Just because Macklemore sang “Same Love” at the Grammys (more on him in a minute), don’t think that hip-hop in 2014 isn’t still rife with homophobia. But a handful of ballsy performers are starting to change that—none ballsier, or weirder, than Mr. Khalif Diouf, better known as Le1f.
Le1f (pronounced “Leaf”) first made his name as a producer, making beats for fellow oddball New York rap duo Das Racist. You know that annoying/awesome song “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell“? That’s a Le1f joint. Even then, Le1f was already subverting hip-hop culture; he borrowed the track’s start-stop rhythm from “The Ha Dance,” a gay house anthem from the early ’90s, when the “vogue” scene made famous by Madonna was in full swing. “I was tricking them into rapping over a vogue beat,” Le1f gleefully bragged to Spin.
But punking his straight friends was the least of Le1f’s tricks. In April of 2012, he released his debut mixtape, a 21-track head trip of a record called Dark York. What immediately jumped out at most fans and critics—maybe because Le1f prefers to keep his vocals tantalizingly buried in the mix—was not the rapper’s out-and-proud lyrics, but his polyamorous relationship with genres. Dark York knocks boots with everything from dark electro and experimental beat music to the menacing, trunk-rattling sounds of the Dirty South—all of it tied together by Le1f’s syrupy flow and a vaguely stoned, psychedelic quality, as if all the music is coming at you through a bong-smoke haze. Or maybe it’s bathhouse steam?
Then came the videos. Starting with “Wut,” Le1f has created a visual style all his own, patched together from gay club culture, avant-garde modern dance (he has a degree in dance from Wesleyan University—my alma mater! holla!), neon-colored hipster fashion, and a dash of Pokemon. It’s playful, eye-popping and will probably make the most hetero among you extremely uncomfortable.
Side note about “Wut” and the aforementioned Mr. Macklemore: When Macklemore won at the MTV Video Music Awards last year for his pro-gay marriage anthem “Same Love,” Le1f launched into a tirade on Twitter, accusing the straight white rapper of cynically co-opting gay pride and style-biting the horn-driven hook on “Wut” for his other big hit, “Thrift Shop.” “[T]hat time that straight white dude ripped off my song then made a video about gay interracial love and made a million dollars,” one of the tweets read. “Wut” is hardly the first time anyone built a rap beat around a saxophone loop, but the timing is more than a little suspicious; “Thrift Shop” came out a little over a month after the video for “Wut” showed up on YouTube, and the similarities are hard to miss. But that’s way more space than Macklemore deserves in any post on this blog, so let’s move on.
Since the release of Dark York, Le1f has been on a tear, churning out EPs and mixtapes that seem to get better (and weirder) every time. He’s also created a live persona that’s a mesmerizing combination of hip-hop aggression and ball culture camp. And he has fantastic hair. (Watch until about the 5:30 mark; that’s when he really starts putting Willow Smith to shame.)
We’ll leave you with what is probably Le1f’s weirdest and/or sexiest (depending on what you’re into) video to date: “Soda,” from a 2012 collaborative EP with producer Boody called Liquid. Oh, and an important disclaimer: We are not making Le1f our Weird
Band Rapper of the Week because he’s gay. Thankfully, being a gay rapper is not as weird as it used to be, and there are plenty of examples of other hip-hop artists, from Big Freedia to Mykki Blanco* to Brooke Candy, making music that probably seems—to straight audiences, anyway—just as weird as Le1f’s. But he gets our vote because ultimately, even if you took Le1f’s sexual orientation out of the picture entirely, his music would still be weird. And we mean that, as we always do, in the best possible way.
*OK, yeah, Mykki Blanco deserves a spot on the Weird List, too. She’ll show up here eventually. Promise.