Hip-hop 'n' the Hub
Mr. Lif and Akrobatik find release
by Michael Endelman
Mr. Lif's dreadlocks are thick and tangled. Jutting out from his scalp at odd
angles, they wrap around one another like swampy kudzu vines, blocking out the
sunlight and casting dark shadows across his face. Adding a sense of mystery to
his mad-scientist persona, Lif's matted locks hang well past his shoulders and
are usually the biggest and thickest in the room. But not tonight. He's opening
up for reggae legend Burning Spear at the Roxy, and there are some Rastafarian
brothers chilling in the back who have him beat by at least a foot.
Apart from the aforementioned Rastas, the Roxy audience is far from a typical
rap crowd -- a mixture of dressed-up urbanites, grizzly hippies, and
gray-haired world-music fans. But Lif likes it this way. In fact, he hasn't
played a straight-up hip-hop show in Boston since the middle of the summer.
Mostly that's because the bespectacled MC wants to build up hype for his
Enters the Colossus EP (Def Jux) and the release party for it tonight
(December 7) at the Middle East. But Lif has also been trying to reach a
non-rap audience in the Hub by opening for acts like Zap Mama and M. Doughty of
And as the Burning Spear set demonstrates, that's not always easy. When Lif
gets going -- with a lengthy spoken-word about the vestiges of slavery -- the
Roxy crowd is definitely puzzled. And as his sidekick, DJ Fakts-One, cuts in a
fierce beat, the crowd just freezes, seeming stunned by the spectacle of this
wide-eyed seer spewing rhymes that threaten to "burn off your flesh like you
were David Koresh." Slowly, however, the audience warms, as Lif and his crew
(Fakts-One, MC Illin' P, and DJ Sense) charm it with goofy stage antics, a
twitchy dancehall number, and a quick primer on the hip-hop basics --
freestyles, call-and-response crowd chants, DJ trickery. By the end of the
brief set, Lif has hooked Burning Spear's fans: they're screaming out choruses,
pumping their fists, and nodding their heads like old-school regulars.
Mellowing out back afterward in a dressing room that's little more than a
janitor's closet, Lif is all smiles and positive attitude. Earlier, though, it
was a different story. Characterizing himself as a "constricted" MC with "a big
palm tree stuck up my ass," he was definitely stressed. Just 15 minutes before
showtime, he was still studying a lyric sheet and finalizing the set list. "I
need to relax," he admitted before jetting off to find a beer. "I'll catch up
with you after the show, then it'll be more chill. Or maybe not, 'cause I'll be
stressed about things that went wrong."
Nothing went wrong, but I get the feeling Lif will never really be able to let
go of the angst. Can't blame him -- he's got a lot on his mind. Like the
mechanization of agriculture and impending eco-destruction, and, well, the
future. Not the distant future, though the fate of the human race does give him
some worry. No, Lif's concerned about his near-future.
See, Mr. Lif is on the verge of something. The most popular Boston hip-hop
artist since Ed O.G. hit the charts a decade ago, he's at a crucial point in
his career. He's followed the expected underground hip-hop trajectory so far --
a handful of 12-inch singles, mix-tape appearances, cameos on other independent
releases, and a European tour. Now, in order to become more than just a Boston
phenom, he has to take it another step. Like he says, "Going to the lab and
making a record and selling three to five thousand copies is cool for now, but
it's gotta be about more than that. I wanna go national."
The traditional way young hip-hop artists take it nationwide is by hooking up
with a mentor -- an older, respected artist who's willing to take a young buck
out on tour and maybe even snag him a record deal. Busta Rhymes brought up Rah
Digga and the Flipmode Squad; Erick Sermon brought up Redman; Gang Starr helped
out Jeru the Damaja. But though Boston boasts a promising underground hip-hop
scene, it lacks the sort of older established artist who could bring along the
next generation. (Ed O.G. is still around, but he's busy working on relaunching
his own career.)
Lucky for Lif, he's made some friends in high places. Recent collaborations
with Del tha Funkee Homosapien and DJ Vadim have upped his profile. More
important, he's become a close compatriot of El-P, the frontman for underground
hip-hop stalwarts Company Flow.
Calling Lif a "genius," El-P (on the phone from Chicago) is effusive in his
praise: "He's just got this great vibe as person and artist. His voice is sick,
his flow is nasty, his train of thought is capable of building intelligent
ideas, but he also has the skills to rip you a new asshole on the mike. I'm
biased because he's one of my best friends, but I think he's gonna be on the
forefront of a new wave of hip-hop."
Since meeting in '97, the two have collaborated on wax and on stage (Lif toured
Japan and Australia with Co Flow). And Enters the Colossus is the first
release on El-P's new Def Jux label, an association that connects Lif to a
creative cadre of hard-hitting and brain-blurring acts that include Cannibal Ox
and Aesop Rock. El-P expects that this collective crew will be touring together
by the middle of next year.
