“I want to write music that I’m still proud of in 20 years”: An Interview with Lushlife

Zilla interviews Lushlife about focusing on the fans and not the hype, working with Camp Lo, his new album, 'Ritualize,' and more.
By    November 5, 2015


Philly rap is known for being aggressive and confrontational. Our city has been violent and corrupt for the bulk of my lifetime, and our rappers are no exceptions. Joey Jihad, a Philly battle rapper, once got snuffed out on camera while rapping acapella. Cool C and Steady B robbed a bank and killed a cop. Beanie Sigel has been in and out of jail seven times since 2002. Tommy Hill of RAM Squad was in cahoots with South Philly mob leader Joey Merlino in the ’90s and was shot to death four years ago. Black Thought’s father was in the Black Mafia, an African-American crime syndicate who terrorized black neighborhoods throughout Philly from 1968 through the late ’70s.

But Philly rap has always been ahead of the curve – check the reverb drenched gangster 808’s of Schoolly D in 1985 setting the blueprint for Ice-T, NWA, and angel dust as studio enhancement. Check Young Chris, whose entire flow was swag dracula’d by Jay-Z from The Blueprint 2 through The Black Album. Check Gillie the Kid, who transformed Lil Wayne behind the scenes from “Wobble de wobble de” to Tha Carter.

Lushlife rarely gets mentioned in the same breath of great Philly rappers, but he’s carved his spot among the art crowd and the backpackers. He’s worked with Styles P and Ariel Pink. He’s a Philly guy without the criminal element, underground without channeling The High & Mighty, progressive but not trendy. He’s been on my radar since working with Camp Lo on his first album Cassette City in 2009, and then he went and checked off a list of interesting people I’ve always admired to work with next: Shabazz Palaces, Elzhi, Cities Aviv, and RYAT.

His last album Plateau Vision felt like Edan discovering Nosaj Thing. His new album Ritualize is synth heavy and dreamy, with rugged east coast rhymes to spike the punch. The beats are Tomorrowland while the rapping is b-boy cinema. Lushlife represents where Philly is now: fresh and full of new influences while clinging to the grit and passion of thousand years spent sucker punching any fool wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey on Broad Street. — Zilla Rocca

One of the things I like about your output and your catalogue is that you’re very much aware of the Internet cycle of music, press, etc, but you aren’t highly prolific. You tend to take 2-3 years in between records. Is that intentional? Do you ever get pressure to put out remixes or mixtapes or EPs just to keep your value up in the eyes of tastemakers?

Lushlife: I guess I still drink deeply in the idea of the album as an experience. Even while the world around me devours “content” faster and faster, with rappers trying to keep up, spitting out full-length mixtapes over the course of a weekend, my goal with each effort is to slowly let a record gestate and evolve into a unique statement. I want to make rap records that you can listen to front-to-back, and I want to write music that I’m still proud of in twenty years. Just accomplishing that shit takes time, for me anyway. And yeah, when the time finally comes to roll out my records, I try to make that an experience too. It’s true, sometimes there’s a bit of subliminal pressure from my team to stay in the public eye. But, ultimately we agree that it’s healthy for your audience to miss you, and I suspect that they’re more likely to miss you than forget you when you’ve consistently come to the table with quality work.

Outside of that, there’s just life shit that people tend to forget about, I guess. When I was a kid, patiently waiting for the follow-up to whatever Artifacts album or Pavement record, it never occurred to me that those dudes might have had mortgages or kids or family shit to deal with instead of just hitting the lab every night. Part of the reason the new Lushlife record, Ritualize took almost three years to finish is because I was dealing with regular life stuff, you know?

The funny thing is, I realize that three years can be an enormous amount of time, not only in Internet epochs or whatever, but in real life too. A teenage fan recently tweeted at me, saying something like, “I remember listening to Plateau Vision in 8th grade, now I’m about to graduate high school lol.” Sure, I’m always cool to take my penchant for slow progress on the chin, but that tweet made it clear that an entire generation of kids went through puberty and became young adults all in the time it took me to make Ritualize. Ultimately, time elapses differently for everyone, so I’m not bothered about trying to anchor my output to it.

