Sean Leon is the shapeshifting Toronto artist you need to watch
The rapper and director has something to say. Listen up.
To say that Toronto's music scene is bubbling would be an epic understatement. But among the unending clamor of new artists emerging from the city is the rapper and director Sean Leon, whose artistic range and clear-eyed vision sets him apart. His music is neither the moody, pop&b that’s come to characterize Toronto sound, nor the 808-and-adlib-heavy style that’s come to be the de facto sound of popular rap elsewhere. Leon’s style changes all the time. It’s how he can release two completely different tracks — like the slick-barred song “Hollywood Tarantino Flow” and the distorted, bouncy “Gold” — back-to-back without breaking his stride.
Since independently releasing I Think You’ve Gone Mad (Or the Sins of the Father) last February, Leon’s been adjusting: to fatherhood, his broadening fan base, and grappling with a local music scene that simply doesn’t know how to adequately support its talent. It’s hard to make it anywhere as an artist, but in Toronto, where an arts infrastructure barely exists, staying independent is a particular struggle. It’s a city burgeoning with creative energy, but many artists here rely on government-issued grants to fund their projects. (Leon often addresses that reality, most cheekily across the projected screens at a headlining show this past summer.)
I recently chopped it up with him to talk about his career, past, present, and future. A new audiovisual project, CCWMTT, is out today, and a full-length album is due out at the top of 2018. He's one to keep an eye on. Trust me.
Everyone I talk to about you brings up one word, over and over again: vision. What’s the greater vision? Who is Sean Leon trying to be?
The music business, I’m learning, is really tough to navigate independently. My era is such an interesting and complicated era because everyone’s claiming to be independent, but they’re not. Real independent artists — truly independent — that aren’t getting help from anybody look like they’re failing in comparison. An independent rapper, from the basement, making music that nobody is fuckin’ with? I can’t think of anybody else that did that like me. I’m the first. And I would like to be the first independent, documented from the basement rapper to cut through and change things, on this side, especially. Make this economy — this music scene, this arts scene — as big as it should be, or could be. That’s one of my biggest goals, like my end vision. Making Toronto everything it could be. Trying to take it that far.
You’re technically from Ajax, a town just east of Toronto. What was it like moving to the city as an artist when you did?
When I first came to the city, there was so much resistance. They didn’t like the 905 kids. It’s easier now, I think, but back then, especially? There was so much friction. I was like, ‘Here I go again, Black Sheep again.’ So a purpose of the Initiative was just like, I need something to protect myself, shield myself, because it feels like everybody got a problem, you know? [laughs] It was really tough, when I first came here. If I shot a video in the city, it was like, “Why are you shooting in Toronto? Go shoot back in Ajax!” They were mad that I had Toronto in the background. [laughs].
That was me too, though. It’s just a Toronto thing.
Facts! And I’m not even mad at that. There’s a positive in that. They make you bleed out here. It’s like… You can’t fake it out here, at least to the real ones. You gotta be genuine. I love that about Toronto. That’s why Toronto, with the looks, would be unstoppable.
What is “IXXI” or the Initiative? How did the collective of sorts start? And what does it mean to be “up out the basement”?
It existed because whenever a new force appears, a counter-force also appears to balance things out. There’s a balance, always. OVO was a thing. It was still early, but it was a thing. I felt like, — and I guess, ‘cause I’ve been a black sheep my whole life — for some reason, I don’t think this is really going to be a thing that elevates artists from the city, as a whole. I think they’re going to take care of their people, they’re gonna do great, make history, and do what they do. But I don’t see me eating off this. And I need to eat.
So I was like, Yo, let me put together a group of people that have initiative to do things independently. That’s the difference when you’re independent; there are so many distractions, but all it really takes is initiative. I had a homie that was rapping that was in it too, but it was mostly producers that I linked up with on MySpace, Facebook, whatever. We built a rapport. And I just did that through my mom’s basement.
I was always looking for an artist that I thought was really prolific, someone who could cover a ground that I couldn’t cover. That was Daniel Caesar. I felt like I could be a king in this lane and he could be a king in that lane, and then, together, it just becomes this scary, unstoppable unit. So Danny was the first artist in the real Initiative, apart from myself. And you can see where that is, and where he’s going. It’s beautiful to watch.
“There’s no money here. There’s no market, there’s no precedence, there’s no economy, there’s no support.” —Sean Leon
Let’s talk about your new projects.
[The new album,] I been workin’ on that one for so long. I actually started working on it before I Think You’ve Gone Mad came out. It’s one of those projects that I just take forever on, because it’s so cinematic to me. I was like, Man, I gotta make other albums while I’m doing this. So I took a break from it and I made two albums that I like since then. One of them is King & Sufferin.
The track list on that one, every song is four letters long. There are no adlibs. It’s minimal. It’s less difficult, I think, for people to listen to. I didn’t dumb it down, but it can play with all this other wack shit. That mumble rap, not-really-talkin’-bout-shit. I can see this thing with a mass audience. A lot of my songs aren’t for everybody. “Black Sheep Nirvana,” “81,” “Favourite Rapper / Hundred Million Religion,” “Matthew in the Middle,” they’re not for everybody. This is.
How do you think you fit in with the other artists in the “Toronto wave”?
It’s weird. I got a love and hate thing with it. I love [Toronto], but I hate being boxed into it, as if it’s my ceiling. As if [being local] is my only contribution. I feel like if I do something special out here, the press that’s going to document it is going to reserve it to Canadian channels and not put it on that level where it can really be seen. It’s like excelling, but not really. There’s no money here. There’s no market, there’s no precedence, there’s no economy, there’s no support. There’s no list of [independent] artists that we can look at and say, "They really did it.” There are some breaking through now, like my brother Danny [Daniel Caesar], but it’s very new.
What’s the hate part?
I don’t want to be on a lazy Top 10 Toronto list. I want that list to mean more. The list comes out and nobody out of this city gives a fuck about that list, really and truly. But there are 10 artists and more that could be really thriving had they had their come up in a different market. It’s insulting, really. Nothing we do is really getting us a look. A U.S. look, you know?
I go back and forth with it; I appreciate the local look so much, because ascending to that, it means so much to me. But at the same time, let’s not act like [Toronto’s] the ceiling. Let’s not reserve our work to a Spotify Canada list; let’s put it on the real playlist and see if people react to it, or if it resonates. I’m very confident that it will. Not just me — a lot of other artists, too. Toronto artists can make a fire song without OVO and it be an amazing song that the world will fuck with. It doesn’t take Apple Music or Tidal or Instagram influencer to say it. Just the song itself. And I want to be the guy that’s like, “Damn, it’s the art that has this guy on the way up.”
Do you want to stay independent forever?
No. It’s just until the right offer comes along.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Toronto, absolutely. I want a big, big, big house out here. I want a really big house out here. And a huge yard. To do what I want to do, I gotta be here anyway. To make it how I want to make it. I mean, my end goal is to like, retire and move to Hawaii. If I had to pick between Toronto, home, and Donald Trump land? But who knows?