No Longer Playing It Safe: In Conversation with Le1f

On November 13, 2015, New York rapper/producer/singer/dancer/sound engineer (you get the idea) Le1f released his debut record. But, don’t let that fool you.

He has been making music for coming onto a decade, used to produce for Das Racist and cites Missy Elliot and M.I.A as major influences. Being shaped by the diverse New York City culture growing up, he has a degree in dance from Wesleyan and has been a major influence on the hip-hop and dance scenes since his track Wut went viral.

Now, two EPs down, he’s released Riotboi; a 12-track records that doesn’t leave many stones unturned. An all out sensory assault, Riotboi is quite possible Le1f’s magnum opus already. From playfully singing about being hit on by fuckbois, to discussing the plight of trans folk, all the way to songs about coming out and a song about not getting a cab in New York because of your skin colour, Le1f seized his newfound podium and has made sure everyone can hear him – and that they better listen.

Teaming up with heavyweights like SOPHIE, Blood Diamonds and Lunice for production duties whilst friends Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), Junglepussy and DonChristian appear for guest verses, Riotboi was over two years in the making and you can hear why. Polished, considered and refined, Le1f’s creative control is exerted in a way that not only are his collaborators highlighted in a way that shows the world what they’ve got, but also in a way that perfectly captures exactly who he is as an artist.

Le1f is now setting his sights for bigger and better things, and will be finally making his long-awaited return to Australia next year for Sugar Mountain as well as some sideshows. We had the absolute honour to speak to him recently, and naturally he didn’t disappoint here either. It’s not often you can spurt out profound wisdom whilst doing your groceries, but that’s exactly what happened during this conversation. Le1f is who he is, and the minute he accepted that was the minute he became a superstar. It’s now time the world finally caught on.

Hey Le1f! How’s it going? What are you up to?

I’m just walking to the grocery store.

A nice rockstar day, then? 

*laughs* Yeah I’m doing normal people things today.

Well it might be a nice break after all the fuss from the album. I have to say, congratulations. It is such a fucking awesome album.

Thank you! Thank you so much!

It must be such a good feeling to finally have it out there after a good two years of working on it!

Yeah, yeah it feels really good. There is still so much work to do around it. A lot of art that I’m making now, but yeah the music took me a very long time. It’s the longest it’s ever taken me. I’m glad it’s out.

Did it feel liberating, or were you kind of like, “Oh, I’m glad that’s done”?

Yeah it was more like, “Oh, I’m glad that’s done!” *laughs* It was more like, “FINALLY!”

I love your description of it about how you go out with your friends, and a guy hits on you but he’s a fuckboi so you get an uber home and smoke a joint in your room. 

*laughs* Can you relate?

I think so many people can relate to that! How important is it to you that you’ve make a record that so many people can relate to like that? 

That is important to me. A lot of people have been asking me questions like what do I want people to get from my music, but it’s as long as they get something from it, whatever they get! That’s awesome! I’m not going to tell anyone how to have a relationship with music. If I can be in their situation and their lives musically or whatever, I think that’s cool! It’s really cool.

Totally. Being Le1f, you would have a lot of experiences that are quite different from the average person, but then you also share a lot of experiences like in your songs Taxi and Tell – you’re giving voices to people that might not have them heard otherwise. 

Thanks! I’m just trying to fill the void of that “same” music that used to exist so easily. If I have the platform, and I am who I am, I might as well use it.

Was it intimidating to release such an opinionated and political record? Were you scared to put yourself out there? 

Yeah, when I was younger I was. I wanted to make a record like this since the beginning. It was terrifying. When I was a teenager, I was privy to so much of the industry, growing up in New York and being surrounded by mentors that were major artists and failing underground artists and everything in between. It was very much not in my interest as someone who wasn’t invested in politics to be a young person just yabbing my mouth and making music. But once the opportunity came to make a record with Terrible and XL Recordings, I decided to actually live up to it.

