As a lifelong fan of Hip Hop, any chance to chop it up with a gifted MC is a blessing. But when talking to a Perceptionists wordsmith and underground mainstay, there’s an even higher sense of good fortune and comfort, and it has nothing to do with what he’s done onstage or in the booth. It’s simply because he’s alive. Almost ten years ago, Mr. Lif’s tour bus went off the road, falling 30 feet down and serendipitously halting just in time to allow the venerable Bostonian and his bandmates to escape with their lives.
After the accident something changed for Lif. His once fruitful relationship with indie giant Definitive Jux records was incidentally on the downside of its honeymoon phase when the bus crash happened and then to top it all off in 2010 his recording studio was ruined in a flood. So he disappeared from the music scene.
As fate would have it Lif, whose real name is Jeffrey Haynes, found inspiration in an unlikely pairing with dub/electronica veterans Thievery Corporation who he recorded the hit song “Culture of Fear” for and later wound up touring with. Now Lif, 38, is back on his solo grind and let him tell it, he’s just created his dream album in Don’t Look Down.
In a exclusive interview with HipHopDX, Lif speaks on the tour bus crash that nearly ended his life, signing with Arizona based imprint Mello Music Group and how Thievery Corporation may have saved his career.
HipHopDX: You were away for a minute. Talk about what led to your hiatus?
Mr. Lif: Largely what it was, my time with Definitive Jux was so amazing and then it kind of just, I don’t know, the way it came to a close was just so odd. It’s like, El-P and I made the Mo’ Mega album in ’06 and I was touring to support that album and I got into this crazy ass tour bus wreck December 2, 2006 and obviously that was just a life changing event. I basically in ’07 decided not to re-sign with Definitive Jux because, I just felt like there were some creative differences at the time. It just felt like it was just time to just take the great times we had and move on from those and not force it anymore. Had I known then that it would have led to such a significant hiatus I probably would have found a way to work things out, but at the same time it was a musical decision I made. I didn’t feel like I had another great record in me at that time and with the things that we were not seeing eye-to-eye on it just didn’t feel like the right situation, so i think it’s better to walk away than to force art, you know what I’m saying. But the time away has been a lot of lessons learned. Everything from dabbling in real estate to trying to get relationships to work properly and a lot of musical exploration as well. Flowing in and out of different genres, connecting with Thievery Corporation, touring with them for the last four and a half years and in 2010 I ended up writing a song that became the title track of an album that they released in 2011, so it’s been a wild ride and I’ve learned a lot.
DX: What were you doing during the time you weren’t making music?
From the time the tour bus wreck happened it took me a while to get myself back together mentally from that because I was really blessed to have survived that. We went off of a 30-foot drop into a boulder laden pit where the bus literally tumbled down 30 feet and luckily when it landed the doors to the bus were facing the sky and myself and my bandmates were able to climb out of the bus with varying degrees of injuries. The thing about it that was tough for me to deal with mentally was there was a hundred foot drop on either side of where we went off the road so certain death was waiting on either side and it took me a while to even believe 100% that I was alive you know what I’m saying? It’s like you run through those “what-if” scenarios in your mind and there was a while where I was like “Am I a soul hovering above my old life just refusing to move on to the afterlife?” It took me a while to just get my grip back on reality after that experience. By ’09 I made this record called “I Heard it Today” which I released independently, and that record it was interesting. Not being on Definitive Jux anymore I didn’t have the power of a real machine behind me to pump my music out to the world, so that in itself posed a lot of frustrations for me but at the same time the record did a lot of great things for me even though it was not that well known.
It actually connected me with Thievery Corporation and it allowed me a lot of opportunities. Another pivotal point during my hiatus was in 2010 my studio flooded and that was really tough to deal with. For almost three years I just lived in denial, like [I made] no attempts to rebuild my studio and it wasn’t until I was sending my boy Akrobatik a demo of a potential new Perceptionists records. When I sent him that demo he was like “I can’t really make out what you’re saying but I get the gist of it,” and that was pretty much the single comment that drove me on a multi-year tear to not only rebuild my studio but to have it be the number one sound lab for me to capture my vocals. I became more serious about my audio than I ever have been in my career as a result of all this and that’s been a big part of the fire that has been burning in my gut to make all the songs that I’ve made in the past 2-3 years. I don’t even know how many songs I’ve made but everything that I had that was sitting around from the point that I left Def Jux until like 2013 I was probably sitting on like 40 demos and then I probably have another 20-30 more so it’s been a really productive and fruitful era since 2013.
DX: How would you qualify your happiness level since signing with Mello Music Group?
It feels like a great fit for me. I love speaking with Michael Tolle, the CEO over there because he’s just a real fan of music and to him his art is releasing music so I love the creative conversations that I’m able to have with him, so happiness level in that department is 100%.
Time Is Illmatic & So Is The Standard
DX: Talk about linking up with Thievery Corporation and what that’s meant as far as expanding your fanbase.
I was actually doing an NFL specialty podcast, just pirate style recording it at the crib. I was actually thinking about going to school for broadcasting and leaving music alone for a while but when I got that call from Thievery and when they ended up making the song the title track of their album and telling me that I was gonna roll out on tour with them that was a game changer because I felt like I met my second family. Def Jux was definitely my first musical family. There was just a vibe at that label, especially in the early years that was definitely untouchable. Thievery is kind of the rebirth of that. From the first rehearsal we ever had I just got along with everyone and it’s still that way four and a half years later. We all get along, we love being around each other and rocking the stage. It was very rejuvenating. I’d play for sometimes a couple thousand people when I’d go out on tours with Jux. With Thievery we’re rocking Red Rocks, 10,000 people or playing other big festivals like going down to South America in 2012 and rocking Lollapalooza and Chile and things like that. And the band typically puts me out on stage by myself, without any other vocalist so it’s been a huge confidence boost to just know that I can hit the stage with a live band and just rock 10,000 strong. Also to be able to step outside of my immediate genre and see how they function as a band has really been eye opening for me.
Photo: Dom Savini/Mello Music Group
“From the time the tour bus wreck happened it took me a while to get myself back together mentally from that because I was really blessed to have survived that…It took me a while to just get my grip back on reality after that experience.”
DX: On your new album Don’t Look Down I noticed you didn’t produce any of the tracks, was there a specific reason behind that?
I actually didn’t. It’s not that I have a lack of beats it’s just this project called for something else. So luckily I have some great producers around me that helped me make one of the records of my dreams. This record just feels so important to me. I kept it at ten tracks as kinda like my silent ode to Illmatic. I always loved short albums. I’d say Follow the Leader and Illmatic are two of my favorite albums ever. It was important to me to keep it short. The whole process of making this record was magic. It happened during a very trying time in my life but at the same time I think adversity brings beauty to art.