“You Fear What You May Find in the Mirror:” An Interview With Lukah

The Memphis veteran talks to Dash Lewis about the many sides of Memphis and his mission to heal.
By    September 24, 2021
Photo via Sinematic Studios

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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.

Once you got past the tongue twisting stuff, was there someone that you were really trying to emulate?

Lukah: Slick Rick.

What was it about Slick Rick?

Lukah: I was fascinated with the stories. This is before I even learned about Nas. I think my moms put me on “Children’s Story.” My dad was a DJ, so he had thousands of CDs in alphabetical order. I saw The Art of Storytelling, where he had the feather pen. I heard that shit and went back to The Adventures of Slick Rick and was like, “I can see everything this man is saying.” He was the first person I printed out lyrics for because I used to print out all my favorites’ lyrics so I could read them like books. I tried to be him.

When were you first introduced to Three Six Mafia and Playa Fly?

Lukah: Oh, early—you can’t escape that. Without seeking, you’re gonna hear it. Everybody was playing it—except my mom, she wasn’t playing Three Six like that. But my auntie, who was from the area they were from, would play it. When I was in the car with her I’d hear “Head Bussaz” and “Tear Da Club Up” and shit like that. We’d go to the Crystal Palace skating rink where Hustle & Flow was shot and they’d play the shit that would get you crunk—mostly Three Six, Project Pat, and Playa Fly. You couldn’t escape it.

Their music was me—I’m from here, I know what the fuck they talking about. It wasn’t anything that had me shocked. I feel like Memphis has the best music, personally. It’s just something about Memphis man, I can’t explain it. When Project Pat delivers something, he delivers it. Regardless of what area you from, or what region you from, you gonna feel it, you know?

Yeah, I don’t remember the first time I heard from them—I was pretty young. The North Carolina hip hop scene was stuff like Black Sheep, Yaggfu Front. Little Brother came later. Stuff that was a little bit more like—

Lukah: Native Tongue-ish?

Yeah, so hearing Three Six Mafia just blew my mind. I was like, “there is nothing else that sounds like this.” Besides them, what other Memphis rap do you think is really essential to your upbringing?

Lukah: Well, I told you about my uncle, Fathom 9. He was part of this group called Genesis Experiment, which consisted of him from Memphis, Mike P from Chicago, and G-Sicks from New York. It kinda was an awkward but fly-ass blend of emcees that were actually about the lyrics. I don’t like saying that because it’s all rap. Just because we not rapping off the fast hi-hats don’t make it not Memphis. I’m from Memphis, can’t do nothing but be Memphis.

It seems like there’s kind of a Memphis-Chicago connection. I’m wondering if there was an artistic exchange going on between those two cities.

Lukah: It’s just beginning to be artistic, but it’s mostly family. People from Chicago come to Memphis and Mississippi and vice versa. Cats would do dirt in one of the cities and go hide out in the other one. A lot of our ancestors went up to Chicago and vice versa. Some of my people on my mother’s side, her grandmother’s people, my great grandfather’s people come from Chicago, so it’s mostly family. It’s just starting to get the Pooh Shiestys and the Durks combined. It’s the same city, one’s just bigger.

Photo via Nate Packard.

Speaking of family, I read in an interview that your grandfather started a tribe.

Lukah: Yes, it’s a tribe about Black people healing themselves. It’s called AAFANTE—African Americans Forming a New Tribal Existence. Another name for it is Inward Journey. What I took from it was finding out where you been in order to find out where you are now. The shit that I was talking about with you earlier about “I know why I’m like this.”

It took my granddad’s tribe to bring some awareness to what was going on with me. Of course, you know as a young Black child that your father not being there affects you, but you don’t know to what extent until you really take a look at it. That’s basically the work that my granddad does. He’s really serious about helping people and forming something different so we can stop passing down fucked up behaviors. Because even if it’s not intentional, you do it without dealing with your issues. You pass it down to your children. That’s what When the Black Hand Touches You was about: I was teaching those lessons.

On the second to last song on [Why Look Up], I go into depth about how we weren’t taught to self-reflect and when we deal with shit, we just bottle it up inside and pass it down to our children. Then we wonder why children are going through the things they go through. It’s because there are demons that we hadn’t dealt with that we pass down to them without even knowing. I can speak from the Black standpoint, because that’s what I am, but I’ve heard stories with other races as well that they go through that shit, just passing down behaviors without even knowing. A kid’s mind is a sponge.

