Lushlife | photo by Megan Matuzak for WXPN
Digging For Something: Lushlife’s Raj Haldar on sample mixing, musicology and No Dead Languages
For the past decade-plus, rapper / producer / DJ Raj Haldar has built up a catalog of music unlike any in of hip-hop. Working under the stage name Lushlife, Haldar has carved out a very particular sonic space in the pop cultural landscape. On full-length projects like Cassette City, Plateau Vision and 2016’s Ritualize, Lushlife has explored the seemingly improbable fusion of the flossy, stream-of-consciousness approach you hear from rap outsiders like Camp Lo and Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah with electronic beats and dense, ornate baroque-pop arrangements reminiscent of Beach Boys’ auteur Brian Wilson.
His latest, No Dead Languages, is a unique detour back into the artist’s musical history. Compiled of recordings made at the turn of the millennium, the EP is a suite of dense, sample-heavy instrumental hip-hop and electronica of the sort that ruled the late 90s / early 2000s.
Speaking from the road in the midst of a tour with underground rap pioneers Blackalicious, we spoke with Haldar about sample / crate-digging culture, his creative process and his formative years spent bent over a drum machine, trying to find a way to fuse the disparate sonic locus points into a whole and natural musical cosmos. We’re also stoked to bring you the premiere of the title track to No Dead Languages, which you can listen to below.
The Key: I wanted to start off by talking about musical influences. Throughout your career, you seem to have made it a practice of wearing the music of your formative years on your sleeve: 90’s underground rap, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, etc. Can you tell me about your youth, which I assume was spent listening and synthesizing these influences into what would later become Lushlife?
Raj Haldar: When I was a kid, the fluidity you hear in Lushlife – synthesizing different sounds into one cohesive thing – wasn’t quite there. It was actually somewhat of a weird internal struggle. Some months I’d be deep in the world of rap music: endlessly listening and memorizing The Nonce, Questionmark Asylum, Black Moon, Nas….A few months later I’d be obsessed with The Pixies, Mission of Burma, Pavement.
Or by middle school, I was also playing in the jazz band, and that’s when I started getting crazy deep into jazz / boogaloo shit: Lou Donaldson, Idris Muhammad, etc. That was around the time Blue Note was rebranding that catalog as “Acid Jazz,” haha. I was in Jerz through high school — and as the homie Ezra K noted when he dropped the first track from Ritualize on his Beats show last year, we spent like endless hours in my mom’s Honda Accord driving around devouring every kind of record. I guess it was only with these monumental boundless, genre-shifting records like DJ Shadow and shit, where I even subconsciously started to feel like my disparate interests could become one thing.
TK: That’s funny that there was a tension there with incorporating disparate influences back then. Knowing (and hearing) your work now, I would’ve just assumed that would have been a natural thing for you.
RH: I think it was a more coming of age thing than anything else. Like, for a minute there, it felt like a binary.I had to be a hip-hop dude or a rock dude. I mean there was stuff like (The Beastie Boys’ 1992 album) Check Your Head that felt like it bridged some gap.
TK: That album (Check Your Head) resolved a lot of binaries for folks
RH: In that way though, I at least subconsciously realized that hip-hop would give me the perfect kind of post-modern latitude to do my thing but always explore new sounds.
TK: That’s why we got rap-rock at the turn of the millennium. [laughs]
RH: Those were instructive in figuring out what NOT to do.
TK: Right. [laughs]
RH: But yeah, I mean, rap-rock is the cautionary tale, while the stuff coming out on like Grand Royal (Beastie Boys’ wildly eclectic independent label that was home to Luscious Jackson, Cibo Mato, At The Drive-in and Sean Lennon) and Mo’ Wax (DJ Krush, U.N.K.L.E., Blackalicious) was pulling in so many sounds in the right way.
TK: Yeah. Grand Royal was so essential. They had their own zine and they were putting out all of these hip records that filtered rock, lounge, exotica, pop and psych through a hip-hop / modern lens.
RH: Yeah it was cool to see a label that repped for like Mr. Lif, Bran Van 3000, and Jimmy Eat World and still feel like a cohesive universe. That said, a lot of what sort of comes out of some of the Grand Royal era felt too much like pastiche.
TK: Yeah, the whole 90’s “pastiche” wave.
RH: Yep put that Skull Snaps break under a polka loop and call it a day. I probably couldn’t have articulated it then – but I knew that I somehow wanted to go deeper than that.
TK: Deeper like, a more whole and authentic synthesis?
RH: And with Lushlife shit – no matter where I go with it, replaying modern classical Erik Satie, or making Blade Runner-esque Juno synth four-on-the-floor jams…I want them to work equally well as those things as straight up rap records. The experimentation, in my world, shouldn’t dilute the wild straight up boom-bap. I want your dominican cousin in Washington heights to blare my shit out of their Honda Accord with the same bombast as radio rap.
