Le1f: The Riot Boi Rapper "Making Art for Change" [Exclusive]
Before I actually got to meet Le1f, the New York-based rapper who keeps making banger after banger, I was pretty nervous. After all, he’s been killing the game from day one. Born Khalif Diouf, Le1f got his start by producing the now-defunct Das Racist’s stoner anthem ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,’ moved on to making his own material on mixtapes Dark York and Fly Zone, and just released his first album, Riot Boi. I’m a fan, and I was a little scared. But before I had even entered the studio where our shoot was taking place, I could hear Le1f’s airy, easy laugh. It just begs you to join in, and that’s when I knew everything would be fine.
One would think that the dancer-turned-rapper would be pretty intimidating. He stands at well over six feet tall, and is all muscle–clearly those dancing years have paid off. But watching Le1f carry himself tells quite a different story. He moved quickly and lightly through the studio, joking and having fun with everyone in the room. Once we got to talking, he easily answered my questions, discussing what it means to be a ‘riot boi,’ what it takes to officially become a New Yorker, and which emoji speaks to him the most.
You have a dance background. How did you go from a dancing to a rapping career?
I started as a ballet dancer when I was really young, but it was hella boring to me. So then I started making beats on Fruity Loops – just trying to make little juke songs and rap songs. That just turned into the crazy rad shit that I do now [laughs].
Do you have any tips for someone that really sucks at dancing?
You just have to find your technique! Everyone’s good at some form of dancing. I feel like people who don’t have rhythm could still do butoh, or modern dance. It’s really cool to express yourself and not feel judged by people around you. Everyone can kind of dance.
You’ve kind of became this poster boy for the New York queer rap scene. Do you feel pigeonholed in being called ‘the queer rapper?’
I don’t feel like I’m the poster boy for it [laughs]. I’m kind of bored by the concept of being ‘the one person who does something’. I think, ‘no.’ There were people before me, and I have their albums. There are people after me, and I love their music. I felt that it was pigeonholing me for awhile. I kind of don’t care anymore. I don’t even care about being called a rapper anymore. So, whatever [laughs].
“I’m kind of bored by the concept of being ‘the one person who does something’… There were people before me, and I have their albums. There are people after me, and I love their music.”
Going forward, is there any part of your identity that you do want people to focus on?
I don’t really care about what people focus on. I almost don’t even care about what I sell, which is a scary thing to say, but I don’t. I just want to make art that’s satisfying. Whatever people call it is whatever.
So for Riot Boi, you’ve mentioned going darker and a little trappier. What made you want to do that?
The record is about a lot of things, like sexuality, but also race, angst, anger, fun, and dark humor. All of it. It’s just me being myself [laughs].
But people tend to gravitate to your happier, not as dark music. Is that frustrating for you?
People like happy music in general. I understand it. When you turn on the radio, it’s not often that you’ll hear a song that will actually make you cry, especially these days. There are these moments where I’m drunk, and I want to make a happy song. Then when I put it out, and it does really well, I’m surprised that that’s the one people love, and not the one I spent 5 days making.
So what is a ‘riot boi?’
A ‘riot boi,’ to me, is someone that’s making art for change. They’re someone that’s being active, and aware – being aware of their interactions with other people. Being aware of how what you do affects people, and what you say affects people. It’s about knowing your surroundings, and pushing things forward.
Being New York born and raised, how do you feel about its shifting landscape, with iconic storefronts and venues closing down?
Growing up in New York, it was really awesome to be part of a culture that felt like a culture. Now that people who aren’t rich can’t live here, that culture really doesn’t exist. It’s nice to travel, I guess [laughs]. New York is great, and there are still great people here. They just all have to live in East New York, or Hoboken now.
What does it mean to be a New Yorker to you?
I don’t think you have to be born here to be a New Yorker because there’s so few of us that actually are native New Yorkers. I think it probably takes about 7 years. That’s the minimum to get your citizenship. It also depends on how much you spend on cabs.