Oh yeah, generational trauma is very real. Getting involved with that group and understanding generational trauma—was there a moment where it was just like, “this makes complete sense”?

Lukah: Oh, hell yeah, I’m still having those moments. A lot of shit is just now coming out about my family. I’m like, “Oh, goddamn, that’s why I’m like this probably. You motherfuckers didn’t work on that.” [Laughs] So now, when you become aware, the ball is in your court. What are you gonna do about it? Are you just gonna continue to let that shit grow within? There’s a difference between changing five years of damage versus 70 years of damage, you hear what I’m saying?

So I’m still having those moments and I work on them because I want a peaceful life and I want my son, my next child, and my wife to have a trauma free life. I’m really working towards healing myself so those around me—not just my family—can be peaceful. It’s all about finding peace. I preach that even on the hardest songs. Who wants to be hard all day? I’d rather be peaceful and not have to look over my shoulder.

With both albums, Black Hand and Why Look Up, I really want people to take a look at themselves and know that it’s okay to be fucked up, but what are you going to do about it? That’s the next step. First step is admitting it, the next step is doing something about it. It’s fear in looking at yourself in that mirror; you fear what you may find. That’s why the album is called Why Look Up, God’s In the Mirror—I’m owning that shit. I don’t have to look up and seek anything when it’s already right here. I know why I am the way I am. How are you going to fix it, Lukah?

Do you find parenthood frightening?

Lukah: This is one of my biggest fears: I don’t know how I’m gonna teach my son the shit I went through without him actually going through it. One day, he’s not gonna be around me, and he’s gonna run into some people that I grew up with. I don’t know how to train him properly to deal with that because he’s not in that. He won’t be in that.

That becomes frightening because it’s like, I can’t hide him from the world. He’s gonna have to experience it. I don’t want him to have to experience it the hard way like some of my peers and myself had to do. Police brutality is a fear. He’s going to be a young, attractive, big male. I’m gonna teach him the Black Panthers program. I’m gonna instill that in him. Keep your hands on the wheel, all that type of shit. It’s sad that I have to do that, but it’s the world we live in.

But hell yeah, man, parenthood—I don’t want to pass down nothing to my children. I don’t want to pass down no bad habits, no traumas, no nothing. I want them to be peaceful. Did I have a peaceful upbringing? Hell yeah. But shit started unraveling itself once I got older. I don’t want that for my son. I want him to enjoy his childhood. I don’t want him to have to worry about “are the lights gonna be off,” you know what I mean?

You supposed to get better with each generation. You supposed to succeed and prosper more each generation, so my goal right now is to break chains. It’s about healing, man. Most of my music is literally about healing, peace, and knowledge. Healing is so important. I don’t think it gets talked about enough.

I think we’re starting to have conversations about healing from trauma in a more mainstream way. We’ve been talking about the white supremacist system under which we live and that conversation is reaching more people now.

Lukah: But see, Dash, it can’t be watered down. I think it gets watered down once he gets to the mainstream, which is why I’m so straightforward with it. Once it hits certain airways and certain platforms, it starts losing its substance. That’s why I’m trying to find a way to sneak that into those platforms.

Do you think the solution is to just be more aggressive about these messages?

Lukah: Hell yeah! We come from aggressive communities. Give it to them aggressive! Why not continuously give them the truth? They need to know, they need to see it. That’s why NWA was so impactful. Fuck being soft—I’m gonna give it to you straight, no chase. This is what goes on and if you stop taking the scenic route and you’ll see it. That’s what made Pac so beautiful. He could be talking about gang banging and then on the next line he talks about helping people. That’s what Scarface does. Three Six does it—they don’t give a fuck. They gonna say whatever they want to say. I come from that background.

Sometimes, unfortunately, in my community, people only understand aggression because it’s what they were raised around. Is it right? No. Nobody should have to drown in aggression all fucking day. There’s light out in the world, it’s not just darkness, but sometimes aggression is the way you get that attention. They start paying attention once you aggressive because maybe they can relate more.

Photo via Nate Packard.

How do you see Memphis rap going forward in the next couple, three years?

