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July 27, 2006

Mr. Lif, College Dropout

Mr. Lif, College Dropout

Hastings Cameron writes:

A few weeks ago, I interrupted Mr. Lif’s nap time to discuss (a) Bill Clinton’s honorary negritude (b), dropping out of college (c), the demographics of underground hip-hop shows, and the heartbreak that led him to record genital hygiene anthem “Washitup!” If you’re in Chicago this weekend, he’ll be performing on an island in a sea of hipsters: Pitchfork: Sunday, 4:20 w/ Aesop Rock. If that sort of thing isn’t your bag, catch his set in a smaller venue sometime – or buy yourself a Def Jux baby tee.

The following is an edited transcript. Some of what’s been cut: shockingly, the Boston native has never been in a room with Benzino, Made Men affiliates, or Dave Mays – nor has he ever gone to a chat room on any website. Don’t worry, he’ll probably still read your MySpace love letter.

On “Brothaz,” you said “Fuck Clinton too”…

Yeah [laughs]

Do you remember when Toni Morrison (d) called Clinton the first black president?

Right, right – yeah, I remember that.

What was your take?

I think a lot of people took that and ran with it… especially amongst my peer group. [laughs] It’s funny because when I did Perceptionists, we were going to do a mix-cd called The Four Black Presidents, [laughing] and it was gonna be myself, Akrobatik, Fakts One, and Clinton was gonna be in there, too. We were gonna have this Pen & Pixel stupid-ass [graphic] with Mt. Rushmore: we were gonna be in there with Clinton. I think he was very much embraced. Especially in light of the Bush regime – anyone that’s reflecting is like, “[Clinton] was a very cool president.”

Maybe it was an unwarranted cheap-shot out on the guy. ‘Cause in comparison to what we have, he didn’t cause as many ripples. It was just frustration about the situation in Rwanda. Obviously, comparisons could be drawn to the way things are being handled now with Darfur and the situation there. He was just like another example of the “911 Is A Joke” response time to crises in the black community. And now he’s livin’ (e) all up in Harlem and is so embraced. It’s not like anyone’s without their faults – I got plenty of my own. I just think that he’s another American president who can’t completely act like his shit doesn’t stink.

Is there any white politician who would warrant a full embrace from the black community?

I really don’t know – it probably sounds really funny coming from me, but I’m just not in love with politics like that: I don’t have my head up these people’s asses to that extent. I just don’t really believe in the system we’ve created in general – it’s all a bunch of fuckery. I just don’t see how the system’s even intended to work in the first place.

What’s an alternative system that would be more functional?

I don’t have a master plan for an alternative government – I’m just saying that what we’re doing right now clearly doesn’t work. People are obviously very corruptible when given a certain amount of power. We’re in an era where cats are clearly running running amok with the power they do have, and it’s like watching an evil frat. Sitting their huge bouncers at the door – cutting back on our rights to privacy and everything else: health care’s unattainable, educational budgets are consistently under siege. I don’t see why anyone would really believe in it. I’m just not even a fan – I’m not turnin’ on the news and shit. As much as I can free myself from that – I’m fuckin’ out of there. That shit’s just depressing to me.

I go much more off how I feel – living in this world – than studying what they do in terms of textual information and being able to rattle off a bunch of facts. I [draw on] my day-to-day stresses, the stresses I saw my parents go through when I was growin’ up – the stresses of the community around me, in my peer groups. That’s much more real and powerful than any rhetoric I can find on tv – people debating over x, y, and z topics that may or may not exist. I can’t fuckin’ deal with that. That’s why I like sports too: the quarterback scrambles out the pocket and someone hits him – that’s real, he really got hit.

That’s why on Mo’ Mega one of my main focuses is that restrictive, slow response time to people of color. That’s just real – that’s something I’m in touch with every day, in terms of how I’m treated as a black man walking down the street, and how I feel completely alien and foreign. Especially with the locks I have, and how people will consider them completely unruly. There’s a whole dimension of things that I’m forced to deal with on a daily basis that requires a lot of my energy to cope with. It’s either like I got extreme admiration or extreme hatred – with no common ground. Never any sort of indifference – it’s like one of the two.

I was actually going to ask what your experience at Colgate was like – you sort allude to it briefly…

Really, it starts with my overall schooling. My parents made a lot sacrifices to make sure I was in really good schools: 10 years of my life really were spent at this place called Noble and Greenough: it’s basically a prep school, you know. I went to day camp there four years before I enrolled in the middle school – went to middle school there, and then I went to high school there. I lost my passion for formal education, I remember in the sixth grade, I remember literally being like “You know what? This isn’t fun any more.” I never fell back in love with school after that. That was it for me. Because I was in a prep school and everyone was so college-driven, I ended up pulling it together and getting a good gpa just long enough to get into Colgate. I went there because it was the best school that I applied to – and I got in.

