Lushlife is on top of the world.
Or at least Raj Haldar, the Philadelphia rapper and producer who records under that name, is, perched on a window seat overlooking Center City from the 19th-floor bar at the Bellevue Philadelphia just a few days before his breakthrough album Ritualize (***) was to be released on the Western Vinyl label.
Born on the day MTV was launched - Aug. 1, 1981 - Haldar is talking about growing up in Glen Ridge in Essex County in North Jersey, playing drums and writing arrangements in a high school jazz band (with future Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig on saxophone), while also diving deep into hip-hop during its early-1990s Golden Age.
"These parallel things started to come together," remembers Haldar, who will perform along with the two-thirds-Philadelphian/one-third-New Yorker production trio CSLSX (pronounced "casual sex") at Johnny Brenda's on Saturday.
CSLSX is co-billed on Ritualize, which includes eye-catching indie-rock and hip-hop guests such as Los Angeles low-fi pop savant Ariel Pink, Run the Jewels rapper (and outspoken Bernie Sanders surrogate) Killer Mike, gruff-voiced Philadelphia emcee Freeway, and indie chanteuse Marissa Nadler.
"I remember realizing that A Tribe Called Quest was sampling Freddie Hubbard's 'Red Clay' - and, suddenly, we were playing that in jazz band. That duality informed my love for a technical understanding of the music that underlies the music I ended up making.
"So, yeah, it was a great time. I wanted to know more and more and more."
Haldar is the son of a schoolteacher and an electrical engineer who emigrated from the Indian state of Bengal. His father swore off pop music after he lost a briefcase full of Beatles cassettes during his journey to America. Haldar and his brother, Saptarsi, each had 12 years of classical piano lessons as kids, an education that came in handy when Raj Haldar wrote string arrangements for Ritualize tunes such as the hip-hop banger "Strawberry Mansion."
"I definitely identified with the outsiderdom of the minority experience," he says when asked what attracted a suburban New Jersey immigrant kid to the music born on the streets of New York a generation earlier.
"But my identification with hip-hop is mostly through a deep connection with music. The sounds. I tended to gravitate toward the smoothness - Pete Rock, CL Smooth, Nas' Illmatic. That effortless, syncopated flow is what I've taken with me."
By the time he was in sixth grade, he was spinning in New York City clubs on weekends using a variety of names, including DJ Proceed, a nom de rap drawn from the song "Proceed" on the Roots' 1995 album Do You Want More?!!!??!
He cites his love of the Roots as one of the reasons he moved in 2006 to the city he says "has liberated me as an artist." Five years later, he played the Roots Picnic. He's in talks with rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter about a collaboration.
The Lushlife moniker - he jokes that it's locked in an epic search-engine-optimization battle with Richard Price, the New York author of the 2008 novel Lush Life - was inspired by the Billy Strayhorn-penned jazz standard and dates back to that high school band whose name he is embarrassed to divulge: Groove Prophecy.
Along with hip-hop, there's always been indie rock for Haldar. His brother, eight years older, "was out of the house by the time I was in middle school." But the elder Haldar sibling would bring his college rock record collection home, "and I was listening to the Smiths and the Pixies by the time I was 11. Morrissey spoke to me as much as Nas, in the same period of time."
He first gained recognition for the Lushlife brand in 2005 when he was living in London, where he had signed a deal with the now-defunct Scenario label. He made a name for himself with an album called West Sounds, a mash-up of a then-rising young producer-rapper named Kanye West and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.
Haldar says he's not so much of a Kanye fan these days, and also reveals how much he avoids the mainstream by asking, "Is this Adele?" when "Hello" comes over the speakers.
By contrast, he can't stop from joining in and nodding when Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" and Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" play. But he saves his hosannas for Brian Wilson's 1966 masterpiece.
While living in New York in the early '00s, a friend "was flabbergasted that I did not know a thing about Pet Sounds. So he said" - Haldar slips into a stoner's voice - " 'I'm going to bring over a joint and we're going to sit down in your living room and listen to this record.' That was like a pivotal moment in my young adult life. It was like, 'This is the music I've been waiting to hear all my life!' It gives me chills just talking about it."
Making West Sounds, he says, "made me realize that these beautiful baroque textures really sound good over hip-hop beats. It really set the stage for what I would do with [my 2009 album] Cassette City and [2012's] Plateau Vision and now with Ritualize. Just to create these huge beds of music that sit on top of a surface that you can nod your head to, just hip-hop."
West Sounds led to tours of the U.K. and Japan, and it also inadvertently led to a job.
In 2010, Haldar was hired by Connectify, a Walnut Street-headquartered tech start-up that sells software to turn laptops into WiFi hot spots. He's the company's marketing director.
"They hired me because of the marketing campaigns I ran for myself on the music side. Online marketing is such a shifting landscape, there's no official qualifications," says Haldar, who recorded most of the music on Ritualize in his studio at the South Philly rowhouse he owns.
Vocals were mostly recorded at a favorite studio in Los Angeles, a routine he got into in part because he found long flights did wonders for his writer's block.
And "Toynbee Suite," an 11-minute, four-part suite about the "Toynbee tiles" bearing mysterious messages embedded in Philadelphia streets, was recorded at Miner Street Recordings' studio in Fishtown as part of the Weathervane Music project Shaking Through, which prods artists to write and record a track in two days.
"Suite" features a chamber orchestra, plus Philly music personages Nightlands (a.k.a. War on Drugs bassist Dave Hartley), DJ-producer RJD2 and rapper Yikes the Zero.
Haldar spent three years on Ritualize, often hitting the studio after his day job, "when you just want to watch Jeopardy and go to bed." Confident that he's come into his own as a rapper on lyrics that name-drop Haruki Murakami, Isabella Rossellini, and Ray Bradbury and find him quaffing Pimm's Cups and Unibroue Fin du Monde beer, he says he's content with his career up to this point.
"This is just who I am, and if I slowly build year after year, that's fine with me," Haldar says. "I just like making music, essentially.
"My ideal musical life would be like OutKast and Radiohead: to be able to make really challenging music but be in the earbuds of 14-year-old kids. Reach a big audience, but still make art. That's the dream."
Lushlife and CSLSX at 9 p.m. Saturday at Johnny Brenda's, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. Tickets: $10-$12. Information: 215-739-9684 or www.johnnybrendas.com.