Mainstream rap is the new glam-rock.
Think about it. Ostentatiously clothed, attractive young men of questionable creative talent, swaggering and slinging tales of sexual bravado, good-time escapism and street life, whose styles differ only in the degrees to which they emulate the last guy to go platinum. There's a disillusioning glut of bland similarity, and the originally intriguing antisocial elements have long since been bled off. It's all about as thrilling and/or dangerous as Jon Bon Jovi playing a poofy-haired, lonesome cowboy in the world's tightest jeans.
Granted, you've got your handful of successful, dissenting envelope-pushers, and unlike '80s coif-metal, commercial rap is innately danceable, which extends its shelf life. But hard rock had its high-profile iconoclasts too, making the comparison more eerily apt — somebody really needs to crank out a Sociology thesis casting Eminem as the Metallica (or perhaps Outkast as the Living Colour) of turn-of-the-millennium music-trend culture.
And, as with every burgeoning and dangerously over-saturated genre explosion, there's something more substantial and challenging brewing below the surface.
"I grew up in an era where you couldn't listen to a hip-hop record once and immediately get the overall vibe of it," says Mr. Lif. "I'm still listening to (Eric B & Rakim's) Follow The Leader in the year 2002, you know?"
Lif may be the most celebrated underground hip-hop figure to come from anywhere north of Staten Island. The Boston rhyme-slinger has been featured in new-school culture mags from Urb to Alarm, and has performed with well-known acts, from KRS-One and The Roots to Busta Rhymes and the aforementioned Great White Hype. He's a four-time Boston Music Awards winner whose inimitable style blends social commentary, off-kilter rhythms and forward-thinking production with a retro-conscious flow and aggressive battle-rhyme vibe born back when cutting-edge hip-hop was business as usual for major labels.
"I was into Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Kool G. Rap, Poor Righteous Teachers, and all those brothers were on major labels," he says. "They were making underground rap music. Underground is a sound, it's not a budget thing."
Most majors have long since abandoned that sort of chance taking in favor of letting the numbers dictate their signings. Lif cites the nurturing of Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples as admirable exceptions to the rule, but readily agrees that the industry at large is obviously more dedicated to market share than breaking new ground.
"Their main interest, of course, is making money with a proven formula. If one artist doesn't work out, they pitch him or her away, and replace them with a carbon copy. I feel like the days of artist development are damn near gone on major labels," says the lyricist. "It's not completely dead, but ... major labels want that quick fix."
Like so many eclectic, independent hip-hop artists building a name in the American underground, Lif's defiant style has endeared him to the throng of collegiate white folk who heard A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul as kids and have been searching for the next iteration ever since.
Unlike many of his "backpack" peers, however, his combination of old-school commandeering and revolutionary rhetoric wins him a place in the club as well as the community. Lif himself is uninterested in the politics of association beyond the obvious affiliation with his label, Definitive Jux; he'll leave the comparisons and categorizing to the press and the fans.
"I think in the minds of many people, I am backpack," he says. "If you're not on a major label, and you're not getting all the video play, people still consider it that. I'm just making music that I'm comfortable with, you know, that I feel is saying something."
His latest release, the Emergency Rations EP, showcases one of Lif's myriad methods for incorporating the elements of his particular sound. A stripped-down, muscular call-to-arms, the disc addresses current national concerns with sparse production that gives it a somewhat dated feel. For his debut full-length, I Phantom — due out in September and produced in part by Def Jux founder/master beatsmith El-P (formerly of upstart conglomerate Company Flow) — Lif took an engagingly opposite approach. The issues are smaller and the beats are freaking huge. While the EP's tracks are crafted to stand as individual pieces, the album works an overarching theme of personal politics, social interaction and the erosion of the concept of family. Again, the full-length's intertwined ideas and cohesive vibe recall hip-hop traditions predating the disposable single.
"Going back to some of these older albums, they have an overall theme that carries you from beginning to end with a certain feel," Lif says. "Albums that maintain a tone, and make you think about several different things while still being interconnected. That's what I believe an album should achieve."
I Phantom features some of the deepest, thickest, most industrial-tinged production since Public Enemy's heyday, largely courtesy of El-P, to whom Lif refers as "the master of noise." Its combination of bigger sounds and smaller issues inverts the formula employed on Emergency Rations and reveals Lif as an extremely adaptive artist, capable of assembling a finite number of components to create surprising new forms. Amazingly, the bulk of both records were recorded simultaneously.
"When I step back, I think that's what I'm most proud of," says Lif. "I basically made the records at the same time, but I feel like the vibes of them are very different."
That predilection for constantly tinkering, developing and re-inventing is exactly the kind of thing that could keep Lif off the radio, and out of the ears of pedestrian hip-hop fans. His confrontational, thought-provoking nature doesn't help much, either. As a man for whom ideas are far more important than fame, he sees the inherent catch-22: If he got more exposure, he could open more minds, but it's tough to get more exposure without sacrificing the more mind-opening aspects of his art. For Lif, the process of refining his style is a delicate one — aimed not at TRL, but at making the messages in his music more easily understood.
"I do try to make things more, I guess, vivid to people. That's a part of my job, clear communication," he says. "In this day and age, lots of people have been dumbed down as far as what they think they should expect from hip-hop. They don't really listen to the verses; they're just waiting for that hook that's saying something to them that they can relate to. So I'll be working on those, but I want to keep the verses razor sharp, and to continue to present material that people will find challenging.
"I won't be dumbing anything down."
Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or at [email protected].