The conversation rages on about whether or not hip-hop is or should be a young person’s game. Or whether any rapper over 30 is still “relevant.” About whether these teen and early twenty-something rappers need to show more respect to the architects. The Perceptionists aren’t trying to hear any of it. If anything, at almost 20 years making music together, they feel that they’re better emcees than ever and are more than willing to prove it with their new album, Resolution.
Jared “Akrobatik” Bridgeman and Jeff “Mr. Lif” Haynes are pioneers in the Boston hip-hop scene. They’ve maintained solid solo careers and had been appearing on each other’s tracks since 1998, on Akrobatik’s “The Fat Shit.” The two formed The Perceptionists in the early ’00s, joined by DJ and producer Jason “Fakts One” Goler, and released their debut album, Black Dialogue, in the spring of 2005. The album came out on Definitive Jux Records, then the preeminent independent record label. Black Dialogue covered a lot of ground with its twelve tracks and 42-minute running time, as the group tackled the volatile political climate of the time, lost love, and some banging lyrical exhibition. It resulted in one of the better hip-hop releases of that year.
It’s been over a dozen years since Black Dialogue dropped, which is more than enough time for both personal and global realities to shift. The members of The Perceptionists have been through a lot of good and bad in those twelve years. Akrobatik has released two albums and Mr. Lif a pair of albums and an EP. They’ve toured extensively and continue to be great ambassadors of the Boston hip-hop scene. But they’ve also endured their share of adversity, as Akrobatik survived a heart attack and Lif experienced a potentially deadly tour bus wreck. The former trio is also now a duo, as Fakts One has all but retired from making music.
Meanwhile, the world is a radically different place for hip-hop artists. Record labels have risen and fell. The physical media market for music has all but collapsed. Social media means everything. And the corporatization of music continues to grow.
And still, The Perceptionists persist. Resolution signifies a triumphant return for the musical partnership between Lif and Akrobatik, and demonstrates they still possess an unmistakable chemistry when recording tracks together. It packs just as much of a punch in even less time, clocking in at 36 minutes and running eleven tracks deep. Definitve Jux may be gone, but this time around The Perceptionists are working with another of hip-hop’s current preeminent independent labels, Mello Music Group.
On Resolution, Ak and Lif show they’re capable of tackling the troubling state of the world on tracks like “Hose Down” and “Out of Control,” but still balancing it with lyrical assaults like “Dirty Drumz” and “Let’s Battle.” The pair also illustrate they aren’t afraid to do some soul-searching on record, with introspective tracks like “Grab Hold,” “A Different Light,” and the title track.
On the production side, the album features beats by past collaborators and homie like Willie Evans, Jr. and Paten Locke, as well as a slew of young up-and-comers like Synesthetic Nation, Theory Hazit, pAS dOO, Chop, Syne, and ZMY DaBeat. It gives the album a varied feel, but one that holds together as a cohesive piece of work.
I had the chance to catch up with Akrobatik and Lif recently, and got them to share their thoughts on what’s resonating with people on Resolution, aging like fine wine, and the benefits and ills of social media.
Jesse Ducker: Which songs on Resolution do you think are resonating with people, and why?
Mr. Lif: I just think it’s tough to really know why people really like one song more than another, but I know that Ak and I talk about some really gut wrenching items on “Grab Hold.” I think we kind of let a few things fly there as far as things going on in our personal world, some experiences that we’ve had and maybe that type of stuff strikes a chord with people. Of course, having the old school Jazz loop that we’re rhyming over I think evoked something from the O.G. hip-hop fans as well.
Akrobatik: I think people appreciate the mature approach. I think that there is more and more open-mindedness to grown up rap these days and we’re definitely bringing that. A lot of the reviews and descriptions of the album seem to talk about how we address some darker issues but with a positive frame of mind and a positive approach towards it. I think people appreciate that. I also think they appreciate hearing Lif and me with our voices back to back again and hearing that chemistry.
