'What Doesn't Kill Us Makes Us Stronger:' Mr. Lif On Music And Healing "I've suffered a lot of scars to get where I am," says the rapper, whose life was cracked in half when his tour bus crashed into a ravine. His new album, Don't Look Down, is his first in seven years.
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'What Doesn't Kill Us Makes Us Stronger:' Mr. Lif On Music And Healing

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'What Doesn't Kill Us Makes Us Stronger:' Mr. Lif On Music And Healing

'What Doesn't Kill Us Makes Us Stronger:' Mr. Lif On Music And Healing

'What Doesn't Kill Us Makes Us Stronger:' Mr. Lif On Music And Healing

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/477517970/478040539" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

"I've suffered a lot of scars to get where I am," says rapper Mr. Lif, a.k.a. Jeffrey Haynes. His new album, Don't Look Down, is his first in seven years. Dom Savini/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Dom Savini/Courtesy of the artist

"I've suffered a lot of scars to get where I am," says rapper Mr. Lif, a.k.a. Jeffrey Haynes. His new album, Don't Look Down, is his first in seven years.

Dom Savini/Courtesy of the artist

In the early 2000s, Mr. Lif — also known as Jeffrey Haynes — made a good living writing, performing and rapping with the other artists on the hip-hop label he helped define, Definitive Jux. And then, things changed suddenly: His tour bus crashed, he left his label and his home studio was flooded.

But hard times can inspire artists, too, and Mr. Lif is back now with a new album called Don't Look Down. He spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about his process of healing – mentally and physically – from the accident. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, or read it below.

Scott Simon: So, that title — is it OK to see it and think of the bus crash?

Mr. Lif: Well, yeah, the bus crash and basically every other crash that we go through as human beings, as we inevitably learn the hard lessons that life doles out to us.

May I ask what happened that day?

We played a gig at the House Of Blues in San Diego. Long story short, the bus driver fell asleep at the wheel and dropped us 38 feet into a boulder-laden ravine. The bus jerked; we went off the road. Right upon impact, all the lights went out, and then it was just — it was the tumble of my life. Utter chaos, you know, until the bus finally came to a stop.

Changed your life?

Absolutely it did.

How so? Help us understand.

First of all, you know, I felt very blessed to live through that, and I think it really was a miracle that nobody on the bus that night died. The toughest part of my recovery after that was dealing with the "what ifs." Hearing that there was a 100-foot drop on either side of where we went off the road, you just starting thinking, wow, what if I had gone off there? You know, there was a period of time where I wasn't really 100 percent sure that I had made it. That was the toughest part, was to psychologically battle back from, just trying to really accept what had happened. I ended up walking away from the music industry after that, and it was really because I had just felt lost in a lot of ways after the tour bus wreck.

When you walked away from music — granted that you knew you were blessed to walk away from what had happened at all — what did you do to keep body and soul together?

I found what was going on with the whole Obama vs. McCain [election] — and simultaneously having the backdrop, or maybe the foreground, of the housing crisis happen — I found that such an interesting era that I did write an album to capture that. So I wrote this album called I Heard It Today, and that came out in 2009. But I released it independently. And that's how I found out that I personally am not a good record label [laughs]. So, it was a part of me finding a little sliver of, "OK, this feels like my normal life again."

The wild thing is that what happened after that: I finished maybe a 40-date tour for that record, and came back home and ended up cutting off my dreadlocks that I had for about 15 years. Just felt like it was time for a complete reset, and a new start. One of the other things that really helped me find my way was, I actually started an NFL podcast that I kind of did in a pirate radio fashion, where I would just record it at my house. That was another thing that really kind of kept me motivated and moving forward.

This new album starts in kind of a striking way. There's a woman being stalked. Her boyfriend chases the stalker. Shots are fired. Eventually, the lovers reunite.

ADVISORY: This song contains profanity.

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You know, in track one, which is called "Pounds Of Pressure," the guy is dating the girl and the girl has a stalker. The stalker breaks into their home, along with an accomplice. And, as you said, a firefight ensues. And even though what the boyfriend has done leads to the stalker exiting the house, the boyfriend is so full of adrenaline that he can't stop himself. Because, I mean, the main goal in that type of situation is to get the intruder out of the house, and he finds himself so overwhelmed with adrenaline that he jumps off the balcony to pursue the guy down the alleyway. But while he's caught in this pursuit, a bullet whizzing by his head — delivered by the stalker — brings him very quickly to the reality of the fact that he has already accomplished his goal of securing the household and that it's time to think. So what you kind of witness in the course of that song is him just leaving that place of supreme adrenaline to come to his wits, and then to become rational again.

And is that where the song "Let Go" comes in? Is that kind of the light coming into the darkness?

Yes, indeed. In my mind, when I created that sequence of songs, it was kind of like having his lady come home and just be like, "Look: It's time for you to rejoin the world. Let's get out, let's let go of this situation." So yes, it really is the beginning of the light starting to creep back into the protagonist's life.

Mr. Lif, has the thought occurred to you that as horrific as your near-death experience was, you might be a better artist because of it?

Those are the realities, right? That's why they have that saying, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." You hear that when you're growing up, and it becomes cliché; you feel like people are just telling you that to help you get over some adversity you're going through. But as you get deeper into life, you realize that's really something true.

But yes, when I think back to the bus wreck I'm like, "Yes, it spawned an era of my life that I didn't necessarily want — but I wouldn't trade now, for anything." I've suffered a lot of scars to get where I am. But, you know, you make mistakes, you apologize, you try to move on. You offer forgiveness to those who have hurt you, you hope to receive forgiveness from those you have hurt, and you try to learn those lessons and become a richer person. And in saying "richer," I mean "wiser," wealthier with knowledge.