So what do you think New York needs to give back to it’s younger, artsier residents that may not be able to afford it here?
I think it’s about having spaces that people can access that aren’t just for hipsters and rich people. I think it would be great if someone could open a club, and have that space remain instead of becoming lofts in 2 years. We needs spaces that will give back to their communities, and put money in the pockets of artists that aren’t signed to major labels. If spaces didn’t keep turning into lofts, New York would be cooler still.
We needs spaces that people can access that aren’t just for hipsters and rich people…that will give back to their communities, and put money in the pockets of artists that aren’t signed to major labels.
Your music videos and visuals are always really bright and vivid. Is that something that you focus on a lot in your music career?
Yeah, I feel like I’m more of a mixed media artist, than anything else. I just happened to choose rap as the priority. Visuals are really fun for me. Even choreography, fashion, set design – the whole situation. Telling a story in its entirety, from start to finish, is the best.
What do you feel like is the story behind Riot Boi?
It’s when you’re pregaming with your friends and you’re feeling kind of cute. Then you go to the bar, and this idiot guy is trying to hit on you, saying all the wrong things. In your head you’re thinking, ‘Oh my god, I want to tell you about how much of a fuckboi you are.’ So then you go home, but you have to take an Uber home because cabs won’t stop for you. And you just go home a smoke a joint to yourself. That’s what the album is [laughs].
There’s a lot of anime themed stuff in your music videos. Do you like anime?
I really love anime, especially the soft, cute stuff. I was definitely a Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Digimon, Sailor Moon kind of kid. Now I love Kekkaishi, Ouran Highschool Host Club, Death Note – and of course the great movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It’s all of that Americanized, cute anime.
What drew you to anime in particular?
Well, I was always a Pokemon fanatic, you know? I had 3 Gameboys in college. I love the idea of fantasy, of creating worlds that don’t exist, but that have emotional baggage. Anime is really good at that [laughs].
“A good side eye can really just send a person home.”
Do you feel like you’re making these fantasy worlds in your videos?
I hope I am! I really hope so. The more money I make, the more fantasies I’ll create.
What do you feel like is next after Riot Boi?
I have to wait and see what people think about Riot Boi first. I have to see what people hate and like about my stuff before I can really move on. It’s going to be interesting. I have an idea about the next record that I want to do, and what I want to do with my life. But still, what if everyone hates this [laughs]? Just kidding. I’m just not going to tell you what’s next [laughs].
What’s your move when you’re out, and someone’s trying to hard to get with you, but you want them to back off?
I’m a 200 pound black man. All I need to do is look at someone and they’ll stop talking to me. I know it can be hard though. I’ve had people grab my butt at gay clubs. You usually just roll your eyes at someone as verbal abuse. A good side eye can really just send a person home.
I heard you gave away tickets to a show for the best emoji comment on one of your Instagram pictures. If you were an emoji, what emoji would you be?
Everyone keeps telling me I’m the black guy emoji with the blond hair, but I think it has blue eyes. I also haven’t had blond hair in a while. I feel like the fog emoji is the cutest. I think I’m the fog emoji.
If you could get brass knuckles that say anything, what would yours say?
It would be between ‘Mama’s Boy,’ and ‘Rihanna.’ One of those two.
Do you have an advice for people that are trying to make it right now?
Yeah, do what you want to do – as long as it’s legal. Do it, and be the best at it. And that’s it.
Check out Riot Boi, released on November 13th, available for purchase on iTunes.
Le1f photographed exclusively for Milk by Christine Hahn, in Studio A at Milk Studios New York
Photo Assistant: Elliott Lauren
Stylist: Ian Milan
Styling Assistant: Savage
Makeup Artist: Alexander James
Hair Stylist: Sean Michael Bennett
Video directed by: Lewis Meyer-Peddireddy
Cinematographer: Jose Cota