Ever since he broke out with his debut EP „Enters The Colossus“ fifteen years ago, then being one of the very first artists who signed to the now-legendary Definitive Jux label, Mr. Lif has been steadily cementing himself as one of the most inspired and intellectually challenging emcees in the independent rap game.
Helge Beck talked to the MC from Boston
His lyrics incorporate a wide range of thematic and stylistic approaches, from dizzying sci-fi imagery to precise critical analysis, often all in one verse. The Boston-based rapper has tackled a variety of socio-political issues with detailed knowledge and lyrical complexity, including class warfare, the military-industrial complex and the state of working-class black America. He was one of the first artists to musically stand up to the Bush administration and its “war on terror” on his “Emergency Rations” EP, as well as the fallacies of the Iraq war on the 2005 Perceptionists crew album “Black Dialogue”. From the raw urgency of “Emergency Rations”, to the complex first-person narrative of his consecutive record “I, Phantom” and the tell-it-as-it-happens news bulletin style of “I Heard It Today”, Mr. Lif has been constantly applying fresh conceptual forms of venting both his social conscience and lyrical abilities, without ever forgetting how to move a crowd or test your car speakers.
After an ongoing period of branching out stylistically through various collaborations, Mr. Lif is currently on the brink of finishing what will be his first solo record in six years. Taking him all the way back to the beginning of his career while sure to be kicking off its second halftime all at once, his upcoming “Return Of Colossus” EP sees Mr. Lif fully dedicated to those “very rooted-in-realism-yet-surreal swirlings” which are very much his own, and which we are more than happy to welcome back. We had the chance of speaking to Mr. Lif extensively about his upcoming record, his career so far, his current ways of handling the daily news, and much more.
At exactly what point in your career are we meeting here?
Mr. Lif: I’m currently in the bay area of Northern California. I got here a couple of days ago and am just sitting outside on my friend’s porch at around 70 degrees while tightening up the track listing for the “Return Of Colossus” EP. I came here to try to finish the record with DJ Qbert, who’s providing all the cuts for it. Right now I’m organizing the files and I’m about to pop in one of my IPhones so I can walk around the neighborhood to just listen to the record and see if it’s coming together properly.
Before we get deeper into your upcoming EP, would you be so kind as to give our readers a quick roundup of your career so far? Your personal and musical development in a nutshell, if possible?
Mr. Lif: I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. I have two Barbadian parents, so I’m Barbadian-American, only Caribbean blood running through my veins. I basically dropped out of college with the dream to be a musician, came back to Boston with a one-song demo and was able to parlay that into an eighteen-year career as an independent emcee. I’m still going strong and looking to have my strongest points in the near future. My first record came out in 1997 as part of a compilation album called the “Rebel Alliance EP”. The following year I found myself on a 30-city tour through Europe and the UK with Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, DJ Z-Trip, Ca$ual and a bunch of other cats from Boston. Back in that era I was putting out singles before putting out my first EP “Enters the Colossus” in 2000 on El-P’s label, which at the time was the newly-formed Definitive Jux Records. Cannibal Ox was already on the label. El-P kept on signing artists like Aesop Rock and Rjd2 after he had signed us, and we all pulled our efforts together as a team to just go around the world and represent independent Hip Hop on a level that I hope people found creative and inspiring.
How did your affiliation with Definitive Jux come to an end and where did you proceed musically from then on?
In ’07 I decided to take a break from the industry overall. I had just gotten into a pretty crazy tour bus wreck where my driver fell asleep at the wheel and dropped us into a 40 feet boulder laid-in pit. I decided to just walk away from the industry and did not re-sign a deal with Def[initive] Jux. Since then I released one record in 2009, an album called “I Heard It Today” which was a very independent release that was intentionally kind of obscure. I just wanted to express myself at the time. Since then I’ve done all types of different projects, lots of different collaborations. Everything from working with a Balkan brass band [Brass Menažeri, HB] for the creation of an album to a collaboration with Thievery Corporation. Part of the immediate future will be a project called Terra Bella which I’m currently working on with The Polish Ambassador and Ayla Nereo. He does all the production, Ayla sings all the hooks and I do all the rhymes – along with a couple of guest appearances like Chali 2na [of Jurassic Five, EW] and Zumbi [of Zion-I, EW]. It’s about creating some Hip Hop that’s definitely a little bit more on the danceable side and a bit more optimistic than my usual stuff is, but then again, there’s also the “Return Of Colossus” EP, which is basically me returning to the core of who I am as an artist. So, in closing I will say: I’m looking forward to the future and it’s all very exciting. If you want to catch up on any of my hallmark works, I would say: Start with “Enters The Colossus”, then listen to “Emergency Rations”, then to “I, Phantom”. Those are good representations of the first half of my career and we’re going into the second half now, where you’ll want to be on the lookout for the “Return Of Colossus” EP.
