Anyone trying to discover what New York City sounds like circa right this very minute need look no further than Le1f, the N.Y.C.-based rapper, producer, and dancer who has spent the past few years transmuting the city’s energy into his own specific blend of queer hip-pop. The musical nom-de-plume of twenty-six year-old Khalif Diouf, Le1f has been releasing singles and remixes intermittently for the better part of a decade now. His debut mixtape, Dark York, garnered raves back when it was released back in 2012, setting the stage for what would a long and arduous journey towards his first studio album. Given the breadth of Le1f’s vision on Riot Boi, out today on Terrible Records/XL Recordings—a sonic palette that includes futuristic rap, deconstructed R&B, and nods to industrial grime and vogue-appropriate house—the past three years has clearly been time well spent.
Featuring contributions from the likes of Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Brooklyn rapper Junglepussy, and queer art and hip-hop collective House of LaDosha (plus production flourishes from both sides of the pond courtesy of SOPHIE, Lunice, Boody, Dubbel Dutch, Balam Acab and Evian Christ), the album gleefully splits the difference between politically charged missives (“Rage,” “Taxi”) and dissections of gender politics and sexual identity (“Koi,” “Grace, Alek, or Naomi”). As is the case with all of his music, Le1f himself is the mercurial center around which all of the record’s winding narratives spin. As a lyricist he is both a skillful storyteller and savvy provocateur—or as he describes it, “somewhere between an activist and an antagonist.” Ultimately, Riot Boi offers a vivid portrayal of an artist finally catching up with the scope of his own ambitions.
You’ve been making music for a long time, but this is your first proper studio album. Does it feel like it was forever in the making?
LE1F: Yeah. Since I was really young I wanted to make Dark York and I wanted to make this record. All the topics I discuss on that first mixtape and now on Riot Boi were things I wanted to do since I was sixteen years old. I remember when I saw Dizzee’s Boy in Da Corner on Manhattan News Network and I looked up XL's website in 2003—I said, “I'm one of those, that's who I am. I am one of those people.” Since then I wanted to make music that I appreciated in the same way—for not being the status quo but still being so freaking cool. It took me a while because I wasn't even a vocalist at that point, so I learned how to be a rapper in order to make Dark York. But I was still a little afraid to make boldly political music just because I wasn't ready…I was new to writing songs. Rap takes a lot of words and I don't want to say anything embarrassing. In order to do that you have to actually know what you're talking about; I didn't think it was right for me at the time—a 19 year-old kid coming from a higher education, private school bubble and telling anyone how to live their life.
This time around I had to really sit and think about all the things I wanted to say that I didn't get to say on Dark York, which was all of the social and political issues that I feel strongly about.
That's very wise of you. I just taught a class at NYU for a bunch of 17 to 19 year olds and I feel like most of them were not having that thought process. In fact, it was the opposite, they had everything to say about everything…particularly about how other people need to be living their lives.
I remember that feeling, but I also remember realizing that when you put something out there it becomes part of the public conversation…and I didn't want to risk being wrong. My biggest fear is to fail at music. So to disrespect anyone while trying to honor them through music would be very painful.
You never want to look back on your own work and feel regret about what you made. That's a terrible feeling.
And that's something I definitely appreciate with Terrible and XL because they were both like, “What are you going to do on this album?” and I'm like, “Thanks, I’ll let you know when I figure it out because you know I'm not going to let you guys tell me.” It's nice to be able to work with people who understand that. There was a moment when I was like, “Oh it's coming out in the winter, it needs to be a cold record, so ‘Koi’ can't be on the record," and they were like, “What are you talking about? ‘Koi’ has to be on the record it sounds amazing!” I was like, “Okay, you’re right,” but aside from that no one has ever really told me what I could and could not do.
“Sometimes you wake up in your bed and you feel like you ain’t shit but then you get to go to a place where homophobia and racism is rampant and show 500 people a good time, and maybe change their minds about some bigger, deeper things.”—Le1f
What were some of the things you felt like you really needed to talk about now that maybe you weren't ready to bring up before?
I had this accumulating list of topics—things I always felt were important that no one ever talked about in music. Some of the songs ended up on Dark York, like “&Gomorrah” but there were songs like “Taxi” that I couldn’t finish yet. I started writing that song when I was a teenager, but I felt uncomfortable with expressing that much angst and I just didn't feel...you know, I wasn't a singer. I was just an emo kid who had a few stanzas that I felt strongly about, and a few more that I felt really embarrassed about. For me it’s about finding where in my throat I can say these things and not annoy myself. That was one level of it. Also I had to educate myself on some things before I felt like I had any place to talk about it at all.
Just because I relate to androgyny and I felt so much oppression from being a gay black man, it doesn't mean I understand the global experience in any way to adjust it. I feel like a lot of people—a lot of rappers especially—create music that makes them feel like they're doing the work but they're actually just complaining about really petty basic stuff because they're not able to separate in their heads all the threads of first worldliness and materialism and family. They can’t understand the different levels of struggle that other people go through. That's annoying to me. I feel a lot of the time people end up making songs and being like, “Yeah, I want to do this for my people!” but they don't actually say what the change should be. So I had to delve into it and read and experience and have these relationships with other people before I could make this record.
