Rap and 'Woody Guthrie Shit': A Q&A with Lushlife

Rap and 'Woody Guthrie Shit': A Q&A with LushlifeEXPAND
Ebru Yildez

The battle for hip-hop’s soul — its public understanding as a black art form, its socially confrontational power and legacy — rages stronger today than it did for at least a decade before. In this environment, Raj Haldar stands peerless.

Haldar, better known as Philadelphia-based rapper and producer Lushlife, built a fan base and critical acclaim over three full-length releases that set his thematically sprawling raps against ethereal instrumentals that borrow equally from hip-hop and indie rock. The third of these albums, Ritualize, dropped this winter via Western Vinyl Records. Created in collaboration with CSLSX, a equally genre-spanning Philly trio, Ritualize features layered production and cryptic lyrics that reveal far more about Haldar’s worldview than ever before. The album’s roster of guests evinces Haldar’s ambition to create art across genres: Killer Mike shows up on the explosive "This Ecstatic Cult," while Ariel Pink sings on "Hong Kong (Lady of Love)."

In anticipation of his solo set opening for Islands at Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 21, the Voice caught up with Haldar to discuss making hip-hop with a message, how he understands his "outsider" status, and his evolution between albums.

Village Voice: With Ritualize, you transitioned into doing music full time. Did any particular moments compel that change?

Lushlife: There’s never been an "a-ha" moment, and I don’t even see this as the apotheosis of rising to something. I’m doing this with a very pragmatic underpinning. It’s not like, "Shit, homie! I don’t gotta do anything but rap and make beats anymore!" [Laughs] Whether or not that’s the case, at this juncture of my life, the music career needs to take the front seat. I’m excited and optimistic about it, but at the end of the day, I also understand that a year from now, not only might I have to go back to doing something else, I might want to. Part of it is striking while the iron’s hot, but I’ve set myself up in a few ways to take time to tour, do production stuff, and also work on new shit.

So what changed in the four years between supporting the last album, 2012’s Plateau Vision, and this one, for which most of your dates have sold out?

It’s been a slow and steady growth. That organic proselytizing of the shit you’re doing, and building a fan base of real fans—not just like, two million Twitter followers that may or may not care, but being able to drop into a major market and have people following you from day one [show up]. I’m starting to realize how much more lasting that is. With Ritualize, I started to feel that I don’t have a fair-weather music career. There’s something very real here.

To the uninitiated, how do you describe your music?

That’s always a difficult question for me. Obviously I get asked it a lot, sitting on a plane or bus or train, and the person next to me asks, "What do you do for a living?" With no context, I’ll say, "I’m a rapper-producer," and I’m not sure that effectively communicates what Lushlife is really about. A lot of people have described it as some sort of pastiche of indie and hip-hop music coming together. And I can’t really disagree with that, but I think the thing that I bring to it uniquely is that it’s always a real rap album. It’s not diluted by the interloping of something else.

I grew up entrenched in Golden Era hip-hop in the Nineties. Growing up in North Jersey in the orbit of [artists] like A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. But my brother, who’s eight years older than me, came home from college in 1992 with the Pixies’ Doolittle on CD, and that shit blew up my fucking frame of mind in the same way that Nas’s Illmatic did. And there’s also a natural through line of being a kid interested in studying music, taking classical piano lessons, playing in jazz band.

A public conversation about authenticity in hip-hop has emerged recently around white artists like Iggy Azalea and Macklemore, who have received criticism for appropriating an art form rooted in black communities and contemporary racial justice struggles. As a South Asian hip-hop artist, where do you see yourself within this conversation?

That’s a fucking huge question [laughs], and something I’ve obviously had to think about before I was even making records: How do I, as a South Asian kid, fit into minority culture? That, the whole idea of a "model minority," are things I’ve mulled over a lot. Over the couple of decades that I’ve been a cognizant music listener, there’s been tons of South Asian artists that use their South Asian–ness as some marketing point or crutch. And I think that’s an indignity to what it is to be an Indian person, to be like, "Oh, I have to mine this to make it as an artist." At the same time, it’s an indignity to me as an artist to think that’s what it takes. I'm a person of South Asian descent, I’m very connected to my culture and family in India and, in certain ways, to spirituality. [But] I don’t have to use that to do what I do professionally. That shit is a whole different vertical in my life force, and the music should just stand on its own.

On the other side is: How do I function within an African-American art form? How do I fit into that? How don’t I? The thing I try to keep in mind is that I, like anybody who came of age in the Nineties, grew up in this culture. I make records that uphold that culture in a very real way, and I don’t think you could have anybody, African-American or otherwise, listen to any of my three records and say anything other than that the canon reflects and respects the culture. That’s all I need to or want to do. 

You expressed a certain malaise with political culture on "This Ecstatic Cult." That track features Killer Mike, one of the most robustly political artists of our time. Did you invest more in political questions, however you define them, on this record than previous ones?

Early on, I was so much of an aestheticist — almost to a fault, just trying to make great-sounding rap records. But you spend enough time having some public voice that it starts to become important. Certainly in this day and age, in the world we’re living in, it’s becoming much more important to me to create records that say something specific and engage with the anxieties of modern life. Getting Mike on board was very much a part of that — Mike has a worldview and can explicate on that in a way that I can’t. His involvement projects something I want to project to my audience, so that’s why he’s on the record saying what he’s saying.

This record feels like it’s both the most personal release to date and also, if you start reading between the lines on the lyrics, I’m saying shit that’s more Woody Guthrie than I ever have. My natural leanings, given the political climate, ended up being extremely far left, and I inject some of that into the record now, and more so moving forward.

Lushlife plays Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 21st. Click here for more info and tickets.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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