Not only the Terra Bella project, but essentially all your recent collaborations since “I Heard It Today” appear to be a bit more lighthearted and optimistic than what people usually associate you with both musically and lyrically. Where does this apparent change of focus in mood and style stem from?
Well, I just grew up in a house where there was so much love and appreciation for music. My dad had an extensive record collection, and he would go out every Saturday morning to get new records. He’d always bring home a lot of things that were big hits on the radio, whatever was hot at the time – obviously, Michael Jackson was reigning supreme with the “Thriller” album -, but he also had some pretty obscure records, too. The bottom line is: I have a very deep appreciation for all types of music. Now, I said earlier in the interview that strictly Caribbean blood runs through my veins, so dancing is second nature to me. I grew up in a house where there would be dancing every weekend. So, for me, things like working with The Polish Ambassador give me an opportunity to express myself over danceable tracks, which means a lot to me. I mean, even when I’m doing my underground stuff, I’m on the stage moving, I’m not keeping still. These are all just different forms of expression, but they’re all very much me. Even if you take something like the Perceptionists album where it’s myself, Akrobatik and Fakts One – that record sounds pretty different from a “Mr. Lif solo record”. Sure, there are tracks like “Frame Rupture” which sound dark like it would usually do if I was a soloist, but the beautiful thing about working with Ak is that we’re also gonna do “5 O‘ Clock”, which is much more lighthearted – because he brings out the lightheartedness in me, and sometimes I can bring him to that darker zone. “Frame Rupture” is me bringing him to the darker chamber and then “5 O‘ Clock” is him pulling me out of the darkness into a lighter chamber. Both are effective ways of conveying messages and textures to people. In essence, I think that the Thievery Corporation stuff, the album I’m doing with Brass Menažeri, as well as the Terra Bella project are all very valid expressions of me and what I like to do musically, but a record like “Return Of Colossus” is what is at my absolute core. Like, when I’m left to my own devices and I’m doing everything myself – I’m producing the beats, I’m writing the rhymes – it’s going to sound like this.
Does this way of partially “lightening up” in your music extend to your political and social stance as well? Like, if I asked you specifically about the world news as it’s happening today, would you be glad to comment?
Well, here’s the thing: After I finished writing “I Heard It Today”, I made a conscious decision to save a certain portion of my, I guess, peace of mind that I felt was being consistently disintegrated by how deeply involved in politics I was. So I will say this: I have developing thoughts on several matters that are going on in the world right now, but I cannot, in any way, say that my connection to politics is a main focus of mine right now. I would decline to comment on probably any political or world-view matters at this time until I feel like that is truly a central passion of mine like it was a little earlier in my career.
I think I’m on a slightly different mission now that nevertheless incorporates a lot of my world-view and overall stance, as I’m still living in America where there are problems aplenty, problems that I am personally affected by as a citizen. I’ve had to endure some very trying things as a result of, for example, even involving home ownership in America – like, just having to navigate through that whole shit storm, if you will. So, at this time, rather than being as glued to the news as I used to be, I am taking a lot of those raw sentiments from my personal experiences and channeling them through the music in different ways. Sometimes, like on the Terra Bella album, you’ll find that it comes through as more of an optimism. On the flipside, interestingly, is the “Return of Colossus” EP, which is an extremely dark record.
I just often see artists – and people in general – softening their messages and opinions over their years, and I sometimes wonder whether this is simply a part of “growing up” – in the sense of becoming more accepting about certain issues, or, on the other hand, becoming more dispirited about them.
Well, I think for me that I was so deeply immersed in it that… If you want to take the span of time from, say, 9/11 up through me writing “I Heard It Today”, we’re talking about eight years of relatively deep immersion in trying to dissect and analyze the moves of these politicians who I don’t even respect as human beings – I view them as being so far off the mark in terms of the consciousness that we need to be trying to project towards each other as beings that are cohabitating on a planet. So, I feel like a part of me spiritually needed to back off for me a little bit in order to to rejuvenate some other parts of my soul. Now that doesn’t mean I’m disinterested. I keep an eye on what’s going on, but I take it in very cautious measurements. So I wouldn’t say it’s a symptom of growing up because I fully expect to swing back to it. I just think that right now, I’m somewhere else in the spectrum of my personal growth where it doesn’t require me to be as plumbed into it.