JD: On tracks like “Grab Hold,” “A Different Light” and “Resolution,” you guys are really kind of putting yourselves out there. Is it tough for you to still be doing that type of thing? I know you both have been rapping for twenty years, but you get pretty personal on these tracks.
Lif: For me, those songs saved me on whatever night I wrote them on. Those verses came out because I was probably struggling to get through those situations I was talking about and I needed to express them poetically. I feel like my art has always been a pretty honest expression of things. If anything, now I’m more willing to express things that are deeply personal to me than I was earlier in my career. I think earlier in my career, I’d rather tell a story that was seemingly third person that was about some of these experiences, rather than go first person on my own.
Ak: My approach is the same, man. I feel like I’m more open towards being personal on records now. I don’t know if there’s any aggressive intent there. It just kind of happened that way. I think that’s also part of writing songs with your friend. We’re both sharing and comparing experiences and that’s what Resolution is all about for us: coming to grips with all this stuff that’s happened since we made our last album. We’re coming back together and catching up even though we’ve been friends the whole time and we’ve made some songs together. This is our first full-length project together in so long, and we needed to catch up and so we’re just talking about everything that’s happened since.
JD: How has the process and dynamic of recording music together changed over nearly twenty years?
Ak: Well, we don’t depend on other people as much to get our music done. Lif recorded and mixed the whole album and did a great job on it.
Lif: Thank you.
Ak: Just setting up all the different audio teams that we had that are listed in the album credits to just get a sound that is our sound, you know? I feel like now we have our sound and that’s made me, for one, really amped up already for our next project because of it.
Lif: I think that’s not to be undersold. It’s the fact that we have the power now to record in our own facility and to check in when we want. We don’t have to make an appointment to go some place and then just make sure we’re inspired at that time. It’s just a different thing. It’s more organic and I feel that it brings us back to how we started.
Some of my fondest memories of working with Ak are him coming to my Mom’s place in Brighton, Massachusetts at the time and us just being on the EPS 16 Plus, making beats and writing songs. Back then we would make the beat, write the song, and we’d still have to go book studio time to go record. But now it’s like, we can make the beat, write the song, and record and mix the song. So for me at least, I’m just more excited probably than ever now because I feel like we really can do what we want to do when we want to do it and have it sound exactly the way we want to sound before anyone else hears it.
JD: You worked with a lot of different producers than you usually do on Resolution. Some of them you’ve never worked with before. How did you make these connections?
Ak: I just think that it’s just a matter of having our ears to the street. There’s a lot of talent out there and every once in a while, I’ll go out to an event. That’s how I found Chop: I went to a beat showcase and Chop was one of the producers there, showcasing production work and I liked what I heard. So I asked him to send us some beats and he did, and that’s how “Out of Control” was born. I mean it’s really that simple. I’m open to giving anybody a chance.
To be honest, if a beat sounds good, it doesn’t really matter who made it to me. If the beat speaks to me and inspires me to write to it, then so be it. We’re going to work something out to make it happen. I’m hoping that the way we went about getting the beats for this album will turn into some good opportunities for placements for some of these younger producers and their careers, you know? Because Chop and DMY and a couple of the other guys, there are other guys that, they’re maybe newer to the game. They haven’t been in there for twenty years like Paten and me and Lif and Willie. I’m just glad to be able to bring people from different walks of life and different styles all on one project. The artist is who the project should speak for. To me, there are always going to be a vast array of producers and production styles that will appeal to us and our abilities.
Lif: You know what? I want to know, because I don't think I know the story. How did you meet ZMY DaBeat? Did you just come across him online?
Ak: He basically got a hold of an acapella from one of our songs [Akrobatik’s “Beast Mode”] and put it behind a beat and made a video for it on his Facebook page. When I saw that, I was like, “Yo, that beat's incredible. We sound great on it, why don't we actually write to it?” That’s how “Let Me Find Out” came about.
