Filed under: Features,Interviews,Not Your Average,Philly Jawns
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Philidelphia’s own Lushlife caught my ear in 2012 with his Plateau Vision album, which saw him realize the potential heard on Cassette City and match the quality of his production with his rhymes. Currently working on a new album with producers CSLSX, I caught-up with Lushlife over the phone while he was midway through attempting to enjoy pizza and beer at a local bar to find out what inspired him to channel “Broken Language,” his appreciation for The LOX and why drinks cost so much in London.
Robbie: Did you start out as a producer or a rapper?
Lushlife: It didn’t even occur to me that I would rap. I had been making beats and doing production for many years, and I didn’t even want to go into the world of trying to find people to rhyme over my instrumentals. The moment that I got a mic at 20 – after a lifetime of listening and memorising rap songs – something just came out. As a hip-hop fan, I was like, “This is worthwhile shit!” So I just ran with that. The MC side of it came way second.
How old were you when you made your first beat?
The way I first injected myself into hip-hop was through deejaying. I got my first set of turntables at eleven years old. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood – Pete Rock wasn’t my cousin’s uncle or anything – I was kinda in this bubble. When I got my first decks I didn’t know about blending or cutting or anything, I had no real understanding of any of it. I feel like I went through the entire history – from the baby scratch to really well thought-out scratching and mixing – on my own fucking druthers. I progressed in the same way that deejaying progressed from 1979 to 1989 in my life, cos I had nobody to teach me, I just figured it all out. I literally discovered beat-matching on my own, it was like, “Oh shit! You can take two records and make them run at the same tempo!” As a producer now, the era that goes along with having gone through all of that is so deeply ingrained in me.
It seems that people who start out as DJ’s are generally better producers, as a rule.
Exactly. From ten to fourteen years of age I was doing the DJ thing and I had been playing piano as a child. When I was ten I started playing drums in the jazz band in my school, so I was naturally progressing towards creating. In the early 90’s, and the SP-12 was $1,500 so it was unattainable to someone like me, so I would listen to the rap records I loved and imagine how they were made. Not really knowing it, but I imagined so long and so hard that when it became possible for me I understood how to construct that shit. I was eighteen years old when Fruity Loops became available very easily to be pirated online in the same way that 9th Wonder and so many other cats started at that time. That to me was a revelation, “Oh my god! This was a tool that allows me to create the soundscapes that I want to create.” My early stuff was very much on the tip of DJ Shadow, it didn’t have my own thumbprint on it. It was a real lesson to take the sonics of guys like Pete or Premier and try to make something very much like that. Once you have all that in your bag of tricks then you can start to think about how you can push things forward.
Was West Sounds the first project you released?
That was the very first thing I put out to the public. At the same time I was falling in love with A Tribe Called Quest and learning how to play jazz drums I was realizing the synergy, and ended up at university studying Jazz Composition for two years. I eventually dropped out because at that point I was making beats and started buying things too. I was depressed, I was living in New York and unhappy and nineteen, I had broken up with some girlfriend and decided to move to London. When I landed in London there was a small label called Scenario Records that was interested in putting out some of my stuff. They were like, “Can you put something together to get your rep up a little bit?” This was literally the week that Dangermouse dropped The Grey Album. I was a huge Beach Boys fan, and I knew that they had a box set that included all the instrumentals and accapellas, and Kanye West was popping off then too, so it was just a young me trying to ride the wave. This was the early days of MySpace, there was really no sense of virality. We put that out there, no P.R. or nothing, and there were a million downloads in less than a month. The West Sounds thing was an amazing experience for me and I have misgivings about it in terms of it’s sense of originality, conceptually, but I learned a lot from it.
What was the first official release you did through Scenario?
It’s called Order of Operations. It only had a release in UK and Japan. I consider it Lushlife demos, even though it had a full CD/LP release. The first track on there is literally the first song that I ever tried to rap on, so it’s really a time capsule to me. I think that’s unique amongst MC’s, to have the very first time that they blessed the mic to be committed to wax. That record is very jazz-influenced, it’s more informed by my influences than it is about my desire to bring some new concepts to hip-hop. There was a Japanese label called MicLife who were totally hyped to license it and it did surprisingly well in Japan so I went out there and I toured for a little while. When I returned to the UK I was really disenchanted, I remember I order a drink from the bar at it was like 11 pounds. I remember thinking to myself, “Fuck, this is like $19! I need to go home, I’m fuckin’ broke!”
