With his debut album, outspoken rapper Le1f aims to transcend his viral moment
By Devon Maloney | Photography by Alex Welsh
The one thing you never hear about Khalif Diouf is how much he laughs.
In general, the native New York rapper — better known as Le1f — is portrayed as a soft-spoken, yet deadly serious provocateur wholly dedicated to his bawdy, politically charged party raps. He helps that image along, of course: confrontational onstage, always strictly composed and mean-mugging like a couture model in photoshoots, and ready to unleash a social media beatdown on anyone unwise enough to call him transphobic or make bigoted comments about his career.
But in person, that all melts away with the arrival of his big, endearing exclamation point of a chortle, one that bursts loudly and often over whatever space he happens to inhabit — for example, a beige booth in a Midtown Manhattan diner, talking to a reporter about X-Men.
"I was just into mutant… situations," he says of his nerdy childhood, laughing over a plate of plain French toast. (They were out of cinnamon-raisin bread.) He’s ordered a pitcher of water, too, worried he’s getting sick before his CMJ show at Williamsburg’s Cameo Gallery later this week. "I always liked Iceman, but he just came out of the closet. He said he didn’t want to before because he didn’t want to deal with the double-discrimination. I’m like, ‘Whatever, I’ve been a gay black dude my whole life. Get over it.’"
Le1f’s own breakout story plays out like an underground rap superhero saga. In 2012, having lost the production files in the eleventh hour for a song from his debut mixtape Dark York, Diouf found himself in need of a beat. He called on his friends, the production duo 5kinAndBone5, and when they sent over a track, he says, "I just drunkenly rapped a new song."
That song was "Wut," still his most well-known track to date. Despite its slapdash origins, it was a polished, major-label-quality banger that confidently showcased both his blackness and homosexuality in such a nonchalant manner that his stardom, in all its colorful glory, seemed inevitable. In the video for "Wut" video Le1f dances against an all-white background like the star of an animated iPod commercial made flesh, narrating the moves of his brightly dressed backup dancers; even when the lights go out, he keeps going, spinning in place while running an Afro pick through his close-cut, dyed-violet hair. The clip doesn’t even break the three-minute mark, but it only took that long for Le1f to be officially bookmarked as One To Watch.
The song and its video, coupled with a few fiery comments about homophobia in mainstream rap, went viral, and he quickly became a minor iconoclast, a talented artist with a fresh perspective. Two years later, he was performing with choreographed dancers on The Late Show with David Letterman. Plenty of independent artists have hit late-night TV stages in recent years, but for Le1f, it was a major moment: here was a radical queer black artist performing a song about being radical, queer, and black, on national television. Middle America had rarely been so visibly confronted by such a marginalized talent; it was an electric appearance that the press immediately lauded as a sign of big things to come.
But three years after "Wut" blew up, the inevitability of Le1f’s success seems far less certain. His second-most popular video, 2013’s "Spa Day," has under half a million views; while "Wut" has been streamed 1.7 million times on Spotify, his second most popular "Boom," has only made about 353,000. Le1f’s biggest hit, now three years old, has begun weighing on him.
"I kind of want to destroy it," he says now at the diner, grimacing. "I think there are a lot of people who just see the ‘Wut’ video, but they’ll never hear any of the ridiculous, loud, and destructive music that I was [also] making at the same time."
And nothing pigeonholes an artist faster than becoming a one-hit wonder — a fact of which he’s painfully aware.
"I appreciate that I can have a life from [‘Wut,’]" he says. But the fact that he’s continued to release new material since then, none of which has garnered the same degree of attention, is frustrating to him. "It makes me think that it really wasn’t about artistry at all," he says. "It was about the hashtag: ‘gay black rapper.’"
Being oneself often has that sort of price, especially in pop music. But with his debut full-length album Riot Boi, which arrives this week on Terrible / XL Records, he’s making a serious attempt to get that fee waived.