What have you noticed about your original core of fans who hopped onboard with the Kanye/Pet Sounds project years ago on MySpace compared to newer folks who maybe never heard of you until the Styles P joint on your last album? Have your fans accepted your unpredictable nature?

Lushlife: This might sound a little cliche, but I think one of the most important lessons learned as a professional musician or whatever, over the last decade, is that the fans are the ones that carry you. You can spare me the blog buzz, the hype cycles, and the oversaturation. Making music for people that appreciate it, vibe on it, and in some cases are deeply moved by it, is pretty much what it’s all about. I’ve never really compartmentalized fans that were hip early on with folks who got with the Lushlife shit subsequently. If there’s any story there, I suspect it’s more about the changing landscape of popular music and culture at large.

Early on, with West Sounds and the first Lushlife full-length, Cassette City, I guess there was something a little more adventurous about having someone like Elzhi from Slum Village on the same joint where I’m flipping Ariel Pink’s “I Wait for Kate” into a boom-bap head-nodder. Today, that sort of shit is par for the course in the context of broader culture. You know what it is: Mountain Dew or Converse orchestrating a “collaboration” between your favorite indie rock band and some on-the-cusp rap dudes to generate clicks and engender cool.

The upside of that for me, is that people who listen to Lushlife now are already accustomed to some baseline vibe of where I’m coming from, so it affords me the ability to be even more outre and forward-thinking. For the folks that have been staying up with me since MySpace days, I think that sort of exploration is what they expect from Lushlife, and hopefully the continued envelope-pushing keeps them coming back.

You and I are among the only Philly cats to ever work with Camp Lo. What is it about that duo to you that never left you as a fan? Is it the slang? Is it Ski Beatz? It is Geechi’s fashion sense or Cheeba’s incredible voice? And how often do you still listen to Uptown Saturday Night?

Lushlife: Yeah, it never occurred to me that we’re probably the only Philly dudes that Cheeba and Suede have shared records with. Didn’t you also do a remix of that Aesop Rock collaboration with Camp Lo? 

In any case, I’ve recorded and shared the stage with them several times over the last half-decade (including opening for their Uptown Saturday Night 15th Anniversary Tour), and the bottom line is that they are the type of kind, visionary motherfuckers that you want your childhood heroes to be in real life.

Anyway, depending on the day I might tell you that Camp Lo’s “Luchini” is the single best recording of the 20th century. It’s the sound of celebration as much as any Discovery-era Daft Punk single is. Moreover, I’m still unraveling the lyrics fifteen years later. I don’t listen to Uptown Saturday Night that often these days, but believe me, I’ve listened to it enough for a thousand lifetimes between the ages of 14 and 20. More than anything, their post-De La Soul codified slang and attention to aesthetic were hugely impactful on what Lushlife sounds like today.

As a producer, your sound changes with each record. Is there an idea you have going into the making of an album, or do you just make tons of beats and circle in all of the ones that fit a certain vibe? In other words, do you make beats to make beats, or do you only make beats to put on albums?

Lushlife: I don’t know about you man, but that time for me, of staying up until dawn every night making beats has all but passed. That was the world of my early 20s, and while I didn’t know it then, it was part of the autodidactic process of becoming a record producer. Just by virtue of the fact that Lushlife albums have the kind of scope that we discussed earlier, the create-then-curate process doesn’t work for me. Instead, I articulate exactly what I want to achieve with any given album on paper and from jump (before production or writing ever begins). Each song is an execution of one of those early ideations, and while there are hella-twists-and-turns along the way, I’m always anchored to an overall vision.

With the upcoming record, Ritualize, a huge part of keeping that process fresh was inviting a third-party production team into the fold for the very first time. Lushlife fans already knew two-fold what it sounded like for me to write and produce an LP, and this time around I wanted to expand on that. This time, I envisioned my rhymes floating atop four-on-the-floor Giorgio Moroder, L.A. night music-type filmic shit, and the homies, CSLSX were just the team to make that vision a reality. One of the ancillary benefits of having a brilliant team of three other multi-instrumentalists and producers on-board for Ritualize, is that I suddenly had so much more bandwidth as an em-cee to explore my personal issues, exorcise demons, and generally be more self-reflective. I hope that’s instantly palpable to listeners. I’m wearing it on my sleeve this time around.