TK: Haha! Word. Demographically, has that been happening? Does Lushlife have a following amongst hip hop heads in the hood?
RH: It’s a matter of positioning, I guess. I think the more expansive the shit dudes like A$AP Rocky and stuff do, the more worlds collide. But I’m out on the road with Blackalicious right now and you know, it’s still 70% “Coffee shop chicks and white dudes”
TK: Hahaha! Shout out to Common.
RH: AYYY! And real talk, it’s not about validation or anything like that. It’s just that I don’t think of or create my music as a curio or academically. It’s shit you should feel – no matter how far it moves away from traditional ideas and aesthetic of rap.
TK: Word. Bringing all of these musical worlds together has to be a bit easier in the iTunes / Spotify generation than it was in say 1999 / 2000? It seems like listeners have come to expect a certain level of eclecticism from artists.
RH: Totally, I mean when I released Cassette City in 2009, and flipped Ariel Pink, and had Greg from Deerhoof drum on that album – it was pretty novel. Now every hip-hop release indie or mainstream seems to have some cross-genre nod. And yeah, I think that’s somewhat a by-product of 2k16 wild Tumblr generation Internet life. Some of it might be a marketing ploy too – there’s crossover money in Tame Impala for Rihanna to cover, and for Lady Gaga to produce and some air of legitimacy or something BUT also internet has allowed voracious people to be voracious in a way they never have before. I saw Earl Sweatshirt on one of those Amoeba what’s in your bag videos and it’s just clear that his interests are just super varied.
TK: I saw that. It cracked me up when he said he doesn’t like gospel music that has “major chords” or whatever. I’m like, dude do you even know how music works? [Laughs]
RH: HAHA YEAH! I chuckled at that too – but I kinda know what he means. When there’s all praise and no pain. Speaking of which, goddamn have you heard those Pastor T.L. Burnett records?
TK: Nah, I don’t think so.
(*Lushlife plays “Like a Ship” by Pastor T.L. Bartlett & The Youth for Christ Choir)
RH: Shit is like if Panda Bear and DITC (90’s Hip Hop Production crew Digging in The Crates) did a song together in 1971. Which is also honestly what I want every Lushlife record to basically be.
TK: God, this is beautiful. I grew up in the church so I have a soft spot for gospel.
RH: This sort of thing encapsulates a lot of what’s great about digging, finding gems like this. A lot of what’s on No Dead Languages is definitely the most sprawling cut-and-paste symphony type shit I’ve ever done. Layers and layers and layers of forgotten samples.
TK: Yeah, I tell people all the time that growing up in hip-hop / sampling culture really trains you to have a broad taste by virtue of the fact that you’re always on the hunt for new source material, new influences. It kinda requires you to be well versed in all kinds of music.
RH: Totally – It’s cool to watch interviews with dudes like Pete Rock, Bambaataa, and see like how much sheer knowledge they have about mad different genres of music. Like, musicologist level shit. Even about the sidemen on records. Like, damn these dudes are students at the deepest level
TK: Yeah, I mean arguably Pete Rock’s most famous Beat (T.R.O.Y) came from a hippie jazz cover of a Jefferson Airplane tune (saxophonist Tom Scott’s “Today”).
RH: Exactly – I also like to use Tom Scott’s “Today” as an example of the sheer taste / skill required to sample deftly. Like that track is kinda cool or whatever But it’s just kinda moving along, and through dude’s sax solo and then HOLY SHIT those two bars of the sax solo, lifting that is sheer brilliance. And takes the “we took the break and looped it for the park jam” vibe to the next level. That’s as much a testament to being in this thing for life – as it is a god-given gift, having that ear.
TK: Exactly. I wanted to talk about No Dead Languages and what your process of sampling and composing was like around that time. What was producing / beatmaking like for you then and where were you pulling influences from?
RH: Yeah, a lot of No Dead Languages are tracks that were in the vault from earlier days. I was still catching legs for exactly what it is I wanted to be and do as a producer. The one thing about No Dead Languages that separates it from the rest of my catalog as Lushlife is that it’s completely sample-based. When you listen to it, it’s obvious that DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is a huge entry point. But also, I was really deep into British dance music shit, So you’ll hear nods to guys like (Drum & Bass pioneer) LTJ Bukem – where I’m chopping up the “Amen” break (The Winston Brothers Funk Gospel classic who’s drum break has been sampled in thousands of Hip Hop and Drum & Bass tracks) over some chill major 7 jazz guitar chords.
TK: God Bless major 7ths and Minor 9ths.
RH: Dude. No joke, Almost every time I like a song. No matter what genre, Katy Perry, to Perry Como (laughs) I’ll look up the chords and LOW AND BEHOLD, dipped with jazz chords. Secret weapon of melancholy. You can definitely hear that across most every track of the new EP.
