A Philadelphia Rapper Sets an Unsolved Mystery to Music

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For more than two decades, an unknown artist has been leaving a message in the streets of Philadelphia. The message is has been cut by hand into a linoleum tile, and pressed into the asphalt by the weight of passing cars. There are dozens of these around the city; old ones wear away, and new ones appear. The message is the same: 

IN Kubrick's 2001

The Toynbee tiles, as they’re called, have become a thing in Philly — you can even buy a t-shirt (the tiler isn’t getting royalties). For artists, the cryptic message inspires far-out forms of creativity, but perhaps nothing as ambitious as the ten-minute work by the rapper and “bedroom composer” Raj Haldar, who performs as Lushlife.


The work is in four parts, one for each line of the tiles’ message. By the end, the “Toynbee Suite” has left behind anything resembling hip-hop, going out on a two-minute clarinet solo. 

But what exactly is the Toynbee message? Arnold J. Toynbee was a historian and philosopher of the 20th century, known for the 12-volume A Study of History. His work had a religious or spiritual cast, though he didn’t believe in resurrection on Jupiter (as far as we know). The reference to 2001 refers to that film’s enigmatic late section about the origin of life. The message may be an homage to David Mamet, whose one-act play 4 A.M. features a caller to a late-night radio talk show who rambles about Toynbee, Kubrick, and Jupiter. But it’s hard to believe someone would spend two decades leaving David Mamet fan letters. 

A documentary film speculated that the tiler remained unseen by dropping the tiles from a car with cut-out floorboards. And tiles have appeared in cities around the world, including New York, Chicago, and Santiago de Chile. The mysteries and the tiler’s long-running obsession have kept artists like Lushlife intrigued. Both of us are, our own ways, tirelessly pursuing one static goal in the face of glacial time. For him, 20 years of wanting to communicate the Toynbee philosophy to the world. For me, how I want to make rap records. And in that way, I really do relate to the Toynbee tiler.”


MAP: Toynbee tiles around Philadelphia

Music Playlist

  1. Toynbee Suite

    Artist: Lushlife
    Album: Toynbee Suite
    Label: WeatherVane Music