Whose a producer that you kinda jack a little bit that no one e picks up on? It’s ok to tell me. I’ve been really biting Marley Marl heavily the last couple of years.

Lushlife: It’s funny you say Marley Marl, because when I was younger I would ascribe a huge amount of dap to Marley for tracks that I loved. For a minute there, in the early ’90s, every twelve-inch I held dear would have a Marley Marl’s “House of Hitz” production credit. Little did I know at the time, but my favorite records, like Lords of the Underground’s classic b-boy homage, “Chief Rocka” and the criminally-underrated single, “How Nice I Am” by World Renown, were actually produced by K-Def who was the in-house producer for Marley’s “House of Hitz” banner in those days.

Production-wise, those mid-’90s K-Def tracks are literally the sound of hip-hop to me. The seminal instrumentals for Da Youngstaz, Real Live, and practically every Lords of the Underground single define an important musical period of my life.

While, songs like “Anthem,” from my 2012 LP, Plateau Vision, pay direct homage to Kev’s shit, I like to think that almost all of my work carries a thread from the more hard-to-define “feeling” that those records are dripping with.

I’ve seen you around the Italian Market when I was living there getting brunch or walking to your car and I never said hi because I was always with a family member – it would be weird to dap up a fellow artist when my godmother just wants her waffles at Hawthorne’s. Do you enjoy being “on” and “off” as an artist? Some people want to be recognized all the time everywhere and some people want to be totally unknown.

Lushlife: Yeah, I’ve seen you around too, but I’m not one to really say anything. I used to see Questlove playing pinball at North Bowl and shit when I was like a decade younger, but you kind of just want to live and let live. I’ll be a 100 though, I don’t mind being recognized. I’d say someone stops me to say hello maybe two or three times a month, and it certainly feels good to hear people praise your work in a form that’s more tangible than a YouTube comment or whatever. Still, I like that I’m able to roll out of bed and roll up to the hoagie spot with my hair a mess and not really give a fuck.

What I like about all of your records is that your approach is always current in terms of musicality, but your rhyming, your flow, and the guest appearances you choose are usually rooted in being a fan of east coast late 90’s rap. I think that’s admirable, because you’re aware of the sounds and styles that are popping right now, and you play with them, but never switch up your entire style to the now. Is that a conscious choice or do you just really love Raekwon/AZ/CL Smooth more than anything?

Lushlife: I was raised in the crucible of rap’s Golden Age, for better or for worse. I was quite literally thirteen the year that Biggie’s Ready to Die and Nas’ Illmatic were released. I starved myself to spend lunch money on a twelve-inch daily for years (until I discovered girls). I guess what I’m trying to say is that the way I rap is informed by the musical world I came up in, and frankly I’ve never had a desire to change that, not even for a second. No shots to Migos, but their flows have never given me chills the way AZ’s did on his “Life’s a Bitch” guest verse. On top of that, part of the Lushlife aesthetic is the discovery of how classicism in cadence and delivery interplays with more outre lyrical ideas and progressive musical beds.

But yeah, I’ll fuck with Raekwon and AZ ’til I die. And, come to think of it, I’ve probably only heard Migos’ shit passively, so take whatever I said with a grain of salt.

You let me hear the new album Ritualize in advance – it’s really, really fucking cool. How long did it take you to make it? Usually, an album takes a year to write but you stayed busy in the interim between albums.

Lushlife: Thanks, dude. I’m really proud of it. Ritualize was a tough one to get through. It was such a time-consuming and frankly, life-consuming project that it literally almost killed me. Two women walked away from me during the writing and recording process. I narrowly escaped a disastrous late-night car crash while recording on the west coast. And, I was in such a distracted mind-state that I couldn’t get myself to sit down and write unless I was sitting on an airplane. Ultimately, I ended up criss-crossing the country month-after-month to record in LA, just so I could catch the vibe to write mostly. I’m so glad all of that is over. Start to finish, I think Ritualize took us two years and eight months to complete.

