Mr Lif

May 5th, 2006

Mr Lif

The Def Jux artist was in town to promote his new album ‘Mo’ Mega’ so John Spiers caught up with him to talk in depth about some of the tracks and a lot more.

“I don’t feel like talking about rap,” I inform Lif as I take a seat in his hotel room, “Do you?”. A little surprised he informs me that he is open to whatever I feel like discussing.

In case you don’t know who Mr. Lif is, he is a Boston bred emcee with dread locks the size of your arms. He kicked around the underground scene in snowy New England for a few years before joining forces with Definitive Jux. A couple of EP’s and a full length followed, resulting in him being branded by critics and fans alike as “the political one”. This was due to the fact that he spent more time questioning the actions of the Bush administration in the wake of the attacks on September 11th than he did thinking of dense, incomprehensible metaphors.

He’s much like I had expected: polite, well mannered and eloquent. What takes me aback during the course of our interview, however, is that he seems as anxious and uncertain about his career and future as I do about mine.

“I don’t know how stable Hip Hop is. A lot of cats don’t want to write about shit. Like in America, they’re all on some trendy shit, moving on to write about punk and other stuff. They’re trying to bury underground Hip Hop.”

But we‘re not talking about rap. I spent the last five years in Massachusetts, Lif’s home state, involved in an array of different social movements and organizations. We’ve spent years protesting, organizing, meeting and so forth. We didn’t stop the war, we haven’t gotten a living wage. Living in London now, years on, and I feel even more confused than I did when I first picked up Lif’s ‘Emergency Rations’ EP in 2001. Since that said release, every Lif record I’ve heard contains socio political content and, goddamn it, I want answers. But Lif, like myself, has hit a brick wall.

“It’s more and more evident to me that we don’t know what the fuck to do,” he tells me, “In terms of making a dent in the government, or even getting them to hesitate. Protests obviously don’t work. That is the problem. That is the whole tone of the record.”

The same frustration and sense of hopelessness is what fuels the politicized aspect of his work, “There is a purpose to the music. Number one: for me to be able to maintain my sanity. Number two, to start a dialogue.” Mindful not to give the impression that he was an expert he quickly described himself as a regular person, just as flawed as any one else.

Mr Lif

“We’re all so in our own capsules. I’m guilty of it too.” Lif tells me. We speak of the absurdity of living in such close proximity to so many others albeit completely oblivious to the existence and experiences of those around us, a sad but defining factor of modern urban life.

“On the train at rush hour people of all different backgrounds are bonding through a common experience,” he continues, “Everyone had to wake up at seven, get dressed and go to a job that they may or may not want to go to. And everyone is trying to find the part of the ceiling that no one is looking at and no one talks to each other.”

The tragedy of the banal minutia that becomes the defining core of the city dwellers existence was the focal point of Lif’s first full length album, ‘I, Phantom’. His latest release, ‘Mo’ Mega’, follows suit with a similar sonic quality (thanks to eight out of the eleven tracks being produced by El-P, Lifs’ partner in crime on ‘I, Phantom’), but he seems to have hung on to the warmer and more human part of himself that he developed artistically on last years’ ‘Black Dialogue’ record, an album he recorded with friends Akrobatik and Fakts One.

“A lot of the songs on ‘Black Dialogue’ were songs that really meant something to me. I was obviously in a political box. I like to talk about politics, I have a passion for it. But I wanted people to know that there was more to me than that. A song like ‘Memorial Day’ is so much more forced for me than a song like ‘Love Letters’.”

‘Mo’ Mega’ continues in much the same vein, particularly on the aggressive and bizarre ‘Long Distance’, a song about lust and the pent up sexual frustration one developes when far from their partner. But the song is more than some sonic equivalent of a booty call.

“It’s a dark song,” he acknowledges, “but it’s not arrogant, despite the tone. People might not be ready to hear that song but for me it’s a landmark. In case you tried to pretend I was asexual or something… I’m not.”

The need to express a more rounded picture of himself as a human being – rather than an artist – seems to cut to the core of Lif’s raison d’etre.

“Life without passion is fruitless,” he says flatly. “To talk about politics is symptomatic of a stress and a disorder. But love is one thing that will always remain priceless. There’s a need to fully acknowledge what your life really is. There’ve been times when I’ve been on a plane and the turbulence hits and the one thought that keeps me in the sky is, “Let me see this woman one more time”. Loving someone that much, it’s important and it’s note worthy. There are so few things in life that make you feel that way.”