“There are artists whose bread and butter is just making music that sounds verifiably like it came somewhere out of 1994,” says Philadelphia rapper Lushlife, aka Raj Haldar. He’s having a cup of tea at Atlas Café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hours before playing a show at the Knitting Factory a few blocks away. “And, as much as my own music is informed by that era, I feel like I want to try to take some step forward without losing sight of the groundwork behind me. It’s like, ‘Come on, we all loved the ’90s. Let’s get over it.’”
This is a funny thing to hear from an MC whose dense, polysyllabic rhymes are often compared to Illmatic-era Nas and whose list of hip-hop reference points—Black Moon, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, A Tribe Called Quest, Gangstarr—barely make it past Y2K. But the beats Lushlife raps over in his gruff, rat-a-tat flow are aggressively contemporary, almost to a degree that suggests calculation: His last mixtape, No More Golden Days, featured Haldar rapping over blissed-out, ethereal concoctions by producers like Clams Casino and slowed-down, blown-out versions of recent indie-rock staples like Gang Gang Dance’s “Adult Goth” and Fleet Foxes’ “Mykonos.” His new full-length, Plateau Vision, jettisons some of the blog-bait for more even weirder, spacier, synth-snarled New Age boom-bap and hiccupped psych-rock. Is it chillwaverap? Cloud-rap? Trillwave? Self-aware-post-chillwave? Does any of this matter?
When asked if he’s frustrated by these genre classifications, Lushlife is more amused than anything, perhaps excited that people finally know how to classify a soft-spoken, self-effacing rapper who went on a juice fast, often name-checks the Smiths and looks like he might volunteer at a library. “In 2009, I put out a record called Cassette City, and there are tracks on there in hindsight that I feel like they could fit in the ‘chillwave’ or ‘cloud-rap’ categories,” says Lushlife. “I just think there wasn’t a way to process them neatly at the time. But maybe I’m just giving myself a pat on the back.”
Far from being a trend-hopper, Haldar has been developing his aesthetic for a long time. Born in New Jersey, he started DJing at the age of 10, teaching himself how to cut and scratch, and scrounging record stores for obscure Smoothe Da Hustler singles. After a brief stint studying jazz composition at Rutgers, a lost year at NYU and a few years abroad in England, Haldar has made Philly his home for the last seven years. Having recently turned 30, he’s something of a hip-hop academic, and his lyrics, packed full of literary, spiritual and musical allusions, confirm that.
With guest verses from Bad Boy and Ruff Ryder alum Styles P, Das Racist’s Heems, conscious Canadian Shad and Memphis cloud-classicist Cities Aviv, Plateau Vision feels liberated from regional geography and history. “In some weird sense, from the lyrical standpoint, the narrative of Plateau Vision is somehow about this idea of anthropology,” he explains. “How it relates to the advent and growth of hip-hop culture and seeing B-boy nostalgia culture through the lens of classic anthropological tropes.” But for such heady material, the buoyant, contemplative album never feels like a term paper.
“I like to think that my music has a broad appeal,” he says, finishing up his tea. “I don’t know right now whether that’s come to fruition yet. I think right now, to be very honest, it’s just this subset of people who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and have extremely broad tastes. That’s the best way I can explain it, since I don’t have a lot of ways of getting a broad understanding of who’s listening and who’s not. But I’m glad that anyone is listening.”