What I’ve taken from my own experience is that this constant lookout on the things that keep going wrong on a global scale on all levels, it can begin to drag you down permanently. Because there’s nothing positive or optimistic to be found along the way of dissecting these things.
Exactly, you’re right. It is negativity, a lot of it, that you’re stacking up on your soul. On the one hand, there’s almost some guilt or a sense of failure involved in saying that I had to step away from it a little bit, because it almost makes me feel like “Aw man, you’re just not as dedicated to trying to solve the inner workings of the struggle”. But the answer to that is no. I feel like I’m just as involved. I am constantly – in a different way now – thinking about these things. Things in society, systems in society that I feel like I’m pushing against on a daily basis, just to have a certain level of freedom, or a certain level of peace of mind that I’d like to achieve and sustain. So it’s there, all is present, I just think that my ways of approaching it are different now, which is probably way healthier from a creative standpoint as well. I think at this point in my career, if my next record was to be as politically aggressive as I Heard It Today, maybe some of my die-hard fans would still appreciate that, but I feel like maybe it would show a lack of growth. And I don’t want to be that angry all the time. I can express my discontent with things in different ways, and I think that the “Return of Colossus” EP has given me a good opportunity to have a large-scale commentary on how I feel humans have positioned themselves on this planet, and the results of that particular positioning.
So the approach you’ve taken on “Return Of Colossus” is a more universal one overall?
Exactly. On the “Return Of Colossus” EP, you definitely get a piece of my mind in terms of my overall planetary view of the human position. Like: Us being all animals. Human beings, out of all the animals, seem to cause an unfounded and unthinkable amount of damage to Planet Earth in comparison to beavers, or otters, or giraffes, or ants and horses. We are hellbent on bashing the planet to death. I mean, I’m very pleased that I can go out and do a Permaculture Action Tour with The Polish Ambassador and spread positive thoughts about trying to reinvigorate the planet by planting trees, and about working on new aerogation systems in order to leave a smaller carbon footprint. But all this almost feels like the least I can do. So, even “Return Of Colossus” is an effort to bring more attention to this human condition where we view ourselves as the top of the food chain in this particular way: We really, truly feel like we can just determine what else lives and what else dies. And we have a complete disregard for the overall evolutionary process, because we assume that the achievement of us was the prime goal of evolution.
“Return Of Colossus” is based on a science fiction novel you started writing in 1998. How did you translate the novelistic form to the EP, and how much of the content you envisioned for the novel will be present on the record?
This EP probably represents the first two chapters of the novel, but my intention is to have this be the first volume of an ongoing saga. I am actually now writing the novel by writing the music, which is interesting because it presents different types of challenges, of course – to deliver the story clearly, but still be true to the fact that I like to be cryptic somewhat with my verses. I still like to explore poetic license, to be able to do whatever I want to rhythmically and poetically, but still paint this picture. I think as a result, there are tracks on “Return Of Colossus” that are extremely strict to the novel’s storyline, where you’re getting a first-person perspective, or sort of a monologue from the main character, describing his exact circumstances as opposed to… Towards the end of the EP, one of the characters reflects on his Earth life, the nature of how he existed, and that kind of gives me a liberal space to just have a hard-ass jam, a raw, battle-rap-like song that isn’t attempting to tell another piece of the story – it’s just the character expressing himself. So there’s a balance, there’s a lot of different textures. I’m interested to see how people will receive it.
I hear post-apocalyptic setup, I hear first-person perspective and it makes me curious: Will “Return Of Colossus” somehow continue where “I, Phantom” left off?
Exactly. I didn’t premeditate that, you know? I wasn’t like “Oh, let me write a record where ‚I, Phantom‘ left off” because, of course, “I, Phantom” leaves off with a nuclear apocalypse. It had songs like “Earthcrusher” and “Post Mortem” to end it off, but the “Return of Colossus” EP does pick up during those final moments on Earth before the planet is no more. But, obviously, as you can guess by the name of this EP, there’s also a connection to “Enters The Colossus” and how that EP was my first body of work that I put out to the industry: This is the “Return Of Colossus” because after my multi-year hiatus of not really putting out records, this is me coming back, making my mark in the game again.