It was a very big wakeup call, like a fuckin’ slap in the face. Campus is beautiful and everything, huge privilege to get in: my parents cried when I got in.You know, it’s a prestigious institution. They were like “yo, you’re gonna be a good man, you’re gonna be able to get a good job.” That’s what parents want, they just want to know their kids are gonna be ok. But the reality was that it was a place for very wealthy people.

All the entertainment on the campus was based around fraternities, which I personally just can’t stand. There were maybe like 8 or 9 frats, and like only one sorority. The small population of color there kind of huddled together: like all the black people lived in the Harlem Renaissance Center. I was one of like two black people – me and my boy Rashaan were like the black kids who didn’t live in the Renaissance Center. The Asian people lived in Asia House.

Youknowwhatimean? It was literally that… I don’t want to say…segregated – it’s easy for me to say that word, but it’s more that people were so alone that they just clung to whatever was familiar. It’s kinda like a scary place, you’re far – for me it was five hours from Boston, but it’s so far upstate New York and there’s nothing around it. We dealt, and were just like, “hey man, I just need to cling to whoever looks like me.” That’s where I started rhyming. I ended up as a freshman somehow having a single room. I guess it was kind of uncanny. I got to just spend time alone – that’s kind of where I fell even more in love with hip-hop music, and I kinda gravitated towards other kids on campus that were rhyming. That’s what Colgate was for me: learning how to rhyme, and smoking too much weed and drinkin’ forties. I can’t believe I did that – because if I had a sip of a 40 now I’d probably have to check right into a morgue.

What do you drink now?

Hardly anything. Now, maybe I’ll have a Heineken right before I go onstage or something like that. When I’m at home – I went through a little, like a month-long stint of drinking amaretto, just cause I have a sweet tooth. As far as weed goes, I hardly even smoke it. If I buy a quarter bag of weed it’s definitely gonna last me four months, five months. Yeah, I’ve slowed it down pretty hard.

What do you think about wearing “college dropout” as a badge of honor?

The educational system is fucked up. Fuckin’educational system is big business, man. I don’t really know how much they care about actual fulfillment in life. I dropped out too. I found some people that liked to rhyme and drink – that was my experience. Other than that I know college education mainly as a good way to get in a whole lot of debt: unless you’ve got a full-ride scholarship, it’s a good way to be payin’ some pretty heavy bills for the next decade of your life. 

One of the biggest mistakes in the educational system is that they force you to pick your major at the age of 19 – how the fuck are you supposed to know what you want to do with the rest of your life at that point? I think there’s a lot of loopholes in the educational system that can really make people feel unfilled with their lives or feel like they’re wasting a lot of time and energy. I know a lot of young people right now who are just freshman or sophomores in college and they don’t fuckin’ want to go back. To be honest with you, I don’t know a lot of people who are passionate about institutionalized education.

Fortunately, young people I know are like “Yo, I need to build up my financial education in order to survive, and that doesn’t me include building up twenty thousand fuckin’ dollars in debt.” Or if you’re going to accumulate the debt, try to get their education in something that’s more directly translatable: something that they enjoy, or real estate and business so they can own their own shit. 

I mean, I didn’t really meld well. For me, my passion was words. What’d I do? I studied English. I found one teacher I liked in high school and took four or five classes with him in a row, and that was what I liked about school – that was why I went there every day. All the other shit, takin’ Latin, Spanish – I wish I was more focused, but I wasn’t. All the other shit I had to do there was busywork. It probably made me a little bit more well-rounded as a person – school’s kinda there to keep kids out of trouble and keep them occupied, I think, to a large extent. I think that if you can go and focus on what your actual passion is – and completely channel your energy into that, that’s a beautiful thing, no matter where you do it. If that happens to you in college, then that’s great – you got your money’s worth. I feel like I got my money’s worth out of college cause I met kids there that I rhymed with – and that was more important to me than any classes they offered. If you can fuckin’ figure out what you want to do with your life and not have to spend four years there spendin’ all that money – get the fuck out.

What was the shittiest job you had when you first left school?

Ahh, man – just like a string of them. The song “Live From The Plantation” is about one of them, just ‘cause it was doing very boring clerical work and I clearly wasn’t meant to do it, the pay was low... But the worst thing? I would say the absolute worst thing was working at this place called the Border Café in Harvard Square, Cambridge. Like the most degrading, demeaning job I’ve ever had. I was a host, and I was told that I was gonna get promoted to be a waiter.  I wanted to wait on tables because the pay was tangible: you walk home at night with some money in your pocket.