Lif: Then as far as the story of meeting Synesthetic Nation, that was just because on Twitter, I think some cat hit me up and was like, “Yo, I want to send you beats. Where should I send them?” I put the Gmail email out there not even realizing like, “Oh yeah, everyone can see this.” So I started getting beat submissions. This guy named Syne, his beats were a cut above everything else that I heard, so I reached out to him and we have been working together ever since. He made the title track on [Lif’s latest solo album] Don’t Look Down and the instrumental for the song “Ill.” Then he made “Hose Down” and “Free At Last” on this album. He’s been a heavy hitter out there recently.
I met pAS dOO because my friend Stephanie Love brought me to Hiero Imperium one day. We were hanging out with Pep Love in Oakland at Hiero Imperium and we were upstairs and I heard beats coming from downstairs and I was like, “Yo, what the fuck is that?” He was like, “Yo, that’s pAS. He makes beats.” I immediately went downstairs and started a dialogue with him. Then Ak and I were just hanging out one day and he sent us a fresh batch of beats and so that’s when we heard the beat for “Let’s Battle.”
Then with Theory Hazit, who produced “A Different Light,” I was living in Portland, Oregon for about five months last year and my roommate, this guy DJ Spark, introduced me to Theory. I started going over to Theory’s house like once a week to just kick it with him at night just while we has making beats, and he played me that shit and I just kind of lost my mind to it. Wrote a verse the same night, sent it to Ak, and the rest is history.
JD: What do think has led to the expansion of the market for so-called “Grown-up” hip-hop?
Lif: I think for Ak and me it's a tricky thing because our music has always been responsible. I try to think back, is there a “Triangular Warfare” type of song [on Resolution] where we’re just going for broke? Yeah, there’s “Dirty Drumz,” you know? Maybe “Let’s Battle.” I’m just trying to think. Where was the young reckless me that was making socially irresponsible music? Where is that version of Ak as well? I don’t think that they ever existed, so you know what I mean? I just feel like hip-hop was founded on music that was actually socially responsible. As it became more popular, it did get away from that to an extent.
Ak: I would just add to it that the red carpet kind of got rolled out in the last couple of years by people like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest by putting out just outstanding work and making the fan bases of that type of hip-hop just come out more. Lif was talking about how he performed at Hiero Day and that’s just like 20,000 people out there, and everybody’s open to boom-bap hip-hop that talks about real topics and it’s socially responsible and everybody out there’s having a good time and sharing positive energy. I think the vibe is just there.
The mistake that some artists make is that they are trying to achieve or maintain a certain level of fame, and they think that it means that they have to conform to what some of the younger artists are coming out and doing in terms of the subject matter. I just think that is a mistake.
If you’re a socially responsible person, why wouldn’t you be a socially responsible artist? I would just say that I always want to attract the type of listener, the type of audience, that would appreciate that because then that’s who I would appreciate. I don’t see any reason to change from that. You can even come through with a beat that might sound more contemporary, something like “Hose Down” or whatever, but it presents an opportunity to come through with something that’s really dope but also something that’s really intellectual that matters and has some substance.
Lif: I think that the portrait of longevity in hip-hop is still being painted. It’s like we’re on this shaky ground where we’re just like, “Is this a young man’s business?” Like Ak said, De La Soul putting out quality work in 2016. A Tribe Called Quest putting out quality work. The new Showbiz & A.G. album is amazing.
Ak: I would also even say that even JAY-Z is taking people from that kind of mainstream anything goes mentality and bringing them over to like, “Hey, I want my audience to grow up with me.” The same people who were in the club with JAY-Z fifteen years ago are not proud to say, “Hey, I’m riding with him now while he’s on this mature level and talking about things that matter with me because I’m not always going to be 22.”
Lif: I just think that when you’re in a field that relies so heavily on your mind being sharp, of course, we want to maintain our physical health, but we’re not athletes, man. There’s nothing that says the work that I did when I was 25 just has to be better than my work at 39. There’s literally nothing that says that. I made this analogy the other day: When you think about Kung Fu and you like a Kung Fu flick and there’s like the long silver-haired master, and there’s all the young guys that are throwing a hundred punches at him and he still has his hands in his sleeves and he’s just like dodging and bobbing and weaving and watching you exert yourself. And then he presses you with his index finger and makes your whole body collapse. That’s rap to us, I think. The sharper our minds get, the more life lessons we have. Why shouldn’t we be increasing in skill?
