One of the most prominent artists in a new vanguard of alternative New York rap, Le1f has experienced a rapid ascension into the global eye since the mid-2012 release of his debut mixtape, Dark York. With two more lauded and stylistically diverse mixtapes released this year, Fly Zone and Tree House, Khalif Diouf looks primed to elevate himself to a higher level sometime in the imminent future.
“I think it’s been exponential,” says Diouf, charting his rapid musical growth since the release of Dark York. “In some ways I do still feel amateur, which is nice. I’ve had a lot of room to explore, being an unsigned artist. I feel like I’ve been able to find more voices and get more confident in terms of songwriting. It’s exciting, I’ve been able to play within a lot of worlds and styles in rap, R&B and electronic music. I can take out the things I like from what I’ve already experimented with at this point.”
Though Diouf has more than established himself as an idiosyncratic solo artist in his own right, there was some sense of community surrounding his rise last year when working alongside Das Racist and their Greedhead label. As Le1f’s style has grown and developed, so has his range of collaborators. “I definitely have my friends here, and they’re doing cool things around me. But it’s beyond just working with friends now, sometimes I don’t even know the people I’m collaborating with – finding a beat on Soundcloud, or people seeing my show and handing me a CD of beats. Sometimes the collaborations and sense of community comes from that place as well; it’s digitised,” Diouf says.
“I guess Dark York was me trying to [create] a formation of everything I like – other people produced things, I produced, just all the beats that I thought would be good enough that I made for myself that no-one else had used yet. After that, I just wanted to push myself as a vocalist by working with other people’s beats. I can be versatile, but at that time all my beats were C minor, E minor songs with arpeggios and I would respond in a similar way each time, or have a writers’ block because I was so attached to the production side of it. I started to make Tree House just after Fly Zone because I wanted to make love songs. Or at least attempt to, because that was a daunting and scary thing for me to do. Trying to find these warm, luxurious voices was really frustrating. I had five good songs and like 12 annoying ones, so I had to make Fly Zone out of those songs that didn’t fit the concept of a romantic album, that were too aggressive or too airy and not sexualised. That’s what Fly Zone came out of, my frustration at trying to make Tree House last year. It’s a whole trilogy of experimentation.”
While sex has been intrinsic to pop music throughout its history, it’s often treated with a large degree of humour to allay a semblance of confrontation with the listener. Tree House is overflowing with sex, compounding lush R&B production with no-nonsense, bedroom-ready slow jams. “For Tree House, that was the entire goal. I was very inspired by Jeremih’s Late Nights mixtape last year. The fact that he captured this ’90s sex R&B vibe, all that music that I loved but isn’t necessarily rap – like Aaliyah, SWV, TLC. Talking about sexuality blatantly, in the same way as an R. Kelly record that you might have sex to; but at the same time, the production and the mixing and the vocals were so futuristic, so progressive. Like [Jeremih’s] song ‘Fuck You All The Time’, I’ve never heard a song like that, even if the words weren’t about sex. That’s where I was coming from with Tree House. I wanted it to be heady and conceptual in production, but all songs to make love to, or songs that are love songs in some regard.”
BY LACHLAN KANONIUK
Le1f play Subsonic Music Festival with Chic ft. Nile Rodgers, Antix, Electric Empire, Salmonella Dub, Jon Convex and more at Riverwood Downs Mountain Valley Resort on Friday December 6 – Sunday December 8.