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Check Your Shelf: An Interview with Lushlife

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Photo by Isaac Remsen

It takes the rarest of rappers to appeal to both sides of the brain, the poetic and the concrete, but when literacy and street credibility meet, it’s a beautiful thing. Philadelphia’s Lushlife weds boom-bap and literary allusions to dizzying effect, referencing everything from Graffiti Rock to Herb and Dorothy Vogel with equal ease. His brilliant Plateau Vision LP (2012) continues to make me a smarter human being. For some insight on what sparked his intellectual curiosity, we got up with Lush Vida, then got out of his way!

Mental Floss: During our first conversation, you stated, “Everything I ever learned, I learned from rap songs.”

Lushlife: It sounds pithy and hyperbolic, but it’s true. As a young rap-obsessive, my teenage brain was like a sponge. So, when Nas spit, “Begin like a violin / End like Leviathan” on his landmark 1994 album, Illmatic, [the] twelve-year-old me headed straight for the encyclopedia to learn that the Leviathan is an Old Testament sea monster, prominently referenced in literature, most notably in Moby Dick. That’s always been part of the fun of hip-hop: understanding and interpreting the references hidden in dense verses through repeated listens. A lot of the time, these references are so codified that it may take years to uncover them. Take the masked, indie-rap god-head, MF Doom who dropped this choice rhyme:

They came to ask him for at least some new tracks
But only got confronted by the beast with two backs

I had this record [2005’s Mouse and the Mask] for at least two years before I decided to Google, “the beast with two backs.” Turns out, it’s a lascivious turn-of-phrase used by Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. I never actually made it through any Shakespeare in high school, but I’ve listened to like 10,000 hours of MF Doom.

MF: Since Shakespeare didn’t turn you on, which non-rap writer had the most profound effect on your approach and style as an emcee?

LL: I know it sounds a little highfalutin, but one of my key references is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I read his opium-inspired, fever-dream-of-a-poem, Kubla Khan, in high school, and it was a revelation. 

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Just that first stanza, I remember thinking, “I’m not sure what he’s on about, but it sure sounds cool.” Instantly, I made the parallel to the surreal and densely beautiful rhymes of guys like De La Soul, Camp Lo, and a then-nascent Aesop Rock. Ultimately, my work as Lushlife is as indebted to Coleridge as it is to hip-hop classicists like Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La. But, in the way that art cyclically inspires art, I’m always spinning rhymes through new reference points. Spoiler alert: my upcoming album will include a song inspired entirely by Allen Ginsberg’s epic beat-generation poem, Howl.

MF: What’s the best book you’ve read as of late?

LL: I recently finished A Study of History by the British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. It’s an ambitious (and maybe a little bat-shit) 12-volume tome that traces the rise and fall of nineteen world civilizations since antiquity, and attempts to draw some interesting conclusions about the fate of Western civilization. In a way, reading A Study of History gave me the same visceral vibe that rap does: think vast, far-reaching, and rhapsodic. I felt so connected to this book that I spent close-to-a-year weaving Toynbee’s work (and the super-interesting Toynbee Tile meta-street-art conspiracy that it inspired) into a 10-minute, orchestral rap opus, called Toynbee Suite.

MF: Aside from your music, where else should we be listening?

LL: A certain coterie of younger rap dudes have taken it upon themselves to throw their literary nods into overdrive. A blinding example is "You Have to Ride the Wave," a collaboration between Heems and his compatriots. Not only does the song start with a lengthy sound byte of celebrated south Asian author Arundhati Roy (in conversation with Howard Zinn, no less), but the three rappers go on to spit fire verses, citing Dostoevsky, Daniel Goines, and Philip K. Dick among others. Try that on for size, rock’n’roll!

Lushlife is putting the finishing touches on the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed 2012 LP, Plateau Vision. Look for it to drop soon. To check out more of his incredible music, be sure to follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or hear his work here.

***Ed note: This interview has been condensed and edited.*** 

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Kyle Ely
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Dedicated Middle School Teacher Transforms His Classroom Into Hogwarts
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Kyle Ely

It would be hard to dread back-to-school season with Kyle Ely as your teacher. As ABC News reports, the instructor brought a piece of Hogwarts to Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon by plastering his classroom with Harry Potter-themed decor.

The journey into the school's makeshift wizarding world started at his door, which was decorated with red brick wall paper and a "Platform 9 3/4" sign above the entrance. Inside, students found a convincing Hogwarts classroom complete with floating candles, a sorting hat, owl statues, and house crests. He even managed to recreate the starry night sky effect of the school’s Great Hall by covering the ceiling with black garbage bags and splattering them with white paint.

The whole project cost the teacher around $300 to $400 and took him 70 hours to build. As a long-time Harry Potter fan, he said that being able to share his love of the book series with his students made it all pay off it. He wrote in a Facebook post, "Seeing their faces light up made all the time and effort put into this totally worth it."

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Though wildly creative, the Hogwarts-themed classroom at Evergreen Middle School isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2015, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City outfitted her classroom with a potions station and a stuffed version of Fluffy to make the new school year a little more magical. Here are some more unique classroom themes teachers have used to transport their kids without leaving school.

[h/t ABC News]

Images courtesy of Kyle Ely.

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How the Rise of Paperback Books Turned To Kill a Mockingbird Into a Literary Classic
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Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If you went to middle or high school in the U.S. in the last few decades, chances are you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's now-classic novel (which was adapted into a now-classic film) about racial injustice in the South. Even if you grew up far-removed from Jim Crow laws, you probably still understand its significance; in 2006, British librarians voted it the one book every adult should read before they die. And yet the novel, while considered an instant success, wasn’t always destined for its immense fame, as we learned from the Vox video series Overrated. In fact, its status in the American literary canon has a lot to do with the format in which it was printed.

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in paperback at a time when literary houses were just starting to invest in the format. After its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, but it wasn’t the bestselling novel that year. It was the evolution of paperbacks that helped put it into more hands.

Prior to the 1960s, paperbacks were often kind of trashy, and when literary novels were published in the format, they still featured what Vox calls “sexy covers,” like a softcover edition of The Great Gatsby that featured a shirtless Jay Gatsby on the cover. According to a 1961 article in The New York Times, back in the 1950s, paperbacks were described as “a showcase for the ‘three S’s—sex, sadism, and the smoking gun.’” But then, paperbacks came to schools.

The mass-market paperback for To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962. It was cheap, but had stellar credentials, which appealed to teachers. It was a popular, well-reviewed book that earned Lee the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, it was in virtually every school and, even half a century later, it still is.

Learn the whole story in the video below from Vox.

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