By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
He's touring behind what might be the most politically charged album of a politically charged career. But this afternoon, after answering the obligatory questions about the state of the nation, Mr. Lif confesses he'd rather talk football and chicks instead.
"I'm much more fascinated at the moment [with] relationships between men and women," says the Boston-born, Philly-based emcee born Jeffrey Haynes. "I'm much more interested in meeting a girl with a great mind and a dope body and seeing what develops." Compared to politics, in fact, he declares he'd "much rather watch a fucking football game. When [Redskins quarterback] Jason Campbell gets sacked, I know that's real. Politics'll always be there, and they'll always be lying."
Casual fans of the dreadlocked Lif, who's best known for his uncompromising stance on the issues, might find that a surprisingly cynical view — especially given the fact that his third album, I Heard It Today, features topics ripped from today's headlines and blogs: the housing crisis, the economic meltdown and the election of America's first black president among them.
But anyone who's been following Mr. Lif over the past few months might be less shocked. As he released singles from the album last fall, while the bottom dropped out of the economy and the election heated up, Lif refused to drink the Obama Kool-Aid and took a more measured view of his candidacy.
It's a view that survives, as Lif reflects on the first few months of Obamamania. "I like the fact that he's going after the credit-card companies, because what they do is disgraceful," he says. "It's good that the international image is better, because people like Obama. They find him an endearing person.
"He's helped people believe in the government — I just wonder if he's gonna do stuff for the people," Lif muses. "Because the government works in favor of money. Always has."
If that sounds like the view of a disillusioned Obama supporter, it isn't. Last year, Lif was calling out fellow Obama-ites in the song "Welcome to the World": "So we all supposed to just start trusting the government again/'Cause we got a friendlier face to it now? All our problems gonna be solved?" His conversation seems more to reflect the resignation of someone who realizes that this is as good as it's likely going to get for fans of progressive politics — and that it might not be enough. "Obama," Lif concludes, "is a great distraction."
Lif says he began planning I Heard It Today last summer, shortly before the spectacular September crash of Wall Street, "when the world done turned to shit" — which only confirmed his thesis. "My challenge," he says, "was to translate that into songs that weren't just about this particular time but had some resonance beyond it." He says he takes no pleasure in being ahead of the curve in covering the collapse — "Nah, I don't approach shit like that," he says. "I'm only concerned with the here and now." But it does give the disc, released on Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises, some undeniable immediacy.
Yet what might be more notable about the collection than its politics is the way it was constructed — both in response to, and sometimes in conjunction with, Lif's friends and fans. Those include more than just his production collaborators, which encompass familiar indie hip-hop names such as Edan, Cut Chemist and J-Zone, as well as Florida's Batsauce and Willie Evans Jr., who's now touring with Lif and lends some electrosoul groove to the project.
Some of the hard-luck stories on the album (and, on the title track, even the voices) belong to Mr. Lif's Philly neighbors. And the community created during recording, which included online supporters from around the world, was a lifesaver for Lif.
That's because his career, which began when he emerged from the Boston underground at the change of the millennium and released 2002's highly regarded I, Phantom on Def Jux, nearly came to a tragic end three years ago. Lif was touring with fellow political rappers the Coup in support of his sophomore album, Mo' Mega, when their tour bus plunged off a ravine outside San Diego and burst into flames.
While everyone aboard survived, Lif suffered injuries that put him out of commission for some time. Retreating to Philadelphia, he battled his physical limitations and resultant depression, unable to tour and, at times, to even record. Not for nothing does I Heard It Today begin with the lines, "Yo, my house is like a bunker/I won't open the door."
But the community around Lif made him feel "the most supported I ever have been while making an album," he says. "It really couldn't have come at a better time. Whether it was people's suggestions, or just someone who could get me a drink when I was physically unable to get around. It was a beautiful thing."
Lif insists that his injuries have healed enough to allow him to tour. "I wouldn't be out here if I didn't think I was in good enough shape to do it. I might not be 100 percent, but I'm the new version of 100 percent," he says. "But that three-year hiatus has made me hungrier, man. I'm revitalized. I'm empowered now."
However, his empowerment also has him thinking about new artistic approaches. He's never been a purely political rapper — witness past songs like "For You," dedicated to a child who may not have been born yet, or "Washitup," an even lighter-hearted ode to hygiene — but now he's considering reviving a project he began awhile back, centered around purely relationship-based songs.
"I'm having some really interesting relationships with women right now that are offering some new angles," Lif says. "I know that it'll piss a lot of people off, but I feel like if people are true fans of an artist, they'll follow him to some new places." (Those who want to follow are encouraged to keep up with Lif at www.twitter.com/therealmrlif and at www.myspace.com/mrlif, his two portals of communication with fans.)
"Life is just such an open book right now," Lif adds, sounding blissfully above the political fray. "I wanna take some of those different directions."