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The Boston Phoenix New School

Boston's Mr. Lif takes off

By Alex Pappademas

JUNE 1, 1999:  Mr. Lif is thirsty. Other MCs name-check Cristal; some of them can even afford to sip it. But during Lif's performance at Tower Records in Harvard Square, on a sticky Thursday night earlier this month, the Holy Grail is a bottle of CVS water. There's a case of it on the "stage" -- actually just the back corner of the store, up against the bookshelves, under oversized posters of Eve 6 and Whitney Houston -- but Lif can't see it, so he's murmuring into the mike, "Is there any extra water in the place?" Someone finally passes him a bottle, he pauses to hydrate, and the show goes on.

Tower isn't exactly the Apollo, or even the Middle East. But 22-year-old Brighton native Lif has family in the crowd, and a brand-new 12-inch single, "Triangular Warfare" (Brick), to promote. And with his friend and collaborator Akrobatik -- a heavy-set brother in a Patriots jersey -- he delivers an in-store tighter than a lot of MCs' club shows. DJ Fakts-One drops a seamless string of cracking beats, street-team hustlers ply the assembled fans with fliers and stickers, white teens dressed for foul-weather skateboarding wave rolled-up gimme posters ("Rawkus Presents Soundbombing II") in the air like Everlast's shillelagh. For a moment, the bright, air-conditioned room starts to feel a little like the underground hip-hop sweatboxes where Lif, Ak, and Fakts all carved out their reps.

Akrobatik's cousin is in the house. He throws her name into a freestyle verse, and she and her friends giggle as if Ma$e had just given them a shout-out. As usual, Lif's mind and mouth are running two-minute miles. He's wowing the crowd with a mix of clever pop-culture references ("old-school like Lite Brite") and deft sucka-MC taunts ("All in favor say 'I' like 'Witness'/You paper like litmus"). There's some goofy stage banter (Ak: "I hit my arm playin' ball a couple days ago, it was paralyzed for like half an hour." Lif: "This is actually the last standing-up show we're gonna do."), then Fakts drops the instrumental for "Arise," the dark B-side to Lif's "Triangular Warfare" single. Produced by El-P of New York underground-rap stalwarts Company Flow, it's a characteristically tough track laced with a guitar sample so stretched-out the notes seem to moan in protest. As Lif kicks his rhymes, he's got this look on his face. It's not fear, exactly, but nerves, stress. He's chasing the drums with lyrics about technology and ecology and survival, and he looks worried, as if he wouldn't have time to speak his piece.

Looking back over the history of Boston hip-hop, you can see why even a promising young rapper like Lif -- born Jeffrey Haynes -- would have reason to worry. Local success stories are few and far between. When the subject of Boston rappers does come up, one name that's bound to be mentioned is Keith Elam. Better known as Guru, Elam was a Dorchester resident and aspiring rap star who (like a lot of career-minded Eastern Seaboard MCs back then) struck out for Planet Brooklyn in the late '80s, in search of doper pastures. The rest is history; Guru lived in a spare room at his aunt's house, hooked up with destined-for-rap-sainthood producer DJ Premier, made five acclaimed albums as Gang Starr, held his own with the likes of Donald Byrd and Roy Ayers on the hip-hop/jazz summit Guru Presents Jazzmatazz (Chrysalis, 1993), and became a bona fide hip-hop hero. Last year, Gang Starr got a star on the steps at Tower Records' Mass Ave store, enshrined in cement alongside Jonathan Richman and Aerosmith. Elam was spotted that night rapping to the faithful at the Spot on Boylston Street, escorting a low-profilin' Tyra Banks (it's good to be the Guru).

