Boston MC Mr. Lif Returns From Solo Hiatus With ‘Don’t Look Down’ (INTERVIEW)

Mr. Lif never consciously set out to take six years between releasing a proper solo album, but the life isn’t always predictable. After releasing his last album I Heard It Today in 2009, the Boston rapper and emcee had his home studio flooded. With his creative temple in ruins, Mr. Lif found himself in a state of limbo. That is until he was asked to join Thievery Corporation as a full time touring member. He was no stranger to playing the role of band member, having toured with groups like Galactic in the past, and the gig came at a time when he was taking a break from his own work. It was during downtime from touring the world with Thievery Corporation when Mr. Lif felt the itch and slowly began fleshing out new material for a record. He also became obsessed with audio equipment as he pursued a mission to capture his raps with the perfect sound. He even started sharing his latest gear on his Facebook page, giving fans rare insight to the technical side of being an artist.

Finally, in 2015, Mr. Lif was sitting on a pile of new demos that were ready to be refined into an album. The result is his sixth studio LP Don’t Look Down, which captures Mr. Lif in fine form as an emcee, proving that some things are worth waiting for. Here we get a rapper who is refreshed creatively and spiritually as he attacks the mike with renewed determination. Don’t Look Down is a cohesive collection of ten songs, which is an intentional number inspired by Nas’ now classic debut Illmatic, among other albums. There is an element of the socially conscious and politically aware hip-hop that made Mr. Lif such a standout act to begin with, but the material isn’t quite as tense and heavy as previous albums like I Phantom and Mo’ Mega. With a new sense of artistic inspiration, Mr. Lif is more focused on what he can achieve sonically than he is on delivering a powerful political message. Of course, his razor sharp intellect is still fully intact, and once again he proves to be one of the few hip-hop artists capable of crafting vivid, mentally stimulating stories in his songs. This is hip-hop for the thinking man. Don’t Look Down marks on exciting time for Mr. Lif as he enters a new period of creative productivity with his music, and recently he took the time to chat about that creativity, defying expectations, and collaborating with old friends like Del The Funky Homosapien, Edan and more.

The album starts off with police sirens and you sort of come out swinging on “Pounds of Pressure”. What kind of frustrations were you dealing with when writing these lyrics?

I think frustration is probably a part of all of our lives on some level, right? Even people that are super well off in the financial realm, it seems like they want to figure out how to get more or create competition with someone else. From that standpoint, there’s some discomfort and some angst in all of our lives. For me, there was a situation in my life where I was dating a girl who had a stalker. That first song is definitely based on that situation. But I will say this: any song that I’m writing, it doesn’t matter what the topic is, I very much try to capture it to the best of my ability. I think if you date back to some of my earlier work, like I Phantom, I was telling the story of a guy who’s married with a wife and kids but he’s doing nothing but working and his family life deteriorates. I try to be in that role and make sure that I’m delivering things in a tone that’s suitable for what the topic is. So in the sense of a song like “Pounds of Pressure” it’s like yeah, I wanted to make sure that the listener feels that sense of urgency. It’s kind of like a worse possible scenario of a situation that I was involved in. Thankfully it didn’t get as bad as the story on the record indicates, but it’s definitely based on real life experience.

In general, you’ve always been socially aware in your music. Do you feel like nowadays there’s pressure to talk about current issues?

I think as an artist you’re always up against what people think of you. You make one record and people decide that’s what you are. For whatever reason, I think it helps us as connoisseurs to be like ‘this artist is this and now I understand that’. Especially if you love a record, you want more of that. After Nas put out Illmatic a lot of people were heartbroken with It Was Written, not because all of the songs were bad, they were just different. I think for me, I’m living an era of my life that provides a balance to how political I was before. I’m still tuned in – actually for a while I was tuned out intentionally from politics because I felt like it was making me ill almost on a spiritual level. The news is not a happy program. I think this album reflects that I have stepped away and have a desire to broaden my horizons, and that I’ve kind of given myself that gift of now being such a watchdog. Obviously those first couple of tracks there are definitely things that will still hit people strongly. My appreciation for poetry and painting – painting images from a surrealist standpoint – has increased over where I used to be as an artist. Like if you take a song like “Whizdom” or you dig into that second half of the record where you have that trifecta of ” Whizdom”, “Mission Accomplished”, or “World Renown”, that is definitely like me splashing around in the paint and just fining beauty in whatever the outcome is. Just flexing verbally as an MC. That type of thing is a larger part of me now and I don’t feel so bogged down with reporting on the state of the world with every chance I get to be in front of a microphone.

This is your first album in a long time. Do you think things you’ve been through have shifted your whole outlook?

There’s a record I put out in 2009 called I Heard It Today and that album required me being extremely abreast of all world affairs. That was like McCain versus Obama during that era, it was the housing collapse, things that drastically affected this country, and I was as deep as I’d ever been into paying attention to all that, writing songs and reporting, and trying to write from a standpoint so I could talk about those current things while having the song still be timeless. I think that’s why I started to feel spiritually ill, like this is just too much to an extent. After writing that record I did take a hiatus from paying attention to politics, but I would say that era has come to a close, I’m paying attention. How much I want to put into my music right now is debatable. There will be a time and a place, but by no means am I functioning with the priority of being what people expect me to be. My love for hip-hop culture and being thankful that I have this honor of being able to be an MC, and to have this outlet to express myself. I think there’s a lot of other ways to show that love than just reporting on politics. I’d like to think people are still getting a dose of realism in my new album, but they’re also getting a dose of surrealism. For instance, the 9th song on the record is called “iLL” and I think that song gives a glimpse into the fact that I have not completely detached from the world, it’s just a very human moment where I do feel the heaviness of it all.

