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Le1f: New York Rap Deconstructionist Boasts Tricky Skills

Le1f / Photo by Harrison Boyce

Who: New York rapper/producer Le1f (pronounced “leaf,” his birth name is Khalif Diouf), and don’t forget the number where the “i” should be, making his name look like it’s written out in some hybrid language from outer space. Why? “Because I feel more like an alien than a gay rapper,” Le1f jokes, playfully dismissing the “whoa, a gay man makes rap music” articles that got him attention, but also have boxed him in since the release of his debut, Dark York, earlier this year. But, let’s get it out of the way: Yes, Le1f is a gay MC. His raps playfully subvert the hetero-normative tough-guy traditions of hip-hop — referencing Public Enemy’s boast “My Uzi Weighs a Ton” on “My Oozy”; sampling Lil Jon shouting “gangsta!” on “Gayngsta”— and they’re delivered in a hiccupping, fast-rap delivery that dips and dives around open-eared production touching on house, glitch, and even some Soulja Boy-simple snap and clap.

Trolling In The Deep: Even if you’ve not yet experienced Dark York, you’re probably familiar with Le1f’s most famous production: the beat for Das Racist’s debut single, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” What you probably don’t know, however, is that it’s firmly in the tradition of the “vogue beat,” a start-stop-start-drop-repeat rhythm extracted from Masters At Work’s 1991 classic house single “Ha Dance” that still defines vogue and ball culture’s dance moves. “I was kind of trolling [Das Racist],” Le1f admits, “it’s just hilarious to give them a vogue beat!” Le1f continues, joshing his joking-not-joking friends: “I think [Heems] kind of knew it was a vogue beat, but did he really know? He tried to pretend he knew, like, a year later, but never said anything about it. I was tricking them into rapping over a vogue beat.” Thank Le1f for adding yet another layer of cultural complexity to what might be the smartest dumb song of the 2000s.

Nerd Alert: A major influence on Le1f’s sound and style is anime and manga culture. “Have you seen me? I look like I’m in an anime!” the blue-haired rapper exclaims, adding, “I would be totally fine if the only thing I could ever watch was anime, cartoons, and visualizers.” Moody Japanese animation classic Ghost In the Shell gets a shout-out on “Mind Body,” while the video for “Wut,” which went quasi-viral and significantly raised Le1f’s profile, features the rapper mimicking moves from Dragon Ball Z and grinding on a buff shirtless dude sporting a Pikachu mask. “Pokemon is my number one,” Le1f says proudly. The track “Emulator” — a reference to a program that allows users to play old video games on their computer — recounts the still-painful experience of getting his purple Gameboy stolen in college: “I had Pokemon Blue and a purple Gameboy and I, like, really want it back. Stealing my Pokemon blue cartridge. Not fair.”

I Can’t Hear You: At 21 songs, the hour-plus Dark York demands and rewards multiple listens. It’s a mixtape that rejects the immediate pleasures of Tumblr feed culture, even as it sounds defiantly ahead of every stylistic curve you could dream up. One challenge is the way Le1f buries his vocals in the mix, making already knotty bursts of lyricism harder to comprehend. “To me, the whole composition is equally important,” Le1f says, “I didn’t want it to be a vocal-driven thing.” The phrase “sound design” and artists like Tim Hecker, Matmos, and Merzbow come up when discussing Dark York, giving more context for its experimental production. “Be honest,” Le1f adds, bemused by the closed-mindedness of some listeners, “As clear as Danny Brown or Azealia Banks’ vocals are, do you really know all the words they’re saying?”