Photo of Gianni by Mark Wrice, co-owner of Babylon Cartel
If Gianni Lee could have anything, it'd be everything. And he prefers it all be mixed together. He wants rap and soul in his dance music, and his clothing line is defined in musical terms. Fine art is thrown in there for good measure too. He's a producer, DJ, manager, and street wear company all rolled up in one. Regular mogul type.
Babylon Cartel, his clothing brand, is not only repped by cutting edge club artists like Swizzymack and Sliink, but also pop stars Rihanna and Iggy Azalea. While his name is considered strong enough to support MIA, he still keeps his ear to the street and helps put on new artists like the model and rapper Chynna from his hometown of Philly.
He's done his part to bring together various genres and scenes too. Whether it be bringing club music to the Brooklyn Barrelhouse rap blog, DJing at DC's Trillectro fest, or remixing and collaborating with vocalists new to dance music, it just comes natural to him. He's always been something of a weirdo, and it's his strong suit.
Below he talks about his hood, club music, breaking down boundaries, Rihanna, and his vision of the future for dance music.
THUMP: You grew up in Philly?
Giani Lee: I grew up in West Philly to be exact, on the 5400 block of Delancey St. We called it D-Block for short. D-Block is crazy. People getting shot, crackheads fighting, girls getting pregnant. I was in the middle of some crazy things, but D-Block—or even West Philly as a whole—has a very great family ethic. We were all family and I learned a lot about loyalty and keeping friends around me from living in the hood. But I was the outcast. The weirdo. So I had to live with that, too. But I embraced it because I knew there was more beyond 54th St.! Also, my mom was so hard on me to follow my artistic passions.
I got in fights all the time. I'd come back with cuts and bruises and my mom would make me go back out and whip some ass [laughs]. I wasn't bullied, but I definitely was tried for being different. I would sit in the classroom and finish my work then sketch Dragonball Z characters. I was in this class called "mentally gifted" and best believe I got hell for that. [laughs]… It was a constant battle between being cool and being smart. But it helped me appreciate both sides. I studied Communications and Broadcasting at Temple. I figured I could learn art on my own… I came from a poor household, so I wanted to study something conventional that could get me a job when I graduated. Didn't want to be a starving artist.
Why'd you move to LA?
I just moved out to LA a little over a year ago, but I haven't really gotten to experience it fully because I'm always back and fourth on the East Coast. Its great to bounce back and fourth. I like the energy in LA and the scenery. I try to stay in the East Coast at least once a month… I needed more opportunity in the realm of music and fashion. I wanted to go to New York at first, but LA has great weather, so I was working on getting a job at a magazine, but when it fell through, I said, "FUCK IT!" I'm moving to Cali…
So your mother supported your art?
My mother was signed to a few modeling agencies when she was younger, Reinhard being one of them. And she got a lot of work… she was actually in Newport ads from the 70s; so she was aware of my talents in the creative field and she supported them.
How'd you get into street wear?
Well, I don't really like the term street wear, but I accept it. But I was always a fan of Pharrell's music, and I would be in my house as a teenager trying to re-create his sound, especially his snares. I love the Neptunes snares [laughs]. Then when he ventured into clothing fter linking up with Nigo, I was like, "I can do this too!" I want to be like Pharrell when I grow up.
When did you start producing?
I've been messing around with it since I was 16 . But I became officially dedicated to the craft last year. When I remixed a song by The XX, it got a lot of views for some guy from Philly that decided to open up a Soundcloud account [laughs].
Were you a part of the party music scene as a kid?
Yeah I was actually! But I was more the guy that danced to all of the music. We would go to 52nd St. and buy a bunch of Baltimore club compilations on CDs. Then when I got to college, all the DJs had crates full of old Blaqstarr. We would do the Wu-Tang at parties. I was a promoter at the time, a college promoter. After getting doubl booked for a Diplo party, I realized that people—as in "white people"—listened to and played Baltimore club. I didn't know it was a movement. And I didn't know Diplo was the one curating all of it. I just thought they were some hipster guys that liked Bmore club.
