“Triple threat” is a term hardly apt to describe the force of nature that is Khalif Diouf, now commonly known under his stage name Le1f. The rapper/producer/dancer and New York City native has an effortless style and fresh approach to rap that stands out against the often antiquated machismo of the genre. With three mixtapes and two EPs in two years, a recent appearance on the Late Show, and live gigs that are redefining the art of performance, Le1f possesses the power to tantalize and hypnotize with an unbridled sexuality. Despite the intensity of his work ethic, the rapper’s undeniable focus and drive is balanced by a brazen and refreshing sense of humor.
Le1f on stage is Le1f at his most intoxicating—rapping, joking, and voguing all in one heavy breath. Like a spirit channeled through a transcendental medium, his rhythmic moaning and deep beats possess his body. He moves with a buttery sensuality, a fluidity made possible by a childhood of dance training, letting lyrics take shape in locked limbs, and basslines guide him into a graphic slow grind. The audience can’t help but move along, entranced by yet hyper aware of the enigma before them. He charms with a mic coiled around neck, dipping lower and rapping faster as the inevitable climax builds.
There is no denying that Le1f’s music is sexy, but the words aren’t lascivious; there is an intimacy, a lightheartedness revealed through every cheeky love song lyric. With irreverence and levity the artist has a natural ability to entertain and an open attitude toward the ever-shifting culture of music. Le1f perpetuates a flexibility in both mind and movement, bringing us all, willingly, to our knees.
Tell me about growing up in New York. How has it influenced your work?
I’m definitely a New York City rapper. The culture of NY is really prevalent in my music. When I started out I knew it would be in the context of being from Manhattan. References to growing up in New York in the 90s are really evident—it’s who I am.
I grew up in Queens, and watching your videos, your moves are synonymous with dancing in junior high school.
Like the Harlem Shake or something like that? And doing the butterfly. I was thinking about the butterfly just the other day! I was thinking about how my dream guy has to be able to do the butterfly.
You’ve studied dance since you were a kid; your mother and grandmother were classically trained singers. Were dancing and singing important parts of your childhood?
Actually, when I was growing up, singing was not my thing at all. Music classes have haunted me my whole life. I’ve taken music theory classes four or five times and not gotten through them. My grandmother and mom put me in ballet lessons when I was four years old, and that creative discipline has been something that’s always been with me—it’s the only real human quality that I have. And it continues throughout whatever other mediums I’ve done.
I’ve been investigating all kinds of performance mediums and how I can make art—cool, relevant things out of that skill set. Somehow rap got in there, probably because I have no training as a singer.
When did you transition from ballet to modern dance?
I was in Dance Theatre of Harlem for 10-15 years, and I decided to go to high school for modern dance, it was so strict, ballet classes six days a week. High school was just as strict, but the actual performance work was my first experience getting to do something like modern dance. It was a different process, a more collaborative process, more involved. The idea of self-discovery is not something you have as a ballet dancer—you just have injuries! It was nice to get out of that world.
I also discovered a lot of things musically. Before that, I was like a Z100 kid. I liked Timbaland and Aaliyah, but then I went to high school and was like Björk? Yeah! A lot of the music I started listening to was in the context of working in this dance company in high school. The early beats I made were experimental sounds, or mixtapes for flexes [stretching] for performance—not rap-able beats or anything. Then I grew up and had to figure out how to make it, make money.
What does motion mean to you in terms of the way you make music and how you move?
In a lot of post-modern, and some modern dance, movement can be so pedestrian. There are so many concepts of negative space and stillness in movement that are actually interesting things to work with outside the context of dance. In music, it’s really interesting to play with the times when I’m going to just rap and stand there versus those when I’m actually going to do full movements. There’s even choreography to standing there and rapping and choosing not to move—that’s a really fun thing to discover.
You just made me think of the video I did with Alex Da Corte, the “Hush Bb” video. He makes all these objects from scratch. Alex built the bed [for the scene] by hand, and really understood how movement played a part in the objects—they were created specifically so that the video could be moved in certain ways.
I think motion is all part of the choreography of a performance. It’s a really important thing to play with.
It was awesome to see you perform on the Late Show with David Letterman, and also fun to see that Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) backed you.
Oh my God, I’m blessed. I don’t understand why he was so down. Letterman told us we couldn’t just have a DJ, so Dev was like, “I’ll play!” It was spur of the moment; the first rehearsal was the day before. I walked in four hours late and they were all sitting there jamming, bored, playing the song perfectly.