TK: Right? I’ve secretly suspected for years that people are predisposed to liking certain harmonic and melodic conventions. Like, I feel like I was born with some sort of template that makes me enjoy certain harmonic structures.
RH: Yeah man, totally. I know for a fact that’s true with me. Something about those chords touch my disposition. I think it’s probably got a lot to do with that bossa nova vibe – where major and minor 7 and 9s are like not totally happy sounding but not overtly sad either and they give a lot more room for melodic ideas to take root that way.
TK: Word. Kind of a weird emotional tension. Chords that are “between feelings” and that happy / sad binary.
TK: I’m curious, around the time you were making the beats for No Dead Language, did you imagine yourself as a DJ Shadow type figure? Did you want to make instrumental music?
RH: I don’t think so. The idea of releasing music was so unattainable in my mind then. If anything, I was sort of flexing a “I want to make something based on something else that I love very much”. I did that with a lot of stuff early on – across genres, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’m able to marry different sounds pretty fluidly today. I studied and learned and executed a lot of shit from across the map. So I guess I feel like I know what makes it tick. Sort of a break it down to be able to build it kind of thing.
TK: You referenced the Mo’ Wax label earlier. It’s pleasantly surprising to me to see how many of the ideas in music of that era have survived and blossomed today. I mean L.A. has legitimately had a beat / instrumental hip-hop scene since the late 90’s with folks like Mumbles, Dan The Automator, Cut Chemist etc. and now folks like Flying Lotus, Ras G and Tokimonsta exist as the modern focal point at the other end of that continuum.
RH: Yeah shouts to Jamets Lavelle – that stuff, even though I squarely lived through it – feels mythic to me. You’re right, it’s really cool that that legacy sort of is still this living breathing thing. I was talking to Blackalicious’ tour manager about how the Filipino DJ community comes out of like these backyard jams in LA. (pioneering Turntablist group) Invisible Scratch Picklz and shit.
TK: I think Oliver Wang wrote a book about that whole scene (*note: Wang’s book Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area traced the history of Filipino Dj crews that emerged in the 70’s & 80’s playing countless weddings, birthday parties and school dances in the Bay Area’s Asian-American community. Somewhat surprisingly, this tight-knit community would go on to help lay the foundation for the Bay’s later Hip Hop and Turntabilist scenes).
RH: That’s super interesting – it’s cool to find out about organic scenes in an age where regional scenes are disappearing because of instantaneous access around the world.
TK: Word. I had NO idea. If you would have asked me back in ’95, I would’ve told you thatInvisible Scratch Picklz came from outer space. [laughs]
RH: Yo, exactly. My idea of turntablists up to that point was at most like (pioneering NYC DJ Crew) X-ecutioners and like here come these dudes like Mixmaster Mike breaking shit down to another weird level with their flares and crab scratches and shit. It did seem sort of otherworldly at the time. I think that’s the other thing about No Dead Languages. It represents a part of me that I don’t really talk about, and therefore other folks don’t really talk about – but when these tracks evolved, I probably considered myself a DJ more than anything. Real talk, I was DJing four nights a week in Manhattan by the time I was like 19. Downtown at Veruca with motherfucking Mark Ronson and shit [laughs]
TK: Living the dream!
RH: Dragging four crates onto the subway in the pre-Serato era. I put in work! So yeah, this is an explication of Lushlife the DJ, Lushlife the digger.
TK: That makes sense re-listening to West Sounds, which came out a few years after the No Dead Languages tracks were made. I can see the influence of DJing on your early work.
RH: My whole ear as a musician, not to be boastful, but it’s on another level BECAUSE of DJing. This extremely strange exercise of pitching samples together with the pitch slider on the Technic 1200 (turntable), Beat matching etc. That shit – doing it over and over and over again for years gave me a sense for tonality and rhythm and a production acumen that I still benefit from daily. Not to mention, knowing instinctively what kind of shit will work in a club, or in a lounge, or in the whip.
TK: How did the tracks for No Dead Languages resurface? What made you decide to release them now?
RH: Well, A few months ago – my homeboy Kevin (D’ Mello), who co-produced a few joints here and there on previous Lushlife records (‘Until the Sun Dies’ on Cassette City) asked me to send him a collection of my early production work, and after listening to the No Dead Languages tracks he sort of gave me early encouragement that these tracks should see the light of day, and not be hidden on an external drive somewhere in my home studio. But still, it all really came together when we started thinking about how things were lining up: the 25th anniversary of Endtroducing which is one of the core influences of the piece the fact that I was, going on the road with Blackalicious, who were part of that whole Mo’ Wax / Quannum axis…..It just felt right.
No Dead Languages by Lushlife is out today; get your copy at Bandcamp.