November 20th, 2013
Lushlife - Toynbee Suite
Forgive the hyperbole, but this is THE most insane thing you'll ever see us do. It's a ten-and-a-half-minute, four-movement, hip-hop epic conceptualized around a mysterious, paranoid artist; featuring RJD2, Nightlands, and full orchestration. And if you can believe it, we tracked it in ONE day.
If you pay attention to hip hop, especially Philadelphia hip hop, you know the nameLushlife, a South Philadelphia based producer, emcee and instrumentalist. Known for his '90s boom-bap flow, chamber-pop flourishes, and low-fi bedroom experimentation, Lushlife (aka Raj Haldar) seemed like a perfect fit for Shaking Through.So this past spring we sat down with him to talk about what he might do with 2 days free days in the studio. He didn't hesitate for a minute. Flush with enthusiasm, we started riffing, and in those early hours of the collaboration we started drafting the core ideas of what would become Toynbee Suite: Four movements, 10+ minutes, guests likeRJD2, Nightlands and Yikes the Zero, orchestral arrangements by Joshua Stamperand a conceptual framework about the mysterious Toynbee Tiles that propels the whole piece. We left with our brains coming out our ears.
The question at then end of that meeting wasn't whether the idea was great enough, it was whether we could pull it off. After all, the rules are clear: 2 days, start to finish. no extensions. no safety net. We've had sessions where finishing a 4 minute song challenged us, so 10 minutes with basically 4 songs inside it? we knew the only way this might have a chance of happening is if it we were meticulously organized and the process was a true team effort.
But first, a little bit about these Toynbee Tiles: If you live in a city--especially on the east coast--you may have seen the conspiracy-laden panels someone has been embedding in asphalt for the past 30 years. They can be subtly located--often on crosswalks or where someone on foot might see them. No one knows where they come from; they have been puzzling pedestrians, road crews and conspiracy-theorists for years. The most intriguing part is that almost all of them read the same thing:
In Kubrick's 2001
on Planet Jupiter
What does that mean? Boy, where to start. "Here in Philadephia, there are a lot of them," explains Haldar. "Any time I'm walking somewhere over a mile, I'll see one. They have always held my interest--they are so cryptic and so awesome. And so when Weathervane approached me about doing an episode of Shaking Through, I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to take that idea and build it from the ground up."
Raj decided to take each line of the tiles and unpack it, finding a unique vibe and lyrical idea within it and pour it into a movement. "The music contours to my sense of feeling I get reading those four lines, almost like a poem," he says. "There's a desire to mirror the philosophy [of the tiles] at every juncture of the movements."
This meant getting in the head of the tiler and finding an arc. Raj went to tremendous lengths to explore the mystery and Toynbee Suite plays like a deep investigation of another mind--Every line has some reference to the mystery, every corner of the song reveals some new perspective. "I'm not a story-telling rapper," he cautions though. "That's just not me. So the approach forToynbee Suite was new for me, because I was ostensibly embarking on writing about the philosophy" of this mysterious artist "who we really know nothing about. It became more about creating a connection of empathy than I thought I would be doing."
As the concept was materializing, we were busy searching for the team that could pull off Toynbee Suite. Raj wanted each movement to stand alone, but also serve the larger purpose of the piece. We decided to reach out to some key guests to help give each section their own vibe. We brought in our friends RJD2, and Dave Hartley of The War on Drugs and Nightlands to lend their unique musical voices to movements 1 and 3. We recruited another Philadelphia rapper,Yikes the Zero, and drummer Ricardo Lagomasino to add surreality and intensity to movement 2. And to tie it all together we asked Joshua Stamper and the Dark Horse Orchestra to create the connective tissue between the movements that makes this piece work together as a whole. "When I think about making a rap record I'm thinking almost more in terms of an architect building a building then I am thinking about playing a certain turn-around," Raj says. "It's important to me have a pretty strong intellectual underpinning but then be multilayered enough that like you can listen to it on a party/bullshit kind of level. Maybe Toynbee Suite is a little far out there, [laughs] but I try not to stray too far from the center."
While we cover the basics of the tiles in the videos, they barely scratch the surface of the story behind the tiles. If they intrigue you, we have a worm-hole for you to go down... An internet search will reveal a lot, but you should really go watch RESURRECT DEAD a documentary by our friend and Philadelphia-native Jon Foy. (You can find it on netflix) It explores the mystery in compelling fashion, and there is debate about whether they solve it. If you watch that and return to the song, you won't be disappointed.
Not that you might be disappointed anyway. The piece draws from so many people and ideas, yet never feels overwhelming. It is paced just right, following just the right arc--At times sparse and beautiful, other times dense and grooving. In the end, it is the perfect example of why this series exists: to give an exceptional independent artist the chance to express themselves to the fullest, and to share that story and the inspiration within with the larger world. As we look back on the process, it's clear that working with Raj has elevated our game. We see greater power in collaboration and have less fear of swinging for the fences. We know that big moves are made possible by tiny concrete steps, and that persistence and grit has a bigger impact than we realized. It's also proof that your community matters--this episode is a testament to the power of the Weathervane community. This wouldn't exist with out all of us--from the guest musicians, to the crew that produced it, to the members who support the series. We feel inspired and moved by Toynbee Suite.
We hope it does the same for you.