And they just never promoted me, and the shit I had to wear was fuckin’ demeaning, the boss had a fuckin’ shit-eating grin all the time. It was really a popular restaurant and you’d have to stand outside sometimes to corral the line. In the freezing cold, people would sit outside 10-15-20 minutes – sometimes even longer - just to get into the place. Sometimes you’d get this shift outside – I can’t even remember what you were doing, just making sure that the line formed well and went according to fire code or city code or some shit, making sure that no people were standing in the street: a fuckin’ crazy job that I wasted time at.

On “Murs iz My Manager” Murs said “you put Kanye up to sayin’ all that” – what do you think about his public persona?

Well, I don’t really know enough about Kanye to comment on his public persona – I know that he’s made some good songs, but I’m not really listening to the radio. Some people have told me that he’s an arrogant person – I don’t really know that because I’ve never met him – maybe they just ran into him on a bad day.

How about what he said about Katrina?

It’s not like he was completely off-base... you can’t say that. I mean who does Bush like? Bush likes his money, and I would assume that he likes his immediate family as well. But I would say that Kanye also said that at a very inappropriate time in a very inappropriate way. My only contact with that whole incident was listening to how Akrobatik felt about it. And Akrobatik as a black man thought that he kinda didn’t do justice or help the situation by his method of saying that and when he said it.

Was it more the timing, or that it wasn’t clearly articulated?

I would have to go back and watch footage of it to give a better opinion. I can only tell you [how] the one black man who came to me and spoke his mind about it felt. At the same time, I really don’t have too much of an opinion: it’s like, “ok, freedom of speech,” Kanye took the time, he was obviously outraged, and he said what he said. I’m sure he’s lived with it, people have asked him tons of questions about it, and I’m sure all the people around him have done their best to shut that shit down

Did you see that thing about him leaving a box of interracial porn at a photo shoot?

[laughs] Nah – I don’t know what that guy does. My question is what would that signify?

Byron wrote something to the effect of: “hopefully no one will continue to buy the idea that Kanye empathizes with the plight of the black woman.”

Why, because black women shouldn’t be in porn, is that the point?

It was black men and white women.

Well, let’s not all jump off a cliff, the guy was watchin’ a porn. I just tend not to – the whole going through people’s lives with a fine-toothed comb – I’m just laid back about that. It could’ve been his porn, it could’ve been his friend’s porn.

What do you think about statistics indicating that a huge portion black women reach middle age without finding a compatible partner – that college educated, career-driven black women vastly outnumber their male peers?

I would just say that’s really unfortunate. It’s no secret that black men are in a state of emergency, and that’s been going on a long time – and that’s obviously just a reflection of that. I’m very thankful that I’m not in that boat, of not being able to – well shit, I don’t have a fuckin’ degree! [laughs] I don’t really know what to say – I hope that people in general can find someone that they’re happy with in the course of their lifetime. But you know, there’s a lot of problems plaguing the black man – obviously we’re heavily reflected in the jail system, and way too heavily associated with violent crime, you know, whether or not it’s stereotypical, or just like [an image created] by the media. It’s unfortunate.

How much time do you spend thinking about the make-up of your audience – underground hip-hop crowds tend to be pretty white?

You know, my main concern at an event is “are people gonna come?” And then, when I do finally hit the stage and there’s a room full of people there, I’m just thankful. I really don’t look at their skin color. It’s not that I don’t notice it: it’s something that at one point I was just very perplexed by, [given] the type of music I make – Perceptionist’s  Black Dialogue, the lead single of my new album is called “Brothaz.” Obviously, I’m not only making music that’s about and directed towards African Americans.

I’d love for more African American people to hear a song like “Brothaz” or just to hear some of the content of the Black Dialogue album. But I know the reality is that I’m kind of in this weird pocket where they’re overlooking what I’m doing, unfortunately. But I think my main goal is just diversity – I want more women to come to the shows, I want more people of color to come to the shows, but overall I just want people there. At the point where I start going off to shows and there’s an empty room, then I got problems. As long as some people are there, I’ve got something to build on. And I’m slowly but surely seeing it become a little bit more diverse – especially on this campaign where I’m out doing stuff for Mo’ Mega. Yeah, I’m seeing a little bit more diversity, there’s definitely some spots where people of color are popping up, and I’m definitely taking time to talk with cats. Especially like, in Cleveland: I got a young group of brothas out there that come to the show whenever I’m in town, and we always take at least 20 minutes to kinda chat it up and touch base with each other, you know? It’s an intriguing thing though: it’ s something that I’ve tried to figure out because I was frustrated– and then something that I felt like I had to let go. Obviously I’m gonna have to have the type of longevity so that I’m here when the audience changes again. I’m in this for the long haul: I know at one point the audience was mainly black, now it’s mainly white, and I want to be here when it’s half and half and whatever else it’s gonna be.

When NPR – Ed Gordon’s show – did a piece on you, the narrator listed the topics of tracks on Mo’ Mega and said ‘there’s even a track about sex’ as if that would be particularly surprising or novel. Do you think that there’s the expectation that if you’re a political or underground rapper – you’re kind of a monk (f)?

