Mr. Lif Walks the Talk

There is hip-hop that is terrible, opulent and disrespectful to the art form’s more plugged-in roots. And then there are sharp historians like Mr. Lif, who strive to keep hip-hop honest with intelligent analyses delivered in body-rocking rhyme.

I caught up with Mr. Lif for Metromix, and reviewed his dopeshit, self-released new album, I Heard It Today, for the Tribune. We rapped about TARP and sports, socioeconomics and beats. Stuff that matters.

Interview: Lif to the Fullest

Since breaking out on El-P’s Definitive Jux label a decade ago, Jeffrey Haynes, aka Mr. Lif, has helped keep hip-hop honest. From conscientious early EPs like “Enters the Colossus” and “Emergency Rations” to plugged-in full-lengths like “I Phantom” and “Mo Mega,” Lif has spoken truth to power in hard-hitting, body-rocking rhymes that moved brains as well as spines.

When it came time for America to enter a new phase under the leadership of Barack Obama, Lif seized the day and tightened his focus, crafting his most ambitious effort, the new I Heard It Today. It’s a sprawling, sociopolitical exploration, touching variously on peak oil, police brutality and even our current econo-pocalypse, which Lif explains was created by the “taxpayer slayers” on Wall Street.

For I Heard It Today, Lif severed the Def Jux umbilical cord and created his own label, Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises — a name that references “the human robot,” the Boston-bred rapper explains.

“Whether you’re a suit with a desk job or a creative artist, you are still programmed to work. You can never ultimately escape from your responsibilities.”

“I Heard It Today” is an powerful effort for people who think hip-hop has abandoned activism and awareness. Did it feel important while you were making it?

They all feel important when you are making them. But I feel like this is my reentry to an industry that has changed so much. I was so genuinely inspired by what was going on in the country at the time. I remember turning on CNN in September 2008 and watching Wall Street collapse. That was the point where “I Heard It Today” took an exponential leap forward. Songs started falling out of my skull, so I just locked myself in the studio and finished it.

Did you need to detoxify afterwards?

I just got away from the news. I had been so deeply immersed in it. Once Obama was officially elected, I didn’t watch the news as much. But I turned on the TV the other day and saw the G20 riots in London, and nothing has changed. One protestor was like, “Look man, they are taking our tax money and giving it to the people responsible for our demise, who are loaning it back to us with interest.” I’m always surprised at the audacity of the people in charge of Wall Street. They’ve already screwed people out of your homes, jobs, healthcare and education, but since they’re not doing well, they are going to take more of our billions and market it like they are going to help us.

It’s nice to hear someone in hip-hop pay attention to the G20 and housing bubbles.

I hope so. Right now, a lot of hip-hop is on some dance party nonsense, so I hope there is a place for what I have to say. I think everyone out there knows that you can only run from your problems for so long, and that you compound them by ignoring them. I hope when they are done dancing and noticing their homes are disappearing, they will turn to me.

Tell me about your new label, Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises.

Well, my relationship with Def Jux is impeccable. My love for the staff there and what we’ve been able to accomplish is amazing, and we continue to talk and haven’t ruled out a reunion. But we didn’t necessarily have the same business ideas, so rather than force it, I started my own company to release the album.

Did you ponder going digital only?

At first, I thought about it. But I like having an album on the merch table, with liner notes and everything.

Can you picture a day with zero discs?

I can’t make that call. It’s hard for me to imagine there will be no need for physical copies of anything. Even vinyl has come back, if only in a boutique way. I can’t see people getting off the physical product. But I can guarantee that people will always want to hear music.

How does an artist who writes about global problems get away from it all?

Football. I was born and raised in New England, so I’m a Patriots fan. But I’m not into the sport for the big hits; I like the chess match. I run my business like the general manager of a football team: These are my starters, and these cats can come off the bench. So I also apply sports to my work. I enjoy team-building. I also spend time out of the country to disconnect. I’m a pretty low-key cat.

So when you retire from hip-hop, we’ll see you on ESPN?

Definitely. I want to have my own radio show. I’m working on it.

This interview appeared METROMIX

Review: Mr. Lif, I Heard It Today

This is Lif’s finest work yet.

Rather than use Lif’s dystopian lyrics as a crutch, the drums of “Welcome to the World” and “What About Us?” boom and pound with a life of their own. Even when he goes more digital on “The Sun” and the chiptunes-like title track, Lif’s flow keeps the pace steady and serious.

But the record really hits its highs on the psychedelic stomp of “Collapse the Walls” and the ambient spillover of “Head High.” It’s a masterful effort.

This article appeared at METROMIX

The (Blessed) Return of El-P

Best Music of the Millennium (So Far)

All Tomorrow’s Parties: El-P