Le1f: "I Don't Think I'm Any Angrier Than I was Before"
The New York CIty 'Riot Boi' discusses discrimination, the "angry black man trope," and utilizing sexuality in rap.
Le1f has a bone to pick with society. In fact, tracks like “Rage” from his debut album Riot Boi display such vexation that he may want to debone modern civilization entirely. It wasn’t always this way: the first time I met 26-year-old Khalif Diouf, typically dubbed a “Queer Rapper” by the media, was at a mutual friend’s apartment in New York’s East Village. Le1f’s calm disposition stood in stark contrast to the brassily outgoing figure I’d seen cavorting in the video for breakout club-ready hit “Wut,” off his 2013 EP Hey (which has since clocked three million plus views). Simultaneously, there was no mistaking the artist’s identity; his deep voice warbles when he speaks just as it does when he raps, periodically punctuated with sporadic, skittish laughter. His IRL style matched the image projected in numerous editorial spreads—a hyper-modern aesthetic blending sporty graphics and bright colors with a taste for high fashion.
Despite his tranquility, Le1f’s presence is palpable. He gushes with an artistic confidence that justifies his stepping out from behind the scenes, where he cut his teeth producing for the likes of Brooklyn’s Das Racist—he penned their 2008 hit “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Born and raised in Manhattan, where Le1f studied ballet and modern dance, the then nascent rapper became a notable figure in New York nightlife after releasing three well-received mixtapes which lead to live gigs in downtown clubs. Despite the absence of a complete album, his noteriety flourished beyond New York’s boarders, and then America’s, popularizing the artist in major European cities (Hey was first picked up by London’s XL Recordings). By the Spring of last year Le1f had secured a slot on the Late Show with David Letterman, and now his long-awaited debut LP, Riot Boi—which dropped at the tail-end of November—features collaborations with everyone from Dev Hynes to Junglepussy to Lunice to Sophie to Evian Christ.
With its release Le1f is at a pivotal point, not just in his career but also with regards to what he wants to communicate. His lyrics are critical and charged: Le1f expresses dissatisfaction with America’s endemic forms of discrimination—homophobia, transphobia, and racism—deftly balancing arduous political pedagogy and club-ready bangers. As such, the album embodies Le1f’s personality quite poignantly; a fun-loving party boy with a contagious giggle, but a man who is awake and outspoken about what he observes. Even the album title speaks to this duality: he’s a Riot Boi in both a party and political sense.
I talked with Le1f about writing love songs, how gay rappers are approaching sexuality, and the “angry black man” trope. Catch our chat below, and stream Riot Boi here (Terrible Records / XL Recordings).
Noisey: This is your debut album. Were you nervous to finally put out a more robust compilation of work?
Le1f: I kind of just made whatever I thought was the best music I could make. Whatever the reaction is to that is whatever it is. I can't really help that. I hope it works out. I mean, I definitely want it to be a certain quality. I think I'm probably my hardest critic—more than anyone else. If I like it then I hope everyone else does, but I don't really mind.
You discuss discrimination frequently on the album. Isn’t it shocking that there are so many Americans thinking that females, gays, etc. aren’t still being discriminated against?
Just because you legalized a certain random thing [like gay marriage]… yeah, that might make a few things better, but it doesn't change everything. I think everyone is able to identify discrimination when it's against them way more easily than when it's against somebody else. I don't think it's up to anyone to say what discriminations do and don't exist for other people.
On tracks like “Rage,” you sound angrier than I’ve ever heard you. Was this something you’ve been holding in?
I think as a black man and a gay man talking about politics, the tropes get identified as anger just off of what culture decides happens when black people talk about politics. But you know, I had songs where I'm yelling and Dark York was definitely a mixtape of mostly not-happy songs, and that's kind of how I started. "Wut" was a happy song and people took to that because happy music is easy to relate to. So I don't think I'm any angrier than I was before.
I think on "Koi," I wasn't really angry. I don't think I was like singing angrily on auto-tune. But "Rage" is definitely there, and it's a song where I wanted to play with that whole idea of the angry black man and present it in this punk situation that maybe people can relate to more easily. I think that my voice and the beats are just the same; it's just that I'm talking about politics. [Giggles.]
Are you as comfortable singing as you are rapping?
Before this album I pretty much only sang through auto-tune because I'm not a trained singer and it's something that I'm interested in doing, but not something I'm interested in embarrassing myself doing. It's something I've been working on, the way I had to work on rapping before.
You don’t seem to write many love songs or anything about relationships. Do you know the reason for this?
I think that at some point in my life, every song’s been true, or at least some day in life. I've had the actual impetus from my own life to write those songs. But some of them are from last year and some of them are from when I was 16. So it's really for everybody and for people that can relate to those situations.
I've [written about relationships before] as a challenge to myself as a songwriter, because when I was younger I had a fear of making love songs. I thought I was going to get cooties or something. And so that's what the Tree House [mixtape] was for me—it was the challenge of making songs that were intimate. I think with all that practice I've been able to just implement more of my life into songwriting, and not be embarrassed.
How do you think gay rappers are approaching when compared to straight rappers?
I think everyone's an individual. I think there are gay people out here stripping with their dicks out, pouring random things on drag queens in their music videos. We hyper-sexualize or hyper-feminize them, and then there's the other end of the scale… I think that it goes either way. Obviously the things that are hyper-sexualized get a lot more attention. I mean, even for myself—that's why I made the "Wut" video what it was—because I wanted to have a career. I was hyper aware of that. Like I knew that I was putting a hot white guy in a Pikachu mask and that was going to be a big deal in terms of opening up other discussions about homosexuality and rap. I knew if I came with one of the other videos at first, it wouldn't have had that impact. So yeah, that's what I think about it. I think it's as basic as everything else in the world. [Laughs.]
Are you trying to get your music to be Top 40?
I like to see something succeed, and anytime something like that happens, it's always awesome to me. It's not really the goal for me. I mean, if people can just relate to it on an artistic level in any way, that's just exciting to me.
What type of person is connecting with you and your music?
It seems so random to me that I don't know. It's weird. I've been able to play shows in a lot of places that you wouldn't expect. I had sold out headlining festival slots at a festival in Lithuania, and I don't know a single person in Lithuania. At the same time, I've played terrible shows in San Francisco. So I don't know. I think it's just people who like electronic music, because that's what it really comes down to—if you can deal with the weird beats in the first place.
What do you think it’ll take for a gay rapper to be accepted by the mainstream?
I don't know. Hopefully it's me. Fuck it.
Mathias Rosenzweig is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter