Seven years ago, Mr. Lif had no reason to think his phone would ring. The music was spinning more and more slowly, life was coming at him faster and faster, and he was trying to sort through it all.
He was processing the slow death of Definitive Jux: brainchild of rapper El-P, and the creative petri dish for left-of-center acts like Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, RJD2 — and Lif himself, who’d carved out his identity with a flurry of politically charged albums, including 2002’s acclaimed, definitive “I, Phantom” and 2006’s “Mo Mega,” that saw him labeled as a protest rapper.
“Being on a label that I loved for years, there’s a part of Def Jux that I just chose to remember more than the other part,” Lif said, looking back during a recent interview. “The way down — no one wanted to see it go like that. We all weren’t hanging out as much, and you could just get a sense that, OK, this isn’t what it used to be.”
He’d learned painful lessons releasing “I Heard It Today” independently, without the Def Jux machine behind him. “I’m not a label,” he said. “I learned that very quickly.” And his studio was all but destroyed when the basement in his Dedham home flooded. “It rained for three days straight,” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it, and my studio drowned.”
With so many things swirling, Lif wondered where he was going.
“I was like, I don’t know if I could make a good record right now,” he said. “That’s why I had to walk away.”
He also wondered where life was taking him. He’d dabbled in real estate, but the housing crisis ruined the investment. He looked at career paths outside of music, started an NFL podcast, and looked into classes at the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. Meanwhile, his father was dealing with health issues, and a close friend died of juvenile diabetes.
“No one can escape life without having these man-in-the-mirror moments,” he said. “You have to look at the predicament you’re in and be like, yo, I have to examine what role I played in how I got here.”
Lif cut the signature dreadlocks he’d been growing since he first started rapping with a group of friends who called themselves the Sons of Zion. His run as a rapper, he was becoming convinced, was over.
Then in December 2009, the phone rang. His friend and photographer Dom Savini was in Washington, D.C., for work. One night he stopped in a bar and crossed paths with Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation. Savini threw out the idea that Thievery Corporation should work with Lif.
That the idea somehow made it out of the bar still amazes Lif.
“I was like, what?” he said. “You told him they should do a jam with me, and then he actually called me?”
That call led to a February 2010 session and a song, “Culture of Fear.” It took another nine months for Lif to learn where that would lead. He went six months without hearing from Hilton, and eventually e-mailed him.
“He told me not to worry about it,” Lif reported. Three months later, Hilton eventually called. ”Culture of Fear” would be the title track of Thievery Corporation’s 2011 LP. He had just one instruction, Lif related: “‘Come to D.C. and rehearse, because we’re going on tour.’ ”
That venture, which saw Lif playing everywhere from Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado to Australia’s Splendour in the Grass festival, was the rapper’s turning point. “Touring with them revitalized me,” he said. It also jogged his memory: The connection he’d built with Thievery Corporation felt like the bond he had at Def Jux.
In 2013, Lif started to grow out his dreads and reassembled his studio. Last summer he linked with a pair of Oakland artists, the Polish Ambassador and Ayla Nereo, releasing the breezy collaborative project “Terra Bella.” Last fall he signed with a buzzy new indie label, Mello Music Group, which reissued “I, Phantom,” on vinyl with the intent of re-introducing Lif to the rap world.
“It does feel like I’m back,” Lif said. “It feels like I’m me again. It just feels like the MC is back.”
His first solo album in seven years, “Don’t Look Down,” arrived on April 15. But with the lingering pall of police brutality and the ceaseless din of Donald Trump seemingly ripe for his critical lens, Lif took a step back and made a project that’s just as piercing, but more inwardly oriented.
“It was necessary, man,” Lif said. “It was really an act of self-preservation, it really was. That’s the thing: I’m tuned in now, but I’m almost kind of glad that that didn’t show up as much on this album. I know that that’s become my trademark, the sociopolitical commentary; that’s why I’m glad that this album doesn’t really do that.”
It’s the first page in what Lif considers his second chapter.
“I don’t know that I’ve been this inspired,” he said. “I’m just amped to start offering music to people again and touring the world and building that thing back up, because it means even more to me now. After seeing the other side, where I’ve been to the brink of not even being in this, I know how valuable it is. So it’s precious to me.”
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