Le1f is here
to shake the party up
Buoyant and irresistibly charming, Le1f lets out a giggle.
The Manhattan-born rapper and producer is trying to tackle issues of prejudice and discrimination without forgetting his duties as an entertainer. “How do you talk about politics without being that person at the party talking about politics?” he asks.
His vocal timbre is deep and wheezy. His tone is relaxed, but he’s armed with a sharp wit. Le1f’s career trajectory spans over six years, three mixtapes and two EPs, and with his forthcoming debut album Riot Boi – which will be released via a joint venture deal between XL Recordings and Terrible Records – he’s about to step on a higher pedestal. But this time, he’s not settling for apathy; baring his sharpened teeth to condescending critics and backwards-thinking rap conservatives.
While studying ballet and modern dance at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University during the mid 00s, Khalif ‘Le1f’ Diouf met the singer, painter and future housemate Don-Christian Jones. Together, they cohabited with a group of musicians and artists. Le1f, immersed in dance, began to compound cut’n’paste samples and beats for college performances. Prankish and tough, his compositions were as much a product of Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner and MIA’s Arular as they were a flirtatious homage to the likes of Aaliyah and Beyoncé.
By 2008, Le1f’s talent as a beatmaker was fully realised. He co-produced Das Racist’s debut single Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, the alternative rap anthem which would kickstart the trio’s career. Yet it wasn’t until April 2012 and the release of his first mixtape Dark York, where the artist emerged from behind the computer screen to the centre stage. “The whole thing was an experiment,” Le1f says about his formative stages as an emcee. “Not so much socially, but more so for myself. Dark York was out of hunger. It was my first time being a real rapper. Not just a producer adding vocals. There was a lot of learning on how to even be a vocalist, which is why the early mixtapes are so lo-fi. The confidence was still being built upon.”
By “testing out the waters,” Diouf was able to hone in on his own idiosyncrasies while actively challenging the prejudices of rap. As an openly gay African American performer, he was pigeon-holed by the press with the highly debatable ‘queer rap’ tag alongside artists such as Cakes Da Killa and Mykki Blanco. But in 2012, Le1f broke through with Wut – a brassy stroke of sexual salvation. The music video, which entails Le1f perched on the lap of an oiled-up, Pikachu masked male model donning tight black underwear, decimates social impediments and confronts reactionary censors head-on with infinite sass.
But despite his creative fruitions, Diouf is the first to admit to being almost too much of a perfectionist. It took two years to write, record and master Riot Boi – a record that has been delayed and postponed and reassessed intermittently until it was finally complete in the winter of last year. “I wanted to make sure that I showed my progress and my reliability lyrically,” he says defensively. “I needed to get all of these points across without people having to dig too. And somehow, through the politics, I had to keep my experimental makeup, my grunge, my edge and grit that I enjoy about my music. That was harder to achieve this time as I was working alongside other people. But a lot of frustrations lead to new findings.”
Riot Boi encapsulates exactly where Le1f is as an artist. With the contributing aid of producers such as SOPHIE, Evian Christ and Dubbel Dutch, Le1f weaves a commentary concerning race, sex, and injustice. But how did he really confront these issues without losing his playfulness? “That was the hardest part for me,” he says. “I had written the songs Koi and Rage knowing I wanted to use to them to flesh out all of these moral issues. I made those songs in 2013 just before coming to this weird phase. Some kind of writer’s block. But, as usual, the world continues to spiral. Arab Spring happened. The press finally started airing police brutality cases. There was like this flood of things that actually affected my life that were main topics of conversation, by which point it became clear what I wanted to say and how I want to say it.
“I always thought I was too young and uneducated to be the person speaking on these topics,” he admits. “I had to give myself time to understand it all. Once I got that, it was then just about how that could be relatable on a larger scale.”
And while sexuality is paramount to Le1f’s character, it frustrates him that some people ignore the other aspects of his identity and message. “The press around me is so much about my sexuality,” he sighs. “I had to dig into what was causing my actual angst in the world.” One of these pangs, Le1f says, is the gentrification of New York. With less DIY venues to collaborate with, the city’s underground music community is struggling to find the space to deliver their respective sermons. “Everyone like me and Junglepussy and Princess Nokia are getting love online, but there’s not really a space for us. It’s funny when people write about ‘the NYC scene’. There is no scene. There’s a community without a space.”
Despite the western media’s increased attention towards the trans movement, police prejudice and brutality, gay marriage, creatives such as Le1f are the subversive voices who are often lost without the stage to project from. That said, Le1f is by no means a pessimist. “People are slowly realising the beauty of diversity,” he says. “That it’s something that someone owns. That it’s fun to be dark skinned. That’s why I dedicate a song to Grace Jones, Alek Wek and Naomi Campbell on the album. It’s so important to appreciate black women and their subversion and beauty. And by doing so you not only address the politics, you make it playful.
“For me, everything is like playing in the dark,” he says in conclusion. “There’s a darkness to my music that some people who just know Wut and Koi wouldn’t understand. But that’s definitely where I live. In this sassy, dark, purple place.”
Riot Boi is released 13 November via Terrible Records