Mr. Lif’s I Phantom might be one of the 50 best albums of the 2000s.
Anyone who thinks this is a bold statement probably hasn’t heard it. That said, I Phantom was an easy album to miss. It did fine by indie rap standards and got plenty of love in its day, but it didn’t make as much of an impact as other first wave Definitive Jux records like Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein or Aesop Rock’s Labor Days.
That might be because I Phantom looked terrible on paper. You can hardly blame those who passed on a high-concept prog-rap album that follows a rapper as he dies, is reborn (via hip-hop), abandons his rap career, lands an office job, starts a family, loses his family by working too much, then dies in a nuclear holocaust. Given El-P’s general indifference about going easy on the listener, his involvement didn’t exactly sweeten the deal. And the timing didn’t help. The Bush Administration really hit its stride in 2002, inundating everyone’s day to day with discussions and arguments about the war and Republican graft. By September, folks might not have been checking for a very political rapper following up an issues-heavy EP (June’s Emergency Rations).
In reality, I Phantom basically avoids all of these pitfalls. Yes, it’s a dense, ambitious and somewhat audacious project (the liner notes fold out into a board game), but it’s a surprisingly easy listen. It clocks in at a lean 47 minutes and never drags. A lot of this is thanks to Lif, who has always excelled at conveying big ideas with manageable words. El-P’s production doesn’t get in the way, and contributions from Insight and Fakts One match his dusty knock perfectly; the album just sounds really good. And while Lif was definitely still burdened by the politics, I Phantom is a more subtle and personal critique of America’s crumbling ideas about work and family. While it feels early 2000’s, Lif’s depiction of the dysfunction of middle class life is as relevant as ever.
So with that said, it’s no surprise I Phantom is getting reissued by the boom-bap loving, Arizona-based Mello Music Group. And it’s no surprise they’ve also added Mr. Lif to their roster, which also includes stalwarts like Oddisee and Rapper Big Pooh. The reissue is an appetizer for Lif’s first solo album since 2009: Don’t Look Down is slated to drop next year. We looked back on I Phantom, contemplated the end of the world and talked the politics of football.
“Now I probably would have wanted to make a film out of I Phantom just to follow that character through every phase of life and have visuals for every song.”
What was the rationale for reissuing I Phantom?
It’s my landmark record that people really connected with. Nothing that’s happened has been able to slow that record down. I still have a very small stash of original Def Jux pressings and people were snatching them up on tour. I sold out and I wasn’t willing to part with any more. I sold a few copies from my website … but I think I’m down to like 20 or 25.
How do you feel about I Phantom 13 years out?
It was a great way to capture an era … myself, El-P, Akrobatik, Fakts One, the homie NASA, we were all just hanging out consistently. It’s a great snapshot of a lot of great friendships. Aesop Rock coming through to just lay the chorus down on “Success”, he just happened to be at the crib that day – I was living at El-P’s while we were recording and he just happened to be there that day.
Who came up with the board game in the liner notes?
It had to have started with me and Dan Lang having a conversation. El-P was always very involved in the conversations about artwork and I’m sure my quirky-ass brain was looking for a way to make sure everything was linked together and that the artwork reflected what I was trying to say about life and all the stages of life that I touch on. The board game naturally evolved from that, it felt like a nice asset to have to make the experience more tangible to people.
If I was thinking then the way I was thinking now, I probably would have wanted to make a film out of I Phantom just to follow that character through every phase of life and have visuals for every song. Fans have told me along the way they wish it existed. So the board game was a way of giving fans something extra …
… it made sense for the time.
How has your political focus changed from I Phantom to now?
I spend a lot less time watchdogging what politicians are doing. I find that shit really exhausting. Back then I had a lot more energy for it. After 09 – I wrote this album called I Heard It Today – during that album I spent so much time watchdogging and providing commentary about what was happening during that era, it didn’t feel good spiritually to be so deeply engrossed in that stuff. Right now, I’m less adept politically – I couldn’t tell you the state of affairs of everything that’s going on right now, which feels healthy to me because I’ve found this other space where I can very much absorb the pulse of the times keeping up with things half as much as I used to.
