Hip-hop’s not my strong suit but I know what I like to listen to. Mr. Lif’s I Phantom brings me back repeatedly to what I love (raw, emotional, angry, funny and intelligent word deliveries) about hip-hop when the majority of the hip-hop market is producing (empty, fattening, dense & recycled narratives) big mac attacks.
I’m puzzled by the popularity of artists like 50 Cent; how they generated so much income from a mixtape, 1 single and street legends about that one time they got shot or dealt drugs so they could party more. Some go on to star in movies, write books, all the while being and sounding musically and culturally boring artists with nothing relevant to offer that any of us will go back to, to listen to again.
It’s this same formula that makes me jealous too, who wouldn’t want to make millions sounding bored with life while looking tough? (I want to make millions off my appendix surgery scars but I don’t like to party.) This formula for success is the same thing Elvis & Sinatra got high on too. There are many similarities between hip hop stars and yesteryear’s pop stars but the one big difference between hip hop artists and pop stars from the 50s and 60s is that pop stars like Elvis & Sinatra didn’t write their own hits. The recipe that made Elvis and Sinatra wealthy is no different than the hip hop recipe that makes typically boring wordsmiths out of criminal civilians appear marketable & culturally influential.
Here’s a rough example of a recipe I cooked up that makes ya a lucrative hip hop star (and an old school pop icon): You came from the streets (or country), you dealt drugs (or slung alcohol), you got shot or escaped near death as a youngin (some fistfights, maybe knives), you did what ya did for your family (usually mom raised ya and your brother died), you went to jail or not (or to the U.S. Military to serve for us, and for the other crooks in Washington), then you wrote some nursery rhymes about your street life (or you sang songs about your womanizing ways and how it broke your heart and taught you how to love tenderly), got out of jail with your poems in hand (finished military duties then went to NY or LA and hung out in taverns and clubs), mysteriously financed your first record with the help of someone (you went to seek out the Colonel, but met the Nashville Mob), made millions and lost millions on having an entourage (the Rat Pack), and branded yourself on some clothes or shoes, starred in movies, and made more millions just being boring. (50 Cent is as boring as Frank Sinatra.) Then disappear into culturally, apathetic, irrelevance.
There’s no difference between today’s hip hop stars and Elvis or Sinatra. Sinatra was just as much of a crook, if not worse, than 50 Cent, aka Curtis Jackson the IIIrd. I can hear some of you thinking; Uh, Elvis & Sinatra could sing- they had phrasing. I offer- who cares? Phrasing is one thing, writing your own words to phrase to within a basic song structure’s code is another skill Elvis and Sinatra did not practice themselves. Songs and selection were their greatest skill next to just lookin’ cool to a generation that had more hope than today’s minions.
Phrasing. If there’s one thing missing from one of my favorite hip-hop records of all time, it’s just that. What it lacks in phrasing is made up for in its sly, smooth, quick and calm, educated delivery. I Phantom from Mr. Lif features an onslaught of ideas and words paying tribute to the heyday of 80s hip hop while telling the story of its narrator from birth til the earth’s own demise. Record scratching, dense beats, loops and subtle samples are used to cloak the narrator’s story in a mono, video-game like experience that touches equally on day to day worries along with societal issues, both political and personal.
Mr. Lif, aka Jeffrey Haines, is a member of The Perceptionists. They’ve released a few politically minded hip hip records owing tribute to old-school acts like Public Enemy, De La Soul, etc. Haines’ moniker on ‘Phantom’ takes the listener on a trip, using his life as a metaphor for what we all deal with trying to achieve our personal and collective dreams. Along the way narratives like Track #4’s Live From The Plantation, connects with the working class in ways 50 Cent’s In Da Club can’t come close to years later.
…I dip with my pad and my pen
Step into the work place with my work face
Wince at my time card cuz I’m scarred
Mad cuz I sacrifice my day and gets me
A trifling hourly wage of six fifty, nifty
Now I’m off to slave quarters
With a whole bunch of other people’s sons and daughters
Working so they can be mothers and fathers
Laboring real hard, hoping the boss offers
More petty cash to his bums and paupers
Kissing his ass cuz they hoping they prosper
Here’s the math:
You work a thirty a day, away
The government takes a thirty a check, correct
You go home and drink cuz you don’t get
An ounce of respect, and your spirit is wrecked
Life is a gift to be enjoyed, every second every minute
It’s temporary, not infinite
Yet I find myself looking at the clock
Hoping for the day to fly by, so I ask myself Why?
I’m doing this remedial work for second graders
I’m an educator with mega-flavor, so
Maybe I should just jump up and get ill
Maybe I should let these people know they’re being killed
Maybe I should try my very best to chill, and get paid
Cuz I gotta pay bills…
Who’s talking bout da club now? Themes directed at and from the working class run a needle through I Phantom. Listening to tracks like Live From the Plantation years later now strikes at the heart of the educated, working class harder more now than when this record was originally released in 2002. How times change, no one has a job to complain about, a boss to wish dead, or an 8 shift to write your first record about while the rest of your co-workers wonder why you keep quiet & to yourself the whole time. The beatdowns on day to day blue collared ways do take breaks in Lif’s world, offering hope for exile through his own hip-hop dreams that are executed on the man’s clock.
With throwback nods to hip-hops greats, Lif comes across as a teacher, unlike a boasting, street thuggin’ hall of famer that many of his genre’s peers come across on record as. The nods happen quickly on tracks like Return of the B-Boy with call outs to Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Wu-Tang, Public Enemy and RUN DMC. The call outs are out of respect and love, not a throwdown challenge as you hear on many of today’s hip hop records. Acknowledging the genre’s great wordsmiths while calmly calling out his own skills, Lif does so with self-confidence and caution.
Survival, not liable, got up close and what I saw I couldn’t believe
My enemy was a genetic replica of me
Battling yourself is the biggest chore
It could be the bigger fall, a truly vicious type of war
I Phantom features contributions by Aesop Rock, El-P, and many more, helping Mr. Lif create one of the genre’s great, overlooked masterpieces. It does not come from the streets, the gang glamour or the hopes in making millions off a ripped off Dr. Dre pop can beat & synth line. You won’t hear 9 skits about banging pussy, smoking weed, partying, and talking on the phone with so and so about a throwdown with so and so. It’s not that and that’s what makes it great 8 years later. It takes its inspiration from it’s own genre’s history, refined from the classroom and the workplace–no boasting–just day to day working class struggles & dreams told to us by it’s hero and narrator, Jeffrey Haines, aka, Mr. Lif.
SMS Ed. NOTE: The first of many entries from the Andy Whorehall’s Sock Monkey Sound Draft Archives. He left dozens of draft pieces behind we didn’t publish due to what we assumed was incompletion, timing and oversight. After perusing through his drafts directory, we realized many articles were complete and unattended to by his own doing. He’s gone missing, along with El Doug. If you’re unaware of the circumstances, click here to read more. We await more news on his whereabouts, but for now, enjoy the draft archives he left behind and consider him dead.