“You Have to Get Low to Plant New Seeds That Will Eventually Grow to the Sky:” An Interview with lojii

Max Bell speaks with the diaristic rapper about writing his first rhyme at the end of the 20th Century and the grief which inspired his newest album 'lo&behold'.
By    March 30, 2020

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Los Angeles continually defies myths perpetuated by non-natives and the staff of The New York Times. One of the many myths that prove true, however, is that LA is the place for “creatives.” IG influencers spinning recycled platitudes between spin classes notwithstanding, LA (city and county) is eternally populated by parallel and interconnected artistic communities. Those who truly want to “connect and build” find their crew(s) and work.

lojii is one of many musicians who’s moved to LA—if only temporarily—and found a team of like-minded talent. Disillusioned by what he perceived as a cliquishness among New York rap artists in the early 2010s, the Philadelphia rapper gambled all his savings on the move to LA. He wound up in Long Beach and made one organic connection after another, his talent and work ethic endearing him to the independent rap sphere that has and continues to orbit the city’s beat scene. Then and today, his friends and collaborators include Swarvy, NiceGuyxVinny, Pink Siifu, Zeroh, and versis. He’s since moved back to Philly, but lojii’s clique remains solidified.

If you’re reading this, you probably first heard lojii on Due Rent, his superb 2017 album produced entirely by Swarvy. It was direct and unadorned naturalism for the 99%, prose penned while roaches scuttled across the mattress on the floor. lojii wasn’t pleading for dollars but softly demanding socioeconomic change. The beats were somewhere between Roc Marci and A Tribe Called Quest, quietly bumping jazz and blues rendered in grayscale. They were the perfect complement to lojii’s voice, which is resonant and slightly raspy. Think Ka with a little more bass.

lo&behold is lojii’s latest and one of his best, a true follow up to Due Rent. (2018’s lofeye was pieced together in the years before Due Rent.) It is the journal transposed, a small collection of diaristic verses laid over minimal, loop-driven productions from lojii and his collaborators (e.g., swarvy). He tempers his expectations of rap stardom and financial stability, accepting that they will never arrive on his timeline. An insightful document of perseverance and personal growth, lo&behold is as wise as it is relatable and uplifting.

In February, I profiled lojii for Bandcamp. What follows is an edited, reorganized, and condensed (yes, really) transcript of the sprawling two-hour conversation while seated in front of a Leimert Park coffee shop around the corner from Ras G’s mural. Construction workers hammered incessantly, driving home the reality that America’s black and brown communities—like lojii’s home community in Philadelphia—are forever victim to development-driven gentrification. As soft-spoken and assured as he is on record, lojii shared his musical inspirations (past and present) and the many inspirations behind lo&behold. Most importantly, though, he discussed every phase of his career, from his time in Philly and New York to finding his artistic kin here in L.A. His story should serve as a beacon and a reality-check for all other artists considering their next move. – Max Bell

Your dad played psychedelic jazz and funk bands. Who were some of the musicians that he turned you on to?

lojii: The first two major artists I remember were Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. From there he was introducing a lot of jazz stuff: Miles, Coltrane, Stanley Turrentine, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk. Lot of heavyweights. He really loved the more weird psych shit like when Hebie veered off into the Headhunters stuff. One of the records he really loved was Herbie’s Thrust record. Thrust was after the Headhunters record. He took some of the same cats and did another record in the same vein. Jaco Pastorius, the bass god. Wayne Shorter. Weather Report. Weather Report is crazy. That’s some real heady music.

On “brite kid” from lo&behold, you say that you wrote your first rhyme in ‘99? True?

lojii: Yeah. That’s me. I was nine-years old and rapped it to my boy John Powell. He was like, “That’s corny!” I fell off of it for a bit. I was like, “I guess I’m wack.” Then around that time the Youtube, mixtape, and freestyle circuit was going around. Smack DVD and Too Raw for the Streets. That was popping. I was watching all of them cats like NH and Chic Raw, Vodka, and Meek and all of these cats who are legendary, some of the best rappers who ever lived. That’s where their legends live. That’s the reason I rap to this day, that energy of watching those freestyle videos. Then we started doing it ourselves. Then I started to get nice, where I was actually impressing people in the cyphers. I got back into writing. I wanted to get on that freestyle shit, and it was getting popular to do rap battles at school. I started trying to get nice at about 13. And then I didn’t start to get nice until I was like 14 or 15.

