“If I’m going to be the rapper I want to be, I want the music at first to be really, really rejoiceful for the people that have inspired my music and the New York community.”
Before his mixtape Dark York dropped in April, Manhattan-based rapper Le1f was having dreams about Tyler, the Creator. “I just kept getting a vision of [the ‘Yonkers’] video, except that [Tyler] was sitting on a dude in a frog’s mask or a Squirtle [from Pokemon] mask,” Le1f says. It was the inspiration for one of the most bombastic scenes in in the video from York’s first single, “Wut.” Le1f raps from the lap of a topless white man who’s slick with body oil and decked out in a Pikachu mask.
It lines up perfectly with what he’s spitting — an exercise in identity politics, calling out straight men as Ken dolls ([I’ve been] fantastic since Scholastic amongst dudes stiff like Mattel/ Carbon copies look so plastic talking ’bout let’s keep it real) to flipping double entendre on jungle fever while rejecting a Ukrainian dude trying to “Bink his Jar Jar.” When Le1f isn’t taking high court, he’s potently twerking and Harlem Shaking throughout the rest of the video.
That confluence — the song’s horn-laden urgency, plus Le1f’s ability to actually practice what the beat inspires — defines Le1f as an artist. A dance student since age four and a beat-maker since he learned Fruity Loops his first year of high school, he’s always been interested in making music that inspires movement. “I want people to dance at my shows. I want that to be the response to my music,” he says. “If I’m going to be the rapper I want to be, I want the music at first to be really, really rejoiceful for the people that have inspired my music and the New York community of the musicians around me.” That meant drawing from his surrounding influences, including the vogue scene and Masters at Work’s “The Ha Dance”, the backbone of vogue house. It’s because of the “Ha” that Le1f found his first hit by crafting Das Racist’s disjointed “Ha”-filled “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”.
The summer before his first year at Wesleyan University, Le1f met DR’s Himanshu Suri, aka Heems, who had coincidentally just graduated from that same school. Le1f gave Suri a tape of twenty beats, including that vogue house experiment gone awry that ultimately became “Pizza Hut, Taco Bell.” In the years since that viral hit, listeners have started to take Das Racist seriously, granting Le1f wider reach and influence as part of Suri’s Greedhead label, a spot Le1f secured via the two’s longstanding friendship.
“Wut” was released, unintentionally, on the heels of Frank Ocean’s coming out letter, and garnered unexpected attention from mainstream media sources like VIBE, who celebrated him, and controversial video site World Star Hip Hop, who tore him to shreds with the headline, “This is What Happens When Rappers Start Admitting Their [sic] Gay.” While Le1f is interested in having a dialogue about sexuality in music, he does not want to be piece in the nonexistent “gay rap” cluster. “If it’s actually a progressive time, people will be able to write about me or any [artist that identifies as gay] in other ways,” he explains. “There’s a lot more in the music to unpack with our individuality. My [lyrics] are hard to understand. [But] rap, in general, is something that’s hard to understand for most people.”
Stream Le1f’s Dark York mixtape below: