Graded on a Curve: Mr. Lif and Brass Menazeri, Resilient
BY JOSEPH NEFF
Mr. Lif made his mark in the early ’00s with a string of swell releases, mostly for the Definitive Jux label, that were part of a welcome surge in underground hip-hop. But if the rate of his output has slowed, his latest album shows no decrease in creativity; to the contrary, Resilient is a team-up with Brass Menažeri, a Balkan Brass Band from the San Francisco Bay Area, and its stylistic merger is streamlined, inviting, and quite distinctive. Benefiting from an unhurried and close-knit collaborative process, the record is out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through the fledgling artist-focused label Waxsimile Productions.
Definitive Jux, initially just Def Jux, was co-founded in 1999 by El-P, now widely known as half of Run the Jewels, and Amaechi Uzoigwe, the duo’s current manager. How integral was the label to the rise of u-ground hip-hop, aka “backpack rap?” A partial list of its output includes Aesop Rock, Company Flow, RJD2, Cannibal Ox, Mike Ladd, Cage, and Murs. Amongst all the productivity, Mr. Lif was reportedly the first rapper they signed.
That all transpired last decade. Definitive Jux went on hiatus in 2010; Lif’s ’09 effort I Heard It Today came out on Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises, and then a long gap in recordings was remedied last year by a pair of releases, Don’t Look Down and The Life & Death of Scenery, the latter co-billed with producer L’Orange, both for the Mello Music Group. The genesis of Resilient significantly predates those albums, as it came to life through an appearance at the Seattle Folk Festival in the winter of 2011.
Lif lacked a band for the show, which prompted festival organizer Devon Léger to suggest Brass Menažeri, postulating that the outfit’s horns and agile execution would complement Lif’s non-standard word flow. While the emergence of the Balkan brass sound has become, if not commonplace, then something more than novel, Brass Menažeri preceded the apex of the wave, with releases dated to ’07 (Brazen) and ’08 (Vranjski San), which is the year the SF Weekly anointed them “Best International Live Band.”
The first rehearsal undertaken by Brass Menažeri and Lif (in a Seattle coffin factory!) was unexpectedly fruitful, and the resulting Festival performance proved such a smash that a recording was quickly planned. Lif moved to San Francisco a month later and the process proceeded on and off for roughly a year, though its final form, as co-produced by Lif, Peter Jaques (Menažeri’s director, along with playing clarinet and trumpet), and Eric Oberthaler (the group’s trumpeter), obviously took a while longer to reach physical fruition.
It comes courtesy of newish label Waxsimile. Describing the imprint as artist-focused might seem redundant; any independent enterprise that isn’t artist-focused in the current musical economy isn’t likely to last long. But label head Tim Boyle has made fair-dealing a visible component in Waxsimile’s overall mission, and as other artists on the label’s roster, such as Kathy Black (her Main Street offering poised singer-songwriter-ism) and Tim Young & the Questionaires (who deliver wide-ranging instrumental deftness) avoid stylistic pigeonholing, artist-focused is as good of a tag as any.
Due to its nature as a collab, the multifaceted global roots extension of Like Never and Like Always by True Life Trio & Gari Hegedus gets nearest to Lif and Menažeri’s fusion, but with some significant differences. Overall, Resilient’s biggest achievement isn’t that its hybrid gels but instead resides in how it eludes succumbing to the shallowness of gimmickry.
The disc’s promo text mentions how tuba produced a sound comparable to “old-school boom-bap hip-hop” during the Seattle live show, an attribute that could’ve been easily overdone in studio, but Resilient’s opener “Rebirth” displays admirable restraint. This shouldn’t imply a low ration of blowing; the higher register horns are lyrical throughout, and there are indeed flurries of lower-end gusts, especially near the finish.
Lif’s lines unfurl with clarity, but he really bursts forth on “Crypt of Lost Styles,” which is more stridently hip-hop flavored, particularly rhythmically, as the horns’ uniqueness flourishes during an instrumental spotlight. “Rebirth” is decidedly Balkan flavored, “Crypt of Lost Styles” is something of a stylistic draw, but “Aftermath” is firmly on the rap side of the equation, though Menažeri is still a tangible element.
Along with Lif’s hip-hop acumen, it’s important to note Oberthaler’s experience as an electronic musician (under the moniker eO). The production, which utilizes live remixing, looping, slicing, and rearranging, registers as a natural expansion of hip-hop’s possibilities instead of being merely imitative. This extends to the turntables of DJ Mr. Sonny James in early standout “The Wanderer,” the track excelling through a killer rhythmic line and an abundance of soulful horn wiggle.
But the cut’s finest aspect is the vibrant voice of Briget Boyle, which carries over just as strongly in the excellent “Burning Up.” Notably, Lif’s rhymes are absent from both selections as Boyle steps to the forefront. This is only odd until one realizes that Resilient’s raison d’être is as a synthesis of two forms; that Lif never layers himself atop already robust equations, such as the instrumental tour de force “Doppio Macchiato,” is testament to the healthiness of the man’s ego and the endeavor overall.
Fans need not worry, for he’s back in full force in the cracking “Hump Day” as the Balkan and hip-hop elements attain a striking equilibrium. The balance persists as Lif takes a dip back into his catalog to resurrect “What About Us?” from Heard It Today. The track’s topical punch is undiminished (nay, it’s only increased), and it’s here that the baritone horns get their moment to shine amid more turntable flash and the incessant rhythm.
From there, “Guiding Light” takes the recipe and just rolls, and the way the beat gets a little funkier in the closing section is sweet icing. That the LP initially comes on a little too polished is far from unexpected, even as the expletives do fly, but through depth of concept Mr. Lif and Brass Menažeri waste little time attaining a fertile trajectory. That the horns’ height of richness is saved for the exceptional finale “Breathe Deep” only reinforces the likelihood that Resilient will stand the test of time.
GRADED ON A CURVE: