A couple of years ago, Timothy Love was unable to sleep, wandering around his South Memphis home at 3:00 AM. While checking his email, he discovered a message from San Diego producer Walz expressing his affinity for Love’s 2018 album Chickenwire, recorded under the name Lukah. Love was about to start working on a new record and needed beats, so the two began building. Walz sent pack after pack, totaling somewhere close to 1000 beats. After choosing his favorite 40 or so, Lukah began work on what would become his best, most intense album to date, Why Look Up, God’s In The Mirror.
A longtime fixture on the Memphis rap scene, Lukah started his career under the name Royal T, a moniker chosen to express his dominance over the Bluff City battle rap circuit. After discovering countless other Royal T’s around the country, he switched his name to Lukah Luciano, a nod to mobsters both real and fictional: Lucky Luciano and Luca Brasi. He dropped six albums under that name, most in collaboration with LA-via-Memphis producer Lil A On The Track.
Those early Lukah Luciano records deeply reflected Love’s Memphis roots; Lil A’s booming crunk beats were indebted to producers like DJ Paul and Gangsta Pat while Love’s flows harkened back to the breathless triple time of Lord Infamous and the bouncy staccato of Playa Fly. Something shifted in the mid 2010s, however, and Love began to reach outside of his city’s major influences to broaden his palette. The first hints of what was to come can be found on the 2014 mixtape, Dreamz x Schemez x Green, as Love found a looser, more boom bap oriented sound. Most notably, the song “Myrtle Leaf” found Love rapping on the MF Doom beat of the same name, portending the direction he would take after dropping Luciano from his name.
Recorded after an unfruitful stint in Los Angeles, 2018’s Chickenwire fully exemplifies his changed approach. It’s a hypnotic listen, consisting of swirling, aqueous loops slathered in tape hiss and echo that curl around Lukah’s Tennessee drawl. Given that it was largely produced by psychedelic rap traveler and fellow Memphian Cities Aviv, Chickenwire floats through the speakers in a thick cloud of smoke, dissipating as quickly as it forms.
Released this January, When The Black Hand Touches You was largely self-produced, and cleared away the cobwebs of Chickenwire with a sturdy foundation of eerie soul loops, deep fried fuzz guitars, and droning gospel organs. Lyrically, Lukah turned his eye towards the devastation of generational trauma, dropping haunting bars about Reagan’s injection of drugs into Black neighborhoods and the subsequent cycles of violence and depression. “Them same brothers that was trying to lead me in the right direction/ was the brothers selling crack to the desperate/ robbing reverends,” he raps soberly on “Ghost.” He follows with the heartbreaking couplet, “On arrival we were doomed/ only promised a tomb.” It’s a beautiful gut punch of an album.
I spoke to Lukah in advance of the release of his second album of 2021, Why Look Up, God’s in the Mirror. It’s a sleek, harrowing album, throbbing and crackling like the humid Southern cousin to Griselda’s wintry thump. Zooming in further than his earlier records, Lukah gets personal, rapping about how he was “taught to mask emotions” on “Colored One” while describing the constant ambient stress of growing up in South Memphis on “Glasshouses.” Why Look Up is a very clear and cogent leveling up from an already gifted rapper.
As our conversation unfolded, it became clear to me that he raps the same way that he speaks, in full paragraphs. He’s trenchant and vulnerable, willing to lay out his thoughts and dissect them in real time. He connects everything back to his music, and it’s clear that almost all he experiences winds up on a record. His hunger is palpable and his vision is clear. – Dash Lewis
Purchase Why Look Up, God’s In The Mirror via Bandcamp.
What was the story you were working with for this particular record?
Lukah: The story was releasing anger. It’s a lot of anger built up inside of me and I just wanted to release this aggression and be happy for once. I talk about it in all my music, how we live in the past. Traumas are hard to get rid of if you don’t do the proper work for them, you know what I mean? You live in those traumas and then you go into a shell because you don’t know how to deal with it. When I go into my shell, on the outside it looks like anger.
