Philly Rapper Raj Haldar, A.K.A. Lushlife, On Going From Rapper To Children's Book Author
The rapper and performer never expected to make the New York Times Bestseller list—but that was before he wrote the tongue-in-cheek "P Is For Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever"
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.
Quarantine Diaries: Teenear Is Reading, Doing Cardio & Making Acai Bowls
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, GRAMMY.com reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, GRAMMY.com reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, Miami-based pop/R&B upstart Teenear shares her Quarantine Diary. Teenear's latest single "Free" is available to hear now.
[6:30 a.m.] First thing that I do when I wake up is brush my teeth so I can get to the gym on time without my trainer yelling at me!
[9:00 a.m.] As soon as I get back home, I hop on the treadmill to get my cardio out of the way. I've really been trying to make sure I stay active during this time of having to be stuck in the house!
[12:00 p.m.] By this time, I'm hopping out of the shower, my adrenaline has finally gone down, and I'm able to make myself and Acai bowl and write in my journal. I also take this time to hit up my team and figure out what I have to get done for the day.
[2:00 p.m.] I start reading the books that I read daily. One of the books I started reading recently is The 365 Bible, which gives you specific versus on each day, and it reads in chronological order of how all the stories actually went. Another book I’m into is The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. This is one amazing book and I’m so happy my mom blessed me with this read! The last book I’m reading right now is A Singer's Compass that is actually written by my vocal coach Cassandra Claude.
[4:00 p.m.] I’m getting dressed to go outside and shoot some content. Creating content from home has definitely become a huge daily task but I'm grateful for it because now I’m able to find new ways to be creative and showcase my personality to my fans.
[7:00 p.m.] I try to take this time meditate. Throughout this whole pandemic I’ve been trying to get into new things and meditation has played a big role in me figuring out a little bit more about myself and my surroundings. No, I’m not a yoga person yet! I have tried countless classes and it's not for me just yet, but one day I’ll get into it!
[9:00 p.m.] Usually around this time, if I’m not sitting in a corner somewhere in the house singing, I’m most likely in my bathroom trying a new beauty product I just ordered online. The ads have gotten a little too good during this quarantine!
If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.
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King Bach On His Comedy Album 'Medicine,' Loving Ludacris & Trying Not To Throw Up
The YouTube and former Vine star opens up to the Recording Academy about creating his first comedy album, who he listened to growing up and why laughter has been a cure-all in his life
Andrew Bachelor, otherwise known as rising comedy titan King Bach, is definitely on his way to achieving royalty.
Starting out producing comedy sketches on YouTube, Bachelor eventually switched to the now-defunct short-form outpost Vine, where he'd go on to amass more than 15 million subscribers and more than five billion views. Nowadays, the funnyman is dipping his toes into the TV and music world, where he currently stars in IFC's variety sketch series "Sherman's Showcase," among other things.
Meanwhile, Medicine, which dropped in mid-August, is his debut comedy album, and is filled with 15 true-to-life tracks—with music videos—that skewer everything from his weak stomach ("Bulimic") to the lies people tell each other when they first meet ("Secrets").
Below, Bachelor opens up to the Recording Academy about why laughter is truly the best Medicine, who he listened to growing up and the different ways he utilizes social-media platforms to reach new audiences.
What sparked the idea to make a comedy album?
I've always loved music, ever since I was younger. And when I started making the comedy skits, I actually thought of making a parody music video, and I just love putting together music that people just like to listen to and have fun with listening to it and having a laugh at the same time.
So I figured why not make original music that I own and, I could just share with everyone and not feel any type of way of me taking someone else's style. This is my style, my unique style. So yeah and then I figured it's a comedy album and they're saying laughter is the best medicine, so I named the album Medicine, because every track they're laughing at.
Who did you listen to growing up?
I listen to a lot of Ludacris, Ludacris is my favorite rapper since I was little. Just his style, his energy, I like songs that have a lot of energy behind them. Now music has changed though we realize, that energy has kind of tapered down a little bit. So most artists, it's a lot of mumbling going on, it's more like vibes and feeling it out as opposed to the lyrics. So I'm doing a mixture of both.
Yeah, we've been hearing a lot of "genre labels don't matter anymore" nowadays.
Yeah the whole thing is, what I realized in doing comedies, why it's so good, when you're laughing about a joke or anything, you forget all your problems. You forget about the bad day you had, you forget about your breakup, you forget about somebody who's passing. You just forget about everything and you're literally focused on that joke that that made you laugh in that moment. So that's the mood that I want people to feel like when they listen to the album, they can just forget about everything else and just enjoy the music and just stay present.
