Ise Lyfe: Lyfe As We Know It

“We went from fighting for freedom to goin’ dumb for free.” That’s how Ise Lyfe begins one of the songs, “Enigma,” from his debut album, Spread the Word. The East Oakland representative is not against Hyphy culture by any means, but instead the 23 year old is out to challenge the youth to be more […]

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“We went from fighting for freedom to goin’ dumb for free.” That’s how Ise Lyfe begins one of the songs, “Enigma,” from his debut album, Spread the Word. The East Oakland representative is not against Hyphy culture by any means, but instead the 23 year old is out to challenge the youth to be more mindful, more assertive, and more expressive. It’s a familiar challenge to Ise, who works as the Educational Coordinator for the Power Movement, and involves himself in after-school programs for the youth in his community and beyond.

As Ise Lyfe’s deeds affect the impressionable minds of the youth, can his album do the same? Backed by fledging Hard Knock Records, Ise Lyfe faces the challenge of reaching our endangered species. However, having already sold 6,000 Soundscanned copies plus many more at the street level, Spread the Word has already proved to live up to its title. Currently, the artist is touring the United States under the veteran tutelage of T-K.A.S.H. and The Coup, reaching activist masses. You’re 23 years old, with some very serious, very deep, and very powerful concepts on your album. Do you find it a burden to be so young and wrestling with these ideas?

Ise Lyfe: I get that a lot. People are moved by the message, and somehow my age comes up. You know what it is? I don’t think there’s anything fantastic or spectacular about me, it’s just that the general standard is so low. I don’t think the burden is that I particularly know so much, I think the burden is that being my age, my general peer group doesn’t give a f**k about what’s going on. That’s what’s hard. Was it your parents? Was it reading? What got you to this level?

Ise Lyfe: I definitely didn’t come up being politicized at all – not directly anyway. There’s a tangible thing that happened – I witnessed a murder that all of a sudden… it wasn’t that seeing a murder was so traumatizing that I was scared and didn’t wanna die – it was that I saw the murder, and realized that I wasn’t affected by it at all. I realized that I had become numb to violence. I didn’t wanna be that way. I attribute the direction that I’m going in now to growing up around so many people that are beautiful and can’t see it. You’ve got a potent poetry piece on the album, “Murder.” Was that in response to the murder you speak of?

Ise Lyfe: A lot of times when we talk about social justice or America, there’s all this blaming on outside forces: white people, the government, etcetera. All of that is real. But at the same time, we facilitate it. We allow it to happen. The first line in the people is “It’s murder.” What I mean is, I’m not even necessarily talking about the pulling of a trigger, I’m talking about the apathy. To connect it to the homicide I witnessed, it was the thing: apathy. Ten minutes after it happened, everybody was in the car, smokin’ a blunt, lookin’ for the party. I guess I wrote it to do away with the apathy. It’s not normal. Even on this tour, I’m seeing that. Everywhere we go, it’s just pain, covered up. In the crowd or in the towns?

Ise Lyfe: In the crowd and in the towns. Driving from New Orleans to Houston, we came to this town called Vidor, Texas. The cats that was driving us said we couldn’t stop in Vidor, ‘cause we needed the bathroom. Apparently, Vidor is a racist-ass town where black folks are afraid to be. Being from the Bay Area, that don’t exist to us. Like, if we heard about a white town in California that wasn’t cool to come to, we’d go there just ‘cause of that. But here, in The South, it’s so ingrained in people. They was laughin’ ‘bout it, “Oh, you can’t stop in Vidor, man [laughs].” Really, that’s sad. In 2006, we’re worried about stopping in a town to use the bathroom. On “Murder,” there’s traffic in the background. Did you record on the block or add in a studio for affect?

Ise Lyfe: We went to the block. We just pushed play on the recorder. I recorded it there with cars driving by and people walkin’ past. I really don’t like taking effects from some computer program. I wish I could record an album on the corner of 98th [Street] and East 14th in a glass booth. [laughs] For me, it’s hard to be in a booth. I can feel that I’m in a f**kin’ closet. I’m inspired by the traffic, the screams, the things people say to me, the concrete. It helps to be in the element. Homie just had an MP3 recorder with him, so we did it like that. One of your musical tracks on the album is striking, “Reasons.” What inspired that?