I’m sure underneath that anger is sadness—I’m 100% sure of it—but I’m not gonna let that show. That’s not what we were taught. My mom tried to instill that in me early on, but growing up in neighborhoods like I did, it’s kind of hard to be sentimental. You got to bottle it up inside so you don’t show signs of weakness. I wanted to be a little bit more vulnerable and bring some stories to the forefront that I haven’t talked about.
When the Black Hand Touches You does feel like you’re sharing wisdom. It feels a lot more reflective than Why Look Up, which is more angry and direct.
Lukah: There’s multiple things that go on with me, so you’re not going to get the same thing with each project. When Black Hand was being created, my son was just born. So I’m like, “Alright, let me lay a blueprint for him.” Chickenwire was post LA; I was in LA and shit didn’t go my way. It was a release album as well, but it wasn’t like this one—angry. It was more like, “Aight I’m back home, let me pop my shit at you real quick.”
Why Look Up has a storyline to it. I know that some of this shit is passed down. What are you going to do about it? What’s going to be different once you make it out of this anger? I set it up where you got this chunk of anger and then right after that, there’s something explaining [it]—I know why I’m fucked up. And then I keep going, because there’s more shit that I need to talk about. The sound bites play a big part in it too. And even though there’s anger on this project, there’s jewels through it all, you just got to find them. I buried them purposely.
It makes sense that these two records come out in the same year. They definitely feel like a pair, like two sides of the same coin. When the Black Hand Touches You is more of an overview of the system under which we live, especially here in America—perhaps especially in Memphis. Why Look Up feels much more personal. I think the sonics of those two records is interesting, because it seems like it should be flipped. The minimal, super hard production on Why Look Up feels like it should lend itself to more systemic commentary and the really soulful, psychedelic production on When the Black Hand feels like it should be more personal.
Lukah: I agree with you. Some people will probably agree that the roles should have flipped a little, but the reason I did it is because I don’t want it to make sense. [Laughs] Does that make sense?
Oh yeah, I wasn’t saying that they should be different. I just thought it was such an interesting choice that you made.
Lukah: I’m there with you—I feel like that too. That’s crazy that you said that and it’s crazy that you said that both projects coming out the same year makes sense because it is a continuation. It goes back to what I was saying about, “Hey, this is why I’m fucked up. Did you hear the Black Hand?”
But back to the production—I’ll start with Chickenwire. Chickenwire was curated by Cities Aviv, so for the beats that I produced on that album, I had to match what he was bringing to the table. When Black Hand came around, I knew that I wanted to dig deep into soul, Stax, Memphis type of shit. I wanted to keep it Southern.
Even though it was a blueprint for my son, I still wanted it to be dark. I need my samples to be dark—voices, preferably. If you listen to the album, you’ll hear a lot of humming, crooning, and harmonies in the background. I like to be the lead instrument on the beat, so I choose samples and beats where I don’t have to compete with anything. I’m lucky enough to have found a way to pick a beat that’s continuously being looped that people don’t get tired of. I don’t know what it is yet, but I seem to be pretty good at it. That plays a lot in how I write as well. I want to keep the attention; I want you to get lost in the beat, so if I get lost in it, I know my listener is gonna get lost.
Black Hand was more personal to me versus Chickenwire, which was a joint venture. I curated Black Hand and Hollow [Sol] and Cities Aviv had to follow me. I curated [Why Look Up] as well. It gives the same feel—one is just deeper, darker.
For Black Hand, did you start producing the beats first and then send them out to Hollow Sol and Cities Aviv to say, “This is what this is the vibe I’m working on?”
Lukah: I met Hollow at a show. Didn’t know he was an engineer, didn’t know anything. It was just like, “what’s up,” and then going about my business. Months later, I opened up for one of my favorite rappers, Scarface, and I met Hollow’s sensei, Ari [Morris]. He invited me to his studio. By the way, Ari is the guy who [mixes] like Moneybagg Yo shit, Yo Gotti shit, he did Dolph and Glock shit—he’s like the guy in Memphis and Hollow is the second honcho.
