World Renown: An Interview With Mr. Lif

It's been seven years since we last got an album from Mr. Lif, but his journey towards his latest involved seeing old friends and (of course) a Balkan brass band.
Mr. Lif
Don't Look Down
Mello Music Group

One of the first things that strikes you about Mr. Lif is how much he appears to think about things.

This will not come as a surprise to those who have had experience with his music before: the Boston emcee has gained recognition for his often political, always philosophical subject matter. Lif’s thought process extends past merely his own work however. The nostalgia he has for old school hip-hop, his acknowledgement of the inner difficulties of the artistic process and the level of appreciation he has for creative expression cast Mr. Lif as a thinker as well as a performer.

Despite this, however, it has been seven years since Mr. Lif released a solo album. He’s had his reasons, and some have thought that the hiatus could have indicated that we’d seen the last of the veteran emcee. Mr. Lif insists, however, that a new musical journey is only just beginning, having signed to independent label Mello Music Group. The signing has spawned Don’t Look Down, which was released earlier this year. Lif’s verse remains poignant, but we see a more personal journey coming to the fore, rather than the political undertones of his previous work. Now, over two decades since beginning a career which has seen collaborations with Jedi Mind Tricks, Guru, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and many others, the dreadlocked icon is ready to keep adding to the hip-hop culture that he values so dearly, embarking on more “musical adventures” in the process.

Mr. Lif sat down with PopMatters to talk about what it was like taking seven-year break between solo albums, why he signed with an indie label, and how it was like getting back in the studio with his old friend Del.

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What was it like to get back into the studio as a solo artist after such a long time?

Yeah, the hiatus was weird. I think that my time away from the studio was more strenuous for me than it was to be back in there. I think as an artist, you forget sometimes that we can all sit around and wait for some divine inspiration to hit us so that we create our art, but there’s also just a blue-collar workmanship that has to go into it. There was a period of time from about 2010 to halfway through 2013 when I didn’t even have a studio because my equipment drowned in a flood. What it did was it reinforced bad habits that I already had. I got into this terrible habit of making demos but never finishing songs, so when I started to get back into rebuilding my studio, it felt so natural. It was like a welcoming home for all my creative aspirations.

The thing is too even when I didn’t have my own studio going on, I was still moving around the planet and having different musical adventures. For instance, in 2011, I was living in The Hills in Northern California with this Balkan brass band and I was rhyming over Balkan brass. We recorded some of that too, it just hasn’t come out yet. So it’s not that I wasn’t recording, it’s just that I didn’t have my own means to [record] and that was disempowering in ways that I didn’t even acknowledge at the time.

Do you anticipate that you’ll get back to working on those demos or any of that other stuff?

All the demos are done now. Some of them are on Don’t Look Down like “Everyday We Pray”. I started that in 2010, so some of those songs had a long road to make it onto the album. But yeah I had a bunch of other tracks, I’m sitting on a vault. There’s a record I finished in 2012 that hasn’t come out yet. There’s an EP, I have the [Balkan] brass band album. I’m not sure if they’ll come out or when they’ll come out. I want to make sure they eventually surface but right now, this is the Don’t Look Down part of the journey. There’ll be a time and a place where those other things should be released and I’m looking forward to whenever they surface.

It’s been said that you’re inspiring a new generation on this album. How have you gone about trying to do that?

I can’t say that that was an active or conscious goal of mine, but what I can say is that Phife Dawg passing away … I don’t know if you had a chance to watch the streaming of the celebration of his life that took place at the Apollo Theatre in New York?

Ah no I didn’t see that

Basically a lot of legends from the hip-hop community gathered to share their feelings on Phife. You had Andre 3000 there, you had Busta Rhymes there, KRS-One was there, Kanye showed up. I mean, it was an amazing thing. And of course Q-Tip and Jarobi [White] and Ali Shaheed were there. Just seeing the hip-hop community grieve the loss of one of our champions like that … it made it so clear to me how much it means to add on to this culture and how much it matters to people.

