Mr. Lif

by Jack Diablo
“Mr. Lif ain’t from Jacksonville, but he reps Duval real hard,” came the words from the mouth of local rapper Willie Evans, Jr. when he joined the Boston-based emcee on stage during his set at Jack Rabbits on May 25th.
On his most recent album, I Heard It Today, he recruited an impressive sampling of Jacksonville talent to collaborate with and co-produce his politically charged, anthemic jams. Batsauce, Therapy and Willie Evans, Jr. were tapped to bring their Duval-flavored beats and production skills into the making of the record. So just what was it that attracted the critically-acclaimed rapper to the First Coast?
“You know sometimes when you meet people in life, it just clicks automatically. Not too much needs to be said. You’ve got a common goal, you’ve got a common vision and you realize that you can benefit from working with each other not only from a musical and a business standpoint but on a friendship point,” Mr. Lif, a.k.a. Jeffrey Haynes, told me after the show. It was fellow Bostonian and member of The Perceptionists, Akrobatik, who introduced Mr. Lif to Duval’s finest resulting in multiple collaborations and unbreakable friendships. “When I’m an old man, these brothers are gonna be old men with me and we’re gonna be sitting down, breaking bread with our families talking about raising kids and sharing stories. It’s real like that with me and Duval County.”
For Willie Evans, Jr., being associated with Mr. Lif has been a boon to his career. “Essentially, he’s responsible for putting us on the map, like really getting our foot in the door,” said Evans. Mr. Lif worked with Willie’s group Asamov, taking them under his wing and propelling them to the next level both musically and professionally. “He looked out for us, he loved our music and he decided to make some music with us which helped us gain exposure. Individually as artists, he has worked with us a lot which has given us even more exposure.” This mutually beneficial relationship exceeds that of a mere casual association. As Willie put it, “Over seventy percent of his new album is produced by Jacksonville artists. If that doesn’t say anything about how he feels about the talent pool in this city, I don’t know what does.”
Being a mentor to up and coming emcees seems to be Mr’ Lif’s preferred modus operandi. Seattle-based rapper Grieves and his DJ / sidekick, Budo, who also appeared alongside Mr. Lif at the show are among some of the other artists to benefit from his sage wisdom and promotional skills.
But for as much talk about loyalty, friendship, and admiration, this night was about the music.
Kicking things off was local boy, Robin Banks who nailed a flawless freestyle at the start of his set and later busted rhymes to bone-rattling base.
He was followed by the aforementioned hometown hero, Willie Evans, Jr. who performed his set with a video accompaniment of images pertaining to his rhymes. Willie was right at home on stage, delivering a stellar performance for old friends and new fans alike. His style is underground but digestible to anyone who appreciates good hip hop and he knows how to move a crowd. The enthusiasm he excretes is infectious as he spits his rhymes over beats he makes himself. He clearly loves what he does and seems to make it a point to have as much fun doing it as possible.
Grieves took the stage next and rapped over Budo’s accompaniment ranging from turntables to keyboard and even guitar. The two of them shy away from recycled samples and instead venture to make their own music and beats which they sample themselves. A skinny white kid from the West Coast, Grieves rapped with impressive confidence and skill while Budo seemed just as at home playing jazz trumpet as spinning records.
By the time Mr. Lif came on, the crowd was good and hyped. His set was far more political in nature than any of the opening acts but still a lot of fun. Whether he was making an aside about football or railing against the bail-out, he was nothing if not impassioned. At one point he displayed a list of taxes Americans are forced to pay which he referred to as “the new slavery” as he repeatedly sang, “This is that bullshit!” Corporate America seemed to be his prime target as well as succumbing to the stagnancy of working a nine-to-five instead of following your dreams. What struck me the most about his style was how hardcore it was without being gangster. There are so many rappers who talk a loud game but Mr. Lif seemed like the kind of guy who could back up every claim and lived every word. Rather than thuggish, his rhymes were intellectual. Instead of derivative, they were inspired and meaningful. My only beef came when he sang what came across as a bad rip-off of Del The Funkee Homosapien’s ‘If You Must’ set to reggaeton in his track ‘Washitup.’ But aside from that he kept things fresh and relevant. Special appearances were made by Metro, Paten Locke a.k.a Therapy, and of course, Willie Evans, Jr.
There are those who have been declaring the death of hip hop for years now and from the fodder that ends up on the radio and MTV, who can blame them for thinking so. But original and inspiring acts such as Mr. Lif, Willie Evans, Jr. and other independent hip hop artists decry such defamatory accusations and prove that it is alive and thriving as they take it to the next level.
Jack Rabbits –
Mr. Lif –
Willie Evans, Jr. –
Grieves –