Unlike most musicians who record at home, you won't find Raj Haldar laying down tracks in a dim basement at 3 in the morning. He thrives in the sunlight.
The producer/rapper/provocateur better known as Lushlife works out of a small studio space in the Italian Market, his neighborhood for the last seven years, on the top floor of a trinity he shares with his girlfriend and two cats. The little room has a mic, several instruments, some beat machines and samplers and lots of windows. Skylights, too.
"I've been meaning to start adding some artwork to the walls, but with all of the windows and the all-important dry-erase board, there isn't much room for decoration," he says.
"During the day, it's usually brimming with sunlight," he continues with a smile. "I find that I'm most productive in the mornings. So, for me, starting the day with a trip to Gleaner's Cafe and then settling into a sun-drenched space sets the perfect tone."
That bright disposition shines through on his newest full-length, Plateau Vision (Western Vinyl), not to mention 2011's acclaimed mixtape No More Golden Days. Lushlife's vision of sun-dappled, sample-happy, soulfully spacey hip-hop is filled with jazzy rhythms, gauzy production and a Summer of Love brand of psychedelic ambience. Some have called this sound "cloud rap" — a nod to its surprisingly airy, atmospheric vibe.
But Plateau Vision is bolder than anything else he's done. Sounding like all three members of De La Soul at once on "$takk Cheddar Galore Alwyn Dias," Lushlife makes note of Orwell, money and the art of rap. The art world plays into "She's a Buddhist, I'm a Cubist," with its romantic and religious twists. Even richer than the lyrics are Lushlife's samples and influences, touching on the work of Erik Satie, Washed Out, Drake and more than a few shoegazers.
"Each record seems like a little dog-ear to a unique moment in my life," he explains, "and it's pretty weighty to have access to your memories like that."
City Paper: Where were you living before you moved to the Italian Market, and how does that factor into who you are as an artist now?
Rajesh Haldar: I just turned 30. Over the last few years, I couldn't quite imagine myself being 30. Now that it's here, I'm enjoying it. Prior to the Market, I'd been living in London for several years in my early 20s. I recorded a bit, and cut my teeth on some small U.K. tours — stuff that makes my 30s feel really tranquil [by comparison], I guess.
I grew up in northern New Jersey, in a commuter town not far from New York City. I'm fond of that period in my life. I was exposed to such a wide variety of music growing up. On the one hand, I was deeply caught up in the golden era of hip-hop, and it's amazing to think now, that it was blossoming right around me. And then there were those more patently suburban influences: early Sub Pop releases, listening to WFMU, middle-school concert band.
CP: Any indie rock in your past? The use of shoegaze, nu-gloss pop, punk, indie and freak-folk in your recordings has such an instinctual feel to it.
RH: Well, I played music pretty intensely growing up. I studied classical piano for 14 years or so. Later, my older brother encouraged me to take up drum kit in the school jazz band. Though a lot of my chops have fallen away with time, I feel like I have a pretty strong sense of melody, harmony and rhythm that was fostered through playing those two instruments. But I think you're talking about being in bands in the traditional rockist sense, right?
CP: Not necessarily.
RH: Well, I don't know. I was never in a shoegaze, punk or freak-folk band. I listened to all those things. In high school I headed up and wrote arrangements for a group that played a lot of late-'60s and early-'70s boogaloo jazz. I was heavy into dudes like Lou Donaldson and Grant Green at that time. Actually, a few members of that band went on to front some pretty well-known indie-rock groups later on, but at that time it was just deep-cut jazz. But that aside, I was a record digger from a super-early age, so I was taking in a lot of those varied sounds and textures that you might hear coming through the Lushlife shit now.
CP: Digging or not, do you have an old-school album collection, or are you just madly downloading samples?
RH: A little bit of both, I guess. My recording space is bursting at the seams with records. As a long-time record collector, it's something I just can't give up. I'm sure a lot of folks can relate to this: Each record I own is distinctly tied to some time or place in my life. And I love the beat-archaeology vibe of going to my hidden spots in the Northeast or West Philly and sifting through stacks of vinyl, searching for sounds.
I like to look at the album jackets, too. I remember DJ Shadow talking about the humbling experience of crate-digging, where you're surrounded by stacks and stacks of records by great artists that really never made it. It's good to swallow that idea every now and again. I also download music, because it's easy.