As a Boston sob story, maybe it's not on a par with the 1919 Red Sox' dissing of Babe Ruth. But the story still says everything you need to know about the history of the hip-hop scene in this guitar-rock town. Guru broke out and made records like 1992's Daily Operation and 1994's Hard To Earn (both Chrysalis); artists like the Jonzun Crew and Ed O.G. & da Bulldogs stuck around and never got their due. Over chicken at an Allston/Brighton Indian joint, leaning into my tape recorder behind a head of thick dreads, Mr. Lif praises Guru -- "He's just a powerful artist, and he knows what he's doing. When he picks up the pen, it's just raw." But he also says that things have changed since the '80s, that artists from outside commercial rap's standard JFK/LAX loop now have a broader support system on which to rely. And an artist like Lif can earn international acclaim and still come home to Comm Ave.

"Back in the day," he says, "brothers had to do demos, and, like, take 'em to a label or try to mail 'em out, or wait outside of a label hoping somebody would come out and listen to their tape. But nowadays, it's like, if you got two grand, you press up some vinyl. You go to the lab, make some phat shit, and put it out, then you just mail it to a couple of key points [from radio personalities like New York's Bobbito "The Barber" Garcia to the record-store chain-cum-distribution network Fat Beats] and you can gain that recognition."

It also helps that Boston's hip-hop scene is stronger than it's ever been, with talented underground MCs (Lif, 7L and Esoteric, Cambridge's Virtuoso) finding homes on indie labels like Brick Records and DJ Bruno's brand-new Biscuithead imprint and airplay on stations like Emerson's hip-hop bastion WERS 88.9 FM.

Lif has raised his global profile by touring Europe with Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Casual of Souls of Mischief. Closer to home, he's opened for luminaries like Run-D.M.C. and A Tribe Called Quest. He's even getting some love on Boston's indie-rock front -- Karate singer/guitarist Geoff Farina tapped him to open for Karate at a recent Middle East performance. "He did this amazing freestyle," Farina remembers, "and told everyone they must love songs by Megadeth. He basically stood in front of this crowd that was scared to do anything and was totally alive and totally great."

Not that being the one black guy in the room was a new experience for Lif. Like Keith Elam, he attended the Dedham prep school Noble & Greenough, part of a "very small" black population. Chicago MC Common once cracked, "I stand out/Like a nigga on a hockey team," and for nine years, Lif lived the simile, "the only black dude" on a Brighton-based team, hitting the ice at early-morning away games in South Boston.

These days, traversing boundaries is key to Lif's mission. He talks, like a witnessed believer, in streams of consciousness not unlike his live freestyles, about hip-hop's power to connect people, building communities that cross racial and cultural lines. "That's something that's essential in these times. I feel like people are just off the mark, getting involved in a lot of superficial shit, as we figure out the next way to make life more convenient for ourselves, with, like, the ATM that scans our iris and shit. It's just mad crucial that we start to have some sort of bond with each other and start exchanging information that's positive and really relevant to human life."

Even in hip-hop, where intellectualism has long been as valid and credible a stance as tough-guy posturing, Lif comes across as a deep thinker. He dropped out of Colgate University, where he was an (unofficial) lacrosse recruit, after two years, but he comes off as book-smart as any MC this side of Aceyalone. Asked about his inspirations in writing rhymes, he cites lyricists like Rakim, KRS-1, and Chuck D -- lyricists' lyricists -- and groundbreaking hip-hop long-players like Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1987). But he also refers to "key texts" like Aristotle's Nicomancean Ethics and Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, a pseudo-Socratic novel of ideas he says should be "required reading for every human." Somewhere in that mix, between street poetry and classical philosophy, as he drops science and religion, Socrates and "Don't Believe the Hype," you can see the DNA of Lif's own writing, of the words on "Triangular Warfare" and "Arise" -- cries of rationality from the depths of confusion. Oh, and it's some ill shit, too. Because hip-hop, when it works, is a wake-up call, one that you ultimately have to internalize. A decade ago, the backpacked kids shouting along with Lif's "Elektro" at Tower might have been in a Dead lot or a Fugazi pit, but now it's 1999, and even in Cambridge, hip-hop is the new vocabulary of self-discovery. Maybe Mr. Lif is still thirsty, but the kids aren't.

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