I once read a book about the morning routines of extremely successful people. One of the contributors noted that the most remarkable people often have a markedly different mindset and belief system than the rest of us. Those people relinquish the reassurance that comes from living an everyday life for the freedom, and sometimes greatness, that comes in making one’s own philosophy. Don Lifted is one of those people, and he knows it.
I sat down with a pensive, contemplative Don Lifted over zoom a few days before the music video and single release of “The Rope” and an upcoming SXSW performance. Although it seems like a time for celebration, Don is staying focused on his longtime muse – Memphis, Tennessee and all of the happenings in it that drive him forward.
Don Lifted, known in the fine arts world as Lawrence Matthews, is a multi-hyphenate Memphis artist who takes an extremist’s approach to art. With a rare breed of intensity and self-sacrifice, the somber Don Lifted is mastering himself as a cross-disciplinary musician who, I suspect, has mogul-like potential that reaches heights most wouldn’t dare to dream of.
Don went to school for visual arts to get a degree in painting and studio art. Since then, he’s made a name for himself in the fine arts world and his multi-media art has appeared in countless galleries in the region. Emerging as one of the most prominent artists in Memphis, Don eventually leased his own space, Tone HQ, and served as the creative director, and eventually, curator.
When I asked Don Lifted about how he distinguishes between his fine art and his music, he simply stated that it’s all the same to him – an amalgamation of the same expression. Music is just another foray into the art world for the artist – one he’s been working at since high school. He stated, “It all weaves together – it didn't used to when I wanted to be taken seriously in the white run spaces of the art world. I tried to play the game as a younger artist – I no longer do that.” As Don Lifted comes into his own in the music world and finds his footing, the constraints and stiffness of the fine art world fades out, and the rules apply to him now less than ever.
This philosophy is the same for his artist team as well; if he could clone himself ten times over and direct, produce and market his own music – he would. But the desire to be everywhere, and do everything, has also faded as Don has refined himself as an artist and celebrated his 30th birthday in September. Don spent the larger part of his twenties platforming and collaborating with other artists in the music and fine arts world. Relatably, as the end of lockdown came to a close, the artist found himself having anxiety about his role as a curator and chose to step down from that role in the community and pursue his own interests. That lazer-focus has gained him industry support as he refines his sound and adds more music to this 3-album discography.
The second unique thing I noticed about Don was his impact as a regional artist, and his choice to stay in a city that he seems to have ambivalent feelings about. His art on all mediums seems to be an aching, lamenting commentary on race politics, wealth disparity, class consciousness and change in the Memphis area. In the same breath, his work also celebrates black history in Memphis, and aims to highlight the lasting impact that blues and jazz has had on the people in that area.
“They don't care about our (black) history in Memphis. They were going to demolish Aretha Franklin's house. We have a legacy of black studios and musicians but it's not being promoted to us, they don't want the city of Memphis to be seen as a black city.”
Don goes on to list Three 6 Mafia, Project Pat, and Yo Gotti as artists that have made it beyond Memphis. But Memphis itself doesn’t uplift or raise black musicians – he argues that it does the opposite. Don has seen firsthand that many of the venues in Memphis don’t book black artists, and the city is not set up to support and break them.
When I asked why he stays in Memphis versus leaving for the coast, Don shakes his head. Although he won’t label himself as a spokesperson for the talent coming out of Memphis, he does seem to feel a sense of responsibility to be an advocate, and to capture the culture of the city in his music.
“People say it's in the water, Memphis is a certain type of place, you can’t escape the feelings – its in the culture, Memphis is a certain type of city. It's black, it's poor, that is felt from border to border regardless of how you try to look at it. You go to a Grizzlie game and billionaires are sitting next to the poor folks, wealth disparity, dark place, segregated, a lot of heaviness, a lot of loss, all of that flows thru the music”
The darkness that Don speaks about seems to envelop him, and his somber baritone vocals paired with his drama-laden instrumentals often leave that heavy, moody feeling after listening. The haunting effect that lingers in the music is reflected in Don himself as he becomes more entangled into the city that functions as his muse.
But with the downfalls and drawbacks that come with Memphis, also comes the rich musical history. Influences of jazz and blues have seeped into the roots of Don Lifted’s music. “The Rope” is a drawling, melancholy song with a southern twang- a part of his upbringing in Memphis that he didn’t always embrace.
“The music of it all… was writing at Camp Country in Nashville doing country stuff, and everyone hated country growing up. Country is a derivative of folk music – it's just a different type of blues. Being in the south and staying in the south, I had been digesting more southern music again like he was in middle school. I separated from southern music because it felt harmful.”
Having touched base with his roots again, Don recalls his parents barring him from listening to Three 6 Mafia, but playing everything from Outkast to John Mayer, and from Prince to 60s and 70s soul music.
Equipped with the influences of his region, Don Lifted still has a sound that seems all his own. Upon first listen, Don’s music has similar deep vocal elements of a King Krule, mixed with dynamic, powerful instrumentals and a touching ability to emote, like Kevin Abstract. Most Don lifted songs sound like they could sync perfectly into the soundtrack of a movie where the dog definitely dies at some point. Don is a master of concise writing, and the lyrics are there – and they cut deep – for those who care to listen. However, the dramatic effect of the instrumentals easily overshadow the ambiguous wording for those who want to dissociate and get lost in personal contemplation. In this way, Don coaxes the listener to go deeper into themselves.
The song, “The Rope” revels in the negative space. Don describes it as “the flip side to my golden energy and my accomplished goals, coming from a cool and calculated perspective.” The song is an echo chamber dedicated to the roadblocks and people who held him – and themselves – back from success. “The Rope” is about anger, and it’s directed at people who aren’t “making art for art’s sake.”
“Ending up in rooms with people with different intentions that you – your intentions separate you – a love of the art separates you. Most of my career has been very isolated, although I’ve contributed the most to the scene in Memphis. I’ve been ignoring how I’ve been getting disrespected in various ways.”
Don addresses the separation he’s felt because he’s not labeled as a “street rapper,” and the country influence on the song comes as a warming. Don makes one thing clear to me – we WILL hear him rapping in the future.
The music video for “The Rope” is a moving, slightly disturbing play on religious motifs. The lyrics are sinister and threaten and meditate on the position his enemies have put themselves in, and the things they’ve subjected him to. The video opens with a man tied to a tree while Don Lifted wears a white lace mask and plays chess with death. After the intro, the lyrics breakdown into a quick-rhythmic outpouring of monotone rap from Don:
“Don't you forget that I made all the rules / When locals was stuck and then lacking the views,
Bagging them up and flipping to move / Packing them out and then come out on blue,
Counting my money on toilet seat views / And I ain't even got to my finishing move, don't fuck with the dude.”
The video cuts to a scene where Don Lifted sits at a long table alongside many masked men. “They’re all Judas”, he explains when I press the meaning. Don expresses that he feels the song is too aggressive for his next album, although if I didn’t pay close attention to the lyrics I may have missed the aggression altogether. Although the lyrics and visuals are anything but subtle, the incredible crafting of the song can supersede all else.
Armed with publicity, signed to a label, and a largely recognizable figure in Memphis, the artist states that he plans to stay put where he’s at. Although moving closer to the music industry at large is an easy call most artists make, it would be doing a disservice to the inspiration Don feels by occupying Memphis. Memphis, with its many flaws, serves as a reluctant muse, woven into the fabric of Don Lifted’s music and coloring the landscape of his creations.