Q&A: Le1f Talks The Influence Of Ballroom And Working With Das Racist, Spank Rock, And Nguzunguzu


Over the past few months, Le1f—a rapper and producer who wrote his undergraduate thesis on “Subversion in Post-WWII Performance”—has been an increasingly unavoidable presence in and around the city, playing alongside everyone from Greedhead labelmate Big Baby Gandhi to London trap-rave producer Girl Unit. Meanwhile, his Dark York mixtape proved worth the wait, offering 21 tracks that capture much of what is exciting about the sound of post-Ghe20 Goth1k New York.

In advance of tonight’s show (with GG’s Venus X) at Littlefield, we talked about working with artists like Spank Rock and Nguzunguzu, the problem with being over-associated with ballroom, and the subjects of that thesis.

Starting off with the basics, are you from New York?

Yes, I’m a native—I’m from Manhattan… I was raised in Hell’s Kitchen and now live in the Upper West Side.

When you got to Wesleyan, how did you link up with Heems and Victor of Das Racist?

I actually knew them from the summer before I went to college. There was a guy J-La, another friend of theirs who went to Wesleyan who was DJing for me in New York at the time, and Himanshu was his roommate so I ended up hanging out with them the summer before college.

And how did you come to produce “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”?

I was hanging out, crashing on their couch, and Himanshu said he wanted to start this new project, so I just gave him a ton of beats and they recorded a bunch of scrapped things over some of them. And that was one of them.

What else were you working on at the time?

I was doing house-rap, basically. Like, I had started making beats for Spank Rock’s “Nasty” around that time, and I had my own stuff which was more up that alley, rapping over more house and electroclash-sounding things.

How did you get involved with Spank Rock?

I have a lot of mutual friends and we met at a party called Dante Fried Chicken that was a hub for a lot of three New York, indie (especially black) afropunk and electronic scene. That’s where I met Santi and a lot of great bands.

How long have you been out of school?

Since last May.

And is that when you started working on Dark York?

I was working on that since maybe midway through junior year. I had some of the beats from before graduation and a couple of the raps but most of it was from since last May.

And the mixtape is on Greedhead, right?

It’s on Greedhead and Camp & Street. Greedhead is in charge of the digital presence, but I also started a Kickstarter for it, so I made physical copies through my own collective with my friends—that’s Camp & Street.

So I think a lot of people, particularly people not from New York, first heard about you through the recent Pitchfork feature on NYC Queer Rap, did you get the chance to read that?

Yeah I did. I’m happy that I got the press and was quoted in the article. I’m happy with some of the things that I said. I think for it to exist and be really, actually informative it would have to be longer than that.

If that article had been longer what would you have liked to see included?

I didn’t think there was enough of a distinction between what was going on in terms of our musical scene and the ballroom/voguing scene. There are ties and references and things I definitely did say about it, but it’s not as though I’m going to balls, and my music is not at the ballrooms. That’s a totally different set of producers and vocalists and culture entirely. So I wish that that was made a little bit more clear and put together, and I know that Ojay [Zebra Katz] agrees.

That being said, how much do you think that ball culture does influence your music? Is it “&Gommorah” that samples “The Ha”?

Yeah, and there are some other things that are rhythmically that—maybe two or three examples across the entire mixtapes—and there’s a lot of slang from gay black and latino New York culture. I wrote my undergraduate thesis—I got my degree in dance—and my thesis was on alternative performances that were specifically reactionary things, like butoh, voguing and radical performance art from the Fluxus time, and it’s definitely something that informs my music and how I want it to feel. I want it to feel cathartic for gay people and black people and combinations and everyone else, to some extent. I want it to feel like being at a ball, but it’s not necessarily something you’d vogue to.

Beyond the balls, I’m also curious—and I don’t think the article really got into this—is how you see this New York Queer Rap scene overlapping with the broader New York Queer Nightlife scene? Are they distinct at this point or are they a bit looser?

No, they’re amorphous, and they’re not really scenes. I mean, me and House of Ladosha, we’ve all known each other for years, and we all go to the same parties and have a lot of mutual friends in general. And we’ve booked a lot of shows together along with a lot of other people that may not be so obviously in the “genre.” Then there’s Ghe20 Gothik and P.S.1 who have played an integral part in the New York underground culture that exists.

It’s really post-genre, you know? There’s specific influences and trends that happen, but rap and hip-hop are just an element of what’s going on. By definition we are rapping, but it’s really all related and interconnected. Like, Zebra Katz used to be in House of Ladosha.

You work with Nguzunguzu a lot on the tape—how did that partnership come about?

I accosted them. They’d been playing Ghe20 Gothik forever, since before it was a thing. Like, the first time I went there it was definitely to see Nguzu play. I knew Kingdom in my high school years, before he moved to L.A., and I found about them through him, so when I finally got back to New York and they were DJing I accosted them, basically.

Daniel [Pineda, of Nguzunguzu] had this MySpace that wasn’t promoted. It was just on the top friends of Nguzunguzu, and it just had the beat for “hate2wait” and I asked him if he could send it to me, and he was really down.

Have you visited them in L.A. at all?

No! I played a Total Freedom party in L.A., but they weren’t there. And I missed them when they were here last.

So wrapping this up, besides those that we’ve already mentioned, what are some of your favorite parties or nights?

Could it be, like, Spank? Ghe20 Goth1k? Greedhead parties? It’s more crews at this point who have one-offs whenever they can.

And what have you been listening to lately?

I’ve been listening to House of Ladosha. I’ve been listening to lounge music, for some reason. Like actual, ’90s lounge music.

Any lounge bands in particular?

I don’t know the names, just a lot of mixes. Physical Therapy has some really good, loungey mixes. So I’ve been listening to that, a lot of Mykki Blanco, Lakutis (another Greedhead rapper), obviously A$AP and Spaceghost, and C¥bergiga and Boody. And a lot of lounge mixes.

Le1f plays Dirtywerk tonight at Littlefield, with Venus X, Malaria, Vly House, and Peewee.