So I came back here to Philly and was able to set up a deal with K-7 for the next record. I’m in my mid-20’s and this is magnum opus type shit – get a good budget and make the record you really want to make. At this point my aesthetics are changing – Cassette City is about creating this seamless world og hip-hop with orchestral pop stuff and indy experimentation and throwing into the pot in a way that I felt I’m uniquely capable of doing to make it all feel like classic boom-bap, where you don’t know where the samples end and the live instrumentation begins and it all feels like one thing. I spent a little over two years on it, and I’m so extremely proud of that release. It was totally a labor of love.
How did you get Camp Lo and Elzhi involved?
It was my teenage self from the past going, “Oh my god, imagine if I could get Camp Lo in a record!” [laughs] It was reaching out on some MySpace shit. I spent months putting that beat together in their image and was able to make that happen and I was stoked that I was. As an MC I feel like Camp Lo were able to project that idea that it’s not quite about telling some kind of A to B story, it’s about saying some nebula shit that just sounds cool coming off of their tongues. I feel like they had a lot of influence on the way I rap that’s a little more dadaist – it’s just floating there and you have to pull all these strings to find a meaning – but in the end it just has to sound cool as shit.
What was the reaction like to the album?
It got me a core fanbase in a really organic way, and that core fanbase still carries me in ways that are just mind blowing to me. It was also a critical success, it just wasn’t a financial success! I had a $25,000 advance on that record and I spent every dollar of it paying my rent, drinking, drugging and paying for featured artists on my record. It’s still not in the red, but as a work of art I’m pretty proud of it.
I feel like you really hit your stride vocally on the Plateau Vision LP on tracks like “Big Sur” and “The Anthem.”
I think you’re very right. With Plateau Vision from a lyrical standpoint, I felt very comfortable with myself as an MC to the point where I didn’t feel gun shy about pushing the envelope a little bit as far as what I’m rapping about as far as the references and still knowing that it will be internalized by the audience as real fucking rap music.
I appreciated the “Broken Language” adaption you had on there.
I was dying for years to do a “Broken Language” hook! That record is fucking incredible, it’s 20th century art. There’s nothing like Smooth The Hustler and Trigga The Gambler on that shit. I wanted to on one hand pay homage to it but at the same time push the concept out a little bit so it’s Lushlife talking about these touchstones of classic beat poetry in 1950’s California and folk art against the structure of the Brooklyn-structured Smooth The Hustler joint.
What made you reach out to Styles P for a feature?
A lot of indy motherfuckers tend to put “mainstream” motherfuckers in a box, where it’s just as minimizing as the shit that happens the other way around. The LOX are talking about keys of coke and shit but it’s always been a little bit envelope pushing and out there. I always wanted to get someone of that sort of ilk onto the record I was doing – “Still I Hear The Word Progress” – which has a Crystal Castles kinda feel to it, and see how he evolves on it.
What’s the motivation behind song titles like “She’s a Buddhist, I’m A Cubist”?
I was describing my failing relationship with a girl that I was dating at the time I was writing that song and I was describing it as such to a friend of mine, and I was like, “Oh shit, that’s really got gravity as a song title.” It’s not coming out of some desire to be like indy, long-winded song titles or anything. [laughs] It’s grabbing things out of the air of my life, that’s honestly who I am.
The liner notes mention that you recorded the album to ¼ inch tape for the final mixdown. Why did you decide to take that approach?
I wanted to emote the cassette tape qualities of all the classic rap that I listened to growing up made you feel. Not because of the recordings themselves but because you’d listen to it on your box over and over again and it would start to warble and shit, and that becomes the sound of hip-hop. Trying to project that feeling, not only did it all go to ¼ inch tape but it went through deep outboard compression, and that album has a consistent sound that I hope makes people feel like they’re twelve years old listening to Dred Scott for the first time or Artifacts for the first time.
Dred Scott! [laughs] Haven’t heard that name for a while! Why did you decide to leave both New York and London behind?
New York and London are always cities I dreamed of living in, and New York always felt to me like a big, wild city – and it is! The year and a few months that I lived there, I realized that it was just too much for me. It was sensory overload. Then I moved to London for three and a half years and it was even more sprawling and more international. In the end, Philly is provincial meets small town vibe, where it’s urbane but it’s got a lot of the trappings of the city but you can squirrel away to your quiet neighborhood block. That’s something that I cherish. And frankly, as an artist? I’m 31 years old and I can live more than comfortably. All my friends that are in bands and rappers and producers in the city – they would be living in a shoe box in New York or in London – and all of us have houses and studios. It’s livable in the long term, I value the comfort.
If you could make your own version of “The Symphony” with any rappers, living or dead, who would you pick to join you?
Oh word, I think about this all the time! [laughs] The answer is concrete in my mind – Black Thought, Nas and Jay Electronica.
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