JD: You first announced that you were going to record this follow-up album a few years ago, but you’re finally releasing it in 2017. Is there any reason for the delay?
Ak: I mean, I don’t know if I really know the answer to that. We’ve just been busy. I’ve been teaching at UMass. Lif’s been traveling with Thievery Corporation. You really have to sit down and make time for something if you really want it to happen. It just took Resolution for us to do that.
JD: What have been teaching at UMass?
Ak: I teach a hip-hop history course. I’ve been doing it for about three years now.
JD: Do you enjoy doing it?
Ak: I love it. It’s a lot of fun. It's a great opportunity to get out there and interact with people. I have a room of twenty-five 19-year-olds all to myself twice a week. They do a good job keeping me abreast of what's going on with the culture from their perspective and vice versa.
JD: Do you assign listening homework to your students or is it just you're teaching them more about the history, or both?
Ak: There’s playlists. They’re required to write about stuff and listen to stuff from all eras man. It’s all-encompassing, so I got them listening to stuff from the early ’80s and stuff that just came out.
JD: Do you find that they’re receptive to the older stuff?
Ak: Absolutely. We listen to Ice-T, Public Enemy, Geto Boys. We listen to it all.
JD: You dropped Black Dialogue on Definitive Jux back in 2005, when it was one of the biggest indie record labels. Resolution came out through Mello Music Group, which is one of the biggest indie hip-hop labels putting out music now. What would you say are the differences between each label?
Lif: Interesting. I’ve got to think about that. Both labels have very cool CEOs that you feel have your best interests as an artist in mind.
Ak: I feel like Def Jux was more like a crew.
Lif: Right! There it is. Yup.
Ak: It was like a crew where it was like, the Jukies. We all toured together. We all supported each other. We’d be at each other’s recording sessions and shit like that. And with Mello, it feels a little bit more isolated from the other artists on the label. Although we all support each other, we’re not around each other as much. There’s no big Mello Music Group tour.
Lif: We’d love to change that though. I know that the CEO of the company would love to change that too, but I think it has to come from the artists on the label to just be like, “Yeah, I’ve got a good thing going on right now, but let me band together with the squad a little bit.” It just hasn’t happened yet.
JD: Besides the two of you, I think Oddisee and Open Mike Eagle are the only artists affiliated with the label who tour all that often.
Lif: I think everyone else, at least from what I understand, would like to tour more. I know Apollo Brown does his thing in Europe, like he doesn’t really stress a North American tour so much. I’d love to see that at some point, to go out as a team or at least have some other members of the team. Even if it’s just Ak and me bringing out Red Pill and Lando Chill, or bringing up some of the newer cats. I don’t know. I think Ak nailed it: Def Jux was more of a crew.
JD: Originally The Perceptionists were three members: the two of you and DJ Fakts One. I know Fakts has kind of separated himself from making music, but I know he’s produced stuff for you since leaving the group. Have you talked to him about trying to bring him back into the fold?
Ak: I think that Fakts is just not a full-time musician anymore, so to actually have him be a member of the band is probably not practical. But just like anybody else, anytime he has some beats he wants to throw into the fold for us to hear, if we’re inspired by any of them, we would definitely write to them. I consider Fakts a life-long friend. I would play that by ear and see what he decides to do with music over time.
JD: Twelve years is a long time between albums. How have issues in the world changed since Black Dialogue?
Lif: For me, I’d have to say the thing that I feel like I have witnessed is corporate power exponentially expanding beyond my wildest dreams. People proving time and time again that they’ll do anything for a dollar, whether that means just putting bad food in the supermarkets that’s corrosive to our own health and playing more into the hands of the pharmaceutical industry or just, I don’t know, watching the news and being like, “Oh, yeah! The world really is spinning out of control.” Literally, that’s where that song came from. It’s like, wow, okay, so mass shootings are just a regular thing? Every few days a cop decides to just pop another person of color. It just seems like madness, just general unhealth in the collective consciousness that is leading the people to become unglued.
