Le1f Talks Style Evolution, Fashion Ambitions, And Defining ‘Banjee’

Photo: Getty

Last night, in the greenroom of Webster Hall, New York City born-and-bred rapper Le1f suggests we go off into a corner, to what appears to be a closet, to do our interview. The dirty concrete room has a long bench upholstered in a dirty plaid and a thick armchair that looks like it would emit a cartoon puff of grime if you sat in it. Le1f sits on the bench and gestures to the chair in his sweet, raised-right way, “you take the nice chair,” he says, but I opt for the bench beside him, fearing bedbugs and that the noise from the room beside us, where rapper Killer Mike is preparing to open MTV Hive’s CMJ showcase, will impede my recording. Le1f is tall and handsome in a pair of maroon harem pants and navy bomber jacket, and he speaks in such a way that seems giggly and bashful, but in that somehow pointedly self-assured. After his breakout video, “Wut” made him an overnight sensation, both in the music press and in the fashion world, Le1f has been all over the place, playing shows, performing at New York Fashion Week (MTV Style caught up with him when he performed for Asher Levine), and appearing in media from Pitchfork to Gawker to Artinfo, who labeled him one of the new poster boys for so-called “gay rap.” Le1f is certainly not afraid to make his sexual orientation known, although the label can be reductive as far as the actual music is concerned, so needless to say he’s on the rise. We sat down with Le1f to discuss everything from his influences—musical and sartorial—and the possibility of a fashion collaboration between himself and Greedhead label founder and Das Racist member Himanshu Suri, something that we’re crossing our fingers will actually happen (please, please). Read the q & a below, and prepare to fall in love.

MTV STYLE: Who are some of your early fashion influences?
LE1F: I was kind of all over the place from the beginning—like, a pretty crazy kid. I would wear really brightly colored denim, I wanted Looney Toons socks and denim colored pants when I was like four. I was trying to be really ratchet and fashiony. I was in high school and really into menswear designers like Hussein Chalayan who was doing really experimental stuff, and like Damire Doma, Gareth Pugh, Helmut Lang. Those were my favorite designers when I was a kid, when the fashion world finally made sense to me. It was people who play with texture you know, like Pleats Please Issey Miyake.

Where were you finding these designers?
Style.com [laughs]

Did you ever feel any pressure to dress more conservatively?
No, I wear what I want, any day. If I feel like wearing, like, a dress with braids hanging off of it and a pair of sweatpants, that’s what I’m gonna wear.

During your musical coming of age, who were your influences?
There are all kinds of people, rappers from Virginia like Missy Elliot and Timbaland, and there’s people like Sade and people like Meredith Monk and Bjork and people like Busta Rhymes and Twista. I guess it’s people who do crazy things with their voices whether it’s rapping or singing

How do you come up with new ways to use your voice?
Usually I have to hear the beat first. Usually I’m alone in my room and someone sends me a crazy beat and I just start dancing around my room and speaking gibberish in some weird way, and that turns into what the song is.

How would you describe your style?
Banjee? [Laughs]

Can you explain Banjee?
I guess to someone’s parents gay friends it might mean someone who is in the closet, like a gay black or latino person who is straight-acting, or particularly wearing that fashion from the early 90’s, like Aaliyah in her tomboy look from Tommy Hilfiger, that was very banjee. It’s been re-appropriated by masculine men who aren’t afraid of being out of the closet to describe a style of dress. Like a mix of streetwear—archetypal things like Timberlands and jerseys and things that I actually do like—with things like harem pants and bomber jackets. It’s a masculine but androgynous approach to fashion.

Does style effect who you consider to be your musical contemporaries? Do you agree with this idea of “gay rap” that lumps all of the out gay artists together?
I love the way Mykki [Blanco] dresses and he’s one of the homies, but my other friends who do drag, I don’t do drag, I’ve never worn heels or a dress, just personally I don’t want to, but I think that’s a big difference in terms of their performance and their style. Mine is a little less feminine as far as “gay rappers.” I’m more along the lines of Greedhead, GHE20 G0TH1K, that whole life, I’m about that life.

Do you think that whole crew, Hima and Das Racist and everyone, are filling a different stylistic role as far as rap is concerned?
As performers, they bring their identity in their fashion in a very fun new way. Heems always performs with a scarf, as of recent. He’s working on his line that has really cool—we call it “Taliban chic”—appropriating ourselves to make some new looks.

Would you—or are you—doing a line?
I might collaborate with Hima on some of his stuff, maybe. It was supposed to be ‘Tali-Banjee.’ That’s my dream, we might actually do that. I used to design, I can sew.

Is there a dream garment that you can’t get anywhere else that you would want to design?
Why would I say it?! [Laughs] there’s so many of them. That’s my plan, if music fails, I want to go to CSM [Central Saint Martins]. You know, whenever this is done.

Who are your favorite designers right now,
Christopher Shannon is my favorite designer right now. Gosha Rubchinskiy, Hood By Air, Telfar, those are my top four.

What’s the last thing you bought that you love?
Gosher Ruschinki mesh tank top with a pentagram sewn into the back.

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