What's the club scene in Philly like right now?
Well as of right now, in Philly the party scene is divided. In a more urban setting you barely hear club music. The crowds don't want to hear that. It's considered a joke, or "young." because kids as young as 6-years-old listened to it. I got interested in it at about 15. But in a more traditional rave, or what people like to call "hipster" or eclectic settings, where all types of music is played, you are liable to hear anything.
This started happening in 2010?
Yup… that's when club music became more mainstream. The youngins always embraced it—before and after. But Jersey Club starting really hitting after that. People in Philly definitely like Jersey club, but they have a loyalty to Philly club… But Jersey is definitely creeping up there. They still play Philly club on the radio. DJ Diamond Kuts and DJ Damage kept it alive and kicking. It's mostly late night shows, but some evening. But I think Damage had a show where he would squeeze something in around 5 PM, but mostly you didn't hear Philly club until night time on the radio. But now that it's becoming more of a global thing, people are starting to realize the power of it. So you can't call it a thing that only little kids listen to anymore.
What were the parties you promoted in college like?
When I was in college, they weren't club driven. They were built around just bringing a bunch of people out. Around 2010-'11, I started getting bored with the Top 40 song format. I wanted something more. DJs were playing the same rotations and I felt like I had to switch up my music environment. That's when I met Dirty South Joe and studied under him as a DJ. I reached out to him on Twitter. DJs were not playing what I liked and I wanted to try it out for myself.
Joe introduced me a lot of great artists. I started playing whatever I wanted—dubstep, moombahton, club music, big room, house. Just whatever I wanted. Whatever was a new sound. I met Swizzymack around the same time at a Dillon Francis show… and he was new to the whole scene too at the time. Swizzy just had loads of music being played in constant rotation on Power 99 and 106. I would argue with Swizzy constantly about nothing [laughs]. He's like my fake little "big" brother.
How'd Rihanna end up wearing Babylon Cartel?
When I first moved to LA, I went to an A$AP Rocky show. I'm friends with his DJ, so I was backstage watching the show. Rihanna walks in looking like an opening scene from Star Wars when Darth Vader is patrolling the Death Star with his storm troopers. So I attempted to get her attention to no prevail. But on my second attempt I actually just handed her the Babylon Cartel camo jacket I was wearing. She just looked at me, didn't say thank you, took a puff of her blunt, and continued to walk away holding it up and staring at it. Like how you hold a dollar in the light to see if its real. Next week? My phone is blowing up saying that she is wearing my jacket.
Any new dance music artists you're feeling?
Rex Riot is a very talented Artist from DC. And I recently did a collab with this dope artist named HI$TO from Baltimore. It's great to see a resurgence of Baltimore club producers. I'll also be teaming up with Grande Marshall's manager to manage a new artist named Lucille Ghatti. She doesn't make dance music, but her sound is very futuristic.
If someone supports Babylon Cartel, what do you hope that means for dance music?
Babylon Cartel is dance music. Everything that dance music is about Babylon Cartel represents. If someone supports the brand. I'm hoping they're as open for new sounds, thoughts, and visuals as I am. I feel like most of our supporters already think outside of the box and I want to continue to communicate those elements through the clothing as well as my music. I want to see Erykah Badu do dance music. Seriously, that would make my day.
Dance music is already meshing with other genres. But I want that negative stigma that comes along with it to be lifted. Like when Usher and Nicki started making dance music, people ridiculed them. But hey, it's fun to make and you can make boatloads of money off of it. So why not? I'd like to see more art installations in dance music too. Like in videos I would like to see more visual artist to get involved. It would be great to have that same movement like it was in the 80s when Basquiat and Warhol were running around New York. I want to see more visual artist handle artwork for single releases. Art Installations at shows. Visual artists designs stages… If anybody pioneered this it, would be Kanye and even Madonna and MIA.
Mike Steyels was always told he's too weird for his own good - @iswayski