Have you personally used comedy as a coping mechanism?
Yeah, with everything, it kind of puts me in a better mood and lets me forget. The way I look at is, I'm being myself, I am being unique. Some people may find it funny but I'm being me, like these are my point of views. Every song on the album is a situation that happened in my life. So it's a situation that happened in my life and I took it and I found the comedy in it.
There's a song on there called "Bulimic." I have a very weak stomach and throughout the days I'm constantly trying to stop myself from throwing up. And it's just been something I've dealt with since I've been seven years old. So I tried to find the light of that and I made a song called "what you going to do if I throw up on you?"
Are any other themes that have come up repeatedly in your comedy that you've touched on with Medicine?
Yeah, there's a song on there called "Secrets," and it's about everyone letting out the secrets and being honest. And the way I directed in film, that music video was pretty much like a YouTube skit. The concept of the video was the speed dating situation, and everyone thinks that speed dating is going regular, but then the speed dating announcer, he announces that she puts truth serum in the guys drink. And it forces them to let out their deepest and darkest secrets. So these guys are confessing their secrets against their will. So that's how I kind of shoot my skits as well, I come up with a concept and I just shoot it around that.
You became pretty famous from using Vine, which sadly doesn’t exist any longer. Have you embraced the similar-minded Tik Tok to create the same short-form comedy?
Yeah, listen, I'm a creator at the end of the day and I am on the social media application. So I'm on Tik Tok, I'm on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, I'm on everything. And I'll just take one video and I'll just post it everywhere. So if someone only has Tik Tok, they're getting it on Tik Tok. If they only have Facebook, they're getting on Facebook, so I use them all. You name the app, I got it.
So what's your strategy when deciding how to best utilize different apps?
I kind of see how the platform is being used and I kind of adapt to that. So Tik Tok is more music-based, so if I have an idea and it's music based and it's a fun, bubbly, energetic vibe that'll go on Tik Tok. So yeah definitely got to think about, it's like you got to know your audience.
Photo by Danny Clinch
John Prine Talks 'My Kentucky Home, Goodnight' & Why He Wants To Benefit Coal Miners
The GRAMMY-winning Americana figure opens up about his brand-new 7", how mining affected Muhlenberg County and why the Bluegrass State runs in his blood
GRAMMY-winning country/folk hero John Prine is widely known for his 1970 song, "Paradise," a wistful ode to a now-extinct Kentucky town that was ravaged by the strip mining industry. Almost 50 years later, he’s revived the song to benefit the very same coal miners and their families in Appalachia.
This version of "Paradise" rounds out Prine’s new 7" single My Kentucky Home, Goodnight, which arrived on May 11. The A-side is a cover of Stephen Foster's Civil War-era classic, on the reverse, a new version of "Paradise” with folk/bluegrass artist Tyler Childers. Sales will benefit the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center, which provides legal representation to miners and their families.
While "Paradise" is full of warnings about the ruinous effects of mining on small-town America, Prine remains sympathetic to the miners themselves. Not only did they put their bodies on the line, but many have fallen into financial hardship as the coal industry increasingly turns to dust.
"Those miners were the hardest-working people," he tells The Recording Academy. "I'll always respect what they did to provide for their families." These two modest recordings connect Prine meaningfully with his past — and help extend a hand to a struggling American region.
Read on for an interview with Prine about the new 7", how mining affected Muhlenberg County and why the Bluegrass State runs in his blood.
On "Paradise," you evoked youthful summers in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. What made you want to evoke the state again with "My Kentucky Home, Goodnight"?
I love this Stephen Foster song and I love Kentucky. I guess it runs in my blood. My dad had a great affection for his home state and passed that love to me and my brothers. I still have a lot of family there and try to get to the annual family reunion as often as I can.
"My Kentucky Home, Goodnight" traditionally kicks off the Kentucky Derby. Do you have memories of attending the Derby as a kid?
We never attended the Derby. I’m not sure if my family could have afforded to take everyone. My cousin Jackie always had a famous Derby party, but I was always on the road. One of these days, I definitely want to go. I always make a small bet with my brothers on Derby day just for the fun of it.
Your father, Bill, actually grew up in Paradise. Can you talk about him a little bit?
He was a larger-than-life character. He worked hard to provide for us and enjoyed his beer and country music. I think he might have believed that one day he would take us back to live in Kentucky. He would take us there on vacation every year and those car trips are still some of my best memories of growing up.
Proceeds from the single benefit Appalachian coal miners and their families. What makes you connect with their plight?