My concern now is more of a person to person level – how you and I relate, the energy that we’re generating from this conversation. Our situations with our families. It’s about these interpersonal relationships and how we feel connected to ourselves and those closest to us and keeping a positive energy about those situations and hopefully growing from them. I feel like my journey’s now much more personal than it is political.
But the album is less specific to 2002. It’s aged pretty well.
I’m well-aware these songs are gonna outlive me. So I’m like, “How can I put the way I’m feeling now in a way that’s gonna translate 20, 30 years from now?” So ‘Live From the Plantation’ … when is there gonna be a point where people aren’t sick of their jobs and thinking about quitting to go do their own thing? I don’t know that that’s ever gonna happen. With companies letting more people go and doubling up the workloads of the people they keep without feeling a need to pay them because everyone’s so damn desperate for a job … it’s not pretty stuff.
So a lot of those things from I Phantom linger … a song like ‘Success’, where you talk about someone thinking the way to provide for a family is just to work and they just don’t nurture their family, or a song like ‘Earthcrusher’ … the prospect of nuclear war is always there as long as we have those bombs.
I feel like the end of the world stuff feels a little less relevant now just because we’re more worried about getting shot in a movie theater or by a cop than nuked.
I just feel like if the right amount of elements line up in somebody’s favor, somebody will drop a bomb. I think it’s just business. All I’ve taken in from the way I been watching things unfold, people in power feel more brazen to do whatever the hell they want because I don’t know there’s any indication that we know how to stop it. I don’t think people in power are becoming more shy or more humble, and to me that’s as dangerous as a nuclear bomb.
It might affect our lives on a slower rate or less overtly but the stuff we can’t see can be poisonous. Things we just think are normal are completed demented. Like, why does a house cost $400,000, any house anywhere. That shit is designed like that so wealthy people can keep us under their thumb cuz we can’t buy the shit on our own so we have to come to them, and they bleed us for interest. I dabbled in real estate, I walked right in there thinking it’s standard “oh yeah, 30 year mortgage” … these motherfuckers know that most people don’t have a stable job for 30 years. Something’s gonna happen in a 30 year span that’s gonna cause a disruption in your income and most likely they’ll get the house back. I talked to so many homeowners who are at like year 22, year 25, lose their fucking house for some reason or another. But that’s common right? That’s just the way things are …
The cost of education, you can go to school for four years and come out cum laude and still have to be a waiter or waitress ’cause you can’t get a job in your field. Yet the cost of education keeps going up. The most dangerous shit in the world is the things you think are just normal and that you don’t examine with scrutiny because, “Oh this is just the way things are” and you don’t ask why or ask who it benefits. Like you said, it might not be like Terminator 2 where Skynet launches everything all at once but a different kind of apocalypse is very real and very present.
“I feel like my journey’s now much more personal than it is political.”
The way the police treat people of color always felt like “the way things are” but it’s become a national issue in a way people probably thought it never would. What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement?
I know what you’re saying … while I don’t have any specific direct opinion on Black Lives Matter, I will just say that I am still just in shock. I’m still trying to get over what Officer Slager did pumping eight rounds into that dude’s back and then running over to him like “get your hands behind your back”. That shit shows a level of disconnect that I don’t know how any living breathing human being with a family ever arrives at within themselves … and you’re almost at a disadvantage if you actually know your rights because the cops are not trying to hear that. I guess I would refrain from a comment … I agree with you – it’s good these incidents are much more visible because they’re on camera and people can see them and maybe it can help to kill some of the denial people are feeling about the actual situation, but for me the actual statement will come later because I’m still in shock. I’m still trying to deal with the mystery of Sandra Bland’s death, and various other incidents I’ve seen. For now I’m just in shock.
You’ve shown your skepticism of Obama. I’m wondering what your reflections are on the his presidency.
Again I would cite the beginning of the conversation where I say my level of watchdogging has been far less than it was before. I just kind of view our overall system as a runaway train. That’s just how I feel, us as a species, with what we’re capable of, have chosen to set up a construct in which people are very much tempted to act or function with a low level of concern for their fellow man.
