ABOVE: LE1F. PHOTO COURTESY OF HARRISON BOYCE.
Le1f is openly gay, as every Google search result of his name would have you know. His new video for "Wut," a cocky, saxophone-sampling cut off the near-perfect Dark York mixtape, features the rapper/producer straddling a Pikachu-masked beefcake—the screenshot sent hip-hop blogs across the globe in a frenzy of directions. But Le1f's liking of dudes, albeit important and exciting in the homophobic sphere of hip-hop, is just one small piece of the budding genius's artistic identity. The New York-native's flow is seamless and entrancing, his quick wit and confidence turning hip-hop taboos into future trends, while his hybrid beats are ambient and airy, never losing their bounce.
We spoke to the young talent about his introductions to music, his creative direction, and the video in question.
GROWING UP: I was born into the arts. My mother and grandmother have both performed at Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall), and they enrolled me in ballet classes when I was 4 years old. I apparently made my first mixtape soon after that on my Fisher-Price cassette recorder, but I don't remember that. I lived for Aaliyah and Brandy. My older cousins exposed me to artists like Da Brat and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and my love for rap grew form there. It wasn't until my high school years, when I was listening to musicians like the UK's Dizzee Rascal and M.I.A, that I felt I could actually be a rapper. Unique characters and strange cadences inspired me a ton.
ROAD TO BEING A RAPPER/PRODUCER: Producing came first. I began producing beats in 2004, during my second year of high school. I made hundreds of amateur beats, a few of which I attempted to write raps for in private, but always felt defeated when I tried to record anything. At the time, I was super unsatisfied with the sound of my young voice and gay intonations, but truly I probably just didn't know how to produce myself well enough to make the music I wanted. As my skills grew as a producer and poet, some small record labels sought to work with me, and I intended to release music then, but it never happened. I decided to get my Bachelors degree in dance first and have a few more years to train myself as an artist. I had a fear of failing as a rapper, but I've realized more and more that I wasn't lacking in talent, just confidence.
ON HIS DARK YORK MIXTAPE: In the winter of 2010, I recorded demos of "Hate2Wait", "Gimme Life" and "Bubbles" laying in bed with the flu rasping into GarageBand on my computer microphone. Dark York was supposed to be a compilation of those songs, some raps over popular instrumentals, and chops of my guest verses on other people's tracks. I had been rapping over house and juke music, but I was interested in experimenting with hip-hop. I didn't know how that would be accepted, but the New York underground scene around me appreciated my change. The positive response to those three Nguzunguzu-produced songs motivated me to make more music. I realized that if my friends thought I sounded good while virally sick and poorly recorded, I could probably make some real rap music.
ON HIS NEW VIDEO "WUT": My friend and fellow Wesleyan graduate Sam Jones directed the video. Together, we decided we wanted to make a video that was in the style of our favorite East Coast rap and UK Grime videos, particularly from the 90s in which there's an abundance of all-white backdrops and minimal metallic spaces. Sam wanted a large-scale futuristic prop and Matt Larkin, another amazing friend of ours from Wesleyan, designed the Escher triangle. Along with Emma, our production designer, they built that beautiful trick of the eye out of sheet wood and silver spray paint. I love how many people think it's a fake image, but we didn't use a green screen for this video at all. My favorite part of the process was showing off my dance moves. Although I'm completely in love with our improvisation, I hope to have the time to really choreograph something for my videos in the future.
CREATIVE PROCESS: My writings for rap used to be loose chunks organized by topic. I had a list of subjects I felt I wanted to address as a musician; homophobia, islamophobia, drugs, manmade disasters, and so forth. The list was made up of aspects of my cultural identity, behavior and political views. These are only things I felt I had a right to preach about. When I started to write full songs, I pulled prompt lines and half-written verses from across my archive. Much of my blatant sociopolitical rhymes didn't make the cut for sake of being cool.
ON THE TERM "GAY RAPPER": I'm a gay rapper. I'm a black rapper, and a New York rapper. I don't mind the press around openly queer musicians right now. I think it's great that musicians in the gay community are finally getting some attention, but it needs to be understood that "Gay Rap" is not a genre. The style of my music is not defined by who I am, just by what I make. Dark York is a mixtape with twenty-one songs. Only five of them are about homosexuality. Almost all of them are rap songs.
THE FUTURE: I'm currently recording another mixtape to come out this year and waiting for a collaboration EP with Boody to come out on Boys Noize Records. I plan to tour Europe this fall and I'm excited about the new music I'm making with producers such as Brenmar and Mess Kid. This next mixtape is all about sex, and not so much about sexuality. It's very liberating.
LE1F IS PLAYING AT GLASSLANDS IN BROOKLYN ON FRIDAY, AUGUST 3RD.