This new record features guys like Ariel Pink, Freeway, Killer Mike, and RJD2. I don’t think you get enough credit for picking features that fit your style and your albums. You don’t pad your tracklisting with the hot dudes of the moment just to get placements. How do you decide when to get a high profile guest on a song? Do you ever get pushback like “People aren’t going to get this!” when you reach out to people from polar opposite genres?

Lushlife: I like to think that guest artists on the Lushlife albums are always in aid of the universe of that particular record before anything else. For example, when we asked Ariel Pink to sing the hook for the Ritualize album cut, “Hong Kong (Lady of Love),” I already had this sense for what he could uniquely offer that song swirling around in my head. Low and behold, I spent a night with him in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood in my go-to recording spot, and he exceeded our expectations in every way, knocking out something so beautiful and complete in a matter of hours.

Of course, when you look at an album like Ritualize, the list of features can seem far-reaching and deliberate. But to me, the whole exercise is about working with ultra-talented artists and friends to help bring the world to life in a way that would be impossible left to my own devices.

Who are your top 5 all-time Philly rappers? If you don’t include Malik B, we will have beef. Just sayin’.

  • Black Thought – Because he’s one of my top 5 all-time rappers from any city.

  • Freeway – Remember “What We Do” and wait ’til you hear him spit on “Strawberry Mansion.”

  • Cassidy – “I’m a Hustler” still knocks hard in the Accord, doesn’t it?

  • Schoolly D – PSK drums forever, even when I cover Billy Idol.

  • Asaad – Alejandro Jodorowsky Flow.

  • Bonus round: Apollo the Great from Camden, NJ.

Yeah, sorry. What’s beef?

What makes you keep going as an indie artist in a world where every 2-3 years we have to keep changing with these resources that fall in line with corporations or majors to make our lives more difficulut (YouTube, Bandcamp, Spotify)? Do you treasure your freedom more than anything and just say “Screw it, I’ll make the adjustment and work even harder?” or have you ever thought “I keep putting in more and more effort to the same or smaler returns — fuck this!”?

Lushlife: I was just telling someone today that the landscape is shifting so fast that Spotify was hardly a thing when I was planning the release of my last LP, Plateau Vision in 2012. Now it’s the major mode of music consumption we’re contending with in 2015. Despite that, I just feel compelled to make stuff. It just happens to be rap records right now, but the big idea is that I like to create. And, yeah it’s a tough road sometimes. Lushlife isn’t the kind of vehicle that will inherently get incredibly deep pockets behind it. But, I’m eating OK. Having the opportunity to make the kind of art that I want to make, and building momentum with each release is more than I ever could have imagined at the start of my career.

Ritualize is your most visual album in terms of your writing–I feel like it’s in the vein of Nas’ It Was Written where you drop gems while sounding fly as shit over smooth beats. What do you hope people take away from the album?

Lushlife: It’s so funny you mention, It Was Written. The whole world seems to underrate that record, and I’m no exception. I just listened to it for first time in at least a decade recently, and I surprised myself still knowing like 90% of the rhymes by heart. That’s because it’s an incredible and visceral album, and while nothing could have lived up to the hype surrounding Illmatic, in some ways the follow-up felt almost more aesthetically coherent.

I guess em-cee-to-em-cee you’re hearing something very real there. One of the things I strive for as a rapper, is to couch inspired bits of wisdom and knowledge inside the surface-level bitches-and-coke flow that I love too. A lot of that is born out of the world of It Was Written-era Nas, I suppose.

Even the closing couplet of Ritualize speaks to it. The world hasn’t heard it yet, but on the eponymous album-closer, I sum up that idea saying, “Second guessing whatever you think you know about Lush / ‘Cause this is money rap / Fitting the jewels I can on the hush / And turn to dust”

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