Brooklyn’s Rough Trade Records is teeming with life as Mr. Lif darts from stage to green room prepping for his first solo show in a long time. As the lights dim on producer/friend Edan touching up the turntables one last time, Lif’s first on-stage steps as a solo artist in nearly seven years seem to echo through the room as he pulls the mic off the stand. His first song of choice could’ve been a comforting fan-favorite (“Return Of The B-Boy”) or a guest feature or deep solo cut, but he kicks a lengthy freestyle over a breakbeat, the mic in his trembling right hand relaying the excitement and anxiety in the air.
Lif, born Jeffrey Haynes, is just coming off of an extended hiatus inspired partially by both a 2006 tour bus crash and a general disillusionment with the music industry as a whole. That’s not to say that he wasn’t critical of capitalist ventures from the jump; 2002’s I Phantom, still considered by many to be his masterwork, was socio-economic manifesto as densely layered soap opera, a satire of American life as it was disintegrating around us all. Lif has loved and lost hard since his former label Definitive Jux went on hiatus in 2010; he tried his hand at real estate before the housing bubble popped in 2007 and a flood robbed him of his home studio shortly after that.
Lif’s seen his fair share of peaks and valleys, but he’s kept his eyes to the skies for those silver linings. Touring with music collective Thievery Corporation has kept him in the music scene, but he’s been biding his time as a solo artist. Don’t Look Down, his first studio album in seven years, is that journey smushed into a cohesive 10 tracks and 30+ minutes. With a shiny new multi-album deal with Mello Music Group and a newly weathered perspective, Lif’s just glad to be back.
In the first part of our exclusive interview, Lif talked with WatchLOUD about the process of Don’t Look Down, his relationship with El-P post-Def Jux, and his favorite Edan beat(s) of all time.
WL: Is it true that you got your name while high on shrooms at a Phish concert?
Lif: (laughs) Yes, it’s very true. My elementary school friend Phillip got in touch with me out of the blue one day and said we should go to this Phish concert. I hadn’t even heard of Phish and I don’t own any of their records or anything. We go to this beautiful outdoor venue outside of Boston called Great Woods and Phish is playing. He parks the car and pulls out this bag of mushrooms. I had never seen mushrooms in my life and he tells me to eat this cap and stem and wash it down with a Sprite. The shrooms I’ve seen since then were all shriveled and dry, but this one was so ripe and dusty, even. I was having visions I’ve never had before. There was a point where the bassist was playing a riff, and that gave me an idea. I came up with this song called The Liftedly Man, and over time I changed Man to Mr. and Liftedly to Lif, and I’ve been rocking with that ever since. I haven’t spoken to Phil since, which is strange. He came into my life, gave me these shrooms, and bounced out my life again. Thanks for taking me to that show, homie It was clearly meant to be.
WL: Don’t Look Down took me on an emotional journey. It felt like it was deliberately spliced into acts from abysmal to hopeful to melancholy. Was that deliberate?
Lif: I feel like it’s just a footprint of some of my own emotions and how they work sometimes. Or maybe it’s a footprint of what 2010 to 2015–when the record was finished–was like for me. Tons of adversity, tons of grown man living life and making mistakes and having to learn from them. Holding the mirror up to my face; those moments you like to think you can avoid in life. The era in which this album was born was the era in which I realized that nobody makes it through life unscathed. Whether it be guiding property through the housing crisis, trying to keep a roof over my family’s head, trying my hand at being a landlord for a little while and going through some horror stories with that. A friend of mine dying due to juvenile diabetes; rain washing away my studio in my basement.
WL: And the incident with your tour bus, too.
Lif: That was December 2 of ‘06, but it was the catalyst for a whole shift in my thinking and my walking away from the industry for a while. Then there were the tough romantic relationships that I just wasn’t ready for at the time. It’s all in [Don’t Look Down], so I definitely feel like the album’s broken up into acts. Especially in the way the world is now, we have access to these really quick highs very easily. Even with social media, you post something and see if people liked it; there’s so many ways for us to get instant gratification, and it leads to so many highs and lows that we didn’t necessarily have to deal with before with such intensity. It’s the level of accessibility that come with social media and smartphones. We’ve all got ADD now. I have my phone on silent at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t check it as many times as I would if I have the ringer on. I don’t know how many of us aren’t completing tasks that would take 30-60 minutes without looking at our phones for 5 seconds at a time. We’re just sugar-spiking all the time, and this album is kind of a reflection of that.
