Interview by Jen McKinnon
Photo by Amanda Macchia
Boston hip hop lyricist Mr. Lif has a lengthy discography dating back to the late 90’s including notable collaborations with Akrobatik (as The Perceptionists), El-P, DJ Krush, Galactic, DJ Q-Bert, Lotus, Sound Tribe Sector 9, Aesop Rock, Cut Chemist, Murs, Del the Funkee Homosapien, and more. He has also recorded with several Jacksonville artists like Paten Locke, Willie Evans Jr. and Batsauce.
Currently touring as a vocalist for Thievery Corporation, Mr. Lif is embarking on the next journey of his career, one that involves working closely with Bay Area electronic producer and permaculture enthusiast The Polish Ambassador. Announced this week, Mr. Lif joined TPA and Ayla Nereo in a new group called Terra Bella (which means “beautiful land” in Italian). The group released their first offering titled “Shine Bright” and Lif will join TPA’s fall tour kicking off September 28th, with a stop in Jacksonville at Freebird on October 29th.
Typically known for his strong political and social views, Lif’s present state of musical focus differs somewhat from previous songs like “Culture of Fear” and the album I Heard It Today. In the following interview, he talks about shifting attention from current events towards exploring a more imaginative realm. He also discusses the concept of re-releasing classic material for free in order to reconnect with his core audience, as well as gain new supporters.
You recently re-released the EP “Emergency Rations” as a Name Your Own Price download through Bandcamp. What was the reason behind this?
The record has been out for a long time and ultimately I want people to have the music. I want people to revisit it. As I’m moving forward and gearing up for my new record, which is a collaboration between myself, The Polish Ambassador, and Ayla Nereo coming out this fall, I feel reflective, looking at the path I’ve walked until arriving at this point. People continuously bring up the “Emergency Rations” EP. People always say how it touched them. I felt like it was a good time, embarking on a new chapter of my career, to take a look back. I wanted to share it and make it accessible to people.
I also like the community that can be built through a Name Your Own Price thing. I let people know, you don’t have to pay for it, I just want people to listen to it. You can get it anywhere online, but if you feel like giving any money at all, it all goes to funding my artistic ventures. If the record is good and you feel like supporting me launching forward and creating new music, feel free to chip in any amount you want. It feels more organic to me.
Do you feel re-releasing the old project also helps you gain new fans?
That is another upside. It’s so easy for me to think that’s my old stuff, but I can still reach people who haven’t heard the record and now they can check for my new stuff. It’s good to have it available to bring it back to people’s minds, to have that offering there for them to officially have the music through my Bandcamp page.
How long have you been working with TPA? How did it all come together?
In 2010, I recorded a song with Thievery Corporation called “Culture of Fear.” In 2011, they made it the title track of their album. They did a “Culture of Fear” remix contest after the album came out. I think that’s how Polish Ambassador got the accapella. I guess he was too late to submit it to the contest, and I’m not sure how he did this, but it got to my ears. I was thoroughly impressed, I was like, wow.
Last summer, Polish contacted me about writing a couple of songs for his album “Pushing Through the Pavement.” We had some extensive conversations about what we wanted to accomplish with each of the songs. One of the songs is called “Lost and Found”, which is the story of a young woman traveling the world for her business, not planting roots anywhere, and she finally goes to a place where she connects so deeply with the energy that she realizes she has to drop other things in her life and spend time there. Once she does that, she finds a really enriching experience by planting roots and becoming part of a community.
There’s another song called “Let the Rhythm Just” which is just me laying down a few uplifting verses. There’s definitely some self-reflection in those verses. Those songs have gone on to be the most prominent songs on Polish Ambassador’s new album.
After recording those tracks, he had the vision that we should do an EP together. Now the EP has grown into an album and we have a whole tour for the fall. We’re going out for 5 weeks and covering almost the whole United States, about 30 shows, from September 28th to November 8th. One thing leads to another and it’s beautiful.
What has been your experience doing shows with TPA? What are your thoughts on the Jumpsuit movement and his following?
That’s funny, I have not even been to a Polish Ambassador show yet. Because I tour with Thievery Corporation, I’m always in some different part of the world than he’s in. We play festivals every weekend, but it’s never the same festival. It’s wild that we haven’t had an opportunity to be in the same setting. Obviously we’ll have our rehearsals to prepare for this tour.
