Interview: Mr. Lif

The established underground emcee’s tour recently stopped in Minneapolis to promote his latest LP “I Heard It Today.”

PHOTO COURTESY DEFINITIVE JUX RECORDS

Ashley Goetz

PHOTO COURTESY DEFINITIVE JUX RECORDS

In a town wrought with hip-hop that college grads and Fleet Foxes fans deem brainy enough, itâÄôs not always notable when an emcee befitting that same trait comes through the Twin Cities. But Boston emcee Mr. Lif blazed through The Triple Rock this past weekend and, armed with his recently released LP âÄúI Heard it Today,âÄù continues to demonstrate that heâÄôs among the brightest of the underground hip-hop stars. Mr. Lif first made a name for himself with the release of his 2002 EP âÄúEmergency Rations.âÄù That EP, released in early summer, was a fierce indictment of post Sept. 11 Bush politics and balanced raw, militant production with LifâÄôs cerebral, monotone verses. Come fall 2002, Lif struck while the iron was scorching and wowed critics with his debut LP âÄúI Phantom.âÄù The disc, largely produced by Definitive Jux label head El-P , drew praise from the likes of Village Voice , Pitchfork and Rolling Stone . Since 2002, however, things havenâÄôt been all smiles for Lif. While heâÄôs consistently toured hard, LifâÄôs 2006 sophomore LP âÄúMoâÄô MegaâÄù was serviceable, but underwhelming in the wake of âÄúI Phantom.âÄù Then, in late 2006, a bus carrying Lif and hip-hop group The Coup flipped, fell 30 feet and ignited in flames. Miraculously, none of the 12 on board sustained life-altering injuries. If baggage and stress latched onto Mr. Lif since 2002, his spring 2009 LP âÄúI Heard it TodayâÄù appears to be evidence much of it has been shed. Lif released the album not on his longtime home Definitive Jux, but on his own label, Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises. Also, the record is free of El-PâÄôs celebrated production. While context has certainly changed, LifâÄôs ability and smarts are ever present. Prior to his swing through Minneapolis and show at The Triple Rock last week, Mr. Lif took the time to chat with A&E about politics, hipsters and former New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. What do you hope the listener walks away with when they hear âÄúI Heard it Today?âÄù I just hope that people recognize that my passion is at an all-time high for making music and for the art. And that IâÄôm still coming through vicious with it, speaking whatâÄôs on my mind, not pulling any punches. The new record wasnâÄôt released on Def Jux, why is that? I donâÄôt know, man. It was time to diversify my experiences a little bit. I definitely wanted to do my own thing and not have to wait on contracts and stuff like that. I donâÄôt think record deals are something you force. I think we mutually decided to wait. TheyâÄôre still a great support system for me. This was a great chance for me to grow up, become more a leader and have to put something together on my own. I feel like thereâÄôs been a priceless growth process through all this. WeâÄôre still a family, man, everythingâÄôs still good with us. Bush spawned a lot of good protest rap. How do you anticipate writing in the Obama era will be? I can write about anything in the world, man. I wrote those songs because I was pissed off. And âÄúI Heard it TodayâÄù kind of says there are a lot of problems still. DonâÄôt just think theyâÄôre going to go up in smoke because thereâÄôs a new administration. WeâÄôre still going to be struggling. The American government is not all of a sudden this bright, happy entity that functions for the good of its people, for any people. ItâÄôs a business, and it functions for the sake of commerce. Our lives will fall wherever they may in the process of them making money. I have way more insight into the realm of relations then I do into politics, man. IâÄôm much more of an expert on relationships between men and women. Lots of great ideas on how to progress family structure and just better understandings between men and women. IâÄôd rather write songs about that. People think IâÄôm so angry. IâÄôm actually a very happy person. IâÄôm very much at peace with myself. I laugh constantly. I keep a very tight-knit group of friends. They mean the world to me and theyâÄôre always very supportive. IâÄôm a very happy person; I just