This story will appear in FADER #81, on stands in August.
When the word “banjee” first emerged in the ’80s, used primarily by black and Latino gays, it referred to gay men who dressed macho and could pass for straight when and if they wanted. Its meaning has become nebulous over three decades, but now New York rapper Le1f is trying to make it ubiquitous enough to become the new swag. “Swag got so big that even Justin Bieber is on it,” he says. “It started small. Crews used it, rappers used it and then Jay-Z. Banjee is that for me, my gay swag, my code word. It makes me feel tall, like a prince.” The word is deployed frequently on his breakthrough mixtape, Dark York, along with a plethora of idioms that represent his New York strut: being real, being cunty, making it clap, getting right.
Vernacular has taken on new importance to Le1f because, though he says he’s always wanted to be a rapper, he first emerged as a producer in 2005. It wasn’t until April’s release of Dark York that he felt confident enough to focus on lyrics and leave most of the producing to others. “I just wasn’t that good a rapper so I had to practice,” he says. “But also, I made beats because I never heard ones I liked. For Dark York, I found all these people making the beats of my dreams.” He trained his tongue to spit quicker to match the music’s fast, funky horns, hyperactive drum machines and overall strange synth experimentation. He now flips seamlessly between a droll unfolding and a sprinting brag. He’s the first rapper to emerge from a culture of weird, underground electronic producers like Nguzunguzu (who produced three of Dark York’s tracks) that all found notoriety on the web and turned online success into packed club nights. In Le1f, they finally have a lyrical spokesperson and, in exchange, Le1f gets their subversive productions. “I had all these trigger words for Dark York that every song had to sound like,” he says. “I mean, I’m always interested in trap melodies, but mostly it just has to check off some key words. Bass, fog, slither, purple, black, grit. I just know if a song has that. It’s instinct.”
If personal buzzwords are Le1f’s key to unlocking creativity and psyching himself up, there are also a few words that rein him in. He’s often lumped into the catchall genre “gay rap” even though other performers associated with it like House of Ladosha and Mykki Blanco are more outlandish in their blustering. Genre tags fail to describe the diversity of gay acts making rap music, and Le1f’s cocky, dirty charisma is not so far from his straight male counterparts. Understandably for an artist with mainstream hopes who still embraces subversivity, Le1f is tentative about his music being framed by his gayness. “I understand that it makes people take notice,” he says. “Before I rapped explicitly about dick, they could still tell I was gay but they called my music campy instead. Now that I’m rapping about sleeping with dudes, I’m always a gay rapper. I prefer that, because there’s nothing campy about what I do. It’s all real.” He says he wrote political songs about gay rights, but left them off of the album. “I am gay, and I’m proud to be called a gay rapper, but it’s not gay rap. That’s not a genre. My goal is always to make songs that a gay dude or a straight dude can listen to and just think, This dude has swag. I get guys the way straight rappers get girls. I’m not preachy. The best thing a song can be called is good.”
Download: Le1f, Dark York