At six-foot-three and dressed in all black, with one long, gold earring and a leather bucket hat, Le1f stands out in a restaurant full of tired, gray-haired white men in taupe suits. But like anyone who grew up having to make the best of their misfit status, he’s used to it.
Diouf comes from a line of classical vocalists — his mother and grandmother are professional opera singers who have performed at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. "I’m like the only person in my family who can’t sing, actually," he says. Instead, he found his niche in dance, a talent that eventually paved the way to boarding school at the prestigious (and predominantly white and wealthy) Concord Academy. As a teen he studied dance, design, and production — frequently showing up to class "wearing white plastic trench coats and Uggs" — and used his high school’s computer lab to record his own electronic and juke beats.
Still, the idea of performing vocally in any capacity seemed out of the question. "Having this nasally, gay voice was just something totally disgusting to me as a teenager," he says. "I didn’t understand how to use it or what to do at all." But at some point during his time at Concord — "a time when I was listening to Animal Collective in dance class, and crying to Björk at night" — Diouf first came across an inkling that even if he would never make it in the opera, maybe a rap career wasn’t so farfetched.
"M.I.A.’s ‘Galang’ video had just come out, and I saw how she incorporated her printmaking art into that music video, and I was like, ‘Yes, this is awesome!’" he remembers. "Her voice sounds crazy, but I love it, and she is summing up all her mediums [sic] into one awesome thing.’" He was also inspired by the equally idiosyncratic vocal stylings of British rapper Dizzee Rascal. "That was definitely an inspiring moment for me, to at least start working towards something."
It wasn’t until 2007, the summer before he started college at Wesleyan, that the hours spent fooling around on school software started to pay off, courtesy of his DJ’s roommate and their friends — Himanshu "Heems" Suri, Victor "Kool A.D." Vasquez, and Ashok "Dapwell" Kondabolu. The trio was looking to get a rap project off the ground, and Le1f had been selling beats to make extra money.
"I basically gave them this beat," he says. "I really thought I wanted to rap over it, but at the time, I wasn’t feeling confident enough about rapping over anything that wasn’t electro or juke." That beat became the foundation for Das Racist’s goofy 2008 viral earworm "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." The favor paid off: the artists remained friends, and four years later, not long after Diouf graduated and returned to New York, Heems released Le1f’s debut mixtape Dark York via his label, Greedhead.
As the buzz around Le1f’s mixtapes grew (Fly Zone was released in January of 2013, Tree House that fall), the press developed its own narrative, observing similar releases from the likes of Mykki Blanco and Zebra Katz and declaring a burgeoning "queer New York rap scene." It was news to Le1f.
"I didn’t even realize I was a ‘gay rapper’ until the Pitchfork article," he says earnestly, referring to an article on the music site that linked the careers of Le1f and a handful of other subversive New York artists. For a while, he says, it was frustrating, but he soon accepted the label — "if that means screaming and vogueing in a dress in the dark onstage, then great."
"I’m already a politicized figure, just by nature of how I’ve been in the press, being an out musician," he says. And he has made a bit of a name for himself as an outspoken figure on social media: after Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won a VMA in 2013 for their pro-LGBT cut "Same Love," Le1f tweeted — a lot. "It saddens me out that a straight man is the voice pop music has chosen for gay rights," he wrote. (In the same incident, he also called out the Seattle duo’s horn-centric "Thrift Shop" for its resemblance to "Wut": "At the end of the day, I openly have no respect for any artists ripping from other artists, so blatantly.")
The way he sees it, at this point all he can do is throw his whole weight into the parts of his public reputation that really matter to him. "I wanted to make a record that addresses the politics that I wanted to speak about, and not what others [expected me to say]," he says of Riot Boi. "It feels like I’m breaking out of being a meme and convincing people I’m a musician."
