the record. I think with my favourite records that has always been the way, you have to sit with it, live with it, so that you can understand it, and I think that is something that is getting lost in these times, with social media and short attention spans, people don’t give records enough time to breathe. Information is so readily available on artists now. I don’t know if I can say people don’t know as much about music these days, but then so many will go to ITunes and see the popularity of songs and just buy the ones that are the most popular.
It feeds into fads that fizzle out. I know, I know – it is crazy. Artists who are flash in the pans somehow receive the level of acclaim nowadays that breakthrough artists who you knew you would hear for years would never get. People think these people are the next big thing, but they cannot sustain it, but the level of attention they get is crazy.
There is an erosion going on, but I have to believe it will die off eventually, and we will get to a better place. I think maybe there might be room for both, I don’t know. For example, take what El-P is doing in his career at the moment, he stepped outside of his own box to make an album with Killer Mike, and because he did that he is on the radar of T.I. and others who are legitimately making hits and getting played on major radio stations. And the way I see it is if you get producers like El-P and Edan, and whoever else you think of that you like and respect doing this, then I feel there is a way for them to influence pop culture. I think it takes an era of being prolific and ambitious, to step outside of our shells and be more present and more visible. I don’t think there has to be a big division. I think if people had access to beats by El-P and Edan things might change, there could be a lane open for having a widespread impact.
It was one of the greatest moments of my life to interview Rakim last year. I know he is a huge influence on you, and he was so generous and interesting – why do you think someone like him, who influenced the form immeasurably is now on the outside of things in a sense? For Rakim I feel like even in the height of his fame, and when he was most active, he never really branched out and did collaborations with other artists. You had Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie, and G Rap who would hop up on other people’s records, you had Q-Tip hopping up on the Mobb Deep album, but Rakim was in this stoic, “off by himself”category – but that was his mystique. Even the stuff he did with that woman..
Truth Hurts on ‘Addicted’? Exactly, and in that video he was walking down the stairs, and it was just…vintage Rakim [laughs]
Even what he was wearing, the leather tracksuit. No other man wears a leather tracksuit so well. It’s true! And when he did that collaboration I thought that was exactly what he needed to be doing, he could hop up on great joints that have good beats, and I thought, okay, now we have some momentum, and I thought he was going to start popping up on other people’s records, but he never really followed it up.
It seemed in that period, that he was very unhappy in his work with Dr. Dre – he realised that it just wasn’t for him. He missed New York and didn’t respect where Dre was trying to take him musically, he has always had principles. I think people of our generation witnessed the genre at its best. So I know what you mean.
From growing up listening to these records to actually creating records in the form, how have you seen it change? That question immediately brings to mind the excitement I felt when I released some of my first records, but in terms of it changing dramatically, yes the way people listen to music has changed, the marketplace has changed, but I still feel like there are enough like-minded people out there, and if you follow your path, you’ll be okay. I try not to get too bogged down with things that will keep me in one place, I live a very simple life, like even the things I have with me on this tour – I have two little bags, though usually I only have one carry on bag, it’s all I need. My favourite thing about this era is that it welcomes hybrid music – I feel I could go off and do a track with Phantogram or Thievery Corporation and have it be well received and exciting music. I am not a hip-hop purist, but I recognise that it’s a time of change, and hip-hop is a powerful art form that can take in other forms, and if people don’t keep pushing things forward it is going to feel stagnant. I think sometimes in terms of live performance, underground hip-hop took a hit because people weren’t putting enough effort in the live shows, you don’t want to watch someone rapping over their iPod. That’s why Edan and I are out here, we have done a lot of rehearsals for these live shows, we want to be an example that you can still come to a hip-hop show and people will feel like their money was well spent and maybe they even got a deal coming to the show.
How have the shows been going? London was great. All the shows have been a lot of fun. The way we have it set up is Willy Evans Jr and I are doing a high energy, “come out and rock the party” type of vibe, then Edan comes out and it is a technical wizardry vibe, and since we have so many songs together we perform lots of those too – it’s a great thing, and it feels galvanising for us as a team. It’s good to leave a venue after a show and feel like we have done something – a couple of people have come up to us saying their faith in the culture is alive and well, and that they loved the show. We want to keep the tradition alive, but push it forward.
Following on about your imminent record with Thievery Corporation, how did your collaboration with them actually come about? You have worked with them previously, but it seems to have accelerated in the last year. I cannot express how excited I am about this record with Thievery, because they have so many talented musicians in their troupe. In 2003, well after 9/11 they did this show on the front lawn of the Capitol Building called The Sorry State of the Union, and they brought me out for that, that’s when we initially met. Then they called me out of the blue in 2009 and said they were making an EP and wanted me for it, so I went to DC in February of 2010 to start recording, and we recorded the song “Culture of Fear”, and I didn’t hear from them for quite some time after that, and I thought maybe they didn’t like the song and I was like “oh well, it is what it is” and they called me six months later and said the EP became the album and my song was the title track! Which was great news [laughs], and ever since then we have been in the studio more, and touring together.The only thing I can compare it to is when I first met up with El-P and toured with Def Jux – because being with the members of Thievery Corporation and performing with them is one of the most effortless, pleasing things in my whole career, it just immediately felt like home, that I was around family, and where I belonged, and it continues to feel that way.
In terms of other collaborations, I love “Post Mortem” with Jean Grae, do you think you might work with her again? I would love to, it’s just a matter of finding the right song.
Will there be any more Perceptionists records? Akrokabit and I do have some new songs, but it’s just a matter of being brought to a higher level from a musical standpoint. I feel like our writing as a duo is strong, I like what we have written. I am just feeling more ambitious musically now, I just want people to listen to the soundscape as an experience, and it’s just going to take quite a bit of effort, I couldn’t casually rattle off another Perceptionists record, not that I rattled off the others [laughs]. The fear is spreading myself thin, and for the Perceptionists I would have to put my solo career on hold, and I think another thing is that it would serve Akrobatik well to put out some stuff himself right now too, I would love to have him have a couple of breakthroughs too, I would like another Perceptionists record to be anticipated because of what we were doing solo. Time will tell. He is still one of my best friends, and the door isn’t closed on it.
Narrative is such a huge part of your work, on something like “Friends and Neighbours” for example, but you seemed to veer away from it in the last while, are you returning to it on your new record? Yes, it is actually playing a huge part. It’s a challenge as I want to write the record like I might write a film, and like I, Phantom I want to take you on a journey, but it poses challenges. I am still learning how to make the most out of every member of the live band, get the best performance out of everyone, get the balance between a classic Thievery sound, and my sound. It’s a large undertaking, but the driving force for me is that narrative. When I did the Perceptionists record with Akrobatik, I purposefully stepped way from my narrative style, with Mo’ Mega it unintentionally didn’t have a narrative style, I suppose there were a lot of challenges when I was making that record, so some of the narrative is more subtle. On this record though I want it to be a return to form – that storytelling of mine, and provide visuals to make the stories palpable for people.