I’ve been a fan of yours since 2012 and since then, you’ve accepted yourself more and more – do you think that’s played a part in you being able to do a record like this? 

Definitely. I think that to be able to go into the studio and just record anything, or grab a mike and sing anything takes a lot of self confidence.

How is it trying to wrap your head around the fact that you’re actually an inspiration to people now? 

I’m really humbled by it. It’s pretty crazy but I think it’s really cool.

Do you think it’s easier or harder to put out a political record these days? I find that, whilst there are a lot of important conversations happening now, they are also quickly derailed.

I don’t think it’s easier or harder than it ever was. I just think it takes a person who’s clever enough to not be an annoying preacher and actually be true to the music. You have to be there and open your third eye, your mind’s eye, and be in the narrative you’re trying to tell. You have to be an engaged storyteller, even when you’re discussing politics. That’s not something that’s easy to do. It’s easy to make a love song because there’s a thousand of them and everyone’s been in love, and it’s a safe place. In the same way, I find a lot of people find their comfort zones in music like gospel music or religious music, you know? Because they feel safe and confident in that zone. A lot of creative people don’t feel confident in a zone that’s talking politics, so it’s about addressing issues in clever ways. But, you know, Nina Simone did it and M.I.A did it and they were both from such different time periods. They’re just people who were able to tap into that space and be cool and epic and listen.

You’ve obviously educated yourself as well which has really had a hand in you being able to do exactly that – put yourself into the narrative even if you haven’t directly experienced it. 

I definitely tried to be tasteful. There are not too many things that I don’t understand firsthand or secondhand that was discussed on the record. But, even then I tried to be tasteful and open.

There is obviously so much work that has gone into this record, with all the producers and feature artists as well. What is something that you’ve learned over this time? 

That I am a nit-picking person for sure. Part of the two and a half years it took me to do this record, there was definitely four or five months of me mixing the record. I have one of the greatest mixing engineers in the world but I was still being a complete asshole. That’s something I learned about myself for next time. To save time on editing, because I’m so hypercritical.

Now you know to dedicate at least a year, just for mixing. 

I need to start NOW if I want another record! *laughs*

How did it go working with the producers who were actually your friends, if you were so nit-picky? 

I think with this record, everyone just understood that I had this strong vision that was helping me and hopefully I will do the same thing when they ask. Working with SOPHIE was interesting because, we’re definitely close friends now, but that came out of us maybe rubbing each other in the wrong way *laughs* Being both stubborn musicians. It wasn’t as clean as him being a producer, because he’s a bit of a songwriter and I’m a bit of a producer so there was a lot of us editing each other and going back and forth, but I’m glad it happened. We’ve done some new stuff since then and it’s cool. I think even the hard collaborations can be fruitful and amazing.

Looking forward now, I am so excited for your Australian tour. What can we expect? 

I am hoping to bring my dancers! It’s a bit late with the whole visa situation but I’m trying to bring them!

I feel like Riotboi is going to just lend itself so well to a live setting. Is that something you kept in mind when making it? 

Definitely. In terms of the production, that’s all I was keeping in mind. I wanted it to be a show that I could play festival stages. I hope it actually becomes a reality. A good show is always important. I want to be the best performer I could possibly be, so I’m going to start being that! Getting on a stage and just rapping is getting boring. Even though people still seem to like it and want to come and watch it, I’m getting bored doing it. Six or seven years doing it that way, I’m going to find something else now!

Riot Boi is out now via XL Recordings/Terrible Records.

Le1f 2016 Australian Tour

Thursday, 21st January
Oxford Art Factory – Sydney
Tickets: Handsome Tours

Friday, 22nd January
TBC Club, Brisbane
Tickets: Handsome Tours

Saturday, 23rd January
Sugar Mountain Festival
Victoria College Of The Arts + Arts Precint, Melbourne
Tickets: Sugar Mountain Festival

Sunday, 24th January
Jack Rabbit Slims, Perth
Tickets: Handsome Tours