It must be fascinating to try to condense all those thoughts and ideas you’re likely to have regarding a novel into very specific lyrics, just a few words in comparison basically.
Yes. It’s been a really fun process, because I always thought of the story this way anyway. I always knew that eventually, when the time was right, I would create the music – I don’t want to just say the “soundtrack” for the story, because the “Return of Colossus” EP is literally also the experience, just like the novel. And the novel will probably not come out just as a novel, but will probably be created as a graphic novel at this point, where you can really look at the characters and be immersed in the story from a visual level as well.
Are you really doing all the production for the record yourself?
It’s me for about 95 percent of it. I decided to take it back to the beginning of my career when I produced many of my tracks myself. I wanted to bring that raw texture of my own beats back, because that’s something people haven’t really heard from me in years, the production side. I just felt that it was really time to bring it all back to that raw essence of who I really am as an artist.
That’s great. Because I wondered how the decline of self-produced beats on your albums actually came about. Where you just happy to be able to “outsource” the production side a bit in order to focus on your lyricism, or did you miss it?
Well, a couple of things happened. First of all, you are correct. For “Emergency Rations”, I was still able to contribute “Jugular Vein” and “Home of the Brave” as a producer. But when it came to “I, Phantom”, that was the beginning of me getting spoiled by having very talented friends. On “I, Phantom” I had Fakts One produce. I had a lot of El-P produced tracks. I had Edan on there. I had Insight… You know, my friends are just so talented and I’m blessed to have them and I think because “I, Phantom” was such a structured story that required so much of my brain power from a writing standpoint, I really didn’t want to be concerned with production at that time. But another reason that people haven’t heard more from me on the production side is also because I made a terribly unwise decision with my production equipment. When I started off and I was making all those old beats, like on “Enters The Colossus”, I was using the Ensonic EPS 16 Plus, which is a huge sampling keyboard. But then, because I wanted something that was portable because I was on tour so much, I decided to try the MPC 1000, and that was a terrible piece of equipment for me. I never enjoyed using it. I don’t do well with MPC’s. For whatever reason, it doesn’t relate to my musical brain. I didn’t enjoy using my equipment, so I didn’t make beats for, like, 10 years. I’d still make them, but, you know, I also didn’t put out as many records, I was a bit on hiatus, so you just weren’t hearing… You know, the only beat I made on “I Heard It Today” was the beat for “Hatred”, but now that I’ve transferred over to Native Instruments‘ Maschine, I’ve been making beats, like, all the time! It’s a huge difference. It’s just a matter of liking to use your equipment.
I read about you using Maschine on your website. I don’t use it, but a friend of mine does and it’s supposed to be really intuitive.
Dude, it allows the music to just float out of you as opposed to the MPC where I felt like I was always fighting a little piece of technology. The MPC was just a discouraging experience for me overall.
What’s the label situation for “Return Of Colossus”? Is there already a release date?
Not even. It’s weird, I really wish there was and I hope that the EP will be out later this year. I haven’t even talked to labels at all since I left Def Jux back in 2007, but right now I’m so consumed by the process of making the record that I still haven’t reached out to labels. The first thing for me is: Get it finished, and I’m within striking distance. I’m only three studio sessions away from the record being done, as I only have about eight more bars to write for it in general. It’s basically just a matter of two very short, well-executed sketches, as well as getting Qbert to finish his cuts, then mix it and master it and it will be done.
Your own label that you put up for “I Heard It Today”, was that always meant to be a temporary one?
Yeah, it was a label that was constructed to only support that one record. If I had kept the company alive it would have been cool, but it didn’t prove to be the way that I wanted to continue to put out records, at least at that time. If it became a necessity again, I could resurrect it. But right now, I’ll see if there are some powerful alliances out there that can help me accomplish, because this is a big project. There’s a lot that goes into it in terms of trying to have a certain type of graphic novel, and it’s also going to require some very strong visuals, like videos and possibly some animation, so it’s a big undertaking. I hope some big companies will recognize the potential that this has as a science fiction novel or, hopefully, even for box-office, in terms of film. We’re working on it, but the main thing for me, my main passion for now, is finishing “Return of Colossus”. I know it’s been a while since I’ve been actively putting out records and it’s a very exciting time for me. I’ve thought about this project for a long time, and I believe that anyone who enjoyed “Enters the Colossus” and “I, Phantom” will really gravitate to the record, and then hopefully enjoy the whole saga.
All photos are taken from Lif’s official Social-Media-Accounts