50 years ago, the US government imprisoned people for expressing the sort of politically volatile rhetoric that Def Jux MC Mr. Lif has been spewing lately. For the past year-and-a-half, Mr. Lif has used his albums as a platform to confront his listeners with topics ranging from the hypocrisies and inhumanities inherent in our war on terrorism to the dehumanizing affects of institutionalized conformity in the workplace. Although Mr. Lif’s political agenda would seem diametrically opposed to the hyper-capitalism of most current hip hop, Mr. Lif uses time-honored hip hop templates to represent the architects of the culture and resurrect the sense of community that was once resonated from hip hop music. Mr. Lif’s two most recent CD’s, I Phantom and the EP Emergency Rations, are the kind of agitprop hip hop that hasn’t been heard since the heydays of Public Enemy. Together with fellow political radicals the Coup and Dead Prez, Mr. Lif is quickly positioning underground hip hop as the only genre with enough courage and conviction to speak to against the Bush Regime.
While there is an obvious emphasis upon hip hop nostalgia and socialist-tinged politics in Mr. Lif’s rhymes, he is also careful to place his social commentaries within the context of everyday life, thus making them more applicable and important, and he also provides a much-needed dose of personal empowerment. And the albums’ funky and industrial beats – many of which are courtesy of underground uber-producer El-P – are the sugar that make the bitter political truths contained in the rhymes go down a little bit easier. Surprisingly, considering their subject matter, Lif’s albums have been successful; many considered I Phantom to be one of the top albums of 2002, and Lif enjoys the company of the very successful underground warriors Def Jux. Recently, MundoVibes caught up with him and spoke with him about his success and his political activism.
MundoVibes: Why did you choose to rap about predominantly political subject matter?
Mr. Lif: It was a large part of why I wanted to be an MC in the first place. All of my career I’ve been trying to do that. I’ve gone through different phases where battle rhyming was more my forte, but there would always at least be one line of commentary where there was some opposition to government of whatever structures that I find oppressive. It was time last year to step up and make clear what I was about. I wanted to say what was in my heart about issues that are being lied about, that people were being automatically being misinformed about. For I Phantom, it was time to sum up what had happened in my experiences that I have undergone.
MV: Did you set out to make a concept album?
M.L.: No, I didn’t know I was until everyone missed the point and I had to start explaining. I was just going to make a record where all the songs connect to one another, I was going to tell the story. I wasn’t thinking concept album. After I finished the album, I was thinking about how I wanted to have the record described, my publicist and I were talking about it, and I thought about it, and a concept album is one thing I didn’t want to have. But the reality is that’s what it is. I didn’t set out to make a concept album, but it turned out that way.
MV: I heard that you debuted the politically radical “home of the brave” early last year in the NYC club Knitting Factory. Where you at all afraid of what the audience reaction would be?
ML: Hell Yeah. I didn’t know what was going to go down. It’s one of those songs that you wonder what people really think, even when they have a positive reaction. Walking back through the crowd, you never know if someone is going to try and take a shot at you. But it has to be said. I wasn’t going to pick and chose where I performed it. And in New York, that’s where they need tit most. They’re getting so heavily bombarded with all the propaganda about Bush being a fucking saint, and digging them out of the rubble, and smoking all the perpetrators out of their holes and bring them to justice and all that other bullshit he was talking about. It (“Home of the Brave”) put an alternative view out there, and luckily the crowd responded well to it. The one thing that people have to understand when hearing that verse…is that I’m putting a perspective out there to try and have people question what they’re taught….so that they at least think twice about the shit that they’re digesting effortlessly.
MV: Your albums have been very encouraging for people who politically lean to the left, because otherwise it’s been a blackout as far as dissenting voices in the media.
ML: I feel the same way when I do shows and I hear the response from the audience. I feel like I’m not alone.
MV: Do you feel that being on a label like Def Jux has allowed you the freedom to express these somewhat radical messages?
ML: Absolutely. With El-P as a CEO, what more could I ask for? That kid is off the (hinges). Did you hear his last album?
MV: Yeah, great stuff.
ML: Yeah, he’s pushing boundaries all the time. And (Def Jux) is a perfect forum to develop as an artist. And it allows you to have your off-the-wall creations to be heard by a lot of people.
MV: Do you think that the traditional demographic of hip hop – young, urban, minority, financially disadvantaged – means that the art form is going to be inherently political?
ML: I feel that all of our lives are inherently political, because we do function under a government. And the things that we do on a day-to-day basis are the results of a conditioning that are put into place by people who are behind closed doors who determine what we should believe, what should be promoted, how much money should flow through our hands, and so on and so forth. But if you want to talk about communities of color, or those of lower income brackets…if anything, there is an increased level of expression that beauty spawns from because people tend to become eloquently resourceful. But all of our lives are inherently political.
MV: Good answer! In a lot of ways, hip hop seems very stratified, in that you have artists such as yourself, J-Live, the Coup, Dead Prez and others coming with a very left-leaning political ideology, but, at the same time, there is this side of hip hop that buys into this very hyper-capitalist vision. Does that frustrate you?
ML: It used to, but now I’m like, if those motherfuckers weren’t making that music maybe hip hop wouldn’t be as big as it, actually hip hop clearly wouldn’t be as big; Hip hop wouldn’t be the dominant culture. It’s unfortunate that capitalism is the topic that everyone can seem to relate to, and if you talk about that you can sell millions of records. But that’s reality. And do I want hip hop without Jay Z or Biggie having come out or Pac, which spawned that whole capitalistic revolution? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d want to remove those people from hip hop history, because I don’t think that (hip hop) would be the #1 music in the world right now. Where hip hop is right now, it allows me to function on the underground level and earn a living speaking my mind and sharing my music. So I don’t want to change a thing about hip hop right now. You can’t impose on people to have a message. A lot of cats just want to sell a million records. And I wish there was more commitment to saying something since you (already) have the power to sell a million records. But, you know, Nas just came back dropping conscious hip hop.
MV: God’s Son was great, surprisingly.
ML: Yeah, God’s Son was great. He’s bringing it back and I hope that he shines as an example to all. I love hip hop and I’m excited about what’s happening with it now.
Label website: mrlif.com