Having spent the past few years touring all over the world, it must be amazing to travel around and see how people react to your work—people that often aren’t used to seeing someone else articulate their own experience in such a way?
Definitely. Yeah, it's really crazy for me to experience that. I headlined a festival in Lithuania a month ago and it was that kind of experience. It's one of those days where you're like, oh wow this is crazy. Sometimes you wake up in your bed and you feel like you ain't shit but then you get to go to a place where homophobia and racism is rampant and show 500 people a good time and maybe change their minds about some bigger, deeper things. I feel kind of blessed to be in that position.
Since the release of Dark York, there have been about a million think pieces written about queer rap. Are people still trying to figure out how to describe what you do?
Oh, yeah. Like literally last week I was having a great conversation with a writer and he goes, "All right, I feel like I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you this question," and I was like, "Oh no, oh no." Of course, he asks, "How does it feel to be a gay rapper?" I'm like, "Hmm…as boring as it felt four years ago." I don't really care what anyone calls me anyway. People can have their think pieces, but I don't care of people even call me a rapper, so…whatever.
It's such a tired question to keep asking. I can only relate to it in the sense that I'm a gay writer, and I often get referred to as “a gay writer.”
Oh, that sucks. You know, as someone who has made music a job for himself, I definitely appreciate that “Wut” went viral and that I've been able to tour with that for so long. People have discovered my other music because of that and I’m glad. I definitely have played my fair share of Pride events and things like that, even though that's not my main source of money or my main focus. It's not like I don't want to be gay or I want to go back in the closet, but I feel like when I make something gay, it gets so much life. If I make something camp, it gets so much life, and if I make something that really isn’t about that, it’s a different kind of story. Hopefully, I've become a better musician over time, but the reaction hasn't been that way. The question has been, “When are you going to do something gay?”
That also brings you into this really murky conversation of what is something gay? How "gay" does it have to be before it gets considered gay?
Especially because I'm a black man, I think it just has to be clowning around, you know, because to me, “Hush Bb” is hella gay, even though some people didn’t get that. Yeah, it's me dancing with a white woman, but I did that as a symbol that this can be about any love, even the most basic one. That was the story for that song. I just want be able to tell the stories that the song asks when I make them. Be a storyteller. But I think culture was really into twerking more than narratives, at the time.
“’How does it feel to be a gay rapper?’ I’m like, ‘Hmm…as boring as it felt four years ago.’”—Le1f
As a music fan, when you finally hear someone that speaks to something that is truly relevant to your own experience it's a really important moment.
Yeah it really is, and I've been very blessed to be able to not only experience that in music—because of people like M.I.A. and Alice Glass—but also because of the underground in New York where there were gay rappers and queer people. People like Light Asylum and Telepathe and Spank Rock and all the other characters that were looking out for me.
Do you think of yourself as being a very quintessential New York kind of artist?
I feel like I am. When I set out to make music in this way that's what I thought I would be. I always envisioned it that way. Me in N.Y.C. My fantasies of me performing involved Studio B and Terminal 5. I didn't realize that I would ever be called any kind of rapper. I'm from Hells Kitchen, it runs deep. I'm a 1 train kid. I'm not just some New Yorker; I'm from it, from Times Square.
What does Riot Boi mean to you? I can’t hear that title and not think about Riot Grrl, which obviously has certain connotations with revolution and empowerment.
That was my working title when I was writing the album. I chose that as my working title because I wanted to stay focused on the task of making music that felt like a full self release—I was almost selfishly expressing myself in this really fun and visceral way instead of being preachy in the way conscious rap was. It was more about being true to myself than it was about punk music or rock music, about not being the corniness that happened with conscious rap in the '90s.
“If I could be anything I would be Janet Jackson from the years 1980-2000. If I can afford to I would love to have the full choreography moment that I see in my head.”—Le1f
You studied dance in school and it seems like you understand how dance—like the physicality of dancing and dance culture—should be married to the music. I always have a sense of that in your work. There's a certain energy in your music that I always associate with bodies and dancing and moving.
I think my background as a dancer really affects the choices of beats for me. Growing up as a ballet dancer, then a modern dancer, I always listen for that experimentalism of physicality when people send me beats. They have to move me—not in just emotional ways, [but] in actual physical ways.
This record expands sonically on what you've done before. I think a lot of times, especially early on, people didn't know how to describe you because it was sort of this weird genre-less blending of hip-hop and dance music and whatever. I feel like this record also really plays around with the tropes of R&B in a way that your music didn't necessarily before, which seems really smart.
That is definitely so accurate. I like to introduce challenges to myself. The first mixtape was me trying to be a rapper, and Tree House was about the challenge of making love songs and showing my love for R&B without annoying myself. I kind of took all of the things I learned from those mixtapes to make this record. I guess the new challenge for me sound-wise was to pull in my IDM influences that I've been trying to play with but to be cleaner about it, not as low-fi.
Will the way you present this material live change radically over the next year, or do you have a sense of where you want it to go?
Yeah, it all depends on how well this record goes to be honest. I love working with dancers and it's always been my dream...if I could be anything I would be Janet Jackson from the years 1980-2000. If I can afford to I would love to have the full choreography moment that I see in my head. We’ll just have to see.