April 24, 2013


NYC Rapper Le1f Talks Hating His Voice & Holding Back on Political Rap

Shannon Stewart for Fuse
Shannon Stewart for Fuse

Former Das Racist beatmaker and current "Wut" ass-shaker Le1f just dropped his second mixtape, Fly Zone, and is prepping to unleash his third, Tree House, a collection of Jeremih-esque songs that he wants "people to have sex to."

Fuse sat down with the New York rapper to talk about wanting to be more like "Beyonce than Gucci Mane," his hatred of performing and why the openly gay rapper decided to pull politics from his material... so far.

First and foremost: Whose face is on your necklace?

George Costanza. My friend Maxwell Velocity, who is a rapper, made this for me when he used to work at Goodwood. It’s my good-luck charm.

You did the beat for Das Racist's breakthrough track "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." Did you want to be a producer before you wanted to be a rapper?

When I graduated high school I knew I already wanted to be a rapper, but I had performed a little bit and I hated it. I was at the stage where I was picking up a mic, saying something into it, hearing how sh*tty the sound was and then leaving. But eventually I'd do small-ass parties with [Das Racist rapper] Himanshu’s roommate as my DJ. So I used to crash on their couch and we would just smoke weed and watch commercials until six in the morning. I remember Himanshu had a MySpace with these two awesome funny songs on it, one of them is called "Thug Handles." I gave them a bunch of beats [for that stuff] because I thought that I would never use them. But I’ve always wanted to be a rapper. I just didn't like my voice when I was younger. 

How did you get into the New York hip hop scene?

I was in boarding school before in Massachusetts. It was fine, but I definitely couldn’t find a crew of people freestyling on the street anywhere who were my age. So my emergence into rap was hanging out with these older cats in New York, artists that were already working who I looked up to. Basically, anyone that was cool and willing to hang out with someone underage. I started when I was 16; My mom took me to this New York bar to go see my favorite band at the time, Kudu, perform. Then soon after that, [I started hanging with] Sylvia from Kudu, Shannon from Light Asylum, Black Crocker, Bunny Rabbit and Tha Pumpsta. They were these queer rappers from Brooklyn that threw parties. And Himanshu and Victor [Kool A.D. from Das Racist], those are the people that took care of me. And I just never went home again.

Did you change your voice when you started rapping?

Someone once told me Lil Wayne had said he had a moment where someone told him to rap crazy, to choose a voice and rap crazy. And then I was like, "Oh yeah, I’m just being really soft and not attacking this situation. I need to confront this microphone and figure out how my voice needs to sound." As I got older my voice did drop a little bit, but I also I realized that there's actually a huge range to my voice, not just some tiny, mute gayness to it. So I just had to explore it. And Dark York [his first mixtape] was, for me, an exploration of what me and my voice could do if I had a little confidence behind it. I never want to make two songs that sound exactly the same. When I get a beat and I’m like, "Oh my God, this is amazing," I always imagine the character that needs to attack it: How their voice has to sound and who I need to channel. 

What kind of characters do you imagine creating with your voice?

All kinds of characters, like Fem Robots, 2 Chainz... you know what I mean? It’s all over the place. I guess the videos are a good example of that. Those are the kind of characters for those songs, they're definitely banjee bottom crazy.

So there's a Pikachu mask on the oiled-up guy in your 'Wut' video. Did you come up with that randomly?

No, I actually had a dream—a legitimate dream, not even a daydream. You know Tyler, the Creator’s video "Yonkers," where he’s sitting on a stool with his shadow silhouette? I was imagining that it was me and I was sitting on the lap of a guy wearing a frog mask and that just kind of morphed into my head. At first I wanted it to be a Squirtle mask, but it wouldn’t look as wet and sexy 'cause it had to be paper mache. So we just went with the Pikachu mask.

What's your writing process like? Do you start with lyrics or beats?