When you grow up knowing that your parents' home place no longer exists because of mining, it’s a hard reality to shake. A lot of families are affected by the declining industry now and others are left with black lung. Those miners were the hardest-working people and I’ll always respect what they did to provide for their families.
A brand-new version of "Paradise" rounds out Side B. Why do you think folks connect with that song so strongly?
It’s one of my songs that I really didn’t think would make it to the 21st century, like "Flag Decal." I guess the world really has not changed all that much. People are connected to wherever they call home and where their parents were born, and we still have environmental issues and industries that no longer provide good jobs for working-class people.
Why did you connect with Tyler Childers for this version of "Paradise"?
Tyler has opened a bunch of shows for us and we traveled together to New Zealand and Australia earlier this year. I think he is one of the finest young writers out there and he is a great fella to hang out with. He gets what country music is all about. Writing about the people and places you know best and the feelings that come from growing up in rural America.
You've got a lot on your plate these days — this new single, an international tour. What keeps you so busy and motivated?
I love that my audience has expanded. My fans from the 1970s are still with me and now they bring their kids and grandchildren. It gives me new energy to play my songs for a new audience. When we traveled to Australia and New Zealand at the beginning of the year, I got to play for fans that had waited 25 years to see me live. That was an amazing experience and has really given me motivation to write new songs and keep performing.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Mickey Guyton On Navigating Country Music As A Black Woman: "My Professional Journey Has Been Very Difficult"
"The country music community can contribute to creating change by showing their fans that racism has no space in this country, as well as within the country music community," the "Black Like Me" singer tells GRAMMY.com
Country performer Mickey Guyton is a self-acknowledged rarity in the predominantly white, male-dominated Nashville music scene. To that end, the Texas native, who grew up loving Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston in equal measure, recently released the piano-driven "Black Like Me" on the music industry's Black Out Tuesday. The song details her experiences as a black woman working toward a life and a career in country music.
With Black Lives Matter protests being staged across the nation in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee and many other Black people at the hands of police, GRAMMY.com checked in with Guyton to get her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, being a Black woman in country music and how the music industry at large can contribute to real change.
How would you describe our current situation?
Our current situation feels extremely chaotic. It seems like there is so much confusion for everyone.
How do you feel we got to the current state of affairs in our country ?
I believe our country got used to complacency. We got too comfortable. What we don’t know doesn’t hurt us. But it actually hurt us a lot. We just didn’t realize it until now.
As a Black woman in country music, how would you describe your professional journey?
My professional journey has been very difficult. It was hard trying to find my footing in a predominately white male-dominated industry. I had to really become comfortable with who I am and find my own voice and way in an industry that seemed to have a specific path that you had to follow in order to make it.
How can the music community at large contribute to creating change?
The country music community can first contribute to creating change by showing their fans that racism has no space in this country, as well as within the country music community.
What are you doing to activate/advocate?
First, I am speaking truth in love. I am openly talking about the issues I’ve seen and experienced within the industry. I am actively advocating not only for women of color but white women in this industry as well. I am on the ACM's diversity task force working to diversify the ACM Awards. I am also mentoring young Black and brown talent. I didn’t really have a mentor in this industry coming up and I believe it is important to lift up other women even as I strive for my own success.
How are you coping?
There are good days and there are bad days. It’s hard getting constantly attacked for fighting for what is right. Because Covid-19 has us all inside, I have spent time with my husband and two cats and two dogs. I'd be lying if I said I was OK all the time. This has all been heavy. I just pray a lot. Because I have had so much down time, I have really taken the time to write as much as I can and focus on music to heal my heart and hopefully yours as well.
In your opinion, what should non-Black people be doing to support the Black community?
Support Black-owned businesses during this time.
The COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly rocked the music industry as a whole. How has it affected you personally?
When Covid-19 first hit the U.S., I had just released a new song ["What Are You Gonna Tell Her?"]. And when the lockdown happened, all the plans for that single abruptly halted. It has honestly been pretty devastating. How do you promote music when people have lost their jobs or don’t know how they are going to buy food? It just doesn’t seem right. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight and there are still so many unanswered questions. I’m also asthmatic, so I’m honestly really scared. I’m not always OK, as I’m sure most people aren’t really OK.
What has this moment taught you?
This moment has taught me that family and human relationships are the most important, tangible thing that we have and we should cherish that with all of our hearts.
Moments like this can be a springboard for creativity or innovation. Has that been your experience?
Actually, it has been my experience. I have gotten more done and made more progress stuck in my home, than the eight years I spent living in Nashville full-time. I guess I have been so afraid of being left behind that I have worked that much harder to establish my place here in the industry.