donâÄôt have any tolerance for bulls–t and I donâÄôt really see why anyone else should. In an era where weâÄôre looking at the possibility of having the first black president, then had the first black president, heâÄôs kind of the shining beacon of hope against a backdrop of misery and a bunch of failed policies. I thought it was worthy of putting pen to paper. But believe me, man, I got a lot to say about a lot of other realms of life. The Bush administration does not in any way define me as an artist. It just happened to be going on when I started making records. The Minnesota press thinks very highly of our own hip-hop scene. From a national perspective, are we as relevant as we make ourselves out to be? Oh man, thatâÄôs hard for me to say. IâÄôve been doing the indie thing for a long time and IâÄôve known those cats for a while. I have a lot of respect for what theyâÄôre accomplishing. I donâÄôt know if it matters what everyone else thinks. It matters what you guys think, and what theyâÄôre doing for your community. If you guys are feeling good about that, then you should keep feeling good about that. With your brand of underground, backpacker hip-hop, itâÄôs latched onto heavily by the hipster, Pitchfork scene. WhatâÄôs your perception of that whole scene? I donâÄôt know, man. Even hearing you throw those terms out, I have no idea what that means. IâÄôve never once even thought to categorize myself. I have no idea how I even got lumped into that category. I grew up listening to Kool G Rap and Erik B. & Rakim . ThatâÄôs the type of s–t I emulate. Those are just lyricists; IâÄôm an emcee. All the âÄúbackpackerâÄù stuff? Is that like, because I didnâÄôt want to sign with a major label? I donâÄôt get it. IâÄôm a young black man who was lucky enough to grow up in a very powerful era of black music. I make very raw, very energetic music that is written about things that go on in our lives. I donâÄôt want to say itâÄôs political or socio-political; I write about real life. Maybe I need to just shock mother—-ers by signing with a major someday. IâÄôve been touring for a lot of years. I love my fans and my focus has always been to reach a wider fanbase. I would say for everyone out there, be prepared for me to continuously be fighting against what everyone thinks of me. Because I donâÄôt view myself that way at all. I didnâÄôt mean to try and pigeonhole you with those buzz terms there. IâÄôm not taking offensive, necessarily. IâÄôve just heard that before. IâÄôve always scratched my head. IâÄôm listening to like Van Morrison, Bjork, Radiohead , Frank Zappa and Critical Beatdown when IâÄôm writing my albums. Just pulling energy from what I consider these master works that just broke boundaries. So eccentric in their own right, but so poignant. ItâÄôs funny the effects that business has on art. I think that because I was on a particular label so long, that came to be the way IâÄôm known. The label, being Def Jux, was kind of known for this avant-garde nature. For me, when I hear those names and categories, is that saying that if Kanye made a dope beat, and Nas was on it, but I was on it, am I just not going to be able to heat up the mic in a similar dimension to Nas? I feel like I got poetry. I got shit that I could lay down. I think I got a vision of the world. I donâÄôt see why I couldnâÄôt be on a track with those cats. I donâÄôt see why I couldnâÄôt be on a track with Jay-Z. I donâÄôt see why I wouldnâÄôt sound vicious over a beat by The Neptunes. I just donâÄôt have those lines and barriers up. I just havenâÄôt had those opportunities yet. But believe me, IâÄôm trying to move toward âÄôem. YouâÄôre a big football fan. In a previous interview you said Rodney HarrisonâÄôs play best exemplified you as a rapper. Since he retired this week, what current player does that? Wow man, dude, that is so rough. Like I said, that dude is cream of the crop to me. When you listen to him in press conferences, the way that he carries himself, heâÄôs so well-spoken. The grit and intensity, I think he still represents me and I think he should be in the Hall of Fame. Every time I step on stage IâÄôm looking to kick the audience right in the teeth and punch âÄôem in the mouth. From the very moment I step on the stage I want people to know IâÄôm in control of that situation.