Fear of a bleak planet
The idea of hip-hop activist Mr. Lif not talking about politics is as inconceivable as Lady GaGa not talking about, you know, whatever it is she talks about.
One of this past decade's most politically astute and critically celebrated underground hip-hop heroes, Lif made waves last year with his Inauguration Day release of the prescient single, "Obama." On a day when just about everyone this side of a Penguin-esque Dick Cheney seemed caught up in the moment, the East Coast rapper's reservations echoed across the Internet like a stone-cold reality check: "I'd like to be more optimistic / But the world is twisted / A new America? / Oh shit, I think I missed it."
Now, as the promise of health care reform sinks into the political morass, Lif's cautionary stance seems well ahead of the curve. The same can be said for I Heard It Today, the album he released three months later that's as politically incisive as anything from Public Enemy or Dead Prez in their prime.
"Well, my level of optimism has grown, largely from not being as dialed into what the government is doing as I usually am," says Lif. "I've been giving myself a vacation, and loosely paying attention, but probably not enough to even give comment."
Instead, Lif is responding to an array of personal and political upheavals by immersing himself in, of all things, surrealist films and literature. He's also working with edgy hip-hop cohort Edan on a new album he says will be "largely based on a lot of things that are stemming from my imagination."
"If anything, I've been intentionally detaching," he says, "in order to unpollute my mind from certain levels of garbage and bureaucracy and overall fuckery."
Lif — whose Black Sheep show tonight will include an unannounced reunion with his former Perceptionists partner Akrobatik — has been an unrelenting critic of "what's going on within the regime." So it's a surprise to hear him talk about spending his days studying surrealist philosophy and delving into the writings of Anglo-Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany. He's also doing photo sessions where he appears to have grown an additional six arms, and is planning to re-read The Odyssey.
"I'm enjoying this much more than knowing exactly how people are perceiving Obama's work," says Lif, who's all but ignoring the current health care debate. "I just think it's not going to change much, because there's a small segment of people getting exorbitantly wealthy off of it, and they don't care about us. So if you want to be treated well and feel like you can go to a hospital when you're sick, you'll probably have to move out of the country."
Mr. Lif has gone through a lot since Boston teenager Jeffrey Haynes picked his stage name while high on mushrooms and Sprite at a Phish concert. And not everything he's been through has been good.
In December 2006, a tour bus he was sharing with Oakland rap group the Coup went off a 40-foot embankment and crashed into flames. Amazingly, no one died, but Lif and most of the others sustained serious injuries.
A year and a half later, his friend and labelmate Camu Tao died from cancer at age 30.
And just last week, former Gang Starr rapper Guru — who performed alongside Tao on a track with Lif and the Perceptionists — reportedly slipped into a coma after suffering a heart attack. (The artist is now expected to make a full recovery.)
Lif acknowledges that those events have taken their toll.
"Yeah, absolutely. The tour bus wreck definitely changed my life. Camu dying is obviously something I'm still trying to come to grips with. He was one of the funniest and most brilliant people I've ever been around. And hearing Guru had a heart attack, I mean, that's my idol right there. I learned so much about being an emcee from Guru.
"It just makes you realize that life is fragile. You've really got to enjoy the time that you have and try to be as productive and beautify life as much as you can while you're here."
So Lif ended up parting ways with Def Jux records and decided to put out I Heard It Today on his own. Last month, Def Jux founder EL-P announced his label is going on "indefinite hiatus," but Lif says his departure was in no way related.
"After the bus accident, I just didn't want to be signed to a label," he recalls. "I didn't want any sort of deadline to be imposed on me to make another record. I just wanted to make music from feeling purely inspired to do so."
Back from reality
Although Lif wrote and demoed an album's worth of very personal songs in the accident's aftermath, he doesn't expect to finish them until he's got more distance from the event. Instead, he went with the more politicized I Heard It Today. But even that record offered hints of the surrealistic direction he'll pursue on his next album: "I permeate surface, the earth is just one level," he raps on "Folklore," one of the standout tracks.
"My lines are particularly off the wall on that verse," agrees Lif, "but then [Jedi Mind Tricks rapper] Vinnie Paz has all this amazing imagery in his verse, which kept the political theme intact."
Actually, Paz's contribution is downright scary: "I was death / I was the fire burning David Koresh / I was fresh / I told Rick and Russell how to be DEF / I was best / Before you muthafuckaz took what was left."
Lif says he had no idea what Paz was planning to bring to the song.
"No, he just laid it down, and I was just very thankful. I was like, yeah, that's what I wanted. I wanted him to come off like a beast and, you know, he ripped it."
Paz has since started a management company and label called Enemy Soil, which will handle Lif's next album.
"Right now I have really interesting opportunities that are largely based on things I did in the early 2000s. You know, I collaborated with Jedi Mind Tricks back then, and like eight years later I'm under the Enemy Soil umbrella. And I've been in the studio with Thievery Corporation, working on a song and a video for a collaboration we're doing together. And that's based on the fact that — I think it was in '03 — we did a performance on the front lawn of the Capitol building in opposition to a whole bunch of things the government was doing at the time."
Whether in business or in life, says Lif, you never know what's going to happen. But politics, he figures, is more predictable.
"If anything, we can just remember the optimism that we felt about getting [Obama] into the presidency," he says. "And just try to use that whole promise and that energy to change things within ourselves, be active in the community, and affect the people around you in a positive way."