GEN F: Le1f


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

POSTED July 23, 2012 6:35PM IN GEN F Comments (24) TAGS: , , , ,




  1. Trev Smitth says:

    I honestly have no problems with gays or lesbians but let’s be honest, gay marriage was JUST passed in New York last year. With that being said, people should know that the WORLD still isn’t ready to see outright gay men rapping. It may be sad and it may be discouraging but at the end of the day, the world hasn’t changed enough to see a black gay male with purple hair chewing gum and rapping with booty shorts on. It’s just not going to be accepted anytime soon.

  2. Karmessiah says:

    ok trev we will see about that…..

  3. gil says:

    trev smith, is there any hint at all that anyone is surprised by the reaction the Wut video engendered? no. i don’t get who or what you’re responding to. thanks for weighing in i guess. honestly, you’re probably okay, but you should know that the world isn’t especially awaiting yer quasi/queasy apologies for homophobia.

  4. pcrush says:

    uh….it IS being accepted. the media coverage and the dialogue shows that it has broken thru. It’s called a cultural shift, and it doesnt require every douche bag’s stamp of approval. hold ur words cause it’s happening.

  5. Zachary says:

    Who gives a shit!?!? The song is great! The video is great! If he’s gay, and black…then He’s gay and black. What the f*ck happened to the music? I think he is incredible.

  6. Trev Smitth says:

    Until this breaks through to mainstream media, as in being played on the radio hourly, being put into rotations in commercials, etc. then I stick to my thought that it will take a while for this to be fully accepted. It’s being accepted by people, but not by the MASSES. You cannot deny that.

  7. Mike says:

    Everyone who writes in these threads always gotta drop a “not that there’s anything wrong with that”. Seinfeld taught ‘em so good.

  8. mikey says:

    agreed mike, this happened with frank ocean too, a bunch of odd future kids who are trying to follow their “progressive” leader tyler by saying shit like “frank ocean came out, but i still love his music and dont think hes any less talented.” basically saying theyll ignore the fact that hes gay because they supported his music before he came out. its that kinda of unconscious ignorance that scares me, the fact that they dont even really get what theyre actually saying.

    the way the media has treated le1fs video has bee weird, i honestly expected more respect. after someone like jay z openly supports frank oceans decision. also pissed that people thing frank was a precursor to le1f because le1fs video came out a few weeks after ocean’s statement. that is the wackiest shit.

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  10. for real though says:

    “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”

    so women don’t listen to rap huh? or you just don’t care if they think you have swag? i really am curious.

  11. Adam Johnson says:

    I’m ready as shit for this Trev you just dont get it.

    Le1f has also been gay since before you heard of Frank Ocean, idiots.

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  13. Le1f says:

    hey @ For Real Though,

    i’m sorry that my quote refers to men, and not women, or people in general. it’s not that i don’t think women listen to hip-hop. If you knew more about me, you’d know that I actually grew up aspiring female rappers, and i’ve work with some female hip-hop producers like Asma from Nguzunguzu. this particular quote was just in the context of homosexuality in hip-hop, which for men is a different beast than it is for women. in recent years, many women who have claimed bisexuality have been embraced by the rap world for displaying such a sexuality, while i know many lesbian and transexual rappers who have not. but as being a woman is not my experience, it’s not something i truly care to address. it’s not in my place.


  14. for real though says:

    hey le1f, word. thanks for taking the time to explain. more writers and artists working in hip hop should start thinking along the lines you have (whose experience is being represented/valued). keeping doing you. here’s hoping the haters start to bore themselves as much as they’ve bored the rest of us.

  15. common_in_name says:

    Just stumbling upon this music and your whole trip. Excellent all 50 ways about it. Music of any kind of consciousness is refreshing, especially when the artist exhibits such in their person as well as their art. Much respect thus far to you LE1F.

    -Leif (an i, not a one)

  16. wateverbrooo says:

    @adam johnson

    reach for the stars, brah. your ceiling is closer than you think. social climbing motherfucker.

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  21. Jon says:

    Le1f is the best. Forget anyone who’s going to give you shit for being whatever – they’re 90% jealous.

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  23. SmokinAces says:

    I can say that as a straight black man, I have no problem saying I have no desire to listen to a man rap about sleeping with another man. I think the fact that when a heterosexual male states this, he is automatically considered homophobic is wrong. It just isn’t gonna resonate with everyone. And I honestly can see where Trev is coming from. I don’t think that the world at large is ready to see a outwardly gay rapper. Yes, some women have came out with the “I’m bisexual’” claim but let’s really look at it. Women are afforded more leeway in this than men are, especially black men.

    As for Frank Ocean, he still spent most of his (incredible) album talking about women, with maybe two songs barely touching on a relationship with another man. And even then, it wasn’t necessarily in a sexual manner. And let us not forget, this is a major label artist (singer at that) with major co signs, a strong team, and the member of a popular group. It’ll be interesting to see if an explicitly gay black RAPPER can be successful on a major level. I don’t see it anytime soon though.

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