Ise Lyfe: I was at a conference in San Diego to speak. A professor had asked me to come. When I got down there, it was [about] minorities, and what’s gonna happen with education in 2008. California is like 52 percent Latin people. There’s this idea of people of color being called minorities when clearly, we’re the majority. They were talking about the Housing Authority and all that. I’m on the panel, but I’m writing in my notes. “Be defiant, f**k the authority / Kick ass, we ain’t no minorities.” That’s just a small line. But I went back home to the studio, and I heard the beat, and I thought, “We gotta do somethin’ with it.” That’s the jump-off at the shows. In the Bay, people know all the words at the show. It’s a common sense track. A line on there, “ My neighborhood’s filled with liquor stores, and I’m sick of it. So when I’m in the liquor store, I’m stealin’ s**t.” I like the blend of sociology and gangsterism…

Ise Lyfe: There’s a library in Oakland every 192 blocks, but there’s [on average] a liquor store on every corner. I need some national media vehicle to let us do an article on the other side of Hyphy. People ask me, “Ise, since your music has a certain intellectual backdrop to it, how do you feel about going dumb?” They try to pin me against Hyphy. Please! Hyphy is dope, it’s our roots and our principle. It’s a resistance of the system – everything in Hip-Hop is. Hip-Hop has always been a reaction to poverty. People spray-painted their names on subway trains in New York ‘cause nobody gave a f**k about ‘em. They put they name up so people had to pay attention to them. Hyphy comes out Oakland, California where they spend 77 million dollars on police and three million on education…where they take all the music out of the schools…where elementary schools are being shut down…where the mayor of Oakland runs for Attorney General. That’s how major the gentrification is around here. McConnors High School entered a class of 493 freshman students and graduated 41 of those students. That’s what Hyphy is. On one hand, it’s dope. On the other, it sensationalizes a death of a culture – can’t nobody front on that. A lot of it is love. But a lot of it is “thizz, thizz” – poppin’ a pill. I got students that weigh 120 pounds that’s smokin’ purple bud, poppin’ ecstasy pills, drink Robitussin, and eat hot chips – that’s they whole f**kin’ life. This [Hyphy] culture promotes it. Without callin’ no names, most of the cats you hear on the radio rappin’ that s**t, they drug free. Kids is followin’ ‘em thinking it’s cool.

There’s a lot of kids in Oakland that’s being politicized too. You’ll see kids involved in Hyphy wearing red, black, and green wristbands or Che Guevara shirts. They know what’s up. There’s another side of Hyphy. I’m hella proud of the young people of Oakland because it’s a failed generation. Nobody was there to lead them, and on they own, the reached out to define themselves and create a culture outside of the dumb s**t. 2Pac spent his formative years in the Bay. When I listen to other Bay artists, they pull from his later work. You’re on some stuff reminiscent of 2Pacalypse Now, and that’s wild to see…

Ise Lyfe: Tupac Amaru Shakur was amazing. People criticize ‘Pac, and you’ll hear the argument that ‘Pac died at 25 years old. When Malcolm X was 25, he was pimpin’, sellin’ drugs, and breaking into peoples’ houses. I’m not sure ‘Pac realized what he had. If was alive now, he could say, “stop sellin’ crack!” and that s**t would happen. People hold onto the ‘Pac that wasn’t the most important. “’Pac was a thug; ‘Pac kept it real; ‘Pac flowed on Biggie,”… another thing we have to learn from ‘Pac is he is the example of the tragedy of wasted potential. That’s bulls**t that he’s dead. He’s dead. From what we know, and this may or may not be true, ‘Pac got in a fight over something small. And he died. That’s the s**t that’s going on everywhere. Even though ‘Pac was a great man, he was still a man. There’s a lot of men and women dying over stuff that’s small. One thing ‘Pac has inspired me to do is always take myself seriously. I deal with a lot of clown s**t. Now we gotta wait for another ‘Pac, and that’s unnecessary time we have to spare. Do you feel that the distribution and your record label is strong enough to get the recognition of some of these issues that we’re talking about? This is powerful stuff that people ought to hear…

Ise Lyfe: [sighs] No. This message and this album has to be mainstream. I have no interest whatsoever in being an underground artist or a conscious rapper. This message has to be mainstream ‘cause the village drinks from the main stream. Though Hard Knock [Records], and distribution, and myself are gonna push it as far as we can, I understand what a monster this is. I need somebody…somebody out there at a record label knows they write about and sign on the bulls**t they whole career. They have a house and cars and send they children to private school off of bulls**t. I need them to look at this record, and listen to it, and give us a shot. By shot, I don’t mean, “Come rap on my song.” We need a real push. When given the option of choosing between the bulls**t and what’s real, people always choose what’s real. Kanye didn’t blow off of “Gold Digger,” Kanye blew off of “All Falls Down,” “Through the Wire,” and “Jesus Walks.” In the absolute high-point of that Lil’ Jon s**t, Kanye blew all that s**t out the water. He shut it down. The people were given an option to choose.

I signed a deal at Hard Knock because the record sold itself. I started recording Spread the Word when I was 19 years old. We put it out independently first. We sold 6,000 copies out of the stores, soundscanned – not to mention tours, out the trunk, and out of hand. We need so much more behind it. My label isn’t even paying for this tour I’m on. The management put up some, and I’m paying for the rest. It’s to get out here and grind. We need a shot. I respect what the label is doing, and they respect what I’m doing. We’re all pushin’ for [the same thing]. There’s a lot of artists like Murs and Heiro who sell hella records, but they gotta go to Tokyo to get money. I’d love to go to Tokyo, but s**t, this music is for us, right here.