Photo by Isaac Remsen
Photo by Isaac Remsen

Check Your Shelf: An Interview with Lushlife

Photo by Isaac Remsen
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.*** 

The Best Children's Books of the Year, According to Bank Street College of Education

The Children's Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education in New York City recently released its 2018 list of the best children's books on the market. Separated into five age-appropriate categories, the list includes more than 600 titles published in the U.S. and Canada in 2017.

In making their selection, judges considered books' literary merit, presentation, and potential emotional impact on young readers, as well as originality of the story, credibility of the characters, and absence of stereotypes. They also looked for positive representations of religious and ethnic differences.

Nonfiction books were checked for accuracy, balance, and documentation, while poetry books were assessed for their language, sound, rhythm, substance, and emotional intensity. Each book on the list was read and reviewed by at least two members of the committee, and then considered by the committee as a whole.

Of the books on the list, three are selected for special awards each year. For 2018, the Josette Frank Award—given to an outstanding novel in which a child character handles difficulty in a positive and realistic way—was awarded to Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson. The Claudia Lewis Award for poetry went to One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes, and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for inspiring nonfiction went to Hawk Mother: The Story of a Red-Tailed Hawk Who Hatched Chickens by Kara Hagedorn.

Below is a selection of some of the books on the list. All of the titles below were awarded "outstanding merit" by the committee. For the full selection, click on the PDF link next to each individual category.

Under five category [PDF]
Anywhere Farm by Phyllis Root and G. Brian Karas
Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper
Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown
Mine! by Jeff Mack
Noisy Night by Mac Barnett and Brian Biggs
Sam & Eva by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Snow Scene by Richard Jackson and Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Winter Dance by Marion Dane Bauer and Richard Jones

Five to nine category [PDF]
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat
Alfie: The Turtle That Disappeared by Thyra Heder
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban
Good Night, Planet by Liniers
Pandora by Victoria Turnbull
Robinson by Peter Sís
Sleep Tight, Charlie by Michael Escoffier and Kris Di Giacomo
Spiders!: Strange and Wonderful by Laurence Pringle and Meryl Henderson

Nine to twelve category [PDF]
All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander and Kelly Murphy
If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams
Little Bits of Sky by S. E. Durrant and Katie Harnett
Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King
Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain, Philip C. Stead, and Erin E. Stead
The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Twelve to fourteen category [PDF]
Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time by Tanya Lee Stone
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali
Satellite by Nick Lake
The Book of Chocolate: The Amazing Story of the World's Favorite Candy by H. P. Newquist
The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner and Maxime Plasse
Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by M. T. Anderson and Andrea Offermann

Fourteen and up category [PDF]
Between Two Skies by Joanne O'Sullivan
Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick
The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

A print copy of The Best Children's Books of the Year, 2018 Edition ($10, plus $3 shipping) can be purchased by emailing

10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine

by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of vino. Here, the author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma spills some of the best.


Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like an army base—or an warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. At $68,000 a pop, the Scancopter 450 is about twice as costly as a 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon!


They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.


The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.


Vintners plant roses among their vines because they get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.


A trio of wines

Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.


Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bugeating predators make for terrific fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.


Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.


About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.


Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. Not planning any $20,000 wine purchases? This is still good news for the consumer. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.


If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.


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