Ak: And as much as we can talk about establishment, I also think that social media has destroyed society. As much as I love the Internet and being able to get beats from talented producers over the Internet, I think that social media has created a platform for people being rude, mean, and disrespectful. Apathy has just become like the status quo. Because of that, relations between everyday people have also just kind of gone down the toilet. The corporations, what they’re doing, it’s a bad thing, but I think people still have control over how they treat each other. It looks as though we’ve chosen to be rude to each other, you know? If people disagree with each other it seems as though they can’t do that without insulting each other. Someone wants to make a Facebook post and then someone else will just jump right on and tell them to go kill themselves. Just really disrespectful, the way people treat each other.
JD: Would you trade away the good to get rid of the bad?
Ak: I would.
Lif: No doubt, yeah.
Ak: Life was great before all this stuff sprung up. I remember what it was like to not have every single person that I’ve ever met have access to me, and I remember that being a great time.
JD: So what do you think about how music is consumed these days? As in CDs vs. mp3s vs. streaming, which is so huge now. How does that effect your perceptions of how people consume the music?
Lif: That’s the stuff that I get from the label. These are the types of questions I’ll ask Michael over at Mello Music Group, and he’ll just tell me straight up like, “Yo, man. Streaming has eclipsed downloads now.” I don’t want to speak for Ak. I’ll speak for myself. For me it’s like, “Hey, tell me what the rules of the game are so I’m aware and if you want to catch me, I’ll be in the studio.” You know? I’ll be in the studio making more songs and then when I’m done with making those songs, let me know what we got to do to promote them properly and I’ll fall in line.
Ak: Yeah, I kind of feel the same way too, man. Things change so rapidly, man. People are getting cattle-called from one platform to another. This year, everybody has to be here doing this, the next year everybody has to be here doing this. I remember when the most important thing in the world was my Myspace account. There were 30,000 people following me on there and if I didn’t cultivate that audience, then I wasn’t doing my job and then all of a sudden that site was just gone. I’m with Lif on that: It’s just about the art. It’s just about making the music and working with people who know how to get it out to people.
JD: So what’s next for The Perceptionists?
Lif: I see it as a massive musical tirade of just being in the studio, writing songs, being on tour, and as much as we can fathom and as much as it’s sustainable for us. It just feels to me that we found the magic formula. We’re just trying to ride it out trying to promote the Resolution album of course. But damn man, we already got ideas for some new songs. The record after Resolution is already sounding pretty good from what I’m hearing.
JD: Are you guys recording anything for the new album yet?
Ak: Just one or two jams, man. For me the Perceptionists and my music career in general is my vehicle to be able to bring as much positivity to the world as I possibly can while I’m here. That’s what it’s all about for me. Going to as many different places in the world and making real life connections, real life interactions, with real life people who can benefit from knowing us and being in the same room with us and sharing music and sharing art with us.
JD: Last question: what are each of your five favorite albums?
Ak: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Wait, there’s also Blowout Comb by Digable Planets. That actually might be my favorite album.
Lif: Yeah, yeah that’s your signature record right there. Man, I’d have to say Radiohead’s In Rainbows. There’s probably a tie for me between Kid A and In Rainbows. They both were at very pivotal points in my life. Van Morrsion’s Astral Weeks, there’s something about that record that caught me in this time when I had just dropped out of college and was spending a lot of time in my room depressed, and my father was pretty pissed that I dropped out of college. Something about the Astral Weeks album really spoke to me. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, undoubtedly. That just shaped my mind as a young man, probably more than any other record.
I have to give a shout out to Michael Jackson’s Thriller because of the way it changed our household and just made my childhood fun. Literally having dance parties in the living room with mom and dad. Wow, I’m going over five but I have to say I have to give a nod to GZA’s Liquid Swords and Nas’ Illmatic. Illmatic came out at a time when I was still becoming an emcee and it helped me figure out what I wanted to accomplish poetically and in terms of lyrical content. And I have to give an honorable mention to Portishead’s Dummy.