I love Dev. He’s like a pop star, but also the nicest guy. It’s really weird, he’ll just invite you over and be giddy that you came. Like, what?! I think that’s just who he is as a person, a good homie, a good brother to have. I hope to work with him in the future.
Letterman was also your first introduction to mainstream America. What did you take from that experience?
I have a lot of appreciation for whoever wrote his cue cards. It was my first American TV debut, but I’ve had so many articles in the past, nationally published, and I’ve always felt like the bigger ones never portrayed me in a humane light. It was nice to have someone put me on a platform and introduce me in a way that is just about what I’ve been doing artistically, and allow me to perform. I’m really happy it got to happen like that, and surprised that it was Letterman of all shows.
Whom do you consider a style icon?
Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver. I’ve known him since I was 16, and been a fan since before I’d even met him.
When I was a teenager, I was super inspired by Hussein Chalayan. That was the first time I realized what fashion was in terms of runway—other than “those expensive clothes.” I was like Oh, this is why you make things; this is why fashion designers are artists.
I like KTZ a lot too, and Bernhard Willhelm has always been really inspirational.
You blend music, dance, and style seamlessly. Does it all flow, or do you think about it technically? How does the process work?
The process has been instrumentation first, then writing. [And I keep] whatever songs that are good enough to be in the live show. For the videos, most of them have been in collaboration with Sam Jones. He did the videos for “Wut,” “Soda,” and “Boom.” He’s really wonderful to work with; we bounce ideas off each other so quickly. He’s the kind of guy that can go with three or four loose ideas and flesh it out amazingly. Visually, when I’m working on a video, I definitely look through designers’ recent things to see what feels most appropriate. I have a big hand in how the styling goes. It’s all fun. I can’t complain about anything.
Do you have a message that you trying to convey lyrically?
When I was making the mixtapes I tried to have concepts that conveyed some overall vibe morally. But now I’ve been less concerned with that and just trying to be honest. More so than ever, [my lyrics] address life in a more blatant, New York, day- to-day way. The older I get, the less I’m concerned with being outwardly political. But I acknowledge how much opinions and politics fit into every song, and I try to make sure that mine are in a world that isn’t offensive or misogynistic or ridiculous. It’s [actually] so easy—maybe because I’m gay—to not offend people on a track.
I feel like a lot of rappers are just like, Fake it ‘til you make it, where you pretend you have things. If you’re going to pretend like you have things, they should be completely unobtainable and ridiculous just to make the song fun—don’t feed this story about this fictitious life that someone else already has and has made so many albums about over the last 15 years. I was listening to Missy Elliott, The Cookbook, today in the shower—which is why I was late—and I was thinking about how she presented such a unique character and what that meant for the sound of music. The production, but also the lyrical content, is why she was relatable to so many people. Missy Elliott isn’t the average person who listens to rap, and neither is M.I.A. Even though none of us are refugees, we can all kind of relate to her vibe and the mood. The political power was discreet in that song, I’m really into that. Things that [Elliot and M.I.A.] say in these songs about their lives are very touching and relatable and memorable. I’m just trying to capture that.
You’ve said that it’s difficult to write love songs.
It was, but now I’m feeling the opposite. Now I must stop writing love songs, it’s so bad! When I was a teenager I hated the sound of my voice. The idea of making love songs—I didn’t have the confidence to get it down. As an angsty teenager, I could better express myself in terms of timbre, in terms of tonality.
One time, I was really sick with the flu and [my producer] Nguzunguzu gave me these beats. That’s how I started making rap. I did some songs from the first mixtape in Garageband, lying in bed, and was like, Oh, I sound kind of cute! The last mixtape I made, Treehouse, was a two-year challenge to make a chunk of good love songs to get out of my system. Now I’ve been so in the practice of writing love songs that I don’t want to make them. I don’t have time for this! I have discreet political songs I need to make!
What’s next for you?
The Hey EP is about to come out on vinyl, so I’m doing a bunch of festivals and a mini-tour. And I’m working on new music because my label wants the record so soon. The vinyl’s not out and they want me to hand in the next record?!
What is your WILD Wish?
I already got so many of them! I thought I’d just be an indie rapper on XL [Records], or a label like it, that was the goal. I don’t know. My WILD Wish is for an eggplant Range Rover. That’s the classiest color.