“We have to say that the lives of a group of people matter and that to me is the strongest indication of how low a level humanity is at right now.”
When it comes to lyrical fluidity in hip-hop, few artists match Mr. Lif. The Boston-bred rapper’s versatility is astounding, from his involvement with the DC-based dub-jazz group Thievery Corporation, to his partnership with fellow Bostonian Akrobatik as The Perceptionists.
Lif’s latest project, Vangarde with producer Stu Bangas, pays tribute to his old-school roots while also giving the MC another outlet to comment on current events. Vangarde entered the arena with the single “The New Normal” in April, and like everything that Lif touches, created a fast and steadily building buzz among lovers of beats, thoughts, and rhymes.
I spoke with Lif about how Vangarde started in a modern way, being separated from his family due to the virus, helping out the homeless, how his life has been affected by COVID-19, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and what the future holds.
How did you and Stu get together to do this new project?
I guess it’s a real sign of the times; it was actually via Instagram. I’m not somebody who is on social media a ton, but it was on a Sunday earlier this year. Stu Bangas had done a post with an instrumental, as he often does, and he asked his fans who they heard on it for lyrics. One of his fans tagged me and that’s how it was brought to my attention. I actually listened to the instrumental and loved it; I think I just responded right there in the feed where the audio clip was.
I asked him if he could send me the instrumental and within a matter of moments I had it. I started writing to it, I cut a demo, and it’s funny because that particular song didn’t even make our new project. We loved it at the time, but it just didn’t make the final cut, but that’s how it all started. It was basically through Instagram and me hearing his talents, it quickly became apparent to me that he was making the sounds that I identified with.
When it comes to working with Stu, are there any similarities or contrasts between him and what you do with Akrobatik as The Perceptionists or with Thievery Corporation?
It’s a completely different situation. This is really like the classic MC/producer combination where with Thievery Corporation, it’s obviously more of a production. There’s a big band, when we’re on tour there’s at least 20 of us on the road. It’s a really big setup and there’s more of a world music influence; what I’m doing with Stu is at the core and the essence of who I am as an MC and it’s directly linked to what I love about raw, underground hip-hop records. While I love doing stuff with a world music slant with Thievery, and let’s not get that twisted at all, in contrast to my natural tendencies towards ultra grimey hip-hop, it brings me to a new world.
With Thievery Corporation, I am involved in something that’s more of a high-level production and more refined into something that reaches more people. In terms of how this relates to what Akrobatik and I do as The Perceptionists, I’d say that in the texture of the music, we usually respond well to the same types of beats. Akrobatik is actually featured on one of the upcoming Vangarde records; he had no problem with being on one of Stu’s tracks. We’re both MCs, so we’re both sitting down, listening to beats, and making decisions about which ones we want to write to and ultimately talking about concepts for the songs.
With Stu, first of all, he has an incredibly high output. He’s prolific so that solves problem number one. One of the biggest problems I’ve had as an MC has been finding producers that are as motivated as I am while having a high output and consistently being able to send me quality instrumentals to write to. I don’t have that problem with Stu, so I really respect him on a high level for that; basically he sends me instrumentals and he trusts me to deliver the goods as far as topics go. Especially with all the things going on in the world now, he trusts me to use my view on this new world we’re living in or to convey my experiences as a Black man in this current climate. It’s great, typically I’ll cut the demo and then I’ll send it to Stu and he’ll either give me the thumbs up or thumbs down on it.
Luckily we’ve had great momentum out of the gate and we’re pretty happy with the product. Stu makes the instrumentals, he makes massive quantities of them. I take the ones that to me fit best with Vangarde in terms of the essence of where we’re both directing the group. We’ve identified our sound and it’s a matter of me writing and me putting the songs together thematically in order to make for the full vision of what we’re doing.
When can we expect the Vangarde album to be out?
There’s going to be a new single coming up very soon. It’s gonna speak to a lot of what’s going on in the world right now and a lot of what I’ve said in this conversation will be addressed. It’s definitely prefacing an album that’ll be out later in the year.
Vangarde definitely has that old school vibe with the genuine art of an MC rapping over a hot beat. I’ve really enjoyed it. With what’s going on in the world, what else have you been up to during the COVID-19 pandemic?
There’s just so many layers … One thing that’s been going on for me is that I’ve been separated from my wife and my son for four months during this crisis. [They] are both Canadian and we were all together up until February 29 of this year. We were spending a few months together in the United States and then they headed back to Canada. I was supposed to fly over and join them there on March 15 to go see them and during that span of time between. COVID-19 was starting to really spread and I could see that borders were going to be closing. We had a decision to make as a family; my mother is over 70 and she lives in Rhode Island and my wife was in Canada with our soon to be one year old. We basically had to make a decision that was going to be a division of labor—one able-bodied person taking care of one less able-bodied person.