Oh yeah – that’s completely why I did those songs. Anyone who thinks that about me is fuckin’ trippin’. That’s definitely not the life I lead at all. I’m fully aware of it: this shit is just completely castrating. It’s a combination of things – I was not comfortable enough with myself in my younger days to write songs like that. I was involved in some pretty lengthy relationships that were pretty tumultuous and intense because, you know, I’m a traveling musician and all types of crazy shit – anything you can imagine, I’ve seen a lot of shit, had my adventures… and I’ve also been trying to be on some grown man shit and trying to hold down a household even though I’m hardly ever there, keep a woman happy when she’s got to sit at home and misses me. I just kinda got to a point where I was like “Am I going to perpetuate a façade, or am I gonna just speak about how I honestly feel about some very real aspects of my life?”

And I know it’s completely shocking to people – some people are just appalled by songs like “Washitup!” and “Long Distance.” [To] people who hate songs like that, [I’d say] “well, unfortunately,I am a human being – it’s completely my right to speak on my life.” Whether or not people want to believe it – those two songs – and songs on the Perceptionists album like “Love Letters” and “Breath In The Sun” are probably more accurate representations of who I am and what my life is like than anything else I’ve ever written.

As opposed to lyrics that are more removed from your personal life, more abstract…

Yeah – those are some very specific incidents that I was drawing on. That’s a beat I made that I had for a long time – and just couldn’t figure out quite what to put to it until I had some pretty quirky experiences that I thought were really worthy of, kinda just fit the beat and the whole feel and added comic relief: it came from the heart [laughs]

Was there one encounter that catalyzed “Washitup!” – or was it cumulative?

I think it was encounters with a certain person that were a bit heartbreaking – it’s just like ‘wow, everything else is great, but goddamn, what’s going on down here?’ Youknowwhatimean? And that was unfortunate.

Truly heartbreaking?

[laughs] Yeah! [laughs] Well, not heartbreaking, but it was definitely one of those very awkward issues that never got discussed. It was just one of those situations where if I was like – if it was someone I thought I was going to fall head over heels in love with, obviously it would’ve been addressed and approached with much more care. but, you know – it’s just one of those things where I was like “ok, I’ve got to move on now – this is gonna continue to be an issue here, so…” [laughs]

Have you heard from anyone since the song’s been released?

Yeah – of course. I have good relationships with anyone I’ve ever been involved with. There’s not one person I’ve ever dated that I couldn’t just call up – I don’t burn any bridges.

So you were drawing on actual relationships – not just casual…

I’m not like a frivolous guy. And people are completely anonymous. I don’t even know if those people know it’s about them. That’s fine with me; I’d prefer it to be that way. It’s not intended to call anyone out – it’s just me writing about experiences that I had that I thought made for a little humor, a little quirkiness: I dated a girl who was a little sour down there, and I dated a girl who, you know really who wanted to fuck as soon as I got off the stage, because she just got turned on by watching me perform, and that’s just the reality.

You briefly mentioned MySpace earlier – you personally respond to messages?

It’s very high volume – I try to respond to as many fans as I can, but it’s very tough to get to ‘em all. Yeah, I definitely try to show love cause a lot of kids on there, a lot of people have gone out of their way to be very kind to me, so I really appreciate that and try to let them know.

Do you get propositioned by fans on MySpace?

I mean, I go through everything any mildly famous person would go through. Not saying I live the same life as the guys in KISS. I’m no Gene Simmons, but I’ve seen a lot. I come across people that have some pretty interesting perspectives. You know, it all makes life richer – I say bring it on. That doesn’t mean I need to respond to anything that anyone says, but it makes for some entertaining reading.

***

Notes:

a) Initially, I asked if he was familiar with this site. He asked for a description – I said something vague about “provocative and inflammatory editorials” and may have inadvertently given him the impression that Bol labors to promote earnest, progressive, political discourse. It’s quite possible Lif pulled up the site during the conversation – and saw nothing but fast food reviews. Alas, we never discussed “The Fries”.

b) If the wikipedia entry wasn’t enough – read Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle, spot the eponymous female caucasian.

c) Regardless of what “the Bishop” would have you believe.

d) “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” Also jacked from wikipedia.

e) Or rather, Westchester County. Same thing.

f) This was prefaced by quoting Tom Breihan re: Slug:, “one of the only rappers in the quote-unquote underground with any sort of swagger or personality or believable sex-drive or beat-riding ability”. I took it slightly out of context, he’s been plenty complimentary re: Lif. Aside from our mutual crackerdom, I admittedly share with Breihan an appreciation for Kano – and a slightly irrational enthusiasm for the dawn of the Black Card Era.

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