CP: You're obviously more beat- and hook-oriented than he is, but are you a fan of John Oswald's concept of collage sampling and "plunderphonics"?
RH: Conceptually, I guess. I do, however, dislike the idea of assigning some bullshit, academic interpretation to something that has existed so organically. I mean, in a way, the whole idea of sampling is to capture or recapture atmosphere. Really. Even if it's Puffy sampling Duran Duran in some hits-from-the-'80s sort of way, he's still after the atmosphere in conjunction with the hook. They're probably equally important.
CP: Is there an emotional connection, listening to Jesus & Mary Chain, Drake and Washed Out and then sampling it? I can't put my finger on it, but as it comes through in your songs, those samples have a deeper root than just "Well, this sounds nice."
RH: I think there are some weird politics to answering this, but that's probably just in my head. Anyway, I kind of hate to project a hip-hop-head-with-eclectic-tastes persona. Of course, it is kind of who I am, but it's a similar situation for most music fans today, too. The Internet has engendered this amazing level of cross-pollination, for better or for worse, and it seems like everyone listens to everything — or maybe even that everything is everything. Either way, I'm a product of that as much as anyone.
CP: Do you like the tag "cloud rap" applied to what you do?
RH: Honestly? I really kind of dig it. I even wrote a whole think piece for an online outlet positing that most rap from the last 20 years is, in fact, "cloud rap." In all seriousness, though, I think a lot of my past work, the track I flipped with Ariel Pink from my 2009 LP, Cassette City, could easily be called "cloud rap." I also really love chillwave, for the record. [Laughs.]
CP: Let's talk about your voice. Your flow is unique, more "Native Tongue" than anything courant. How did you get to this?
RH: Yeah, I guess there are some aspects of my flow that are pretty Native Tongues-indebted. I think that I inherited the most from the group I listened to the least, though. Lyrically, I mean. De La Soul's penchant toward codified language and slang is something that I really dig. Deciphering those rhymes was great sport for me as a kid.
In the broader sense, though, I guess I "got" to my flow from some immersive musical experience. On a cosmic level, I think that maybe I've listened so deeply to so much, been so invested in hip-hop for so much of my childhood that it's become like part of my psyche or something. Even when I write rhymes, they sort of just come out. In a way, it seems within and without of me.
In any case, I might give you patois, but I wouldn't consider my flow "affected." It comes from a deeply honest, artistic place. Do I speak in codified slang when I'm at the bank? Not really, but I'm not sure a lot of other MCs do either, Kool G Rap aside.
CP: Lyrically, you're talking about your art life and music life more than you're bragging or talking about the day-to-day.
RH: I guess I've always liked hip-hop records that were more textural, or something. Personally, I find art that's got more room for interpretation a bit more appealing. But I do try to strike a balance with my rhymes. I don't want them to be so "out there" that there's nothing to hold onto, either. So, I like to think that between the Dadaist, stream-of-consciousness stuff, there's my own version of some Harvey Pekar-style everyman soul-baring.
CP: Was the No More Golden Days mixtape an apt setup for Plateau Vision?
RH: Well, at least retailers now know to file Plateau Vision under "cloud rap." Seriously, though, No More Golden Days was an amazing vehicle. To be plain, it created visibility for what I do beyond my wildest expectations. And I think it's a pretty good entrée for the upcoming LP in the sense that it hints at the aesthetic that I'm coming to more fully on the album. Musically, Plateau Vision is about this imagined intersection of '60s psych, golden-era hip-hop and lo-fi experimentation.
CP: How do you feel/think your Indian-American heritage plays into what you do?
RH: Hmm. I'm not sure it does. I have a strong connection with my culture and community in a lot of ways, but I don't feel compelled to highlight or exploit it vis-à-vis my art. On a broader level, I think the minority experience permeates throughout the Lushlife music in untold ways. Who knows, though.
CP: What did you want listeners to get out of the new release?
RH: I guess, put simply, I wanted this record to be an album experience. I wanted Plateau Vision to have a unique aesthetic footprint. Mostly, I was just trying to record worthwhile music.
Lushlife plays Tue., April 17, 9 p.m., $10-$12, with Dice Raw, Gracie and DJ Joey Sweeney, Johnny Brenda's, 1201 N. Frankford Ave., 215-739-9684, johnnybrendas.com.