NYC rapper Le1f brings a new vogue to hip-hop

Boston Globe, October 1, 2012

NEW YORK — Let’s be real: There’s been queerness in hip-hop for ages.

There’s the homo-thug underground; the bawdy drag of New Orleans sissy bounce. Videos full of imagery that overflows their ostensibly heterosexual frame; the disclaimer “no homo,” with its protest-too-much reek. Just last week, a Harvard conference on “Queerness of Hip-Hop” gathered a slate of top cultural critics.

With sex and gender variation just one YouTube click away, the search for the mysterious gay rapper, and fervent denial in some circles that such a creature exists, has a ring of absurdity.

“There are so many of us,” says Le1f. “You read articles where they ask Nicki Minaj if we’ll ever see a gay rapper, and she’s not saying that she already knows 20. Come on!”

Le1f, 23, is a gay rapper. He’s out and outspoken, with a lauded debut mixtape, “Dark York,” and a video, “Wut,” that’s gotten a half million YouTube views since July.

He’s also Senegalese on one side (where he gets his real name, Khalif Diouf), Gullah and Cherokee on the other, and an Upper West Side kid who boarded at Concord Academy and got a dance degree at Wesleyan University.

Le1f belongs to a fresh wave of queer artists who aren’t so much a movement in themselves as they are increasingly blended into New York’s fluid hip-hop scene. These days, uptown stars like A$AP Rocky have renounced homophobia, and straight and gay partiers mix at club nights like Ghe2o Goth1k, run by queer Latina DJ Venus X.

“People are out there in the open,” says Himanshu Suri of hip-hop trio Das Racist. “Gay black rappers, college-educated rappers, Indian rappers, Russian rappers. . .” Signed to Suri’s label Greedhead, Le1f opens for Das Racist on Oct. 1 at Royale, alongside roster mates Lakutis and SAFE.

A recent afternoon finds Le1f at a back table in a Greenwich Village bistro, nibbling at a salad, enjoying some quiet after the frenzy of Fashion Week, where he deejayed seven runway shows and afterparties.

He says he liked what he saw: “There’s a lot of things that I’d totally like to borrow. Really crazy gelatinous coats. Intricate dip-dyed linen jumpsuits. Caps that look like someone decapitated a praying mantis.”

On this day, he’s dressed down in slacks and a T-shirt, the blue crest in his hair mostly faded. He says he’s considering his next look. His second mixtape will be called “Tree House,” inspired by forest canopies, and he’s been checking out camouflage gear. “But it might be tacky to do foliage in the fall,” he says.

A rapper, producer, and serious dancer — he started ballet at age 4, and chose Concord Academy for its famous dance program — Le1f is also a fashionista, a club kid, and, says Suri, an all-around embodiment of today’s New York scene.

“He’s five years younger than me, but he’s the dude I’m always turning to to see what’s cool,” Suri says.

The two go back to the time when a teenaged Le1f was making tracks with Suri’s roommate and sleeping on their couch. Suri was compelled by Le1f’s music — “this aquatic, underwater trap stuff,” Suri calls it — and asked for some beats.

One became the track for Das Racist’s 2008 breakout, the goofy ear-worm “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” It features samples from gay-identified vogue house. “I was trying to be sneaky,” Le1f says.

Back then Le1f wasn’t rapping much. Now he’s in full voice, with lyrics and stage presence to match his beats.

On “Dark York,” the palette is mostly somber, full of woozy, gurgly effects, but enlivened by chimes, synths, and thick, driving beats. About half are self-produced; the balance come from future-bass mavens like Nguzunguzu and Matt Shadetek.

The lyrics have some of the gonzo intellectualism Das Racist fans will recognize, splicing in references to Scientology or Chinua Achebe. But Le1f’s work is less jagged and a lot more sexy. It’s rich with a distinct vocabulary: He’s banjee, mixy and wavy; he jukes, twerks, and calls out to twinks.

An admirer of Björk and Meredith Monk, Le1f enjoys manipulating his voice to visceral effect. One song features guttural sounds inspired by Inuit throat singing. “My voice has a lot of range,” he says. “I like to use it like a synth.”

“I might have to take serious singing lessons,” he adds. “I might have to go a crazy route, maybe total griot like Baaba Maal.”

Though his Senegalese father has long been out of the picture, Le1f drops enough references to Senegal, Islam, or African writers into lyrics and conversation to convey that those roots fascinate him.

“I feel like my affinity for juke and 150 bpm music is inspired by sabar,” he says, referring to the Senegalese dance and drum style.

He hopes to visit someday: “I should do it sooner than later, because the more people know I’m a gay rapper, the less likely it is.”

Not that Le1f would ever conceal himself. On the “Wut” video, he struts dance moves in short shorts and luxuriates on the lap of a buff, shirtless white guy who wears a Pikachu mask.

When the video went up on popular portal Worldstarhiphop.com, it prompted a torrent of homophobic vitriol. That was part of the plan, Le1f says.

“It’s cool that I get picked up by the foreign blogs, but at the same time those aren’t my people,” he says. “I’m still a black person from New York. So I wanted to troll the underbelly of black media because I knew that’s the only way up.”

He shrugs off the invective: “Whatever. It’s the Internet.” Exposure brings bigger prizes — not just gigs, which he says have doubled since “Wut,” but human rewards.

“I have a lot of black girl fans now,” he says. “And I have people DM me and say, ‘Thank you so much, I just came out to my family, I’m a rapper, can we talk?’ And that’s really cool for me.”

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