Still, he admits, while his subject matter may be subversive, he can’t help but aspire to mainstream acceptance, which of course comes with pressures to conform to certain cultural expectations. He spends a lot of time thinking about where he would fit in the pop world, should he get there. He admires Nina Simone, a pianist who began singing out of necessity and ended up a massively celebrated vocalist and activist, but also likes Beyoncé, a lifelong singer and meticulous performer. They’re nearly opposite aspirations, artistically speaking, but he wants both.
"But like, the cyborg version, post-human," he says, adding, "That’s why I put the ‘1’ one in my name, you know: I wanted to be slightly a computer."
But those aspirations are a secondary concern for now. More pressing is simply maintaining basic quality control: the loss of momentum he’s faced over the past couple years has limited how much he’s able to do as an artist, even in keeping the elements of his show that made people fall in love with him in the first place. "I love being able to work with dancers and a choreographer," he tells me later over the phone. "[With Letterman,] I just wanted to have that moment. But for the most part, I can’t afford to do that all the time. I’m not exactly filling up rooms, and it’s hard to get promoters to want to spend that kind of money, and [hiring dancers] doesn’t really make money for my label." He’s considering upgrading his live show by paying out-of-pocket for dancers, in which case, he says, "I’ll just be broke."
Playing by the rules and breaking them all in the name of self-expression is a never-ending struggle, one that visibly frustrates him. "Sometimes I edit down too much, and I think I should go the opposite way, and just be a crazy person, see what happens," he says, with another laugh, this one tinged with a note of cynicism. "Like, what if I actually just wrote a song from the voice of Mystique talking to Steve Jobs? What if I actually went to those levels?"
The day after lunch, we’re supposed to meet again at Dr. Wu’s, the low-profile Williamsburg studio where he and Jake Aron, his co-producer and former Wesleyan classmate, have been piecing together the record for the last year. He’s about an hour and a half late, but Aron says that’s nothing in rapper time. "Once we were supposed to have a session with Joey Bada$$ at 1PM," he says, "and the guy didn’t show up ‘til 10."
When he finally shows up, blunt and grapefruit slices in hand, the pair set to tweaking the backing track for "Grace, Alek or Naomi." The engineer hasn’t sent the stems for any of his new songs and the show is tomorrow. They’ll have to use what they have on file instead of making a new version specifically mixed for a live venue.
The songs on Riot Boi are the result of three years, three mixtapes, and two EPs’ worth of sonic and lyrical experimentation; together they comprise a compact, meticulously crafted 43-minute mission statement that turns Le1f’s complicated existence as a black, openly queer, private school-educated rapper into a candy-coated, hedonistic, 8-bit rave. Each song is a new level in a ‘90s Super Nintendo game, teasing and condemning the establishment — homophobic, racist white people, in particular — into confronting the realities of his daily existence.
Riot Boi calls on the spiritual aid of an array of women, from Grace Jones to model Alek Wek to the damn Mona Lisa, as well as the literal aid of others, like compatriots Junglepussy and House of LaDosha (particularly in "Swirl," a lush, wry track about the fetishization of blackness). Even his mom, credited as "Miss Geri," contributed her talents, alongside Devonté Hynes, on the crisis-of-faith album closer "Change." On songs like "Cheap" and "Taxi," he explores complicated race and class politics disguised as diary entries ("Hippie hoodrat, product of my environment … N*ggas look at me must be thinkin’ I’m mega-rich"). Slather his signature ballroom-culture vibe heavily on the front end, and not even Kathleen Hanna made smashing the Patriarchy (and White Supremacy) such a jam.
And then there’s that album title — a direct nod to riot grrrl, another radical music tradition, albeit one that had its own blindspots to racial and socioeconomic issues. "That aggressive ideology, that [spoke] to the music of the time, and still invoked all these political, progressive, necessary topics, was so interesting to me," he says. "But really, in my mind, there are two lanes for [cool] political music: that, and conscious rap. And I hate conscious rap. So the working title, to keep it in my head to not make conscious rap, was Riot Boi. And it just stuck." The point being that in order to be truly subversive, the music has to be, on some level, fun. "I want Republicans to play it, and be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s cute,’ you know, and not realize what just happened," he said at the diner, with another endearing chuckle.
