Tonight, Mr. Lif headlines the Knitting Factory Main Space, 74 Leonard Street, 212-219-3006.
Proof that Mr. Lif can bring the funny.
In 2006, Mr. Lif dropped choice darts for the President, the former President, and women who need to scrub harder. This year, as he rounds 30, the Philly resident’s taking on “the most important election in U.S. history,” peppering the net with leaked cuts and exclusives from the January ’09 release of his next, I Heard It Today. Last month, the polite, well-to-do rapper spoke to the Voice about his new tunes, the difficulty of writing an album in real time, and why you should really get over yourself and enjoy that Nas record already. — Dan Weiss
Mr. Lif, “I Heard It Today” (MP3)
So, I thought the whole record was going to be dribbling out a couple songs at a time.
My initial goal for the record was to every few weeks release a song that’s based on a different political issue…it’s such an amazing point in American history and you know, it should be documented. It’s obviously documented in the news and newspapers and all that, but it needs to have an impact on hip-hop.
You seemed to be trying to cover the before, during and after of this election.
Speaking about the past, future and present, I’ve run into some tricky ground. For instance, Nov 4. I have to have a song coming out on Election Day. But the song has to be passed in three weeks before Nov 4. So I have to do a big-time guessing game as to the outcome of the election: is McCain gonna win? Is Obama gonna win? But I don’t want to make a song that’s just disposable based on that date, based on who wins. This is an album with my name on it that I’m working very hard on. So for me it’s gotta be something that will outlive it, it can’t be something that’s just gonna be hot or applicable during this time of election. Ultimately, the bulk of the music that I’m writing for the actual album is based on my sentiments of living through an era with this type of turmoil going on.
I live in Philadelphia, a very blue-collar neighborhood. And on “I Heard It Today,” a lot of my neighbors are the people that were talking about their hardships, stuff that they’re going through or enduring, like possible foreclosures. One of my neighbors working in the lending industry lost his job all of a sudden because the industry just kind of collapsed.
How much of the actual record is written, and how much do you plan to say, improvise?
I have one more song to write at this point. I’m looking to finish writing the record this month, that’s the dream goal. Any improvisation that’s gonna happen is gonna happen in the “Presidental Report” tracks. The views on the album address topics that aren’t exactly gonna fade in the next four years no matter who’s president. But I think something like the housing crisis is a significant enough landmark in the history of America, that when you listen to “I Heard It Today” 10 years from now it’s gonna remind you of a time when the country was in turmoil, there’s gonna be people that lost their homes with their credit just starting to recover ten years from now. This is a life-changing era for so many people and it changed for the worse. The “Presidential Reports” [non-album tracks being leaked rather than sold through iTunes] will allow me to comment on other issues that be popping up along the way, and hopefully help build momentum for the album.
In “Brothaz,” [from 2006’s Mo’ Mega], you criticized the Bush administration but also named Rwanda. Does it ever get to a point where you worry about the perception of the left’s own inter-party criticism, which haunted Kerry’s campaign, so much that it feels necessary to look united and not scrutinize your own side approaching the election?
If people on the left aren’t critical of people on the left, we’re gonna end up like the right, in my opinion . . . Look, the capitalist system is not designed to bring out the best in human beings. Nor is the code of business. The code of business states that there is no personal or humane or caring involved. It’s just like…you know, the rawest image I can really bring about is you watch a mob flick, two guys are best friends. Then of all a sudden, one dude has a gun to the guy’s head like, “Sorry man, orders from the chief, it’s just business.” And that’s a common understanding that we have as Americans. Obviously, running the country is a business, and if we don’t all watch each other just as human beings and offer information: are we treating each other with respect? Are we treating the planet with respect? Or are we exploiting people that are in bad situations and ultimately doing things that aren’t gonna make a society that’s more balanced and in tune. There just needs to be more a critical eye there; everyone’s corruptible.
The previous track you released, “The Sun,” is less heated up.
“The Sun” is a song of inspiration. After writing the song about the housing crisis, you know, some of these songs just entail a pretty intensive level of research, where I’m just reading case after case of people put out of their homes or how their story unfolded, or the slow government response to the crisis, I’m just getting depressed myself. “The Sun” was just a natural progression, a much needed song of inspiration to tell people, ‘Look, shit is dark right now. But if you stick to doing whatever you’re passionate towards, there will be light.’
Getting back to the “Presidential Report” cuts, there seems to be a general downturn in interest with of-the-moment protest songs, like the new Nas album…
Oh yeah, I love the new Nas album.
I do too, but the reception among other many critics I know has been pretty harsh, that protest songs are too outspoken and rehashed, a thing of the past.
To me, that’s just like a hallmark in saying, “OK, we’re defeated.” If Nas, who has been doing business on a big level for 15 years, wants to talk to us about Fox News and Viacom, and the racial issues he’s addressing on the record, and people think that doesn’t have any social relevance anymore, that’s like terrifying to me. If that’s a widespread sentiment, then we’re mentally dead. We have lost. And I’ll be looking to move to a different planet. [laughs] But it’s sad if people say that. Social awareness is not something that becomes dated.
And I mean, what about the kid who’s 14-years-old, this is the first Nas record that he’s heard, or the first one that he got into, and he’s finally hearing it? If people had this attitude when Public Enemy dropped It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in ’88, I’d be a different person right now. If cats can make like ten thousand songs about partying, fucking chicks, buying cars and shooting people all year, then there can be at least half of that worth of songs that are trying to provide some sort of sociopolitical commentary. Where’s the balance?