Toynbee tiles- those clandestine, ceramic squares marked with crudely scrawled chunks of some lost conspiracy manifesto- are everywhere. Ever walk past one? They’re all over Philadelphia. And Chicago. And Buenos Ares. Hundreds of tiles have been placed around the world over the past 20 years by an anonymous tile-placer, more often than not stepped over, torn apart by civic management or otherwise weathered by two decades of simply existing. The tiles don’t draw too much attention to themselves; there’s no Banksy-level gawking involved, but they have left many folks simply puzzled.
“They’re definitely esoteric. They’re cryptic,” says a puzzled Raj Haldar, i.e. Lushlife, between sips of coffee and behind sunglasses in a sleepy South Philly café. (It’s 6 p.m. in November, by the way.) He’s explaining what about the Toynbee tiles drew him to write an 11-minute, multi-movement rap song called the Toynbee Suite.
“I think, like a lot of people, they just piqued curiosity in me. I’ve been walking around town over the last decade and just had very much a passing interest in them,” he says. “That sense of unknown origin gave me a lot of scope to build a narrative of what was behind the tiles. That openness was fruitful for the creative process, rather than writing about a historical fact where you’re limited to structure.”
The Toynbee Suite has dragged Haldar out of his creative comfort zone in a handful of ways. Aside from fixating on a particular, tangible subject matter (“I usually don’t rap about something this specific. My rhymes are more stream of consciousness,” he says), the sheer scope of the project forced the 30-year-old hip-hop artist to work with a slew of outside musicians and producers (“With the Lushlife records, I do absolutely everything. It’s completely DIY”) in a pithy 48 hours (“A three-minute song usually takes me like five months to write and record”). It’s operatic in its construction, divided into four movements, each based on a line from the most seminal and ubiquitous of the Toynbee tiles, the one that reads something like:
IN KUBRICK’S 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
Recorded at Miner Street Studios in Fishtown, the Toynbee Suite is the latest in a series of installments from Shaking Through, a project from Weathervane Music that challenges musicians to write and record a song in two days, documenting the process along the way. Haldar’s might be one of the most ambitious Shaking Through episodes to date, although he had written the bulk of the Toynbee Suite months in advance. “Even with all that planning, the 48 hours was just so packed,” he says. “The song, in the multi-track, has over 140 tracks. It’s unreal.”
Working with anyone but himself – nevermind between 15 and 18 musicians at any given time during the two recording days – was new territory for Hadar. He’s not used to being super aware of his own processes. “When I was tapping out [a segment from the piece] in the studio on an MPC, everyone was just standing around like ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ That’s part of the vulnerability that comes from recording in front of 25 people,” he says.
But he has some good people on his side here. In fact, one might say even a murder’s row of local talent. Guesting on the Toynbee Suite are RJD2,; Dave Hartley of The War On Drugs, Nightlands and our Top of the Key column; and North Philly rapper Yikes the Zero. Knob-and-dial wunderkinds Brian McTear and Jon Low manned the engineering and while he may call Jersey home, composer and Sufjan Stevens associate Josh Stamper contributed the piece’s sweeping horns and strings compositions, performed by the Dark Horse Orchestra.
Listening to the final Toynbee Suite mix, you can’t help but wonder what boundaries Haldar might cross next, and just how liberating it can be to abandon your well-tested creative habits. Haldar raps over a breezy, Dilla-inspired beat (“Murder every journalist / they won’t hear a word of it / tell ‘em what I can see in the asphalt,” he spits) before the track dovetails into a string-laden, 120 BPM drum kit-propelled affirmation, and again into a RJD2-assisted scratchy hip-hop throwback, and once more into its piano and clarinet-led closing movement. The composition, the instrumentation, the “plays well with others” mentality and especially the subject matter- the Toynbee Suite is decidedly unlike any other Lushlife records, and that’s exciting. “This was more of a challenge to myself. I’m not a storytelling rapper, and this is by no means a story that I’m telling.”
Tune in to WXPN tonight at 9 p.m. to hear the radio premiere of Toynbee Suite on the Philly Local with John Vettese. Listen at 88.5 FM in Philadelphia or XPN.org online. Blackalicious performs December 9 at World Cafe Live opening for Blackalicious; tickets and information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.