WL: That’s interesting because Open Mike Eagle’s Hella Personal Film Festival opens with a song about that very sensation [“Admitting The Endorphin Addiction”]. I think that concept is really intriguing, especially since you decided to stretch it out across an entire album. And you’ve always been such a vivid storyteller from the jump. Do you have any particular influences?
Lif: Man, I’d have to cite Homer for writing The Odyssey. Growing up, I was so into Greek mythology, and I must’ve read The Odyssey four times over the course of high school. I’ve also loved the cinematic scope of records like 3 Feet High & Rising and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, where you press play and you’re on a journey from beginning to end. I’ve always felt that the records where the artist brings you into their own world are some of the most powerful records, especially when you’re piecing together how those worlds are connected to our own reality.
For instance, when I listen to Radiohead’s In Rainbows, man, their most powerful songs can bring you back to a memory as clearly as a photo can. Having albums like those as influences created a desire to tell stories. That and being an only child and finding ways to keep myself occupied fostered my imagination, too. My parents were kind enough to make sure I had things to keep me occupied as an only child. For me, it was Transformers and Master Of The Universe. I remember that I’d have a hard time playing with the other kids in my apartment building because they’d wanna put weapons in their hands and have a shootout or something quick, but I’d say that we’re on day three of this epic storyline where Hordak is supposed to fight He-Man on the arm of the couch, which is a mountain ridge. I always had these storylines going on in my mind, so creating narratives has always been interesting to me. I love bringing people into a world to the point that if I write three songs, I’m already trying to figure out if there’s a story and how they relate to each other. All the records I’ve released are a buildup to what I really wanna do, which is a sci-fi post-Earth narrative. It’ll be a saga and I wanna have a film for it as well.
WL: No wonder you and Del [The Funky Homosapien] worked together on a song here. How did the relationship between you two start?
Lif: Del was on the first tour I ever did in my life back in 1998. That’s 18 years I’ve known him. It hasn’t been super tight friendship the whole time, but when we are in touch, it’s always great. I used to live in The Bay and I’d go by Del’s crib with my lady at the time. It was great to be able to tap into that friendship again for “World Renown” and I’m glad that it’s on the record.
WL: You’ve said in the past that you think that every MC should be able to produce for themselves, so I was kinda surprised to see that you didn’t produce any songs for Don’t Look Down.
Lif: Yea, I didn’t do any production on Don’t Look Down. It just panned out that way. I just went with the songs that I saw the story in and none of them were produced by me at the time.
WL: How did you wind up with Mello Music Group after all these years?
Lif: It’s kind of a crazy story, actually. Mello Music hit me up 2-3 years ago to do a verse for some project that I can’t even remember at the moment. I think I wrote to a Black Milk beat at the time, so naturally I thought that’s where it would end up. I didn’t hear from Mello for a while and I guess my a capella floated around for a while until L’Orange got hold of it. He added John Robinson aka Lil’ Sci from Scienz of Life; he put us on the song as a duo and it came to be known as “The Lost Nova.” A calendar year or so after that, I was in Costa Rica on tour with Thievery Corporation when L’Orange hit me up saying ‘I’m making this record with Kool Keith [Time? Astonishing!] and I want you to be on it,’ and Kool Keith is one of my favorite MCs of all time. Critical Beatdown and the Four Horsemen album still blow my wig back every time I hear them. I recorded my verse right there in the hotel room, which became the song called “Twenty Fifty Three.”
I sent the vocals to L’Orange and hopped on a plane from Costa Rica to Seattle, ‘cause one of my best friends in the world lives in Seattle with his wife. We go out to dinner and stop by this local spot where MCs cut their teeth; the promoter Liz says she’s glad I’m here and she asks me if I could hop up and freestyle after the next act goes off. I told her to have the DJ spin the raw shit and come correct, and I hopped up on stage and got loose for about five minutes and had a lot of fun. As I’m talking with my friend and his wife, it turns out that Michael Tolle from MMG just so happened to be in the building; he lives in Arizona but was Air BNB’ing an apartment right above the venue and just so happened to have come down as I was performing because he wanted a slice of pizza. When serendipitous shit like that happens, I always take note. I guess I was supposed to be there because before I knew it, Michael was introducing himself to me and we got to talking. I told him about working with L’Orange, and he hadn’t even told Michael who he had on the record yet. From there, I had my people get in touch with MMG and work out a deal.
