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ED GORDON, host:

It's hard enough for mainstream rappers to hold on to longevity and keep their fans listening. Independent artists often struggle even more for staying power, especially without big label budgets to promote their product. But veteran artist Mr. Lif has thrived on the rap scene, where he's found fertile ground for his aggressively political themes and raw production.

NPR's Christopher Johnson reports. Lift's new album, Mo Mega, represents the Boston rappers trademark sound.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON reporting:

It seems like every rapper's got a music video out these days. Some of them look like big resort island parties, with woman dressed for strip club talent shows and men sporting diamonds and hugely expensive cars.

(Sounbite of Music Video Set)

Unidentified Man: All right. Here we go. Stand by. Quiet, please. Ready to roll.

JOHNSON: But Mr. Lif's video for the ong Brothers is set in the cold basement of an electronic store buried in downtown Los Angeles' industry backside. Horror movies have been filmed here; it's almost to dark to see the old machine oil and fake blood splatters that decorate the walls.

(SoundBits of Music Video Set)

Unidentified Man: Yeah, I probably need to get (unintelligible) up again.

JOHNSON: Lift is a one-man act, so all the lights, cameras and a small production crew are focused on him. He presses through the hot exhausting repetition, and when he pauses for make-up and to readjust his thick mane of dreadlocks, Lif looks tired.

(Soundbite of Music Video Set)

Mr. LIF (Rapper): Brother, man, shooting a video is hard work, hard work.

JOHNSON: But with the music video comes publicity and a way to draw more people to the song's political message. Brothers is a hardcore indictment of U.S. leadership for what Lift sees as it's failure to stop crisis in Rwanda, Darfur, and New Orleans.

Mr. LIF: The song Brothers is obviously another extension of the fact that I am extremely concerned about the black community, I'd say in North America, but really the global communities of color; because it's just not an emergency for a bunch if people of color are sick are dying.

(Soundbite of song “Brothers”)

Mr. LIF: (Singing) The Bush administration's worth nothing. (Unintelligible) Throw ‘em in the barrel. (Unintelligible) Oh, you didn't know them floodwaters was coming? You can't smell that African blood running? (Unintelligible) Check out what we're looking at here in Botswana. In the ghettos, brothers and sisters in self-slaughter.

I'm emulating my own hero's. You know what I'm saying? I'm emulating and era of hip hop before it got, quote "poisoned" by you know just big business.

JOHNSON: Lift says he comes from a lyrical linage of protest rappers that stretches back at least a couple decades. His songs are often frank discussions of race and social injustice, just like music by the iconic groups Public Enemy, and Boogie Down Productions from the late '80s.

JOHNSON: The old school one-to-the-chin wit is there, too. It is a skill he's been honing since he got his first rap tape in 1986. Lif grew up in Boston, where his (unintelligible) immigrant parents stressed education. So he tried college for two years, then quit to chase his rap dreams. When Lif landed on the underground hip-hop scene in the '90s, he got love early on from fans and critics.

His first album, 2002 Eye Phantom, features the song Return of B Boy. It's the story of Lif's epic battle to revive what he sees as hip-hop's more imaginative past.

Mr. LIF (Rapper): The music was a form of survival for cats that were disenfranchised and like caps[ph] of their turntables and plugged them joints into the streetlight, man, and made music. I think that that's just something that you can't ever forget.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LIF: (rapping) …through the earth's vapor, looked him up and down, as we walk towards solid ground. What! My jaw dropped at what I found. Classics by Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, BDP, PE and Run DMC, Low End Theory, 3 Feet, Criminal Mind, Takes a Nation of Mill - time to kill! Run DMC…

JOHNSON: The new disc, Mo Mega, is a concept album. The title itself captures what Lif describes an irreconcilable clash between the world's wealthy elite and the have-nots. He takes on the UN, Homeland Security, even fast food corporations.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LIF: (rapping) …a new disease that you caught at Mickey D's, ain't no Quarter Pounder with Cheese, audible D's, super size please. Pick your belief. People may even survive through the drive-thru. And they thought they revive to. Pulling all, pumping raw bass. Stuffing fries in they face. Over a billion served. What they never deserved, so as the drove away, they swerved into the curb. With they head on the steering wheel, kid's blacked out in the back with the…

JOHNSON: All the dense politics can be a drag, especially on Lif's chances at a pop chart slot. He admits, if he wants more radio play, he could slice out the social commentary, but then it wouldn't be his music.

Mr. LIF: My art would be dead if I wasn't speaking my mind, dude. The minute I'm sitting there second-guessing, like, you know, just trying to bite my tongue on a bunch of topics I honestly feel, you know, like, I would just die in my own eyes.

If most of the music out there isn't making people think about anything, well let me be one of the cats that has the music that people have to listen to and think about. Even if it's just that my music is so abrasive that people have got to decide whether they even want it on or not, because it can't be background music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LIF: (rapping) …know this is flashlight. Mother DT sleazebags, spread with the black flag, fingerprintin' like he's Simpson or something. And I look at son sit in a jail cell, witnessin' real hell. And the next cell, braggin' about his many cases, (unintelligible) lasting less than 40 paces.

JOHNSON: Although the album is thick with indignation, Lif also insists on having fun. There are comic rap tracks, a dedication to his own child, and a song about sex. It's Lif's way of pulling himself down off the soapbox.

Mr. LIF: I'm roped into the same television shows you're into. I have trouble paying my electricity bill and my water bill. When them envelopes show up at my house, they stress me out. You know what I'm saying; I'm worried about going gray. Healthcare is an issue - all of the same things that bother everyone else. I have a ton of vices just like everyone else, but I'm just going to share how I feel, and I'm not afraid to be sincere about it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LIF: (rapping) Do your (unintelligible), do your (unintelligible), yes, do your (unintelligible) act.

JOHNSON: Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

GORDON: You can hear full-length cuts from Mr. Lif's album, Mo Mega, on our website at NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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