Hollow was at the studio when I brought Black Hand in. You ever been in sessions where the people you bring something to are like [exasperated sigh]? It wasn’t the music or me, but how it was mixed and mastered. Ari would say little things—of course, nobody wants to be disrespectful to anyone’s art—but Ari would say something a little slick. I’m looking at Hollow and he’s over there like squinting like, “Damn, this should sound better.” So one day I call him. “Hollow, what’s up man? You think this album could sound better?” He was like, “Yes, oh my God, let me touch it.” We worked out what we were going to work out. I don’t know what possessed Hollow to send me “Black Dragon,” but he sent it and I was like, “Yo this is going to be the last song for the album.” It was just perfect, it just fit. That’s the story of how Hollow came into the fold with Black Hand.
Cities Aviv would just send me shit he knows I’m not gonna rap on first just to see if I’m gonna do it. Cities, he’ll rap on some left field shit. It’ll be fly when he does it but I’m like, “Bro, send me something else.” We’ll argue on the phone for like ten minutes and he’s like, “Bro, I could catch that beat, why you can’t?” We do that shit like brothers. And so he sent a pack and out of 10 beats like five of those made it. He heard what I was doing I think he just said, “Fuck it, let me just give him what he wants.” But my goal was for me to produce the majority of it because I wanted it to be my feel.
When did you start producing?
Lukah: When I was like 12. I had a group back in the day with my cousin and one of the homies from the neighborhood. My dad knew this guy who produced beats on PlayStations. [Laughs] I don’t know how he was doing it. We used all the beats not knowing that the guy was just like, “Yo, pick one.” My dad was like, “You weren’t supposed to use them all,” so we was like, “Shit, we need to figure out how to get beats.” My cousin Suni Katz found out about Fruity Loops. He brought it to the attic—that’s where the studio was in my crib—and it was history.
When did you start rapping?
Lukah: I came up in a music home. My mom sings and my grandma sings, so I started off singing. I started rapping when I was like nine.
Was there a moment—
Lukah: Oh, yeah. The first time I decided that I wanted to do this was in a sock hop in elementary school and Crucial Conflict[‘s] “Hay” came on. I’d never heard it. Mind you, I heard Three Six Mafia who kinda had that similar style, but it didn’t make me want to rap. I just loved that these guys from up the street were telling the stories that I seen every day. Same thing with Playa Fly; he’s from down the street where I live.
But anyway, I heard Crucial Conflict and mind you, at that age, I couldn’t make out everything they were saying because they were tongue twisting. All the kids were just in there: “Smoking on haaay, in the middle of the barn!” So I was just in the sock hop eating nachos and I put them down because I was just like, “Hold on bro, what the fuck is going on right now?” I’ve seen Three Six Mafia get us crunk and we start bug jumping and shit like that, but the Crucial Conflict song did something different that I had never seen. And I was like, “man, I want to make people feel like this.” That was my moment. I was like, “man, I gotta do this rap shit.”
Did you immediately start writing?
Lukah: I was trying to figure it out. I called [it] tongue twisting, but the only thing you can really understand was the N word. [Laughs] I just thought I was really doing some shit. I had people beating on a table and I’m pretending like I’m saying some shit but I really wasn’t saying nothing. Finally, my auntie Raven sat me down and was like, “let’s write a song.” It was the most elementary shit I’ve ever written in my life, but it shaped me in a way. I brought it to my teachers who mattered to me most: my uncle Fathom 9, rest in peace, and my uncle HB in Chicago. Those were my senseis in this rap shit, so I would bring shit to them and they would tell me it was wack, corny, bubble gum. That Crucial Conflict moment and the first rhyme I wrote, which was called wack by people who matter to me most, made me.