At the studio, after a few minutes’ banter and careful grapefruit consumption, Le1f becomes quiet. He seems stressed about having to make a placeholder track for the show instead of using a real one. It’s probably not helping that the illness he had been worrying about at the diner seems to have gotten worse.
But it might also have something to do with the fact that Riot Boi is about to put everything he is — artistically, politically, spiritually — on the front line. Yesterday, after an hour of more lighthearted conversation, he had casually mentioned that Riot Boi is dropping the same day as albums from Justin Bieber and One Direction. He mentions it again today.
"Yup, both of them," he says grimly. For that reason, he adds, he has no expectations for the impact it might have on his career. "I’m happy it’s coming out. I’m interested to see if people like anything." He’s already released two singles, "Koi" and "Rage," but the reception hasn’t inspired confidence.
"My YouTube ratio is kind of… I don’t know," he says. The video for "Koi" came out two months ago and has just over 242,000 views. "Some people kind of like it?"
I reminded him that earlier he had called himself "an acquired taste."
On Friday afternoon before his Cameo Gallery gig, Le1f blows off his soundcheck at the last minute. Apparently he’s still sick, and his manager tells me he’s conserving his energy. He finally arrives sometime just before midnight, after three or four acts have come and gone and his Terrible / XL labelmate Empress Of is just kicking off her penultimate set.
Cameo’s backstage area — if you can call it that — is essentially a fluorescent-lit storage closet. It’s currently almost as sweltering as the main room, and made even smaller by too many people talking in a small space. It’s too crowded even for its original purpose — Empress Of’s band don’t even bother storing their gear when they finish, instead taking everything from the stage directly back out into their van. Half the room looks a little too pleased to be here, but Le1f and his friends look perfectly at home, draped across the staircase like it’s a stoop, laughing and poking fun at one another amidst the din.
When he finally takes the stage wearing a massive knee-length tunic open to his waist and the bucket hat from the other day, he clears his throat several times and wanders around for a few minutes. The Cameo crowd has thinned out a bit, but nevertheless cheers loudly when he purrs into the mic, "Are we readyyyyy?"
Claps and horns pepper the air — it’s "Wut." Without dancers or any specific choreography, he performs it like a karaoke warm-up, hitting all the right syllables but obviously on autopilot. It’s not long before his sickness gives way to the groove, though; by the time he unleashes "Koi," words like "chemistry" and "cunt" drip off his tongue with his hallmark zeal. By "Lisa," a trap beat that’s been warped like a bad VHS tape, he’s in full rap posture, delivering raw lyrics like "Homie, you could die from a side-eye" with Nina Simone seriousness while maintaining his ball-winning strut.
The room has been tropically hot for hours, but Le1f still survives a few songs before repurposing his shirt as a headscarf and letting loose on "Grace, Alek or Naomi," dripping with sweat. The rest of the set, he’s on fire, getting down in fans’ faces; the crowd doesn’t devolve into a full-blown rave, but it hops until the very end. The backing track might not be perfect, but no one can tell the difference.
"This is the last song I’m gonna put you through tonight," he assures the crowd, and goes right into "Rage," Riot Boi’s first and most electrifying single.
He closes his eyes and crouches at the edge of the stage during the singsong intro, but when the chorus bursts in — "RAGE! RUH-RUH-RUH-RUH-RAGE! RAGE!" — he explodes to his feet, his energy doubling to meet the glass-shattering, corrosive, Saul Williams-style beat. The song relents here and there, returning to nursery rhyme melodies that gently explain he’s just here to have a good time — but of course, it’s the fury of the choruses that really matters, the screams of frustration ("I’ve been dealing with too much shit / All these pricks is ignorant"): a mutant situation all his own. When he shouts, "Push me to the front! / Pull me up! / Give me what I want!" it’s obvious he means it.
Edited by Emily Yoshida