When I just think about myself as a fan and how much hip-hop music and culture has impacted on me, I mean, I don’t know who I’d be without that. Me and my cohort all absorbed that energy of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang. And [we were] very impressionable at those ages. I wouldn’t trade the timespan that I’ve been alive for anything. I think even though there’s this realisation about how important it is to add on to the culture, like I said, it came from witnessing how people felt about Phife Dawg. Obviously I witnessed all that after Don’t Look Down was completed but it just raised the stakes for me. I hope that the album Don’t Look Down does inspire the next generation. Cats who’re in their teens or early 20s or early 30s, or wherever they’re out. I hope that whatever it is that they get out of that record, that it gives them some fuel to move forward and maybe express themselves to the utmost of their ability.

Because you do have such a personal connection with music, did that make it difficult to go seven years without releasing anything? Was it a difficult time?

[Making] Don’t Look Down was an extremely beautiful journey that had some of the most gut-wrenching heart-ache I’ve ever experienced take place during it. But the beauty of it and the excitement of it was re-building my studio and exploring different microphones, different pre-amps and compressions. On the personal side, there were a lot of losses. A friend of mine passed away at age 31 from juvenile diabetes. No part of it was more strange for me than 2008 when the housing crisis happened. It felt like the housing crisis came right after the collapse of the record industry. So by early 2008, it was already a commonly thought thing that you couldn’t sell CDs anymore and there wasn’t this resurgence in vinyl.

It basically felt like what I was put on this earth to do, which is to express myself musically … it felt like there was no use for me anymore. It was a very tough time. I just felt like a craftsman with nothing to craft, or a carpenter with no tools. It was weird. Again, there were some very weird realisations after I Heard It Today came out [in 2009]. That was when I cut off my dreads. I’d had 15 years of very thick locks on my head and after I got back home from tour after I Heard It Today, I cut my locks off. So there was a lot of new energy, a lot of experimentation, a lot of ups and downs. I would cite 2013 when I re-built my studio as the time where things became more beautiful and there was at least enough beauty to balance out the heartache.

You mentioned the collapse of the record industry, has the fact that selling CDs is more difficult now led you to be cynical of platforms like Spotify and the digitalisation of music?

It’s quite the contrary for me actually. I appreciate the wild nature of the current music industry. I feel like, in a way, it’s brought out a new level of creativity in a lot of different artists. I’m sure that by this time next year myself and the label will be evaluating what the best way to put out music is then. You kind of just shoot from the hip and you hope that your formula works and then you re-assess it because the rules of the game are changing so rapidly now. So that’s exciting in itself to me.

I also love that we have things like Record Store Day when we’re just celebrating record stores that are still actually in business. And this resurgence of vinyl sales, I love that. If I could’ve chosen one format for people to still be super into, I’m glad that it’s vinyl. I know that some of these digital platforms that only charge you $10 a month to have all the music you want, I know they don’t pay the artists very well and that’s the only sad part about it. I think that there has to consistently be a balance for us as a society of music consumers and people capitalising off music sales to find a way to compensate the artists.

It’s hard for me to separate from being an artist, but if you claim to love the artist’s music, you have to at some point give back. I’m so glad that I bought old Public Enemy records, I bought Kool G Rap, at least with the very hope that the record label would pay them at some point. Luckily for me I’m on a great record label that believes in giving artists money so they can live and do what they do with their art, so I kind of feel like, hey, bring it on as long as we all love music and it is a commodity that, even though we could get it for free, we should try to support the artists that we love because you never know how long anyone’s gonna be around.

Tell us about working with Del Tha Funkee Homosapien on Don’t Look Down, what was that like?

That’s my dude. [laughs] Del is from another planet. I believe the brother sees and hears frequencies that the average man just doesn’t. So any time I’m trying to get up with Del it’s kind of a cosmic experience. You just kind of never know where in the galaxy he’s going to be. Every few years, things bring us to being together. Luckily, in the process of making Don’t Look Down, it was one of those periods of strong connection between us.