I usually like to have the beat first to have the full idea of the song. Usually I’ll hear a beat and come up with a hook or some lines and then go through my Google docs and patch things together that make sense. There's tons of notes in my phone that are just partial stanzas and things that need to get finished based on the right beats. I don’t freestyle. But sometimes weird things happen and they just come out. Like "Wut" I did drunk and it has one or two vocal takes. That’s why it sounds mixed so poorly 'cause I was just [makes slurring drunk noises]. But most of the time I have a whole song written even before I go on the mic. Or at least what I think is going to be the whole song. And I record all the parts five times and then go back and pick and choose. But sometimes not—I’ve been getting better and better at not being so nit-picky with it. 

Do you sing at all?

I do Auto-Tune, so no.

Shannon Stewart for Fuse
Shannon Stewart for Fuse

I read in Fader that you had written some more political stuff about gay rights for Dark York but decided to not put it in the mixtape. Why?

I didn’t have confidence as a rapper when I was a kid, even though my influences were M.I.A.Crystal Castles and Bjork. Those are such political women and I was really inspired by that. But as a gay teenager I was like, "No one wants to hear me talk about politics. At all." Like, I have this annoying little gay voice [and I'm] talking about Islamophobia? Boring! Nobody is going to play that in the club. I had to figure out how I wanted to express those kinds of things without being tacky or corny.

Do you think you'll address politics more in the future?

I might, I’m not sure. I don’t want to project about what I’d want to do or anything 'cause I really don’t know, but I feel like when I make a proper LP I will have songs that are more meaningful. Because it’s been a choice to be a braggie rapper [so far] just so I can have people understand that I can do this style of rap. And I enjoy it. That’s mostly what I listen to anyway, like Waka Flocka and 2 Chainz. I’m not going to deny that that’s part of my influence.

Ice-T recently said he thought "it would be difficult to listen to a gay gangster rapper." Do you think the world is ready for a hardcore gangsta rapper who is also gay?

I feel like people are interested in what they think is honest. I think Rick Ross is the only one that’s gotten away with being such a character that's not what he actually is. So if some gay person is thinking of being an actual mafia goon, than more power to them, but I’m not really interested in that. I’m not interested in gangsta rap in general. I’m interested in the sounds of Memphis rap and I’m impressed that I really understand when there actually were people like Suge Knight and Compton and Liberty City and actual rappers from hood places. But I think at this point it would be trite to pretend to be gangsta and gay unless you actually were. If someone is that, that’s awesome. For me or LaDosha to do that would be facetious, I’m not interested in that. Kendrick Lamar actually does rep Compton a lot but not like he’s a gangsta rapper. Because he’s not a gangster, he’s not a goon. He’s a normal person and an intelligent guy so it comes thought. The real character that he is comes through and that’s what’s most important. Just like being gay is just one identity out of whatever sh*tty one thousand things make up a person. It’s different for everyone. And so as long as you’re feeling good while making music, that’s what’s really relevant.

Were you a 2 Chainz fan back when he was Tity Boy?

No, I wasn’t, but I’m so obsessed with him right now. He’s so good.

Anyone else you're a big fan of these days?

I listen to Azealia Banks almost every day—that’s all my shower music. All the House songs on Fantasea. And Kendrick Lamar is probably the best rapper out right now. I still love 2 Chainz and Kanye West and, you know, all the mainstream TV stuff. Rihanna: I love her. Mykki Blanco, House of LaDosha… those are definitely things I listen to the most.

Have you met Azealia?

Yeah, actually she invited me out with her for a weekend and took me to the Kanye West show where we found out Kim Kardashian was pregnant. It was super fun. And then I went to see her for New Year's at the Boom Boom Room. She’s super fun, I love her. We text all the time. She gives me hair care information.

What made you decide that you wanted to go blonde with the braids?

Well, I had the purple braids a couple months ago and they were way longer than this, about a foot longer. And I miss them so much—they’re so fun to perform with. It's the best thing to have other than my voice on stage. If I didn't have this I'd just be standing there wiping the sweat off my forehead, drinking water. I’d rather feel more like Beyonce than Gucci Mane, you know?