In a sense it almost feels like, just given how saturated we all are with media, an artist that comes along and provides an escape is actually more valuable in some ways.

I can see that. My old record like Emergency Rations, certain songs on I Phantom, there’s a place and a time for all of it. A lot of people are feeling a lot of tension right now with Donald Trump holding the position he’s been holding. I guess when I look through music history and some of the groups that I love, like Outkast, they made successful records [that didn’t sound like the last one]. I’ve always admired that about artists, like we can break the mold now. Radiohead did it from OK Computer to Kid A, and I love that. I think it’s sometimes easy to settle into what people expect you to be or what you might even think that you are, but I definitely have several different layers and textures to who I am as a human being and I want to express those.

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You touched on it earlier, but you’ve talked about how this album is in some ways an ode to Nas’ Illmatic. Can you talk about discovering that album and why it’s so special to you?

I can’t say that when I started out crafting this album that I had that in mind. I think that thinking of Illmatic came into play for me when I really started to think about how many songs I wanted to include on the record. At one point this album had 12 songs on it, but some of my favorite records are short. There’s just such a boldness and conviction artistically when you’re like, these 8 songs or 10 songs are my statement and that’s that. It just shows that you knew exactly what you wanted to do, you felt confident in each song to just allow it to hold its place. One of my favorite albums of all time, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, has only 8 songs. I know that Illmatic is an intro and 9 songs, but something about that number 10 just felt right to me. There are just certain textures on that record that, for me as an MC, when I’m writing a song I try to be that character that I’m writing about. For instance, when I’m writing a Perceptionist song with Akrobatik – EPMD was huge to us and I think we channel that sometimes. For me on this record there were definitely points that were influenced by Illmatic. Also, when I look at my formative era as an MC and just deciding how I wanted to approach this business and what I wanted to represent, when I heard Nas for the first time a lot of things clicked in my mind in terms of me being able to identify that’s what I want to do. Obviously that means being poetic. Brother Nas on Illmatic put out some of the illest poetry of all time and it’s inspirational. We all shoot to make a classic anytime we go to make a piece of art, but it was in mind and it was my own kind of way of paying homage. Those 10 tracks are me paying homage to an album that had a powerful impact on me and many others.

You have some big collaborations on the album. What was it like reaching out to other artists after so many years without an album?

Luckily I’m just friends with the cats that I involved in the album and that was naturally born from my past in the business. Del [the Funky Homosapien] was on the first tour that I ever did as a musician. It’s almost more like a homecoming or a re-confirming of longstanding friendships. To get Edan to produce a track like “Whizdom”, that’s one of my longstanding friends. These are just people that I don’t necessarily need to reach out to their agent and go this cold hard business route. It’s more like hey, we’re shooting the shit anyway, why don’t we make some music? Working with Del, that was just me being out in the Bay Area and just being like, we’re way overdue to hang out, and also if we’re hanging out let’s work on something.

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How do you generally approach beatmaking, or how did it work on this new album?

Oddly enough, this album and I Phantom are the two records in my catalogue that I didn’t do any beats for, so I can’t speak on that. I was the lead engineer on this record except for like one song. That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of because this era of feeling recharged, inspired and full of passion about the process of making music is so largely due to me increasing my knowledge of different audio gear and being dedicated to finding the microphones that work best with my voice. Just getting to put that engineering cap on and having a good enough knowledge of the tools that were available to me, to bring out the best in everybody’s voice that’s on the record.

In recent years and even in your posts on Facebook you seem to always be almost obsessive about your audio and mikes. Besides the obvious reasons, why do you think you spend so much thought on this?

It just was a turning point for me. I had a humble studio back in 2010, it drowned in a flood, and then I was essentially just trying to send a demo to Akrobatik for some new Perceptionist stuff. I had my boy tell me he could hardly make out what I was saying because my mike was so shitty and I didn’t even have a pre-amp. That was a turning point for me. A significant part of the hiatus I had was just because I wasn’t really making music, I was like the king of making demos. My process as an artist was, ok this beat sounds cool, let me write this song and later get it down and then the song stays like that for two years. It was just a bullshit way of being a musician and I didn’t have the vision. I’ve started the blog Audio Audio because it’s that commitment to understanding what equipment I sound best on to signal my dedication to my craft. There’s a certain magic that I’m looking for, and if I like how I sound I’m going to give a good performance. So it’s kind of this goal to just always get the sound as good as I can and to keep gear around me that keeps me in this process of experimentation. Sometimes just the curiosity is just enough for me to write a song.

Photo by Dom Savini PhotographyPhoto by Dom Savini

Will you do a tour for this album?

I haven’t really toured under my own name for a long time, so we’re strategically playing that. I don’t think the goal right now is to send me out on some wild 40-day run. The goal is more for me to play on good days at venues that match the vision that we’re trying to do, and to let the record come out and resonate with people. I will be doing shows, but I think we’ll build demand by having a good continuous thing.

Mr. Lif’s Don’t Look Down is out now on Mello Music Group. For more music and info visit

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