Knowing him and knowing Ayla, I love the things they do. The way they handle social media is amazing. And it’s not just all about music with him, it’s about using music as a catalyst to launch other initiatives. It’s important to stand for something and I think he’s following a very wise path and standing for something more than just being a beatmaker.
Our site is based in Jacksonville and you’re coming here on the tour. I wanted to touch on some of the Jacksonville artists you’ve worked with. A few years ago you released a song called “Best Route” produced by Batsauce. And you have a song with ASAMOV. What’s the story behind those collaborations?
Akrobatik, who’s a longtime friend and collaborator, he’s actually the one who introduced me to Paten Locke and Willie Evans, Jr., the guys from ASAMOV. And consequently I met Batsauce. We all hit it off. We’re all likeminded in what we appreciate about hip hop. ASAMOV hit me up about doing a track for their album and the beat was raw as hell so I didn’t hesitate to write a verse for that. With the “Best Route” song, which is Akrobatik and I, I think it was supposed to just be one verse, or maybe me on the whole song – I can’t remember – but I was like, nope, this will be way better as a Perceptionists song. The rest is history. Those guys are family right there.
What are plans for The Perceptionists?
We have a lot of new songs; they’re just not finished yet. There are many short bursts of concentrating on a new record, and those bursts get dispersed by things like my tour schedule. What’s cool is we have a lot of new songs just waiting for final touches. I think the smart thing to do is wait until the right time.
Ak just dropped a solo album, and I have the album with Polish and Ayla coming up soon. So there’s no rush on The Perceptionists, but we are sitting on a mini arsenal of songs we could go finish up and share with the public when the time is right. You have to stay dialed into the energy guiding the course of your career and listen to it. I think when the energy is calling for The Perceptionists, it’ll happen.
Your music is described as being socially conscious and aware, and you bring light to things going on in the world – sort of a voice for the people. Are there any current world issues that you are writing about right now?
My standpoint has been a little different than it used to be. In the past, I was very glued to news outlets and reacted directly to things going on. Now, I’ve taken a route to intentionally disconnect and let my imagination flow. It feels like a healthy balance. This practice was spawned by writing the “I Heard It Today” album. On that record I was so dialed into everything going on.
The initial concept was to write a song every few weeks based on current events. The challenge was finding current events that wouldn’t be disposable, that we’d still be talking about years later. I didn’t want the record to only be relevant for that week. I chose things like the housing crisis. But I got really fried from paying so much attention the filtered information coming at us constantly. I felt I was losing something about myself.
I think one of the tragedies of being an “adult” is separation from your childlike imagination. You never got bored and could look at the world with a certain level of fascination. I’ve been trying to revitalize that part of myself.
Being on tour, I haven’t been seeking out the information as much. But now that I’ve had a little down time and I’m home, I’ve been seeking out the information and finding the other side of my balance. The imagination has been fueled successfully, and now I’m looking at current events. There are major things going on right now, like ISIS and Mike Brown. I’m at the entry level stage of absorbing and developing my standpoint on those things.
That’s a very good point about being balanced and not losing yourself, despite what’s going on in the world around you, in order to stay creative.
It’s really easy to get bogged down by the “civilized world.” At a young age we’re taught what the status quo is – you go to school, try to get a job, pay bills and taxes – there’s something that feels very heavy about it all. There’s so many people carrying a student loan, trying to start a family, and might not have the job they want, and it’s a very complex world we’ve created. There needs to be a healthy dose of unplugging and fueling one’s imagination from time to time.
Is there anything else you want to mention or plug before we go?
I want to ask people to go to Facebook.com/MrLif and join the journey. I’m giving out sneek peaks of stuff not out yet, like the album with Polish Ambassador and Ayla Nereo. That’s where they’ll be able to hear it first. Also lookout for our tour, we’ll be all over North America. It’ll be an invigorating experience for all of us.
Mr. Lif comes to Freebird Live along with Polish Ambassador, Ayla Nereo and Liminus on Wednesday, Oct. 29th, 8:00pm. For more info on the event, and the TPA Permaculture Garden Installation event on Thursday, click HERE.