Def Jux Has One Good Rapper


I like it when rappers wear glasses

Mr. Lif
Definitive Jux offices
June 15, 2006

The Def Jux offices look about how you’d expect: Chelsea office building, lots of exposed brick, a big graffiti piece on the wall, iMacs everywhere. There are no cubicles; everyone’s desk is just pushed up against the wall. The wall-to-wall carpeting is a nasty grey. There no air conditioning. Other than the no-AC thing, it looks like a pretty nice place to work. It’s not a great place for a rap show, though.

The record label office party is a weird New York institution: bands and rappers doing short performances for label people and distributors and journalists. Before moving up to New York, I was only likely to see someone rapping in an office at the Christmas party when my boss got drunk. But here, I guess it’s some combination of workplace perk and business meeting. It makes sense that the people responsible for selling an album should know exactly what they’re putting out there, but it was still weird standing on one side of a big, open office room with twenty or so other mostly white people while Mr. Lif rapped at us from across the room and some guy sitting next to him at a computer played the instrumental tracks when Lif told him to. The show didn’t run on hip-hop time; it was set to start at 2:00, and when I showed up at 2:02, it was already going. This isn’t exactly an optimum situation for crowd-rocking, but Lif is a seasoned pro and a strong live performer, and he did everything you could expect from it, doing four or five songs from his new album and explaining what they were about and pulling off goofy crowd-participation bits and generally ignoring the fact that he was rapping in an office in the middle of the afternoon.

Lif has always been my favorite rapper on Def Jux, mostly because he’s the only guy that really fits my definition of rapper. He stays on beat, he lands punchlines hard, and he never raps like Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys the way the rest of the Jukies do (I like Cage a lot, but that’s pretty much what he does). And Mo’ Mega, the new one, might be his best album. As Pete Macia says in this morning’s dead-on Pitchfork review, it’s the first album where he abandons abstract apocalyptic parables and lets his humanity shine through. Political frustration has always been the engine behind his stuff, but now that stuff sounds lived-in and genuine. Like the Coup, he brings this stuff into his everyday life, and that makes it a lot more powerful. In fact, the biggest thing the album has working against it is that it’s coming out around the same time as the Coup’s Pick a Bigger Weapon, and it does a lot of the same stuff except not quite as well. Like the Coup, he talks about how Bush and Clinton bullshit affects his everyday life, he injects that stuff into rap-fundamental shit-talking, and he raps about sex; the two back-to-back fuck-jams on the album are about the last thing I would’ve expected from this dude. More and more, El-P has been easing up on the caffeine lately, stripping away some of the synth-blurt paranoia and giving his compositions (some) room to breathe. And Lif’s voice, as always, is strong and calm and confident, honest-to-god rap shit. He has fun playing around with language, he spaces his words out to give them more punch, and he takes his craft seriously. I liked him just fine when he was talking about nuclear holocausts and cosmic rebirth and shit. Now that he’s talking about being stuck away from his girl or wondering whether he’d be a good father, I like him a lot more. He knows what he’s doing.

And so those rap instincts were what let him do a weird and awkward office-space mini-set without embarrassing himself and everyone else. I’m going camping this weekend, so I’m not going to get to see his real show at the Bowery Ballroom on Saturday. If you’re not going camping, you have no excuse.

Voice review: Makkada B. Selah on Mr. Lif’s Mo’ Mega