Lukah: There’s another side of Memphis rap that’s about to emerge. I think Memphis is going to be the mecca of hip hop once that comes out because we’re already the mecca of the trap. Three Six Mafia started it. Moneybagg Yo, Pooh Shiesty, BIG30, Yo Gotti—they elevated it and nobody will ever get it back. That’s why Lil Baby is over here fucking with the Memphis rappers. That’s why Chicago is fucking with the Memphis rappers. Shout out to Atlanta; they paved the way for the mainstream and brought the mainstream here to the south. But the trap shit and the way the music is going right now? I don’t think they’ll ever get it back.

But what would make Memphis really thrive like New York and LA? In New York you’ll have a Q-Tip and then you’ll have a Kool G Rap—two different sides. One of them is really gutter and grimy and one is a Native Tongue. You’ll have Mos Def and then you’ll have Nas. Mos Def ain’t really gonna get on the thug, mafioso shit like Nas would do. He gonna strictly give you mathematics. So once Memphis does that, once they start accepting that Memphis is a music city—it’s not just trap—that’s when we gonna take over this shit. And I’m not just saying this because I’m gonna be a part of it or I’m from here—I’ve always felt this way. If Memphis could somehow welcome both sides of the spectrum we would take over this shit.

Maybe now people like 8Ball and MJG, who left Memphis and became more famous after they left, don’t have to do that anymore.

Lukah: My city is divided. Atlanta comes together despite beef. We beef with one another and don’t try to get money or make art together. Just the dumbest shit I’ve heard in my life, but I understand certain situations. I was around those types of situations. If we can somehow put aside differences, Memphis will be fucking untouchable. If the Dolphs and Gottis could come together, the PREs and the CMGs—which will probably never happen, but wishful thinking—that’s what holds my city back. There’s interviews out there right now with Three Six Mafia and Playa Fly back in early 90’s talking about the separation and how Atlanta comes together and Memphis doesn’t. We just didn’t know how to deal with it because we all beefing with one another. We didn’t come together.

Why do you think that is?

Lukah: It starts with the communities, man. Certain cats are raised in certain ways. You can’t forgive or forget. I just feel like if Jeezy and Gucci can get on stage, anything is fucking possible. I don’t know what it is, man. We’ve always been a crabs-in-the-barrel, bringing-each-other-down type of city. People that come up eventually get hurt because they on the come up. 8Ball and MJG had to do that shit. I’m sure they came across some of those situations and was like, “Alright, I gotta get the fuck up outta here.” Memphis is that type of city where you got to be on your P’s and Q’s. I’m no different man. People keep telling me like, “bro, you getting this, you getting that.” So I’m starting to move strategically now because I don’t know.

It’s the City of the Dead. It’s the most beautiful city, but ugly at the same time. We’re so enriched with history and music and family—we have the first Black neighborhood ever in the United States right here in my city. That alone should make people be like, “we need to do some shit.”

It goes back to healing. Almost everything that we’ve talked about throughout this conversation has gone right back to healing. It seems like that’s your main mission.

Lukah: Yeah, I want to heal communities. Lukah’s for the kids—like the Wu is for the kids. What’d RZA say? “I told shorty he ain’t even have to go to school. Just go pick up the Wu Tang CD and you’ll get all the education you need.” [Laughs] I loved that shit, man. That’s how I feel about my music—you’ll learn a lot in an hour. Nobody’s gonna describe death to you in school. Nobody’s gonna say that the projects was an actual fucking project, you know?

I’m not telling people to be preachy, but it’s dope to sprinkle that shit in your music because there are people out there that can relate to it. All the OGs I came up with—the gangsters, thugs, gang members—they used to tell me that real thug niggas want to get out the street. They do what they have to do so they can survive with the hopes of not dying or being incarcerated, but eventually they want to get out this shit.

Yeah, man, it goes back to healing. That’s the approach I take with my music.

What do you see next once this record comes out?

Lukah: I’m already working on the next project. I’m gonna take you back to the Me Against the World, Life After Death double disc thing. I’m in the process of picking beats. I’m working with Bohemia Lynch—he produced the outro song on Westside Gunn’s Pray for Paris. He’s gonna have a lot of production on this new joint. That’s the goal: me just putting Memphis on the map in a different way. You’re gonna always continue to get the healing music from me. I’m gonna always sprinkle jewels about healing and society. That’s it—just putting out fly art and continuing to elevate this side of the rap game in Memphis.

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