Was it always in your mind to pursue rap to the extent that you have, or were there other career paths?

lojii: I used to want to be a documentary photographer/videographer. I used to have hoop dreams. I used to go to Sixers camp and was a playground rat. Streetball was real big in Philly, and I grew up watching And1 Mixtapes. I would be playing streetball from when I woke up until it got dark.

What was your major at Purchase College?

lojii: It was sociology and music. For a while, I was thinking about getting into education. I fell back off that because it just wasn’t my bag. I still want to be involved in it in my own ways… I had a lot of interests, but I think the rap thing—it was around that time that I made uhlife. There was a lot of cyphers going on at school. I was able to hold my own enough that people would ask me when I was going to drop something. I wanted to make more shit, but I didn’t know anyone who engineered. Then I happened to meet someone who helped me engineer that first project [as ulife]. That was really me learning to record and try to make songs.

Did you get a degree?

lojii: Yeah, I finished. I got a degree in sociology. I could go be a social worker and not make any bread. It’s a low ceiling for a lot of work. I did it at first because I was interested in following in my mother’s footsteps. That’s what she’s done my whole life. She was a social worker and a psychotherapist counselor. Her whole life has been busting her ass to fix other people’s problems and just struggling.

Did you go to L.A. after graduation?

lojii: I was back in Philly for a bit. Then I had a bunch of homies in New York. I was trying to move to NY, so I started couch surfing and working this shitty job. Then one of my homies was like, “You should try LA. Give it a shot.” Instead of using the money I saved to get my own spot in New York, I took it and went to LA. I only knew two people. I didn’t see nothing else for me at that time. The sound I was looking for, the collaborative energy I was looking for—that wasn’t really in the east coast at the time. It was real cliquey. That was the era of A$AP and all the crews. Some of them were linking together, but if you weren’t in that crowd people weren’t coming together. But I was around a lot of them people. We have a lot of mutual friends. It was dope to see that shit take off. I used to be in New York since I was 16. It was a bus ride. I’d also lived in upstate NY for a while. I used to take the Metro North throughout NY city.

You released music under the name “uhlife” before lojii where you were rapping over LA beat scene stuff. It makes sense to me that you came out here.

lojii: Yeah. I’d been fucking with that because I was around Klipmode. Have you ever heard of that crew? That was the crew comprised of Knxwledge, MNDSGN, Suzi Analogue, Devonwho. And loosely affiliated were Josh Hey, Swarvy… MNDSGN and Knxwledge, they’re from Jersey originally. Then they were in Philly doing their thing musically. They started bubbling and then they went to LA.

You didn’t link up with Swarvy until you were out here, correct?

lojii: Yeah. Me and Swarvy the same age. But I’m younger than [MNDSGN], Devon, Glen, and Suzi. I was just some kid around really fucking with the sound that they were doing because it wa more up my alley. I would tap in and listen to their tapes online. I was listening to their stuff before I could get into 21 & up shows. Then I came out here through that mutual friend at Ill Society Magazine in 2013. They were interested in me coming out in 2012 when I dropped the uhlife tape. That uhlife tape was a whole different style and me trying to find my sound. I didn’t get to grow up in the studio.

Is it fair to say that you started meeting people organically when you moved here?

lojii: It’s a nuts story every time. I came out here, I met the one cat from Ill Society Magazine. Shoutout J. He was messing with my music, and he was like, you have to meet this cat in Long Beach, his name’s Vinny. NiceguyxVinny. That’s who produced “No Ebola”. He invited me to be on bill in Long Beach. That same day I found out that I was going to stay in Long Beach… Then I started kicking it with Vinny and a bunch of people. They took me in like family. Vinny used to DJ all around LA. Him and this other cat Mel Ziah were influential on me in that era. They made me feel welcome in Long Beach. They were like a rap duo, Vinny and Melziah. Melziah was a hood legend in his own right. He was putting in work in the Long Beach music scene. Him and Vinny are the ones who taught me how to perform live. Vinny would DJ and then bring him out to rap songs. Then I made a couple songs with Vinny and I would come out and rock with him. It would just be part of his set. That was during the early Soulection days, so there were days that we were on stage at the early Soulection shows. We were on stage at their first show at Echoplex.

