Today marks the release date of Mr. Lif’s third full-length album, I Heard It Today, which he considers to be the true follow up to his debut, I Phantom (2002), rather than the actual follow up, Mo’ Mega (2006). Although, Mr. Lif claims all is well with his record label home, Def Jux, the politically-minded, laser-lipped MC’s latest album is being put out via his newly created Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises.
With a new President, a new list of responsibilities, and a new decade to look forward to, Mr. Lif talks about his era-defining I Heard It Today, as well as discussing the pressures of keeping up with current events, juggling creativity with administrative tasks, having a better hairstyle than his fellow underground MC, Murs, and what NFL player is most Mr. Lif-like:
On the road, how much do you read to stay on top of current events?
It varies. I can only digest that shit in bursts. When I was writing [I Heard It Today], I was glued to many media outlets, just hearing different perspectives on everything that was transpiring, leading up to the election. In the immediate post-election era, I was talking to tons of people in my community and friends all across the U.S.–just getting [everyone’s] perspectives. There’s a wide spectrum of topics covered on the album, and I felt like it was very important for me to have the ideas of various communities across the United States reflected on [I Heard It Today].
Do you ever feel pressure staying on top of current events?
Here’s the thing, I’m not infallible in anyway. I feel like there are certain MC’s who will talk down to their fan-base. I feel like I don’t present myself that way. I’m out here in the struggle just like everyone else, and I’m just talking about things that I observe. Do I know a lot of factual information about very specific things in politics? No. I’ll tell you that point blank. Factual information isn’t my forte, nor is it my passion. What I prefer to do and what I enjoy doing–and feel like I have a natural knack for–is honing in on the pulse of the times and translating that into poetry. Rather than being able to rattle of sentences from some piece of litigation from some great historic document, I feel like I focus more on defining an era. To me, I Heard It Today, is the album that defines this era. It deals with those issues and it puts it in a very sincere perspective.
As an MC, did George Bush make your life easier or more difficult?
I would love to feel that things are great with the government and just not have to write any songs about hardship, miscommunication, or people being unfair, but I think a lot of people think that defines me. For me, I feel like I write about life, and life is inevitably affected by politics. I’m glad McCain didn’t win, but I wasn’t rooting for shit to be awful so I could write more songs about torturous eras. I’m just saying I’d rather be writing songs based on optimism. I’m much more a student of relationships than I am politics. So whether or not Bush made my job easy, I don’t know? There were things to talk about that needed to be talked about, and during Obama’s era there are things that are going to need to be talked about.
Why have you been calling I Heard It Today the true follow up to your debut album I Phantom?
Stylistically it’s a return to that stream of consciousness style. There’s something to follow from song-to-song, a build up from the first track to the last track on the album. It’s just an adventure, man.
If I Phantom and I Heard It Today are stream of consciousness albums, what would you consider your sophomore album, Mo’ Mega?
Mo’ Mega was a collection of songs that didn’t congeal the way that I wanted them to. I think, due to some deadline issues, it just didn’t get the time to ferment the way that I wanted it to. That’s the easiest way to put it.
When you talk about deadline issues, is that one of the reasons why I Heard It Today is not a Def Jux release?
Well, not so much. Here’s the thing, I know with Jux, I can talk to these guys about anything. I mean, dude, the first record they ever put out was Enters The Colossus. We go back–they don’t go back with any artist further than me. That’s my family, but I just went through so much shit since ’06. I made Mo’ Mega, I have a lot of love for the record, but it wasn’t a fully realized vision of mine–in my opinion.
What could have made it more realized?
I think just a little bit more time to smooth over the transitions from songs. I feel like there are pockets of fluidity in it, but there was something that needed to happen–some sandpaper to smooth it out. It was just a little rough around the edges, that’s all.
Did you have to turn it in at a certain deadline?
