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.