Philly Rapper Raj Haldar, A.K.A. Lushlife, On Going From Rapper To Children's Book Author
Upon discovering rap music as a child during hip-hop's first golden age (mid '80s–'90s), Philadelphia based rapper/producer/polymath Raj Haldar (a.k.a. Lushlife) would begin writing his own songs, eventually dedicating much of his teen years to the art of making music.
Describing his initial feeling and memory of the music as "impressionistic," Haldar was deeply influenced by groups like Das Efx, Gangstarr and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth and the ways in which they shaped language in new and exciting ways. It was through these bits of inspiration that Haldar would construct his own unique musical DNA and left-field approach to lyricism.
Over the course of the past decade Haldar has built up a discography as peculiar and imaginative as any in the history of rap. From the high-living cosmopolitanism of his 2009 debut Cassette City to the dark, political dystopia of My Idols Are Dead + My Enemies Are In Power, Haldar crafts a unique form of post-psychedelic hip-hop that is centered around lyrics that take the form of starry-eyed streams of consciousness.
Recently, however, Haldar’s career has taken a sharp left turn into the world of children's literature. What started off as a cheesy joke about quinoa amongst friends would eventually lead Haldar and co-author Chris Carpenter to pen "P Is For Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever." A New York Times best-seller, P Is For Pterodactyl takes kids and parents on a quirky exploration of words with deceptive spellings and silent letters that subvert standard grammar rules. After so many years crafting his own admittedly "wordy" approach to emceeing, it seems perfectly natural that Haldar would craft such a successful book born out of his own passion for expanding the possibilities of words.
Haldar recently spoke to the Recording Academy about hip-hop, and how his work as an children’s author has freed up aspects of his music in surprising ways.
For starters, could you tell how first came into contact with rap/hip-hop? I'm assuming this started when you were a kid?
Thinking back, I had two points of contact with rap music early on. First was like in the mid-'80s. That was through my brother, who is about eight years older than me—I must have been about 5 or 6. My memory of it is a little bit impressionistic from that time. Like, I remember Newcleus, Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," Krush Groove, Run-D.M.C., and stuff he liked and I was always kind of intrigued, I think. But, it didn't really take hold for me then. I was kinda still just like wearing out my Thriller tape and listening to whatever was on the radio, classic rock and stuff. But the second interaction, like 1990 was where the stars aligned and hip-hop really gripped me. I grew up in North Jersey, just like 10 miles or so outside of Manhattan, and the early '90s scene in the New York metro area was such a fertile time. The Golden Era.
Right. That was a seminal period. Who were some of your influences around that time?
I just started running the last few months, and have been making workout playlists that capture a little bit of that time. I forget how obsessed I was with certain artists, in the way that you can only get obsessed when you're 10 years old. I think the first record I memorized the lyrics of front to back was Das EFX's debut, Dead Serious.
Oh man. You jumped right into the deep end at an early age.
[Laughs.] I never really count them as an influence when people ask. But they were a big one. I think being exposed to good music has been the best musical education. More than any of the formal training.
They're definitely unsung. They kinda changed how people approached rhyming.
Oh yeah, it's sort of a shame that they got typecast as the “iggity“ rappers, and had kiddie groups like Kris Kross co-opting their style. There's no way to listen to them, even now, and say they're anything but top-notch emcees. The flow, cadence, and content is all there.
Right! From a strictly technical sense even, they had it all down, even stretched the possibilities of the artform.
They really opened my eyes up early to how freely rap as a lyrical form could support like any topic. Like, they were rapping about breakfast cereal and girls and social issues and whatever else at a mile a minute.
Could you talk a bit about when you started rhyming? How old were you?
At the lunch table or whatever, pretty early on, maybe '95. Writing little rhymes that I'd recite in the shower. I never remotely ever considered rapping though. It wasn't until way later, when I started making beats in my late teens that I stepped to the mic. And you know, at that moment, I realized that I did the knowledge, the 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell would say. After digesting so much hip-hop for a decade, that finally when my own words came out of my mouth, it sounded pretty fully formed.
Ahhh, so the music came before the words.
Definitely. Going back even further, I really started out as a DJ before anything. I had to pick my pillar. [Laughs.] I got arrested writing graffiti in middle school. I was a terrible b-boy. But really though, DJing always gripped me. Like in the fleeting moments when I'd see dudes cutting [records] on TV. I'd be completely fascinated. And by that point, I had already been taking piano lessons for like four to five years. So it felt like maybe an extension of musicianship.