Yes, I think we pushed it back at one point, and we used all the time that we could. It was just a weird era. El-P and I, we tried out best to make it happen. I know he gave his all and I gave my all, but I feel like sometimes you really need to step back from a project, not listen to it for a while, and then be able to re-approach it. When me and Akrobatik did The Perceptionists album in ’05, we were writing those songs on the road and performing live the same night. And then we’d be like, “The hook’s going to need this, because it feels like it’s lagging on stage if we don’t have that.” Mo’ Mega just didn’t have that opportunity. It’s more cerebral, dense, and kind of just dark and internal. It didn’t have time to marinade.
How does the current economic crisis and a weakened recording industry affect you as an artist?
It makes me want to do it on my own like I’m doing right now. It affects us in many ways. You just don’t know how many people are going to buy the CD, so you kind of go into it now, knowing that your CD is more like a business card you’re handing out to someone. If they buy it, that’s a huge bonus. Obviously, advances for records are more humble than they were. Ultimately, if people don’t have a lot of money they’re going to feel more inclined to just take your music–that’s a huge overlying factor too.
It’s just an era where a lot of people are having to do more work than they’re used to having to do. Right now, I’m learning some real survival instincts. I have a huge burst of creative energy that’s dedicated to administrative work, where I’m trying to keep in touch with people across the board from my whole team. The whole economic crisis calls for a more resourceful and a more dedicated-to-hard-work type of individual.
Next year will be 2010. What do you consider to be the best hip-hop moment of the decade thus far?
That is so tough. I don’t know? One thing that I can say is that I’m proud of seeing Murs breakthrough, like what he’s doing on Warner Brothers. That’s exciting to me, because that’s a cat that I’ve been on tour with several times and recorded with. He’s a hard working guy. I’m just proud of seeing certain [artists] from the underground breaking through, having their business model remain tight, and transcending eras. I like seeing that.
Speaking of Murs, who has better hair–you or him?
My hair is O.G. hair, so it has seniority. You have to respect your elders, but I like how Murs’ is developing. It reminds me of when I first started growing mine. He’s still new with it and he’s just letting it bang–letting it go raw. I’d have to say that it’s a draw, but I might get the edge because of seniority. You’ve gotta pay respect to those that paved the way.
(right: Who has the better hairdo? Mr. Lif or Murs?)
Speaking of hip-hop in the 2000’s, what are your thoughts on the vocoder?
Hey man (laughs) if cats use it effectively and it’s really dope–do it. I loved what Snoop did on “Sensual Seduction.” I could sit here and say, “Be original,” but we know those days are long gone. Cats are looking for cookie-cutter formulas to make things sell. It’s a McDonald’s world. Someone does something that’s a breakthrough and everyone’s just like, “Okay how can I dumb this down and present it to the people in a way that they think is different–even though it’s the exact same thing?” That’s what it is man. Anyone that made a real dope jam with a vocoder, more power to ’em.
Will you ever use one?
I don’t have any plans, but who knows man.
Finally, I know you’re a big fan of football and usually compare things in NFL-like terms. That being the case, what NFL star is most like you?
Rodney Harrison. Not the current Rodney Harrison, but the ’03-’04 Rodney Harrison; still in his prime, just absolutely brutal and punishing. You know, catch-the-ball-across-the-middle-at-the-risk-of-your-own-health–that type of shit. When I approach the mic, I’m thinking about nothing except demolition.
Depending on the picture I’m trying to paint, obviously, if I’m writing a song like “Love Letters” or “Breathe In The Sun” I’m not thinking of damage like that, but I’m still trying to approach the mic with a certain level of craftsmanship that is somewhat barbaric. You just gotta be savage with it, you know what I’m saying?
Rodney Harrison is my favorite football player of all-time, and in his prime, embodies the way that I want to approach [my music]. I just want to make that impact on the eardrum that leaves you saying–oh shit. I feel like Ol’ Dirty Bastard achieved that on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). If I can just touch upon that type of genius at any point in my career, I’ll feel alright.