From Toynbee to Point Breeze, Philly rapper Lushlife steps forward in the city that sustains him

Raj Haldar is a Philly guy pretty much all the way through. Now he’s ready to release his third LP, “Ritualize,” and it is an absolute doozey. Haldar, who goes by Lushlife when emceeing, met with me at Buckminster’s in Point Breeze to talk about the new record just as Snowstorm Jonas started to dump two feet on us.

I first met Haldar outside the Blockley during a Shabazz Palaces concert back in the early aughts. Brian McManus, music editor at Philly Weekly at the time, had just put him on the cover of the paper, where I was an intern. I was a snot-nosed kid, just a year or two fresh to Philly, and I confidently strode over to him and extended a hand for a shake.

He reciprocated with extreme warmth and enthusiasm. It seemed weird — but not at all.

Today he’s just as eager, friendly, and enthusiastic about his craft as he was standing at 38th and Chestnut years ago.

‘A step forward’

Slated for release via Western Vinyl on Feb. 19, “Ritualize” has seen a couple singles (“The Ecstatic Cult,” featuring Killer Mike and, just last Friday, “Strawberry Mansion,” featuring Freeway) released to the press and listening public: Pitchfork heralded the former; “Sway in the Morning” on Sirius XM debuted the latter.

 

“This record is basically an absurd labor of love. [It took] one month shy of three years to make it,” he says, adding, “Just the sheer human effort …”

The LP is incredibly rich, full, lush — surprisingly so, because his first two LPs, though beautifully produced, don’t sound like this one.

In ’09, Lushlife gave us “Cassette City;” in 2012, the outstanding “Plateau Vision,” which undoubtedly gave him the motivation and buzz to double down and produce something extraordinary for his third effort. And he knows the world is looking at him, ready to pounce on any signs of what he jokingly refers to as a “SoundCloud fukboy.”

But Lushlife is legit. “I hope anyone that listens [to “Ritualize”] can hear a step forward, if not a paradigm shift,” he says.

That idea could be lubricated by the presence of CSLSX — pronounced “Casual Sex,” the production team that Haldar brought in for his first outside production support to date. He recalls the mystery-shrouded trio of beatmakers coming to him about five years ago and saying, “‘Hey, we have these sort-of hip-hop beats that we’re not sure what to do with.'” Until then, they’d mostly focused on house jams. “My jaw dropped,” he says. And Lushlife + CSLSX was born.

You can hear from the beautifully synth-kissed opener, “Total Mutual Feeling,” that CSLSX is a good fit. It’s grand, certainly a little ‘80s-flavored, and hardly what you’d expect from hip-hop out of Philly — at least the hip-hop that’s branded us so far. “Their sound is deeply indebted to Giorgio Moroder,” the aged but much-beloved Italian godfather of synth sounds, says Haldar.

The vibes bleed into the next track, too, “The Waking World,” which features delightfully shoegazey contributions from Swedish indie rock/electronic duo, I Break Horses.

Where the heart is

Lushlife’s guest artist game is next level now — beyond CSLSX, Freeway, I Break Horses, and Killer Mike, he also snagged Ariel Pink, Charlotte-based emcee Deniro Farrar, and ethereally beautiful singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, as well as a fury of feature spots on one of two explicit Philadelphia love letters, the 10-minute “Toynbee Suite.”

 

Like many Philadelphians, Haldar has been fascinated by the Toynbee tiles. Western Vinyl calls the track a “four-movement rap epic that explores the strange Toynbee Tile meta-art conspiracy that has captivated Philadelphians for decades.” The track has RJD2, Nightlands, Yikes the Zero, and a full chamber orchestra on it. It’s ambitious and beautiful and beguilingly local.

“For me, the cardinal rule is that it has to be the right person bringing a very unique idea to life,” Haldar says. “Featured artists are always in service of a particular song or idea.

“Free’s a perfect example of a very specific voice I wanted on a very specific track. I had this instrumental for months, and I just kept hearing Freeway’s voice on it. When we connected, we decided to turn the track into a bit of a love letter for Philly, and I’m hype for the world to hear it.”

Even though he recorded much of “Ritualize” in Los Angeles and wrote much of it on airplane trips and loved doing so (“There’s something about the hum of an airplane with strangers next to you …. Being on a plane started to feel like a quiet, contemplative place to live,” he says), he knows Philly is where his heart is as an artist. “Strawberry Mansion” has references to Philly neighborhoods, and his neighborhood, Point Breeze, gets a nod in “23rd and Tasker.”

“I’ve lived in London, New York City,” he says. “Philadelphia is absolutely the place that’s allowed me to subsist as a writer.”

Not Google search-friendly

Born in ’81, Haldar says, “I come from a universe that’s a pre-World Wide Web world. Cogently, I want to be a good musician, not great at the Internet. I make records. I make music.”

He recalls that Pink Floyd took five years to make “Dark Side of the Moon.” It’s another reason he’s bigger on LPs than EPs and mixtapes.

He says he holds art “more godly” than most people may realize. He remembers a listener who sent him an angry email chiding him for cursing on the opening track from his sophomore “Magnolia,” which features Joseph Campbell talking about shamanism. Haldar is inherently anti-misogynistic, anti-racist, spiritually open, and progressive in his thinking. “I’m sorry if it’s offensive to you, but if I tried to change my art for every motherfucker emailing me …,” he trails off with a smile. We wouldn’t have this third, complete artistic statement.

 

By day, Haldar has held down a marketing job in the city for almost a decade. Technically Philly has written about him snagging the gig after a tech startup noticed how he was marketing himself. “We’ve made it work, but what is Lushlife in 2019?” he asks as he prepares to launch a tour.

I point out to him the irony that he has no Wikipedia page to speak of because of the universality of his nom de plume.

“Yeah, you can either really embrace the idea of creating a moniker that’s Google search-friendly, or not,” Haldar says.

He explains that Lushlife came from his early-onset jazz nerdiness. “The name does come as a direct through-line from the jazz standard by Billy Strayhorn and popularized by the likes of John Coltrane and Nancy Wilson. I was playing a drum kit in the jazz band from fifth grade onwards and became a massive record-digger just a few years later.”

Something I love about Haldar, as a human and on record, is his massive, wide-reaching pop cultural vocabulary. I mention that, on a bike ride around town, Black Box and Jurassic 5 and Eminem will wander through my brain. He says he can identify.

“Things pop in and out of your brain, and embracing that lightning rod of ideas in your brain” is a welcome challenge, he says. He’s been known to incorporate both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a “Cosby Show” episode into a track with a — as he puts it — “Dada pastiche aimed at creating a semi-coherent piece of art that weaves it all together.”

His current hip-hop hero is Vince Staples. “That’s my favorite record of the year,” he says. It’s undeniably possible that a lot of people could be saying the same thing about “Ritualize” in 10 months time.

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