Five words with LiLa
Monday at Motorco with Prypyat and Jolo
The Triangle’s canon of live hip-hop bands isn’t extensive—Sankofa, Inflowential, The Beast and arguably The Urban Sophisticates, but that’s about it. For the most part, these groups have admirably steered away from being pinned simply as jam bands topped with sparse, inconsequential rapping. Durham’s LiLa wants to continue this tradition.
“We’re far from a jam band,” says Eli McDuffie from his South Durham home. “Our approach is more methodical.”
The day after Christmas and during the same month that the world’s greatest hip-hop band, The Roots, releases its 13th album, the Bull City’s bubbling hip-hop sextet LiLa releases its third LP, plainly titled III. It’s a wild voyage through rap, folk and even dubstep. Built as much with acoustic guitars and pianos as big beats and synthesizers, III lines smooth pop hooks with largely toothless verses about being too sober and losing love, about having crushes and feeling like a scourge. The band’s restless attitude is best summarized during “The Settlement,” a hip-hop ballad anchored on this idea: “The finders ain’t keepers/ They’re blinder than the seekers.” Indeed, though III shimmers with polish, LiLa still seems searching for its own identity.
We caught up with McDuffie and bandmate Jonathan Le Sueur, or JLa, to talk about the band’s mix of sounds and their aggressive sense of greatness.
Real and organic—they’re dipping into the past and the future, which is why they’re the best. They’ve set the true model for what a band is capable of doing. I’ve never heard Black Thought spit something that wasn’t who he was.
Let’s step away from the group and examine the word: We’re trying to pull all our resources from our roots to spread our limbs. We’re trying to go beyond North Carolina. We know that everyone is proud of what we’re doing here, but we think we deserve the attention of the world. Man, I want to be on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon so bad. I talked to a guy the other night that scouts for Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage, and I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to be on Leno, but I just want to kick it with ?uestlove and Black Thought on Fallon.”
I look at it in a scientific way: The hotter something is, the easier it is to fuse. The more energetic something is, the easier it is to fuse. When you have liquids mixing together, that fusion is going to be so much quicker. We’re very high energy. We’re raw. So, if the mixture doesn’t go together well, it’s gonna blow up in our faces. But we’ve been really lucky so far. We’ve chosen the right ingredients and the right genres that mix together almost flawlessly.
The wobble effect on the bass and just crazy, crazy drums. Rusko’s “Jahova” is really what got me hooked. It’s one of those genres that I’m hesitant to seek out because I know that I’m gonna be hit with a bunch of bullshit. The defining thing about it is that bass that will hit you in the rib cage. Bass is what it’s really about. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, it’s what’s making you feel something on a way deeper level. It’s a vibration that puts you out of control and makes your skin bump. We felt like we had to incorporate it—not necessarily to say that it’s important to us, but just to say, “Hey, guess what, younger generation? Dubstep is what you’re doing, but it also goes with a really classic sound, something that everyone is used to.”
I wish that I had more boomboxes. If you can’t take your sound with you, then you’re completely grounded. If I’m able to take my sound with me, instantly people can pick up on who we are. It’s really interesting. John and I both got the same boombox—this ghetto-ass Sony—on Christmas back in 2003. We grew up in the same neighborhood in Durham, and our parents were friends before we were ever friends. You couldn’t play a CD-R on it. You had to open it up, press it back down and press Play, over and over again. It ate up D batteries like nobody’s business. I still have it, though; it’s in my room right now.
Our first album cover was bare-bones. The second album cover was about our roots. You see that we have not reaped the benefits of what we’ve sown, as there’s no leaves on the tree. This third album cover is a ship taking off, a spaceship. But we also have an anchor pictured, which is to say that we’re not trying to take off from. We are trying to leave the comforts of Durham, even though Durham has treated us well. But Durham is not going to give us the credibility that we seek. We seek the world.
III, the cleverly-titled third album by LiLa, once again shows listeners the strength of the Triangle’s hip hop scene. The ensemble, which consists of Jon LeSueur (keyboard/vocals), Eli McDuffee (emcee), Griffin Wade (drums), RoSean Franks (bass), Kyle Cox (guitar), and Michael Petersen (trombone), has shown tremendous growth in the past year. Since the release of their previous record II, the band has played numerous local shows in the Triangle, while working on writing for their latest album. As LiLa navigates the sound for their III, it’s clear that they didn’t diverge too much from the framework of II.
While the band’s second album relies heavily on keyboards with subtle hints of drums, such as the example “Out With A Bang”, their third album takes a more whimsical approach as heard in “8-Bit Kid”. The mellow introduction of each track leads to a steady uprising of smooth lyrics and drums, their trademark keyboards, guitar, and bass subtly rounding out the sound.The band exhibits a smart approach to their latest collection, as they discuss topics from the end of relationships to politics. The cohesion of instruments coexists harmoniously with the the lyrically-inclined group. Listeners can practically find themselves drawn into the lyrics alone, as they continue to be the strongest trait in each of their records.
LiLa hints at these lyrical inclinations in “The Settlement”, which opens with the quiet building of drums and guitar. Through the progression of the song, listeners hear a couple’s disagreements build immensely before coming to a quiet end. From “Dark Matter”, which is whisper-quiet in its introduction, to “Heart to Heart”, which is the most upbeat track on the record, it’s clear that the band has exhibited tremendous growth since their previous album.
III concludes with “McDude”, which works wonderfully to wrap up this straight-forward album. As LiLa’s beacon of light persists, listeners can continue to hear a new approach to the Triangle’s music scene.
Hip hop has a way of typically being associated with acts that hold “the most bling.” Lil Wayne and Eminem immediately come to mind, yet local acts seem to be a rarity. That memory lapse has ceased since listening to II.
There is frequent discussion of acts from Raleigh, but itʻs well known that Durham has a strong base for the local music scene. (The city is home to Merge Records, which is one of the largest US based (indie rock) record labels with bands such as Wild Flag, Superchunk, and Telekinesis under its wing.) LiLa, which consists of JLa and EmcD, is a reminder that indie rock isnʻt the only genre worth listening to around here.
What these men lack in major record labels and ridiculously overpriced clothing, they more than make up for with their words. The duo has a wide range with tracks such as “Group Therapy” — which falls along the lines of folk rock — to “Avalanche” and “The Collector” with their smooth flowing lyrics that coincide quite well with the quiet guitar (and xylophone in the case of “Avalanche”) steadily trucking along in the background.
On first listen, it can be easy to associate the band with other more famous acts from the past decade. LiLa is different, however, in that they have been consistent in their hard work, and it shows. They donʻt seem to rely on record labels to do the heavy hauling; the duo is content with doing it on their own. II is LiLaʻs second album, and is worth listening to in order to find the subtle pleasures within the lyrics they spit out. The tracks do well by not only working well on their own but flowing together into a mostly consistent album. ”BeatBreaker” is a nice ending but feels too far removed from the rest of the album; itʻs a long winded track at nearly 15 minutes long. With the rest of II consisting of upbeat but not overly rambunctious tracks, it is still worth a listen but would have been more cohesive with a slightly edited ending.
II is available for purchase on iTunes and on BandCamp.