Lif: A User’s Manual

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

There’s only one thing better than a decent bad guy, and that’s a badass good guy. Give us Lando over Luke Skywalker any day: we like our heroes to breathe fire and spit bloody poetry, and to save the world without losing their sense of humour.

It’s exactly this kind of reputation that precedes Boston-born rapper Mr Lif, whose fiercely political Emergency Rations EP (2001) raised him overnight from the pit to the pulpit, turning a virtually unknown battle MC into an intensely articulate spokesperson for the downtrodden and the disillusioned alike.

It was no surprise, then, to see the crowds defy a drizzling Tuesday evening in April to pack out 93 Feet East, where Lif was performing to promote Mo’Mega, his first solo LP in over four years. They’d come to witness a man on the edge, and they weren’t disappointed: when Lif lurched onto the stage – dreads poking out from under a hoodie, eyes hidden behind dark glasses – it was like watching a localised hurricane, his lyrical broadside against the Bush Administration so rapid and relentless that even the audience seemed to be struggling for breath.

All of which is in stark contrast to the Lif that greets me at his hotel room the following afternoon, a pokey twin overlooking Brick Lane that he quite accurately describes as smelling of “salami and stale cigarette smoke”. Not that he’s likely to ring down and complain: despite the sound and the fury of his on-stage persona, Mr Lif (Jeffrey Haynes to his folks) is as laidback and as likeable as they come. So where does he find all that raw emotion?

“In reality I’m a very peaceful person, but there are some things that really piss me off. I’ve always had a passion for socio-political issues, plus with the current state of the world I feel I have more to say now than I did with my first record – which is good, because after a four year absence you’d better be talking loud, or people are just gonna ignore you.”

Luckily, Mo’Mega is about as easy to ignore as a mouthful of broken teeth: a rousing call to arms that in just 40 minutes manages to address issues as far reaching as the New Orleans hurricane (“Oh you didn’t know those flood waters was comin’? You couldn’t smell that African blood runnin’?”) to the dark side of fast food culture (“But it was only $4.99, so there’s more people in line, yeah the plan’s runnin’ fine”).

Then there’s the sinister power of consumerism as tackled in Ultra Mega, arguably the bleakest cut on the album. “That song is about the empty feeling that I walk away with every time I go shopping,” says Lif. “Even when we don’t need anything, we’re conditioned to just wander into the store and start browsing. That’s why I have that line ‘roam through the aisles till it feels worthwhile’, because I’ve done that shit and it feels awful.”

Mr Lif: dread prophet indeed

The perpetual conflict between the huddled masses and mass corporations is a subject that also informs the album’s title: a collision between the meek (‘Mo’, African American slang for ‘more’), and the ‘Mega’, which Lif says “represents the ultra-modernised world that we live in; the super tall buildings and the programming that’s liquefying our minds.”

“Basically, I’m taking the image of the slave and expanding it to include everyone. We’re all slaves now, functioning at the mercy of the elite. We’re all fighting in our own unique ways to stay focused while keeping our heads above water and paying those bills.”

Insights like these long ago pigeon-holed Lif as a ‘political’ rapper, but it’s not a role he’s uncomfortable with. “That’s a box I created for myself, and it’s been both good and bad to me. I want to keep on speaking my mind, but I don’t want people to think that I’m protesting outside the White House every hour I’m not on stage.

“For me it’s about choosing my battles. My time is best spent opening my heart to everything around me so I can process it fully and reflect it faithfully. I’m the voice of all of us down here trying to survive. If nothing else, I hope I’m able to remind others that we’re still here, and we’re still hungry. The struggle never ends.”

Whether he likes it or not, that’s the sound of someone on a campaign trail. Seeing him signing CDs and smiling graciously for the cameras after last night’s show, it was hard not to imagine what would happen if Lif ever decided to go into politics; speaking to him now, it’s clear that he already has.