My wife stayed in Canada with our son and I stayed in Rhode Island with my mom, so it was a very trying time. If it wasn’t for video chat, I don’t know how I would have stayed sane being away from my wife and son for that long. I also run a real estate investment company that I founded in 2018 when I came out to Northern Rhode Island—places like Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Providence. We purchase distressed multi-family properties and then we repair them to make them great living spaces that are affordably priced for people to live in. We create these spaces for people in need and we also work with this foundation called House Of Hope.
People that have been homeless for a while who have the means to get themselves back on their feet and they’re ready to have their own apartment are helped by House Of Hope through paying a bulk of their living expenses for a few months. They’re put in nicely maintained apartments and it really speaks to what I’m doing because while I do love real estate and creating great living spaces for people, to me it’s the ultimate personification of what I do to be able to provide these one-bedroom, one-bathroom efficiency apartments for someone who hasn’t had a home for a while. My company is called the People’s Trust Investment Group and as I mentioned before, we specialize in Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Providence.
You’re also in a unique situation of positives and negatives going on in your life. You’re keeping in touch with your family even though they’re in another country, you’re taking care of your mother, and you’re creating housing for the homeless. Along with COVID-19, a big thing that has been going on this year is the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement. There are a lot of elements from the mainstream spreading the message—do you think this is a good thing for the movement, or are you skeptical due to how the mainstream has a history of co-opting a message and turning it into something else?
There’s gonna be the good and the bad in those elements you just asked about. First of all, I think in order to change the collective consciousness about one particular topic it takes a massive effort from everybody. My short answer to that is the more, the merrier. The more companies, even if they’re feigning it and don’t really mean it, are spending money on these commercials saying they support people of color, that they’re against police brutality and they’re being open-minded about new initiatives where we have less police presence than the better.
In my opinion, the primary function of police should be whatever the SWAT team does. If they need to do a drug raid, then call these guys who are basically militarized to the point where they have assault rifles and body armor, call them in for that. If there’s a hostage situation and you might need to kill a possible assailant, then call them in. If someone is having a mental issue, then they’re the last people who should be called. Rayshard Brooks fell asleep in line at a Wendy’s and I don’t even know why the cops would be called in that situation, I don’t think it’s something police should be called for in the first place. I don’t understand why someone couldn’t go up to him, knock on the window, and check to see how he’s doing. Why couldn’t a citizen help him? Or a Wendy’s employee?
I think we’re still living under this false belief that calling the cops would help in situations like these, but they come through and they make a mess. It’s loss of life a lot of the time and families are ruined because of it. It’s mental scarring that people will never get over. So no, don’t call the police. Especially if the situation involves people of color, because it puts people’s lives at risk.
I think that we need all of the help that we can get in terms of turning this thing around. The more people that are talking about it and the more people are displaying in their actions that they do not support police brutality, they do not support systemic racism, and they want to broaden their minds while listening more closely to the stories of what people of color have endured in America or worldwide, I welcome all of it. The title of the movement itself makes me sad, “Black Lives Matter” is where we’re at in 2020. We have to say that the lives of a group of people matter and that to me is the strongest indication of how low a level humanity is at right now.
What it really says to me is that we as a society are functioning in a very odd and extremely dangerous headspace in which we are not asking ourselves before we act and do something violent. We’re not asking ourselves how would I like this if this was happening to my mother or to my daughter or to my son or to my uncle or to my brother or to my sister? I firmly believe that if this was our line of thinking, people wouldn’t do half of the shit they do in the world.
If you don’t want someone to come up to one of your loved ones and punch them in the face in a bar because they bumped their shoulder in a crowded room, then don’t do it. Don’t do it to someone. Like what happened to poor Elijah McClain, would you want your kid who is just walking home with an iced tea to be pulled over, manhandled, crushed to death, and injected with ketamine? What is that? What part of the human psyche thinks that is ok? There should be something beyond these officers knowing they can get away with it. There should be something that clicks in you making you realize that you can’t stand for this because it’s the lowest form of behavior.
Apparently, some people don’t have that. So many of us are not functioning the basic understanding that it doesn’t matter if you can get away with it and not be persecuted by a law. You should have a conscience that prevents you from not being able to live with yourself after you do something that horrible to someone. I just don’t understand how we’ve become so mentally ill collectively. Again, we need all hands on deck to change the collective consciousness surrounding violence and surrounding the treatment of people of color because it’s in a disgraceful place right now.
There also needs to be more empathy.
Lets just think about this. With Ahmaud Arbery, those men shot him multiple times with a shotgun point blank and then they went home and ate dinner. Maybe they felt something about it but they were just living their lives until the public outrage was so much that the police had to do something. I don’t understand how taking someone’s life isn’t such a debilitating experience to the actual murderer where you don’t even consider the possibility of going back to your normal life because you’ve done something so heinous that you’ve altered yours. I don’t get it and I think it’s disgraceful.
Ed. note: In an earlier version of this story, we regrettably misspelled the name of Rayshard Brooks. It was a stupid error, no excuses. It not only won’t happen again, but the error will serve as a reminder to triple-check names in all situations, especially under such serious circumstances.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.