I don’t have the solution, I don’t know what kind of overall system should be set up for commerce or what should change, but our capitalist society, there’s not a lot of rewards for … OK, for example you start a business, you have 20 employees or whatever. Keep in mind, I don’t know the inner workings of this because I’ve never had a business with 20 employees, but from what I can see if you can go with healthcare package A, which might give your workers and staff some of the best benefits they could have, or you could have package B or C and [the benefits] decrease further you go down the chain. If you pick package C, you get to pocket more money and, yes your workers have health care, but their benefits might not be the best thing. I just feel like we live in a society that largely prompts people to pick option C.
You’re a huge Patriots fan. How do you reconcile your love of the NFL with your very grim understanding of the reality of capitalism?
I grew up as a student athlete! Athletics are at the core of who I am. All the urgency you hear in my voice, the diligence, the fact that I been a part of these different musical movements, that takes knowing how to be a team member. It’s teamwork. the reason I been touring with Thievery Corporation for four years … it’s teamwork. When I step up on that stage, I know I have to do my best because I’m not trying to let the team down. My whole mentality is based in athletics.
My dad grew up in Barbados and was a D1 soccer player over there, won like 11 titles playing for a team in Boston, he’s a decorated soccer coach and has won multiple titles. My family’s about winning titles, man, this is where I’m from. To me this shit is like, every time I’m recording a song, I’m trying to bring positive things about, that’s first and foremost, but this shit is about leaving a legacy behind. when it’s all said and done I want my body of work to hold a good place.
OK but this is something I struggle with – NFL contracts are not guaranteed, the NFL owners clearly conspired to obscure the danger of concussions from the public and the players – the very specific brain trauma you get from football. So many things in football feel like the worst of America in one place.
First of all, I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. But I’m paid for my records and then I go on tour, and shit I was in a tour bus wreck that could have ended my life. At some point when you’re performing your job you’re accepting the opportunity to make money and sustain your existence given whatever risk you’re taking. And once you’ve received that money, it’s up to you to be as wise with it that you’re never flat on your face broke. So I understand the contracts are shit, you’re 100% right, it can be over in a blink of an eye. To not have contracts guaranteed is very shitty in a sport that’s that dangerous. But I heard stories of guys that made $20 million, $30 million in your career, how did you end up broke? You listened to bad people who advised you to make bad decisions or you were living too flashy ’cause you thought the money wouldn’t run out. I mean, you get a lot of that money when you’re young, these guys are in their early 20s. They don’t have the best head on their shoulders. I was relieved when I heard Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski doesn’t use any of the money from his contracts to live, he only uses his endorsements. To me, that sounds like a smart thing. But again, it’s kind of a to each his own thing.
To speak about the overall capitalist, how vulgar the NFL is at times, yes of course it’s vulgar. Any time I come across anybody that’s amassed that much wealth, these teams are worth what, at least a billion dollars for damn near all of them? Yeah, especially with the stuff we talked about before, where all the wealth is being pooled into the pockets of the few and the many are left on the outside looking in, you do have to raise an eyebrow at that.
I think to me, what captivates me about football is the determination, the dedication that it takes to be consistently performing at a high level. The strategy and the execution. Those are the lessons that I take away from it. Luckily, I’m from Boston and it’s no secret I been a Pats fan my whole life. I remember some terrible years. That team used to be a laughingstock. I remember my dad being face down just pounding the floor over dumbass plays, just pissing away games. And I understand that’s not palpable to people outside the region because now they’re just the hated Patriots who have stayed in power for almost two decades or since Brady took the field … but they used to suck. So my lesson from watching football … right in my backyard, there’s a team that has figured out how to consistently be competitive and function at a high level. I take a lot from it, I take a lot of life lessons that speak personally to what I’m trying to accomplish: longevity with a high level of quality and a good level of output on a consistent basis. And that’s why it means something to me – I feel like I take valuable life lessons from the NFL.