Merging the worlds of Sun Ra and Stan Lee, Enters the Colossus is an
Afro-futurist mind trip stocked with time-traveling and mind-unraveling rhymes
that drop references to Greek mythology, the Bible, and pro golfers.
Alternately brutal and brainy, Lif's flow is more stylized than ever;
traditional rap cadences are twisted and torqued into a minefield of irregular
pauses, syllable stretches, and offbeat accents. Weighty beat science by El-P,
Lif himself, and a few local producers (Fakts-One, Insight, Pawl) intensifies
the claustrophobic and gothic vision: "Cro-Magnon" burbles up from some deep
primordial ooze; "Front on This" staggers and stutters with off-center string
stabs; "Pulse Cannon" is driven by rubbery woofer-blowing laser-beam
Like a hip-hop Clark Kent, Lif's a bookish guy who works out his anger and
frustration in a superhuman alter ego. He spends most of the album
shapeshifting into murderous beepers ("Front on This"), slaying wack rappers
with "rhyme grenades" ("Enters the Colossus"), and cooking up elaborate
fantasies that involve "devouring the ozone and disappear[ing] in a puff of
exhaust" ("Cro-Magnon"). You get the feeling he'd rather star in a Marvel comic
than a BET video. And like any superhero worth his or her salt, he wants to
save the world, or at least change it to fit his progressive politics and
radical environment vision.
Lif matches his well-meaning, "conscious" program with a ruthless and hardcore
battle style. He's not afraid to get his hands bloody with ruthless rips that
tear up the opposition. On "Datablend," his hankering for gory imagery
eventually treads on Hannibal Lecter territory: "Talk of being phatter is
senseless data and useless chatter that leads to another well-done rapper
served on a platter/On Jeffrey Dahmer Day/My favorite holiday/Served lukewarm
with sauce -- yeah hollandaise."
Best of all, he makes it sound tasty enough that there's a good chance he'll be
around long enough to serve up seconds.
The Boston MC known as Akrobatik has been a home-town favorite since
1998, when the burly rapper released the astonishing "Ruff Enuff/Woman" single
(Detonator), an ear-twisting 12-inch that backed a rugged battle track with a
brilliant anti-sexist narrative. These days Akro is turning heads on the
national scene with "Internet MCs" (Rawkus), a spiky tongue-lashing single that
promises to "snatch your Webmaster and break both his legs/Post it on your
site, formatted as jpegs." A dis track for these dot-com times, "Internet MCs"
verbalizes the backlash against the digital swagger and electronic egotism of
backpackin' laptoppers -- those keyboard virtuosos who populate hip-hop chat
rooms and on-line freestyles sessions.
A self-professed "Internet head," Akro wrote the track after "bumping into so
many assholes on line" last December, and as his first act of the new year, he
posted it (quite appropriately) on undergroundhiphop.com. "It's kind of an
attack or a tease," he explains over lunch at the Deli Haus, "on those kids who
get on the Net and make up these personae as ill lyricists and battle in chat
rooms. They talk a lot of garbage about well-known MCs, but they've never done
a show or rhymed in front of people." Although Akro has the Web savvy to
participate in e-ciphers, he knows that the culture's roots lie elsewhere -- as
he puts it, "Internet MCs, heed my advice/On-line key styles don't make you
nice/Bring it to the streets and start rabble rousin'/Sincerely yours,
Although the timely e-shtick of "Internet MCs" is helping to make Akro a known
quantity outside the Hub, his subsequent release, The EP (Detonator),
portrays a well-rounded MC who promises to be around long after the dot-com
boom has died down. Armed with a populist slant that is unusual in the
underground scene, Akro makes no qualms about his mainstream dreams. "I want to
make my stuff accessible," he argues, "I want to make it something that people
can understand. I want to make it for someone who doesn't spend all their time
with an underground hip-hop tape in their walkman."
The result is a level-headed and lucid flow reminiscent of old-school legend
KRS-One: all sharp syllables and spiky angles. And the lyrics -- ranging from
hands-in-the-air anthems ("Say Yes Say Word") to rugged battle tracks ("Ruff
Enuff") to respectful love jams ("U Got It") -- cover all of the bases, making
Akrobatik a beacon of back-to-basics, fist-pumping fun in the increasingly dour
and divisive world of independent hip-hop.
Mr. Lif performs tonight, December 7, at the Middle East downstairs with
Company Flow and Cannibal Ox. Akrobatic performs as part of the Boston Hip-Hop
Fest next Friday, December 15, at the Middle East downstairs. Call
The Cellars by Starlight archive