Post-Album Release, Lif Finds New Life

Mr. Lif is a man with a mission. Several, in fact.

While his politically conscious lyrics offer new viewpoints on everything from fast food to the war in Afghanistan, the rapper has been instrumental in putting Boston on the hip-hop map.

As he has grown and matured, so has the Boston hip-hop scene—from informal tape-swaps at shows often marred by fights to a flourishing environment that has produced several buzz-worthy artists.

When he was growing up, Lif says, the few hip-hop shows in Boston were “pretty rowdy, so my folks kept me at bay.” There were plenty of other means for a hardcore fan to get his hands on cutting-edge jams, so Lif avidly collected tapes by groups like Run DMC and De La Soul.

One of his key early influences was a operation now based out of Pennypacker basement.

Lif credits David M. Mays ’90, who spun records on WHRB as an undergrad, for introducing him to underground emcees and tracks that never enjoyed commercial circulation. Mays later went on to found “The Source,” the first and most prominent mainstream hip-hop magazine.

Lif pays homage to Boston’s hip-hop roots on his 2000 debut EP Enters the Colossus—a bare-bones affair featuring old-school beats and some cocksure rhyming. On the album’s closing track, he names the influences, collaborators and contemporaries who jumpstarted his career, name-dropping several Boston colleges before mentioning Harvard radio.

Only a year earlier, Lif says, he had begun to “stake [his] claim as an emcee.” Lif and other up-and-comers—including Mr. Turk, 7L and DJ Sense, who features on Colossus—started putting on shows at the Middle East club in Central Square, which flew the flag for Boston hip-hop.

“We wouldn’t really have had it like we did [without the Middle East],” says Lif. “They held us down.”

He attributes the rapid and positive evolution of hip-hop in Boston in large part to “the college crowd, who were open to hear anything fresh.”

“It always helps to have young, intelligent minds,” he says.

In two or three years, he’s only seen one fight at a show—and that was started by an outside gang—in marked contrast to the stereotypical hip-hop scene.

Meanwhile, college radio helped sustain the less commercial, independent hip-hop movement.

Lif’s long-awaited full-length debut I Phantom hit stores in 2002 to substantial critical acclaim (including in The Crimson). He says he worried that the album, which traces a central character’s struggle for success and happiness amidst the banality of modern life, was “too heady” for a listening public focused on catchy singles and fly but air-headed rhymes.

But Lif said the reception has been far better than he expected.

The album also faced the challenge of being released by an underground artist on a relatively obscure underground label—Definitive Jux Records, also home to Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox. But years of experience in Boston’s scene have made Lif a master of getting word out on his music.

Last summer, just before the release of I Phantom, Lif put out the Emergency Rations EP and his most incendiary single to date: “Home of the Brave.” A fantastically articulate—and funky—verbal assault on the Bush administration and their war on terrorism, the song concluded with the line “You can wave that piece-of-shit flag if you dare / But they killed us because we’ve been killing them for years.” The single was accompanied by rumors from Lif’s website and publicity agents that he had gone “missing” due to his political views. But to the relief of his fans, he soon reemerged, and the buzz kept growing.

Lif’s album release brought another change as he left for Berkeley, CA to conquer new ground and be with his girlfriend.

“It’s back to ground zero,” he says. “But I think a lot of people are grateful because there aren’t many emcees out here. A lot moved to LA to be where the business is.”

But Lif still keeps a 617 phone number, and he says Boston is still home—“I mean, I lived there for 26 years!” And he’s been back to Boston in recent months for a number of shows, including “Lifoween” at the Paradise Rock Club and an all-ages show at the House of Blues in Harvard Square last year. Always well-attended by cheering crowds, Lif’s Boston shows often feature new material and breathtaking freestyles from the man himself.

Lif isn’t one to hog the spotlight, though. He treats his shows as an opportunity to give emerging Boston rappers exposure and support. Kabir, another Cambridge-based rapper, has opened for Lif at nearly every one of his local shows. His intellectual lyrics and damn-the-man mentality jive well with Lif’s revolutionary outlook, but Kabir’s skills are still in their infancy compared to Lif’s awesome mastery.

Not so with Akrobatik, a talented emcee who traded rhymes and freestyles with Lif at both of his last two shows in Boston and will release his debut album early this year.

He doesn’t have immediate plans for new solo material, but Lif’s creative energies are still at boiling point. With some collaborators, he’s working on a new record and several labels are “poised to make offers.”

Lif says that only the unexpected is genuinely fresh, so for his next album he intends to drastically recreate himself. He says he “might have been too cryptic early on” when his real goal is to “raise awareness about what’s going on with the government, and make people think.”

—Staff writer Andrew R. Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu.

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