I was spending a lot of time in The Bay and luckily where I was staying was a ten minute drive from where Del lives. I still don’t even understand the guy’s sleep patterns. It was very random when I would get messages from him, but I’d always have my studio packed up and when I’d get the word from Del I’d be rolling to the crib, I’d be bringing my mic and my interphase and my laptop, and we were gonna make this happen. It took a couple of sessions. I went over to Del’s crib. We were building, I think I had just laid down my first four bars or something like that. Then he wrote his first segment and I was sitting there trying to write and I hadn’t come up with something. I was taking too long and the brother fell asleep. So I blew the session. I packed my shit up and I was like, “Let me go back to where I’m staying, peace, I’m gonna catch you on another day.”

I went off on my own and started writing and came up with the right recipe to lay my verses down for when I came back a second time. I was like, “Del, here’s all my parts for the first verse.” Del writes real quick, so he scribbled something. He wrote so much, there’s a verse and a half that I have that I didn’t even put on the song. Then I took the session, went off on my own and then I penned the rest of my stuff for verse two and then we were good. I’m just so glad we were able to capture that. We’ve only got two songs together. That was the second one. The other joint we’ve got is called “360 Degrees” and we made that back in 2003 or something like that, so it’s been a long time since Del and I connected musically.

Did everything come rushing back when you started working with Del again even though it’d been so long?

Yeah. Absolutely. [laughs] It’s crazy. By no means do we talk every day or even every year, but that’s one of my longest standing friends. I’ve known Del since ’98. Like I said, he floats through the galaxy. That brother’s truly on a whole other frequency and a whole other plain. He’s one of these people that when things come about to spend some time, you just cherish it. Because you don’t know when it’s going to happen again. I think we really made the most of it by making “World Renown”. I’m glad that that represents our most recent time together.

Is it always that collaborative when you work with an artist who’s featuring on one of your tracks?

Your question prompts me to realise that that’s why I try to work with artists that I have a personal relationship with. I’d love to work with GZA, but I just don’t know GZA. Who do I go to? Do I call his manager? They’ll probably charge me a hefty sum because we don’t have a personal relationship. I do think it’s best to just work with cats that you know. That’s why I feel blessed that I was able to work with Guru before he passed away. On The Perceptionists’ Black Dialogue album, [Akrobatik of The Perceptionists] and I connected with Guru on this song called “Party Hard”. But yeah it’s better to just work with cats that you know. For example, when I’m working with Ak, we have that connection where I don’t have to worry that I’m going to be stepping on his toes or that he’s going to feel like I’m criticising him as a writer if I make a suggestion. We can just do that. We both want it to be the best it can be, so we work together. I think that’s an important connection to have and I think that’s where the best art comes from.

This is your first record with Mello Music Group, has it been a different dynamic to earlier in your career?

Man it’s been a continuation of the same great dynamic that I’ve been blessed with throughout my career, which is that I have a good relationship with the owner of the label and we’re able to talk creatively about what needs to happen with the music. If I hadn’t have met Michael Tolle, who’s the CEO of Mello Music Group, I wouldn’t have an album out now because I’d be waiting to meet the right person. I just don’t think it’s worth it otherwise. If you have a label that you’re on and they don’t understand you, that’s how artists disappear. You sign a contract because the money looks nice. Next thing you know, you make a dope album, that label doesn’t understand it then they shelf your project. They don’t want to put it out. And your momentum disappears, you can’t release shit because you’re under a contract.

Me and the CEO of Mello Music Group, we text back and forth all day building on concepts. We have conversations where we’re not just talking about the project that’s coming out after Don’t Look Down, we’re talking about the project that’s coming out after that. We’re two or three records ahead already. Our plans are already spanning deep into 2017. That’s the type of connection that I seek to have. I hope that the campaign [for Don’t Look Down] has had a good energy behind it and that you feel like the music is being presented in an artful way, in a tactful way. It means a lot to us that people feel that it’s well presented.