On January 31, 1862, astronomer and telescope builder Alvan Graham Clark took a quick peek through a brand new 18.5 inch refracting telescope before delivering it to one of his customers. On the other end of that telescope, a faint glimmer shook the scientific world: Sirius B. By spotting the never-before-seen companion to the brightest star in the sky, Clark became the first person in history to observe a white dwarf star.
1862 is also the year Raj Haldar, better known to hip-hop fans as the rapper Lushlife, mentions in a flurry of shout-outs at the end of “Gone,” a track on the newly-released The Skull Eclipses, his debut album as a duo with producer Spencer Stephenson, a.k.a. Botany.
“It came off my tongue, like in the way that rhymes kind of come through you,” Lushlife says, at least not consciously aware of any reasoning behind it. Botany goes on to note it was an important year in the American Civil War, and when the duo is made aware of its significance to astronomy, both are stunned.
“That’s wild, man,” says Lushlife. “Within the realm of sociopolitics in American culture that we engage with, and the gazing up at the stars that we do, that’s super fitting. Synchronistic.”
Botany hails from Austin, Texas. Lushlife resides in Philadelphia. On the day we all spoke, the pair was in New York, preparing for several live shows.
The Skull Eclipses is an album full of unorthodox drum patterns, and ethereal voices weaving in and out of ambient textures clashing in cosmic color patterns. In its lyrics, an unleashed Lushlife namedrops the multifaceted artist Alejandro Jodorowsky as easily as he does scientist Richard Feynman. They jokingly refer to it as “Criterion Collection rapping.” The album contains many traces of the anger that fueled Lushlife’s prior release, 2017's My Idols Are Dead + My Enemies Are In Power. Inspired by Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, Lushlife created the project in a month and sold it online, with all proceeds going to the ACLU.
“From a lyrical standpoint, Idols and Enemies was a very focused, political narrative, whereas, with The Skull Eclipses, I’ve sort of stepped back and am looking at the sociopolitical landscape from an emotional standpoint,” Lushlife explains. “We’re kind of internalizing how the last five to ten, fifteen years of the political and social landscape in America have been affected.”
Botany adds: “I think we’re trying to deal with frustration itself, rather than any single frustrating issue.”
That frustration can be felt both on a macro and a micro level, in particular, as independent musicians. “The music industry as an accessory to capitalism is a shitty thing to grow up and have to come to terms with,” says Botany. “You have to play this game that started out being a really idealistic thing. Sometimes it can kinda suck the life out of it.”
According to Lushlife, The Skull Eclipses is, conceptually, a "defiant idea" and a conscious reaction to what they describe as culture becoming increasingly monolithic. “Whenever we thought the internet was going to be a democratizing place, that was based on the idea the content was coming directly from creators,” Botany says. “Now it’s been funneled into this system where all of our personal content belongs to corporations, like Facebook. Our personal thoughts. They now own the channels of communication that everyone most readily uses.”
Lushlife admits the sonics and the vibe of the new album are in contrast with most of his previously released material, but there's a method behind his madness. "That’s a testament to the real, dystopian sense of my day-to-day [life]," he says. "And I think, of all our day-to-days.”
“Half lifeless, half ’93 Mike Tyson” is how Lush describes the feeling on “Pillars,” one of the album's standout selections. The sentiment of being ready to fight, while simultaneously feeling emotionally exhausted by always being on guard, is mirrored in the chorus sung by Felicia Douglass: “I’m done with bending over backwards / I’m tired of feeling how the world hurts.”
Finishing each other's thoughts and sentences, the duo is in synch like an old married couple—both over the phone and on wax. "We invented this term we used between ourselves in the studio: rap salad," Botany says. "It’s basically the idea of taking all these elements of rap and ripping them up and mixing them in a bowl together.”
For Lushlife, contributing to this salad was a liberating experience: “When I write to my own production, I’ve listened to it so much, that by the time I get to writing, I have trouble conjuring the initial excitement and energy of this new beat. I was excited to find that opening each ensuing zip file from [Botany], I could just immediately get down and had that excitement of hearing something for the first time, and capturing on paper all of the words that brought out in me.
“A lot of the machinations of the industry and climbing the ladder, all of that has fallen away. It’s been a breath of fresh air in that way; making the record you truly want to make. I’ve done that with past releases, but this is truly a very pure expression, without thinking, ‘well what’s going to be the single or a piece of music that should get a number of thousands of clicks.’”
Botany agrees, adding: “With any record, you go through the process of commercial expectations every now and then, ‘cause it takes a long time and you’re gonna feel a lot of shit working on a record, but ultimately we made this one for us.”
Without consideration for commercial appeal, Lushlife and Botany let their creative chemistry flow freely, but now it's time to start selling the fruits of their labor.
Botany wryly laughs: “And corrupt it.”