The idea of ‘socially conscious rap’ doesn’t exactly scream cool. That’s until you become acquainted with born and bred New York EDM and hip hop hybrid Le1f who drops his second mix tape Fly Zone on New York label Greedhead Music today, January 28.
Le1f –otherwise known as Khalif Diouf –speaks his mind about most things and as an ex-dancer and graduate of liberal arts institution, Wesleyan University it’s quite an enlightened one at that. It helps that Diouf counts equally erudite artist (and Greedhead label owner) Himanshu ‘Heems’ Suri as a friend and collaborator, who splits his time between his own rap project Das Racist and paying close attention to social injustice and racial prejudice on his blog and elsewhere.
In fact, Le1f got his first real underground break when he featured on Das Racist track ‘Jungle Fever’, where he spits some very provocative language indeed. The thing is, as being both gay and black Diouf has the experience to back it up when he talks about discrimination in the same breath as shade in his songs. In person too, he speaks with as much conviction as you’d expect from someone who’s twitter account is as much a platform for his outspoken opinions as it is self-promotion.
That’s because it’s all the same for Le1f whose growing success is built around his creative thrust and lyrical talent, as well as his cultural relevance as an artist. As a pertinent voice from the margins, Diouf is a man unafraid of ruffling some feathers as he brings his once reverb-drenched growl forward in the Fly Zone mix to share his perspective loud, proud and crystal clear.
aqnb: You’ve had a lot of interest from the UK. I feel like maybe it’s because places like London have to look outside for electronic music that isn’t so macho.
Khalif Diouf: I feel like grime has this culture that’s similar to reggae and dancehall, in that it’s very systematic and it’s not really… there is so much experimentation in that sound and that culture; the set up of how it’s performed is very specific and there are certain things that the emcees and the DJs will always do. It’s similar to the way classic hip hop in New York would always have a cipher and there’s a DJing style and things like lick it up. I feel like being aggressive is a part of it here, for sure. Not that I’m not aggressive sometimes, I am, but the very particular tone, the flow of vocal intonation in grime music, you can hear that happen.
aqnb: In terms of irony, what did you think about Eminem, back in the day and his misogyny?
KD: He scared me a little bit when I was younger. Although I liked ‘Stan’ and I like Dido. He really put me on to Dido [laughs], that’s my experience of him. But as a white man rapping, I never really thought about.
aqnb: Not necessarily in terms of a white man rapping but of misogyny and homophobia.
KD: I really didn’t read into his lyrics that much. They were more violent, in general, to me. Obviously they’re misogynistic because they’re against a woman in a lot of those songs but I didn’t even think about the gender dynamics. I was really more put off by the misogyny in rap that was more sexual than violent.
I hate to use this example because I love this song but Kanye West’s Mercy; I really like that song but the chorus drives me crazy. “In that two seat Lambo with your girl she tryna jerk me”… that is the song that kids are singing right now. It blows my mind a little bit. It sucks because I love all the rappers on that track but that is the message they want to have on radio stations around the world: guys who have expensive cars and subordinate girls sexually. That really put me off and in the history of rap that kind of lyricism puts me off more than violence.
aqnb: With artists like Angel Haze, Azealia Banks and Mykki Blanco coming up now, it’s looking like there’s a real focus on progressive, deviant voices in hip hop. There’s even Kreayshawn…
KD: [makes a face]
aqnb: …no? How come?
KD: She just didn’t’ make a good record. But also, that V Nasty mixtape; you can’t be saying ‘nigga’. You just can’t be using the ‘n word’. You can’t.
aqnb: I guess even Eminem never did because he doesn’t come from a place where he’s been subjected to it. What about Odd Future using the ‘f word’? Just because you’re friend’s gay shouldn’t give you license…
KD: No, it doesn’t but I never really felt offended by [Tyler, the Creator’s] use of the word. Although I don’t think… when I heard it I was like, ‘oh he’s an angsty teenager’ and at that point I already had a feeling that he had gay friends and that he was doing it to entertain the people around him. To a certain extent, I can understand that. I defiantly used the term ‘cracker’ in the [Dark York] mix tape intentionally and I was like, ‘is anyone going to say anything that I said that?’
aqnb: What does that mean?
KD: It’s derogatory American for white people. I definitely dropped it on the mix tape very explicitly on one song, a macho masculine song, just to see what the response would be like and no one even noticed.
aqnb: I suppose it’s less about who’s saying what but how the broader public responds to it.
KD: I don’t really know how any one person feels about that word at all. That’s kind of why I was interested in seeing what that was like, particularly because of white rappers saying ‘nigga’. To be honest, I still don’t’ know… I don’t know what my answer is to that. That was my interest.
aqnb: It says something that I’d never even heard of a ‘cracker’.
KD: It does. It’s really hard to offend the white man as a clause. I heard someone saying a joke… Oh, Louis CK. He said, ‘what you gonna call me some fucking cracker? I feel so bad about my privilege.’ When people have been oppressed, those words are attached to those feelings of being oppressed, those stigmas. So aside from, like, white guilt, whatever that is, I can imagine that there isn’t a cultural stigma for that word, especially for the white American.
aqnb: You seem very focussed on talking only about the things you’ve had personal experience with.
KD: Yeah. Unless it’s blatantly… I’ll totally write a song about blowing up a car or something, which is an idea, a joke between friends. But when I was writing for the mix tape, I wrote a long list of what I wanted to address and what I felt I had a right to address.
Also, I wanted the record to be cohesive contextually, as well as with sound design, I wanted all the songs to fit together, in terms of what I was talking about. For the next mixtape every song is just about sex, in a slightly more vague way. Or not even in a vague way. Sometimes explicit sometimes not.
aqnb: Is talking about sex something that you avoid talking about generally?
KD:Yeah, two years ago I was like, ‘I will never talk or write a song about sex, not like some and RnB singer. Then something happened this year and I was like, ‘I’m going to do this’.
aqnb: Talking about sex is probably one of the most politically-loaded things you could do.
KD: I realised that it actually is. Now that I feel more comfortable writing it, I realised that you’re right That I could express a lot more in a way more abstract way but it’ll still be a really cohesive narrative.