Word. I don't think kids today can fathom how fleeting-hip hop was in like the '80s.
Right, I think about this idea a lot, maybe too much. There was nothing on-demand, no online tutorials.
When I was a kid, even Black or "Urban" radio stations had a clear line of demarcation. R&B during the day and rap got played at night.
I remember dubbing a VHS of Juice so I could try to see what they were doing in the DJ scenes. So I had my little pair of belt-drive Stanton turntables and a Gemini mixer by the time I was 11 or 12, and I feel like I went through the whole evolution of a DJ, sitting there in my room over two years.
Switching gears a bit. I'm curious about the way you rap/have rapped. I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a "wordy" emcee. Where do you think that comes from?
Well, I like to think that flow is still of supreme importance to my sound, but I guess I am on the wordier side.
I think I'm just a product of my influences. I always loved how folks like De La Soul would be hitting you with like a technicolor barrage of codified language. It painted an impressionistic sort of picture It was the sort of stuff you'd have to rewind over and over again to decode, if you ever did at all. But that was always so cool to me.
With the Lushlife stuff, it feels like a secret slang for my crew of one.
I hear a lot of Camp Lo when you rhyme too, since I first heard Cassette City. Vivid, ornate and intentional.
Those guys still blow me away. I opened for them on the Uptown Saturday Night 15th anniversary tour and I remember watching them even then, thinking like, "How did two guys from the Bronx in the '90s meet and have this thing together that they can both rap in this incredibly unique and evocative way?"
Also shouts to Ski for some of the most amazing instrumentals in the whole hip-hop canon on that record and on Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt.
Can you tell me how you made the transition into writing children's books?
Looking back I think it’s really just an outcropping of the same DIY spirit I gleaned from being a part of the indie music scene. Doing what I do musically, you have to be your own art director, your own web designer and everything else.
So when I had the idea for the book, it was just this natural thing where I was like, "Well, let’s just make it. Little did I know it would be a three-year process!"
Cool! And how exactly did the idea for the book come about?
I was hanging out with some friends, I think it was the day after one of my record release parties. We were just hanging at my spot in South Philly. Our friend’s son had a set of Alphabet flash cards. And the letter Q was for Quinoa, which we thought was sort of absurd. I had been thinking about this silent letter alphabet book idea. So we started talking about an alphabet book that highlights all the counterintuitive ways things can be spelled and pronounced in the English language.
From there I spent a year building the whole team around this thing. Actually, through a few people in the publishing industry that knew me as Lushlife, I was able to get a literary agent on board, and then there was a long road—I read 17 rejections before finding a publisher. A year of work editing and revising the book before it came out. So all in all, it was about a three-year process.
Wow. That's wild. And the process of actually writing and illustrating the book was collaborative?
Yeah, it was a hugely collaborative process. My friend Chris and I worked on the manuscript, and I worked with Maria Beddia, a friend from South Philly who is an amazing illustrator on the direction of the artwork.
My first concept was like, "What if Wes Anderson made a kid's book?" It sort of changed direction from that, but I think you can still see that kind of vibe in the execution.
But yes, it was a hugely collaborative process. And frankly, the Lushlife records—with all of the guests and contributions—have also always been a collaborative process. So I felt pretty adept at working with a team. Making rap records has taught me a lot about a lot of things.
Word. And the book has blown up pretty big. How has that been for you? Having something you worked on have such a far/mainstream reach?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it's changed a lot of stuff for me. For one, at least as many people recognize me as a kid's author now. And the self-perception thing is a little strange to adapt to. Like I still see a musician when I look in the mirror. Being on the New York Times bestseller list for four months straight is completely surreal to me. But people now often ask me these "author" questions and I feel like I have a little bit of imposter syndrome about it. But functionally it's changed a lot too.
As I start working on a new record, I'm finding it sort of freeing. Like I'm not tethered to living or dying by the bread I make with music—licensing, touring, whatever. So all of a sudden, I'm starting to feel this amazing freedom of just like making whatever the f**k I want to make. Completely. Without thinking about how it's perceived, who the audience is, etc.
We'll see how that pans out for me, if listeners dig it or not. But either way, I'm having fun opening some creative doors that I haven't yet, and I hope listeners will dig it too.