WL: Where did the re-release of I Phantom come in?
Lif: One of the reasons I signed to MMG was because when I had that first phone meeting with Michael, he had a real vision for my career. It wasn’t just on some ‘I wanna put out your music’ shit; the first thing he mentioned was licensing I Phantom from me, and I own my whole back catalogue, thank God. He wanted to bring people back to what’s considered my masterwork, custom vinyl and everything, and then he started talking with me about my new record. I feel like he’s always thinking on a three-album scope. We’re already having conversations about the record that follows the record that follows Don’t Look Down. Michael is very passionate. One of the things that sold me on the label was him telling me ‘I’m not an artist per se, but my art is releasing records.’ That combined with the fact that he wouldn’t give me an opinion on my music until he had two weeks to sit with it. I sent him a four-song demo and he told me he needed to live with it; to hear it, to hear it again, step away from it, listen to it again. That’s how I knew he was a serious music dude.
WL: Speaking of labels, what’s your relationship with the Definitive Jux family been like since the hiatus?
Lif: There was a little while where we were finding our footing. When El-P was making Cancer 4 Cure, we weren’t as in touch as we had been in prior years, but I was abreast to what he was doing. That’s my dude either way. Our friendship is good; a year ago, me, El, and a handful of other people went out to the jungles of Montezuma to detach from the world for 5-7 and breathe and be on the beach, just eat group meals at a table. That helped solidify the relationship I’ve had with him since ‘98. He’s such a significant character over the course of my career. I’ll never forget the year 2000 when I was putting out Colossus, had about 7-8 tracks on it. I was sitting with my management team runnin’ through labels and none of them seemed like the right fit. I guess my manager told El that I finally had a body of work and he said he wanted to put it out and I’m over here like ‘You have a label?’ (laughs). We figured it was time to fully place our faith in him and see what he does. Lo and behold, he built Def Jux. I didn’t know it was gonna turn out the way it did, but El has given me a lot of guidance in this business and he continues to be a friend.
WL: That’s great, especially given the success he’s had with [Killer] Mike and Run The Jewels. It’s great to know that absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely.
Lif: No doubt. That’s still the homie. And I’m so proud of the success that he and Mike have had. For me, so much of this music business is about longevity. Everybody loves to hear some new music, especially from new artists. You’ve got this new artist creating this sound that you gravitate toward and you can take this journey with, but I’m more intrigued by the cats that can arise in different incarnations throughout their careers and make an impact. The fact that El founded Company Flow, then Def Jux, and now he’s in Run the Jewels. There was once a stigma in hip-hop that once you weren’t in your late adolescence or early 20s that you’d just fall off, so I love this portrait of longevity that’s being painted, man.
WL: On the longevity tip, I noticed that the production on Don’t Look Down sounds less synthetic than your stuff on Def Jux. What inspired your move in that direction?
Lif: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time because I was just gravitating toward the music that moved me the most. I know that “Everyday We Pray” and “Let Go” don’t sound like anything I’ve ever done before and I know Edan created a very unique beat for “Whizdom,” like sandpaper dragged across your skin. It wasn’t a conscious decision, though,
WL: I was listening to “Whizdom” and trying to figure out what Edan sampled. Were those church organs on that joint?
Lif: (laughs) I don’t ever have answers for anything he does. He just has his own pocket, man. He channels something mystical in his beatmaking, I don’t know what it is.
WL: What’s your favorite Edan beat that you’ve ever heard? He just did one for [Homeboy] Sandman that sounds amazing.
Lif: I just listened to a whole bunch of the Sandman record [Kindness For Weakness] last night. What I love about what he’s doing with Sandman is what RZA used to do. The record he’d do for Tony Starks didn’t sound like the record he made for GZA or the one he’d make for Method Man. I think he’s growing as a producer. Before I heard [Kindness For Weakness], I thought that I was gonna be wishing those beats had come my way on some Meth v. Chef type shit (laughs). But he’d created a unique world where Sandman thrives that sounds different from the stuff we’ve got in the pipeline. But my favorite Edan beat would have to be “Heavy Artillery,” dude. The tempo was relentless and it was a dusty savage beat. From the creative side, he also did an amazing job on the beat for “Live From The Plantation.” All the little nuances he put into the beat with very bright colors on that one.
Stay tuned for part two, coming next week!