It was September 28, 2001, and indie hip-hop's most jocked crew, the Def Jux collective, had taken over Seattle's I-Spy club for the night. Like most indie hip-hop shows, an odd cloistered feeling hung over the performances, as if they were happening in a bubble that'd been sealed off from the rest of the world. Of course, a few explosions had gone off less than two weeks before, and many more were set to go off in Afghanistan over the months to come. This was what made the shelter effect even more claustrophobic -- despite the round-the-clock CNN briefings on TV, the consensus of the artists onstage this night was one of escape. Maybe that's what's meant by "underground." A bomb could have gone off on the Earth's surface, and no one would know it. No information got in or out.
Mr. Lif, taking the stage in the middle of the show, was the only emcee to make mention of life on the surface that night. Between tracks he weaved in a spoken-word satire, inviting Bush to his crib to chop it up about his designs on South Asia and where those civil liberties might be slinking off to. There wasn't any sloganeering or cheesing-out, just enough acknowledgement to show Def Jux wasn't hosting a retreat for world-weary backpackers.
Hip-hop and the rest of America have been "hauntingly normal," in the year since, says Lif, baffled at the apparent apathy. "I grew up in an era in which rappers were consistently providing some form of social commentary." Now they aren't, and he has found himself as something of a voice in the wilderness since redirecting his lyrical sniper's rifle from dud emcees to double-talking politicians. And yet he's also managed to move units -- his "Cro-Magnon" single was Jux's best seller in 2001 -- suggesting that perhaps he's bridged the void between agit-prop and pop relevancy left vacant by his heroes KRS-One and Chuck D a decade ago.
August 2002. Mr. Lif is driving back to Oakland from Tahoe and thinking about his outfit, maybe a little too much. "Right now, I'm wearing a sweatsuit top by Mecca," he relates over his cell phone. "It was actually given to me by the distributor, basically because they want me to rock their shit. They know independent artists are the cats who are out on the street -- give it to Busta Rhymes and it's under a mink or some shit." Plying rappers with free product has been the cornerstone of the urban clothier's marketing stratagem for years. The practice, of course, has the net effect of turning the recipient into a mike-wielding billboard. This raises a few concerns for Lif, since he talks a lot on his records about media manipulation and the shallowness of consumerism. In fact, it was seeing a billboard through the car window that got Lif pondering his duds in the first place. He began talking about how you have to be wary of the images being fed to you, a train of thought that led him to Mecca. "From my standpoint? Whatever. I'll wear anything that's free," he says. "You save me a couple trips to the store and it keeps me warm? Fuck it, I'm wearing it."
Therein lies the special something that makes Mr. Lif's polemics palatable in these wishy-washy times -- they come sans soapbox. We want our corporations accountable and we want our bling. We want our rappers conscious, but we won't have them wearing rucksacks. Lif offers a nice balance. He's an idealist trapped in a pragmatist's body, and in illuminating the problems he sees, he doesn't point fingers. He also doesn't whine. "Sometimes things around me frustrate me," he says, "but never do I separate myself from the problem."
Lif went to Tahoe because it's one of the things he wanted to check off his list after moving to the Bay Area. He also wanted to be with his girlfriend before his debut album, I Phantom, hit the stores and the promotional madness would begin. She had moved to Oakland from his native Boston in 2000; he stayed there longer because he has such an established following on the East Coast. Recording with Jux in New York and still doing frequent shows in Boston, he seems to be leading a bicoastal existence.
But he calls Oakland home now. Lif's moved "to the only other place in the US I could see myself living," as he puts it. "I'm on Telegraph a lot, walking up and down the street with my stickers, trying to let people know the records are in the stores and telling them about what I do." His relocation has also allowed him to start from scratch again. In Boston, Lif had gotten about as big as an emcee could -- he won four Boston Music Awards, and he could easily sell out any of the regular venues there. Now it's here that he needs to make inroads, pressing the flesh as often as he can. "I like to bust my ass promoting," he says. "As an artist or a human being, it's good to just come out to a place and be at zero again."
Lif and his left-leaning social commentary are very much products of Boston and its swollen collegiate population. Although he only spent a year at a university himself, all the outlets for an up-from-his-bootstraps emcee in town were academic -- college radio stations played his songs and the two clubs that booked hip-hop shows were student haunts. As such, many of the topics that seeped into his lyrics were ones that might pop up in a graduate seminar -- the looming ecological meltdown, US foreign policy, and the emptiness of a workaday existence. His background is still in battle rhymes and getting the crowd to go "ho!," however, so don't expect to find footnotes in his CD booklets.
Growing up in Beantown, the young Jeff Haynes, aka Lif, spent the bulk of his time in Brighton, a Russian neighborhood fifteen minutes from downtown. He remembers being one of maybe ten people of color who lived in his apartment complex, surrounded by retirees and Boston College students.
Sports, not rap music, was the siren's call in Brighton. Lif played football and lacrosse for five years, and was a hockey goalie for nine, attending private grade school and then prep school. He took the reverse Will Smith route, going from suburban respectability to hip-hop legitimacy. He and his friends would buy the rap that came out, but didn't participate beyond that. "The small black population at my school were so foolish as to be up on Naughty by Nature," he says with a chuckle. "I remember we cut class in '93 to go buy the tape with 'Hip-Hop Hooray' on it."
He went off to college to play sports, but the rigors of keeping on top of practice and curriculum had him run ragged. Losing his passion for both, the displaced freshman began casting about for a direction. "Hip-hop basically hit me," he recalls. "Largely because of the immaculate hip-hop that was released at the end of '93 and the beginning of '94. When Nas dropped Illmatic, a lot of things started making a lot more sense to me. I was very impressed with the way the press embraced him and spoke about his poetical content and his voice. ... It helped me adjust my focus, made me realize I wanted to give my own commentary on the state of affairs."
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