Check Your Shelf: An Interview with Lushlife

Photo by Isaac Remsen
Photo by Isaac Remsen / Photo by Isaac Remsen

It takes the rarest of rappers to appeal to both sides of the brain, the poetic and the concrete, but when literacy and street credibility meet, it’s a beautiful thing. Philadelphia’s Lushlife weds boom-bap and literary allusions to dizzying effect, referencing everything from Graffiti Rock to Herb and Dorothy Vogel with equal ease. His brilliant Plateau Vision LP (2012) continues to make me a smarter human being. For some insight on what sparked his intellectual curiosity, we got up with Lush Vida, then got out of his way!

Mental Floss: During our first conversation, you stated, “Everything I ever learned, I learned from rap songs.”

Lushlife: It sounds pithy and hyperbolic, but it’s true. As a young rap-obsessive, my teenage brain was like a sponge. So, when Nas spit, “Begin like a violin / End like Leviathan” on his landmark 1994 album, Illmatic, [the] twelve-year-old me headed straight for the encyclopedia to learn that the Leviathan is an Old Testament sea monster, prominently referenced in literature, most notably in Moby Dick. That’s always been part of the fun of hip-hop: understanding and interpreting the references hidden in dense verses through repeated listens. A lot of the time, these references are so codified that it may take years to uncover them. Take the masked, indie-rap god-head, MF Doom who dropped this choice rhyme:

They came to ask him for at least some new tracksBut only got confronted by the beast with two backs

I had this record [2005’s Mouse and the Mask] for at least two years before I decided to Google, “the beast with two backs.” Turns out, it’s a lascivious turn-of-phrase used by Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. I never actually made it through any Shakespeare in high school, but I’ve listened to like 10,000 hours of MF Doom.

MF: Since Shakespeare didn’t turn you on, which non-rap writer had the most profound effect on your approach and style as an emcee?

LL: I know it sounds a little highfalutin, but one of my key references is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I read his opium-inspired, fever-dream-of-a-poem, Kubla Khan, in high school, and it was a revelation. 

In Xanadu did Kubla KhanA stately pleasure-dome decree:Where Alph, the sacred river, ranThrough caverns measureless to manDown to a sunless sea.

Just that first stanza, I remember thinking, “I’m not sure what he’s on about, but it sure sounds cool.” Instantly, I made the parallel to the surreal and densely beautiful rhymes of guys like De La Soul, Camp Lo, and a then-nascent Aesop Rock. Ultimately, my work as Lushlife is as indebted to Coleridge as it is to hip-hop classicists like Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La. But, in the way that art cyclically inspires art, I’m always spinning rhymes through new reference points. Spoiler alert: my upcoming album will include a song inspired entirely by Allen Ginsberg’s epic beat-generation poem, Howl.

MF: What’s the best book you’ve read as of late?

LL: I recently finished A Study of History by the British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. It’s an ambitious (and maybe a little bat-shit) 12-volume tome that traces the rise and fall of nineteen world civilizations since antiquity, and attempts to draw some interesting conclusions about the fate of Western civilization. In a way, reading A Study of History gave me the same visceral vibe that rap does: think vast, far-reaching, and rhapsodic. I felt so connected to this book that I spent close-to-a-year weaving Toynbee’s work (and the super-interesting Toynbee Tile meta-street-art conspiracy that it inspired) into a 10-minute, orchestral rap opus, called Toynbee Suite.

MF: Aside from your music, where else should we be listening?

LL: A certain coterie of younger rap dudes have taken it upon themselves to throw their literary nods into overdrive. A blinding example is "You Have to Ride the Wave," a collaboration between Heems and his compatriots. Not only does the song start with a lengthy sound byte of celebrated south Asian author Arundhati Roy (in conversation with Howard Zinn, no less), but the three rappers go on to spit fire verses, citing Dostoevsky, Daniel Goines, and Philip K. Dick among others. Try that on for size, rock’n’roll!

Lushlife is putting the finishing touches on the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed 2012 LP, Plateau Vision. Look for it to drop soon. To check out more of his incredible music, be sure to follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or hear his work here.

***Ed note: This interview has been condensed and edited.***