Music & clubs

I want to be your number one

From the dorm rooms of Connecticut to the ballrooms of Harlem, LE1F has been steadily eroding the "gay rap" barrier while commanding a fierce internet following. Despite postponing his European tour, we're left with some real talk from the nu-Voguer.

After whipping up an online furore with his brash music videos and unapologetic attitude, Khalif Diouf aka LE1F has been branded a representative of the burgeoning gay rap scene.

Le1f has worn more hats than most – outlandish costume changes excluded. After producing Das Racist’s brilliant/idiotic “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”, his own bounce-infected single “Wut”, with its high-speed flashmob of pop culture references, from Pokémon to soda-pop explosions, made him a meme in his own right. Despite postponing his European tour (and forgoing an appearance as part of Berlin Festival), we’re left with some real talk from the nu-Voguer.

You’re a born-and-bred New Yorker.

I feel like if I was in ancient times I would be nomadic; I’d be a gypsy or something. I wouldn’t be hanging out at the kingdom doing all the boring stuff: I’d be braiding my hair, travelling. I feel like somewhere deep down in my African side, there were nomads. Whatever’s in my blood definitely affected me.

Africa meets New York: Your 2012 mixtape is called Dark York.

I think, narratively, the mixtape is dark, the whole lyrical situation on it is dark. Even though I went to high school and college outside of New York, I was really influenced by life in Manhattan. It’s the product of a dark lifestyle – being gay black people in an urban setting. In that underground environment there’s all the pseudo-ironic club culture. So I totally make reference to that, as well as being an underdog, being underground.

Do you see yourself as a satirist?

Yeah, totally. At least I was for a little bit. I wanted to bring up political things, and I was hanging out with people like Das Racist, so it was easy to be satirical in both an academic and a comedic way. Last year when the “Wut” deal came out, I wanted people to understand where I was coming from but also be amused. So I had all these images in the video like, objectifying guys, or using Pokémon, things like that. It was totally conscious, especially at the outset. I knew if I ever had success in music that there was going to be a concentration about homosexuality, unless someone else did it first.

Your sexuality has been the media focus.

Actually, it’s not important to me. It wasn’t until the Pitchfork write-up that I realised I was like, a “gay rapper” in quotes, you know? In terms of the video for “Wut,” I wanted it to be aggressive on all fronts. I wanted it to be, like, weird references, in terms of anime, in terms of black culture, and in terms of gay culture, as well. But I didn’t realize that the one identity of being gay would matter so much. I thought it was everything put together that would make it interesting. So, that was kind of a weird moment for me, to deal with that.

Have the provocative elements caused problems?

Definitely. There were a lot of negative reactions, especially at first, mostly from online communities where people feel they don’t have to hold their tongue because they’re anonymous, or a lot of city teenagers or black community people who felt strongly in the face of it. It was mostly like, shitty homophobic statements. I feel like a lot of the backlash came from the fact that I was rapping well, because there have been a lot of gay rappers who are more popular than me, but none of them were, like, actually being taken seriously in the music world or the rap world. But I don’t really get too much of that anymore. I feel like people who know who I am know who I am and people who don’t care about it don’t. Most of my fans are like, electronic music fans and white girls.

You have a pretty thick skin.

That’s just me being honest. I’ve dealt with it before, so I’m not going to act sentimental all of a sudden. I’m still a black person in America. I’ve already dealt with hate in real life, so now I’m just, like, whatever. There was so much backlash from people who refused to even listen. I know the lyrics are hard to hear in “Wut,” but there were people saying I’m being Eurocentric by talking about how I like white men, and I’m, like, the whole second verse is about rejecting a guy who has jungle fever. There’s no having sex with anyone in the entire song.

Did people really say you were articulate and dapper as a child, like in “Wut?”

Yeah! My mom was really serious about education. I went to a boarding school based on the fact that they had a really, really good dance programme – they even had classes on Saturdays. So yeah, that was my shit. But in terms of real classes – I don’t know. I hated science, I hated math. I guess I liked English class.

Did you meet Das Racist at Wesleyan?

Actually, I met them the summer before, when I was staying on their couch. My DJ at the time went to Wesleyan and introduced me to Himanshu from the band. Basically, all my friends at Wesleyan were their friends.

You only graduated in 2011.

Ha! Yeah, it kind of freaks me out. I went to the most expensive school in the country and coming out of it, the only job I could even get an interview for was bussing tables. So I’m glad it all worked out.

I’ve spoken to other musicians about “The Editor”, that voice in your head that criticises everything you do as an artist.

Ha ha, yeah. I think my Editor only just became an Editor though. My Editor used to be, like, an evil bitch. My current one is more of a devil’s advocate. The doubts about my musical abilities used to happen no matter what I was doing. Now if I’m rapping, I’m good, but if I try singing, The Editor comes back like, “What are you doing? Why are you singing?” But it’s fine. Me and [producer] Boody have learned how to use Auto-Tune really well.

Both as a producer and as a solo artist, you collaborate a lot.

I like collaborating with people because every time I start something, I always get writer’s block in terms of making my own beats. Using someone else’s beats is like a whole fresh slate to me. I’ve worked with Boody a lot because I feel comfortable working with people I’m friends with. One of the reasons the songs on my mixtape have worked out is because the collaborations were in my court, you know? They send me the beats, I choose whether or not I like them. There’s no one saying, “You can’t do this.” The only person who tells me I can’t do anything is me – which happens a lot. [Laughs] 

Kiddy Smile will fill in for Le1f at Berlin Festival, featuring DJs MikeQ, VJuan allure, Jack Mizrahi. Fri, Sep 6, 23:00 | Glashaus Arena, Eichenstr. 4, Treptow, S-bhf Treptower Park

Originally published in Issue #119, September 2013.