I met Joe [Kay] at Cal St. Long Beach. Vinny was more actively part of that crew back then. Through rocking those shows with Vinny and Mel Ziah for a couple years, people started recognizing me and inviting me to collaborate. The energy was always so much more open out here. I think it’s just because it’s one of those cities where people are coming out here to link up. No one was really trying to link up on the east coast. As soon as I got out here and people heard me rap on stage, and they were like, “You have to come through. Let’s make some shit.” That’s how I met Kelsey Gonzalez, who is the bassist in the Free Nationals. They have this event called Fight Club in Long Beach. It’s big now. We rocked the first one. I’m tapped in with a lot of people from some real organic life shit. I didn’t even have a smart phone in them days. I had a flip phone and everyone I was linking up with was just from meeting them in real life, dapping them up, and exchanging info.

How did you meet Pink Siifu?

lojii: I met Pink Siifu on the train. It was not music related. We was just two random people on the train. I was on break from work just sitting on the train. I was working a temporary job through a temp agency. It happened to be right off the blue line. I used to go in there, do office work, and then dip. I was coming back from lunch break and these two people that look like the black John Lennon and Yoko Ono had on these crazy hippy garbs. It was [Siifu] and Sudan Moon, [now Sudan Archives]. She was Sudan Moon back then. They were just out here visiting from Ohio. They were dating back then. They were on the train together and sat directly across from me. I had this Basquiat t-shirt on and he said he fucked with Basquiat. That’s how we started talking. We exchanged info, I followed him on Twitter, and a little later we found out we had mutual friends. The next time he was in Ohio, he heard a song I did with a mutual friend. He was like, “Next time I’m in LA, let’s link up.” The rest is history. We’ve been like brothers ever since. Through him, I met a bunch more people.

You donated proceeds from “No Ebola” merch to Street Child, an organization which provides health care and access to education for orphans all over the world. Why did you decide to give back so early in your career? Most people wait until they’ve amassed great wealth.

lojii: I just come from that. I come from a working class, do what you can background. My mother was a social worker. My pops has a big activist background as well. That’s what they were into. They were both little hippy children involved in a lot of grassroots and non-profit organizations. They met at a non-profit trying to clean the water up in Jersey or something like that. I was raised around a lot of those ideals and encouraged to be political and know what’s going on. You do what you can. None of the Black Panthers were rich.

I think Due Rent was the first time a lot of people heard your music. How did you decide to put it out with Fresh Selects? What did that record do for your career?

lojii: [Swarvy and I] made Due Rent and then Kenny from Fresh Selects approached us. After I paid Swarvy back and we decided to continue making the tape, we were showing it to mutuals. Kenny gave us the best deal at the time. He has a good reputation and a good catalog of music. He put it out there and it took my shit… Other than that, all I had was “no ebola”. [Due Rent] put us on a lot more radars. I got on a lot of Spotify playlists from that. It definitely got me more out there for sure.

Lo-fi means everything and nothing now. It could mean certain types of beats, a vibe, actual lo-fidelity recordings, etc. What does it mean to you as it relates to your music, if anything?

lojii: Lo-fi is hilarious. That jawn is whatever. Growing up, I used to listen to actual lo-fi music and all of the people that were making weird noise and experimental music. Back in the early 2000s and ever earlier than that, in the ‘90s and some of the ‘80s is when people were saying lo-fi. There’s certain elements when you’re listening to an artist like Ras G or Dibi… One of my favorite artists since I’ve been a teenager has been Gonjasufi. I love all of that stuff because I grew up listening to a lot of psych rock and punk, aside from rap, and a lot of psychedelic jazz and stuff. That’s the shit my elders were on that I was hearing. I was always finding a lot of weird shit. It was pretty easy to find a lot of west coast artists once I tapped into Madlib and all of that stuff when I was a young teenager.

