In 2010, Marmoset hip-hop artist Mr. Lif fell victim to a basement flood that resulted in most of his recording equipment being lost forever. Without him really knowing it, this marked the beginning of a period of musical experimentation for Lif. Now, nearly seven years later, nestled in his Boston home studio and peering into the Skype camera, Lif looks back on this time, discussing the past and what’s to come.
“It was the removal of that self-sufficiency that allowed me to float around, I don’t want to say without direction...but I didn’t have a record deal during that time,” he says.
While, until 2015, it had been nearly six years since Mr. Lif publicly released an album, it wasn't for lack of creation. Lif took the time between his releases to rebuild his studio and dabble in a variety of genres -- from playing and performing with a Balkan brass band to collaborating with the San Francisco electronic dance group, The Polish Ambassador, and touring with the eclectic DJ collective, Thievery Corporation. The combination of these experiences led to Mr. Lif’s latest release, 2015's The Life and Death of Scenery, a genre-bending, post-apocalyptic collaboration with Nashville, Tennessee producer, L’Orange.
Brought together through a friend at Adult Swim, Lif and L'Orange went through a good deal of back and forth before arriving at the apocalyptic, prophetic theme. When musing on the process of developing the narrative, Mr. Lif remembers conversations on the changing theme. “[I said] I want to go in this direction that we've already agreed on, but your music is telling me to do something different,” he says. “The surefire recipe to make bad songs, in my world, is to disobey the beat or disobey the instrumental with what I'm manifesting lyrically. I have to do what the music says. I have to obey the music.”
And that’s exactly what he did. Inspired by L’Orange’s stark, tragically lush productions, Mr. Lif crafted an Orwellian narrative. Much like Lif’s favorite hip-hop album of all time, GZA's 1995 classic, Liquid Swords, each song on The Life and Death of Scenery offers a vivid and immersive look into a hypothetical world. “The beat for ‘A Palace in the Sky’ did that for me,” says Lif. “When I heard it, it spawned this world where ... I don't know where the story came from. The story came from the beat.”
While the stories L’Orange and Mr. Lif weave offer a glimpse into an alternative fantasy world, they also serve as a metaphor for heavy themes that plague everyday life. “I think it's important to tickle people's imagination and give them a world that they want to be immersed in,” Lif says. “But then I feel like my job is better done if there's something from that narrative that they can pull out and hold up to the real world.”
In the midst of stories of kings being dethroned and a world without music, it’s hard not to link The Life and Death of Scenery to current affairs in the political and social stratosphere. While Mr. Lif attributes the timely release of the album -- October of 2016, right in the thick of election season -- to mere coincidence, he acknowledges that his music "has always largely drawn inspiration from society.”
Whether your listening experience is rooted in fantasy or reality, The Life and Death of Scenery is a masterful, must listen album, paying homage to boom-bap and old-school rap of the past, while remaining a relevant and necessary piece of music in today's hip-hop landscape. We can expect to hear more from Mr. Lif this year, with a new album and tour in the works. Until then, treat your ears to The Life and Death of Scenery, or explore Mr. Lif’s Marmoset songography here.