The Smart Bomb 

Mr. Lif blows up in the hip-hop underground with outspoken politics and a green thumb.

Rhyme and reason: Lif raps about ecological - meltdown, foreign policy, and the workaday world.
  • Rhyme and reason: Lif raps about ecological meltdown, foreign policy, and the workaday world.

It was September 28, 2001, and indie hip-hop's most jocked crew, the Def Jux collective, had taken over Seattle's I-Spy club for the night. As with most underground hip-hop shows, an odd, cloistered feeling hung over the performances, which felt as if they were happening in a bubble that'd been sealed off from the rest of the world. Of course, the world outside had seen explosions in recent weeks, and more were slated for Afghanistan in the months to come. But a bomb could have gone off across town on this night, and no one at I-Spy would have known it.

Mr. Lif, taking the stage in the middle of the show, was the only MC to mention life outside the club. Between tracks, he wove in a spoken-word satire, inviting President Bush to his crib to chop it up about South Asia and Americans' civil liberties. There wasn't any sloganeering or cheesing-out; just enough acknowledgment to show that Def Jux wasn't into hosting a retreat for world-weary backpackers.

Hip-hop and the rest of America have been "hauntingly normal" in the year and a half since, says Lif, baffled at the apparent apathy. "I grew up in an era in which rappers were consistently providing some form of social commentary." Now they aren't, and he has found himself as something of a voice in the wilderness since redirecting his lyrical sniper's rifle from dud MCs to double-talking politicians. He's also managed to move units -- his "Cro-Magnon" single was Jux's best seller in 2001 -- suggesting that perhaps he's bridged the void between agitprop and pop relevancy left vacant by his heroes, KRS-One and Chuck D, a decade ago.

Lif and his left-leaning social commentary are very much products of his native Boston and its swollen collegiate population. Many of the topics that seep into his lyrics could pop up in a graduate seminar -- looming ecological meltdown, U.S. foreign policy, the emptiness of a workaday existence. His background is still in battle rhymes and getting the crowd to go "ho!", however, so don't expect to find footnotes in his CD booklets.

Growing up in Beantown, the young Jeff Haynes, a.k.a. Lif, spent the bulk of his time in Brighton, a Russian neighborhood 15 minutes from downtown. He remembers being one of maybe 10 blacks who lived in his apartment complex, surrounded by retirees and Boston College students.

Sports, not rap music, were the siren's call in Brighton. Lif played football and lacrosse for five years and was a hockey goalie for nine, attending private grade school, then prep school. He took the reverse Will Smith route, going from suburban respectability to hip-hop legitimacy. He and his friends would buy the rap that came out, but they didn't participate beyond that. "The small black population at my school were so foolish as to be up on Naughty by Nature," he says with a chuckle. "I remember we cut class in '93 to go buy the tape with 'Hip-Hop Hooray' on it."

He went off to college to play sports, but the rigors of keeping on top of practice and curriculum ran him ragged. Losing his passion for both, the displaced freshman began casting about for direction. "Hip-hop basically hit me," he recalls. "Largely because of the immaculate hip-hop that was released at the end of '93 and the beginning of '94. When Nas dropped Illmatic, a lot of things started making a lot more sense to me. I was very impressed with the way the press embraced him and spoke about his poetical content and his voice. It helped me adjust my focus, made me realize I wanted to give my own commentary on the state of affairs."

He decided to make "the ill leap of faith" and dropped out of school before he even had his rhyming skills sorted out. With just one poorly attended show under his belt and a style that sounded like the stiggity-stiggity stuttering of Das EFX, Lif pronounced himself a rapper.

It was a good thing that his musical skills didn't fail him, because this is one unhirable dude. According to "Live From the Plantation," from his full-length debut, I Phantom, Lif spent his workdays punching clocks off the wall and fantasizing about dismembering the boss. He was dope enough to be able to quit his jobs and live off of rap, but it took some doing, since Boston's hip-hop scene had been lying fallow for most of the '90s. No labels existed, and the only keys to area clubs were for rock artists, so Lif and other area hip-hoppers like Akrobatik, Virtuoso, Insight, and 7L & Esoteric had to build their own infrastructure.

It was the same story that played out in many cities at the time -- hip-hop cats copping a punk-rock ethic to support themselves. The best thing that came out of the era, in retrospect, was the critical voice it injected into rap music, the outsider's perspective on how the genre's success was changing the culture. But it also became reactionary and overly self-referential, devoting its lyrics to carping about bad contracts and the false glimmer of gold records.

Lif survived the various evolutions of the music by taking alt-rap's critical eye and training it on more than just the ills of the industry. He broadened the attack to include consumer culture and politics, and he might have been the first MC to raise environmental issues in his verses. "As we destroy nature in the name of cash," he raps on "Arise," "All justified by laws made by the legislature/ Mankind should feel the effects as he rips through the environment/And shuts down the Earth's powers if it's a requirement."

Lif's inclusive subject matter and distinctive, nasal delivery -- lots of jagged meters and offset syllables -- brought him to the attention of Def Jux, a collective that became sort of a beachhead for indie hip-hop's second wave. Headed by El-P of the first wave's most lauded group, Company Flow, Jux has served as proof that all the bravado of the backpacker rebellion wasn't for naught.

With Def Jux's backing, Lif's recorded output has become downright subversive. On "Home of the Brave," released last June on the "Emergency Rations" EP, he advances the Noam Chomsky it's-all-about-a-pipeline argument and suggests the anthrax scare was a government diversion. It's definitely one of the most inflammatory reactions to September 11 recorded in any genre. Further evidence that Lif doesn't give a fuck: He debuted the song at the Knitting Factory, four blocks from Ground Zero.

"I'm sure what I've been doing has not gone unnoticed," Lif says of the possibility of retribution -- from the government or anyone else who may take his outspoken views the wrong way. Then he adds, half-jokingly, "If they want to take a good brother down, that's their prerogative. And I'm sure they will, when they're good and ready."


More by Darren Keast


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