I think they’re just hearing hip-hop music with a lot of distortion and fuzz and elements of noise and more experimental shit and they start calling it “lo-fi hip-hop.” It’s the same thing as “jazzhop.” There’s hip-hop, jazz, and all different types of variations in each genre. People are always reaching for a title. That was what was going on with me. A lot of people associate me with “lo-fi” because for a little bit I tagged “lofi lojii” on some of my social media handles, but that was more on some cynical and sarcastic stuff. My goal in music has always been to sound as hi-fi, as high quality possible. Just because I bring in elements of noise and fuzz, that doesn’t mean I’m lo-fi. But it kept happening. So I was like, “I guess lofi lojii then, even though I spent thousands of dollars to get this record to sound crazy in my mind.”

This was like right around the time Due Rent was getting made and then dropped. Very soon after it dropped, Spotify hit me up. They were showing the record some love on the playlists. Then they came up with a new playlist and they called it “lo-fi hip-hop” and made me the cover of it. It was shortly after that that I took “lofi” out of all of my handles. I was like, “I’m not trying to get caught like that.” I was joking at first, and then they tried to make me the cover boy for “lo-fi hip-hop.” I didn’t want to get pigeonholed in that. That’s why I named the next record lofeye. I was like, “I’ll take it, but just know I’m always aiming higher.”

You released lo&behold on your birthday. Was that intentional?

lojii: Yeah. I wrapped everything officially for that joint literally the night before. I did all of the cover art and design, too. I approached somebody about [the cover art], but they were charging a lot of bread. I was like, “I can figure out how to do that myself.” It took me a little longer, but I found a friend with Photoshop who let me use it and I FaceTimed my one homie who’s good at it. I taught myself how to do that the night before and then finished it and put that shit out. I wanted that joint out in the fall, originally. Real life things happened, just with family and other things in life. We’ll say that. It just became apparent that it wasn’t going to get done before the fall was over. I was like, “If it’s not going to get done in the fall, my birthday is right after the new year.” A lot of the content is real personal stuff. I didn’t get too explicit, but all of the songs are journal entries. It was personal to me, even though I tried to write it in a way that people could connect to it.

Did you produce tracks under a different name on lo&behold?

lojii: Everything under “absent avery” is me. I’m just a Madlib baby. I always had that as a separate producer name. I’ve fucked around with loops, SP’s, and other software for years. I never really put it out. There’s a couple tapes floating around under “absent avery,” but this is the first time I really put it out under my rap alias and rapped over my own production.

It’s a pretty cohesive record for a record made by several producers.

lojii: I tried to make it cohesive. The idea I’d wanted to let out this past autumn was just going to be the songs that I produced and all of the interludes as one tape. I was going to mix the whole thing myself, but then I needed some help mixing. I have a friend based in Philly, the engineer “flote.” I was like, “I got this EP of stuff that on my own production that I just wanted to let out just for myself, and I’m hitting a glass ceiling with my mixing ability.” I was like, “Can you help me with my mixing abilities and teach me while you’re doing it?” He was like, “Hell yeah.” We started linking up, and he was showing more about engineering and getting my voice to sound as clean and professional as possible.

While we were linking up I was also playing him other stuff I’d recorded. He heard a couple of the jawns I had on the swarvy beats and the colby joint “trippin.” He was like, “These are part of the project, right?” He was in another zone. I was like, “Nah.” He was like, “It’s all the same theme and the same sound. I thought you were playing me the whole project right now.” He was like, “This one has to go on and this one has to go on.” He heard “lo&behold” and was like, “This has to go on there.” My original goal was something entirely self-produced, but then I was like, “Nah, it can be bigger than that.” It just built into that naturally. It was a crazy organic process.

Have you always been attracted to more subdued, relaxed beats?

lojii: I’ve always been into that. I’ve always listened to a lot of soul and R&B. That’s definitely peak me and Liv energy on “U callin me”. We recorded that song in my bedroom when he visited Philly. We’ve been through damn near everything together. He slept on the floor with me. We were already tapped in. We both grew up listening to that Soulquarians music.

