The most poignant art often functions as a reflection of the times, and there are few MCs who understand this better than Mr. Lif. More interested in exploring the plight of the working class than scoring radio play, Lif (Boston native Jeffrey Haynes) has become one of independent hip-hop's most outspoken figures.
His thoughtful, often inflammatory body of work suggests that he's carrying the torch lit by Public Enemy in the late 1980s—a fire fueled by political consciousness and a genuine desire for the well-being of his community, be it the black community, the hip-hop community or just the people who live in his neighborhood.
His latest LP, I Heard it Today, is a collection of tracks inspired by the 2008 presidential election. Last September, Lif started recording one or two new tracks every three weeks up until Election Day, all released online at intervals during the campaign. The end collection is a vital, touching document of disillusionment and cautious optimism, astutely capturing what may be the most trying economic period Americans have faced since the Great Depression.
“It was completely inspired by the campaign,” Lif says during a phone call from Portland, Maine, the first stop on his current national tour. “We were so stimulated by all the information that was coming out on a daily basis, I just thought it was necessary to document that era. I felt I needed to focus on the issues that would really stand the test of time.”
On the title track, Lif focuses his lens on the housing crisis, which has affected acquaintances, not just around his adopted home base of Philadelphia, but across the country. The crisis isn't “something that's just going to go away,” he says. “That changed the course of people's lives. It's going to be an issue 15, 20 years down the line, because people lost a lot of money, and they're playing a game of recovery now. That, to me, is a landmark in American history.”
His verses on “I Heard it Today” are interspersed with diatribes from fellow Americans discouraged by the recession, giving the song an emotional weight rarely attained in pop music.
“My next-door neighbor was a loan agent, and he lost his job out of nowhere. And he had to become a chef at, like, Applebee's,” Lif says. “He went from becoming an enterprising young businessman to just flipping burgers. At the time when I caught him, he didn't even have the Applebee's job. He was just trying to figure out what the hell he was going to do.”
Perhaps the reason I Heard it Today is revelatory is because Lif doesn't pretend to have all the answers, which erodes the boundaries between artist and listener. He worries about the same things we do, and it's evident in the tone of his voice.
“I had the most unsuccessful string of dates in early November, when the news of the recession was relatively fresh at the time,” he notes. “Just being in a position where the record industry has collapsed, and getting hit with the double whammy of my fans being scared that they're not going to have enough money… it becomes more of a hustle, a grind.”
As a result, he's being proactive by taking matters into his own hands, pulling triple duty as artist, tour manager and label head of his own Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises. Not only is I Heard it Today the first release on Lif's new label, but he's also becoming increasingly efficient at running his daily operations.
“I'm managing a 40-day tour myself,” he says. “It's a minimum of eight hours a day I spend handling administrative work alone, and that's before I get into the studio to zone out and make some music.”
But even with an insane workload, he finds ways to stay engaged with current events. Originally planned for release on Inauguration Day, I Heard it Today was pushed back to April. Instead, he released a non-album single, “Obama,” which juxtaposes clips from the president's victory speech with Lif's skeptical rhymes.
“After the elections, I got really repulsed by the news. I thought I'd be more tuned in because Obama won, but the wave of optimism was too much for me,” he says. “Yes, he's a better look for the nation—I know that. He's a much-needed role model for people of color worldwide. I'm just saying that all of a sudden people think we're this amicable nation. I think America has to admit that it's not the superpower it once was and that other nations are catching up.”
Clearly not a proponent of self-congratulation, Lif's words will remain forceful because he's never afraid to fight complacency.
“We haven't had good healthcare plans for the better part of a decade, we're slashing educational budgets on a regular basis, and now we have no homes and no jobs,” he observes. “What defines a nation? How is this a great place if people don't have roofs over their heads or steady sources of income?” Mr. Lif performs Monday, April 24, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/mrlif.