“Rapping about sex? Whack.” NYC rapper and producer Le1f (aka Khalif Diouf) is explaining that, until now, he’d preferred to avoid subjects of the carnal variety in his music. You wouldn’t think so to see him booty popping up against a greasy, nude white guy on his exquisitely jerking video for ‘Wut’, lifted from this year’s Dark York mixtape. Or from the salacious double entendre of Mykki Blanco’s ‘Fuckin the DJ (feat.Le1f)’. But then, lyrics like “This yuppie’s talking blah blah, he wants to Binks my Jar Jar” is more than a cheeky euphemism growled through a vortex of demented electronica. It’s also a smart reference to the serious topic of race, class, sex and identity through the animated racial caricature of Star Wars.
Le1f is an out-and-proud gay rapper. Rising into prominence along with other queer hip hop artists like Zebra Katz and Mykki Blanco, you needn’t look further than his Twitter account on a press day to see how he feels about the media focus on his sexuality: “IM NOT SOME RHYMING JUKING FAGGOT CAKE WALK. FUCK.” That’s not to say Le1f doesn’t know he’s profited from the hype. It’s just that there’s more to him than his coming out story. It’s also the fact he’s worked with all sorts of amazing producers, including Nguzunguzu and Das Racist, and has a slick new collaboration with producer Boody, the Liquid EP, to promote.
In person, at a London hotel and just off the plane, Le1f is surprisingly nervous as he rotates between pulling at his shirt and fiddling with his shortened purple hair extensions. But that doesn’t mean he’s the type to avoid sensitive subjects as he talks openly about most things from his estranged dad (“he can google me on the internet”) to when it’s acceptable for a white person to use “the ‘n’ word” (never). Because as a performer of Gullah, Cherokee and Senegalese ancestry, born and raised in New York and creatively indebted to everything from grime to Pokémon, you know that he speaks from experience.
Dazed Digital: Have you felt there’s been more interest in your music in the UK?
Le1f: Over the course of making music for the past five or six years, even when it’s been irrelevant, I always felt like there was more interest in Europe because the genres –progressive electronic rap and alternative rap in a grime-y or house-y way –is very European. But since the video [Wut] came out, I’ve had a lot of interest in the ‘States. I’ve had a lot of college shows and random Midwestern shows.
DD: Random Midwestern shows?
Le1f: Yeah. I played a gay festival in Kentucky a month ago[laughs]. Things like that are happening right now.
DD: Somehow I’m surprised.
Le1f: Yeah I was surprised but ‘you know SSION is from there? There’s this whole similar community of gay lumberjacks, cool southern-style. They’re there. It’s cool.
DD: I was thinking about appropriating masculine or macho cultural styles. Your music has a lot of characteristics that are rooted in 90s hip hop, which was still very heteronormative in scope. Is that something you’ve considered?
Le1f: Well, I’m still a black man. Being gay is just one identity that I have. I do appropriate things that are super macho from hip hop, definitely, the bragging, the masculinity sometimes, I do make ironic plays on it but sometimes I’m actually just being a guy.
DD: Speaking of these controversial rappers from the last 15 years, do you see a difference between what Eminem was doing, in terms of misogyny and homophobia, and Odd Future?
Le1f: Odd Future is super clever because it’s main goal is to be angsty [laughs]. It’s against everybody, including themselves. I think they don’t get so much shit for it because there’s a lot more jokes made. Also Syd tha Kid is a great lesbian producer. Frank Ocean is a very great singer who is queer and, on Tyler’s records, he’s really funny and ironic. So, yeah, Eminem but it’s also like Das Racist, which makes it kind of acceptable [laughs].
DD: I‘ve noticed a recent trend in mainstream comedy making racist jokes and perpetuating horrible stereotypes by delivering them ironically.
Le1f: I don’t think it’s ironic. The business knows how to use ‘irony’, quote un quote, to sell products. America… it gets racist, still. In general, of course racism is still a thing but people know how you can be PC about discriminating against anything. Especially with the older generation, I feel like they know it’s no longer acceptable. So they get their shits and giggles out through forms of irony and subliminal things.
Like a lot of people have done black face in their music videos over the last two years in interesting ways; people in the western world in particular, from homogenous places. You know, dressing like Native Americans and dancing around the forest. That is something I didn’t really see as a kid and I think it’s because the media is so fast that people care less. If you write it on the internet and someone already has a million fans, no one’s going to promote it. No one really cares about drawing out and addressing those of issues one by one.
DD: There’s obviously been a lot of talk about the rise of the ‘superwoman’ and deviance in rap recently. When you think about it, hip hop had gotten quite conservative over the last decade or so.
Le1f: Yeah, especially for women in rap. I think it’s like a return to ’94, ’95, different sexual liberation. I’m totally in to that because it’s what I grew up on. Most of my favourite rappers that I grew up on as a kid were female. Trina, Da Brat, Miss Elliot they were actually, for American standards, really provocative and, yeah, that is a return to that now with Angel Haze and Azealia Banks.
DD: It’s also not limited to women. I think that applies to any minority that doesn’t fit the cultural norm.
Le1f: People are definitely interested in those characters. I think they’re bored with typical machismo, basic fashion-sense rap, for sure. There are trendsetters for that from the UK, especially. I feel like Dizzee Rascal and M.I.A. created that look, of being alternative with your selection of beats as well as the way you address your identities in rap music. I think that was a pinnacle moment for younger rappers, or people who wanted to be involved in music in that way.
At least, I can say that for myself. I also can say that for Himanshu [Suri] from Das Racist, him being an Indian rapper. We have both been heavily affected by seeing a hot refugee from Sri Lanka rapping well. And pseudo-politically too, while still making party music. It wasn’t about having money, hos and cars… so directly. [laughs]
That was a turning point, in terms of identities in rap. To the point where having a strange identity in rap will bring you a lot of attention, in the way that it’s brought myself a lot of attention and Iggy Azalea a lot of attention. Even though those are totally separate things, they’re really related. Unfortunately. [laughs]
LE1F's new EP, Liquid, is out now