Struggle is one of the dominant themes in your music. Do you think you’ll ever reach a point where it won’t be?

lojii: Hopefully [laughs]. As soon as black people get free, we can stop talking about all that shit. lo&behold was therapy. That’s what it reflects sonically. That’s what my spirit wanted to hear. That’s the type of sounds and music I was listening to get through the lows.

Would you mind sharing some of the lows that inspired the album?

lojii: The passings of some close people in my life. My uncle Lonnie was one of the main cats my dad grew up playing music with. He taught me to play the congas. He was still teaching me. I’m trying to master them now in his legacy. Soon after that, Nipsey. He was real influential. One of the people I knew out here took the photo that is the cover of Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Vol. 3. She put me on and I was sold on it. I just saw what he was doing on his independent hustle. I looked up to him. Soon after he got taken out, [Ras] G passed away. That was a huge hit. Learning of his passing was rough. It affected so many close mutual friends. Then my auntie passed away during Thanksgiving. Four very influential people all in the same year. Then all of the real life shit being working class and black.

Did you know Ras G well?

lojii: That was just the cat. Me and [Siifu] always wanted that nod from Ras G. He was such a quiet cat and a tough critic. [Siifu] got invited to the Spacebase. He said he got so high he passed out on the floor of a grocery store later on. G would see me around because we were at the shows and pulling up and showing love and being in the cyphers sometimes when he passed around the big blunts and all that. G was real. He would chop it up. This is when we were starting to kick it with Swarvy and [MNDSGN] and them more and [Zeroh]. He saw we knew them. He would show love. I never made it in the Spacebase, but one life goal Ras G related was this. Before he passed, he told Swarvy that Due Rent was too short. That was crazy to hear. He would see us at Poobah and at Beat Soup. My homie that worked at Poobah told me Ras was queuing up one record and Due Rent during the store hours,  That was a moment. I was grateful. I finally felt like I was becoming the artist I wanted to be. I also had some real moments kicking it with him because he was Swarvy and Zeroh’s neighbor. We had cookouts together, blunt sessions. One of my favorite memories of LA was grocery shopping with G and Z. Then we had a cookout in the complex. Moments like that and the jewels he would drop and just his energy was real influential.

Did you go into recording any songs on lo&behold with a well-defined concept?

lojii: This happened just from being in the feels. I’ve always messed around with loops. So I was making loops as therapy. Some of them just inspired me to lay verses over them and get some of these thoughts and feelings out. A bunch of the tracks on the record that are over the absent avery production are just freestyled out. The whole record was recorded in Philly.

What brought you to the point of writing “Patience” and feeling that patience was lacking in your life?

lojii: Really, it was from being overwhelmed with everything. I needed to just slow down, breathe, and accept that things don’t always happen on the timeline that’s in your head. Time is way more complex. Things move in their own time. Not everything goes by the clock or your calendar. I needed to learn that. I was getting overwhelmed. I experienced four untimely passings and then I was just overwhelmed by trying to make this life work and make art and feel good and have fun. The key for me has just been learning to be more patient, trust the process, and not lose my head.

On “patience” there’s a line about not giving up. How did you get rid of feelings of self-doubt?

lojii: A lot of cats say don’t give up. But you do have to give up some stuff. Life is yin and yang. That’s the same essence of the title lo&behold. You have to get low to behold something and lift it up and carry it to the next level. You have to get low to plant new seeds that will eventually grow to the sky. You have to give up certain things to grow. That’s what that line was touching on. I had to give up my self-doubt. I’m actively working on that. Self-doubt, hesitation in certain moments where there’s an opportunity to take a risk or try something new or create something that’s not there—I don’t need it. I feel like a lot of us get held back by dwelling on what’s lacking. You could just give up on the hesitation and try to make it appear.

What are your most immediate goals? What are you looking forward to?

lojii: I just want to be able to live off of my art and just be happy and not have to clock in for someone who doesn’t respect me or my time.

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