On a midsummer trip to Los Angeles, Sean Leon, in an attempt to escape the sweltering and oppressive noonday sun, is grabbing a seat just outside of Cofax. At the time, it’s the only coffee shop on the famous stretch of Fairfax Avenue between Rosewood and Oakwood, where he’s been window-shopping and people-watching all afternoon.
I’m just getting off of work, and I recognize him straight away. He stands well above six feet; tall enough to see over the rabbles of panicked tourists and shoppers; with his head high, his back straight, and walking on the balls of his feet, as if anywhere he goes, he’s meant to be there. I’d written some kind words about him and his music once or twice in the past, and who knows how, but he recognized me too.
Without thinking twice, he invites me back to his friend’s spot in Bel Air, where he’s shooting a music video for his upcoming project, Black Sheep Nirvana, later in the evening. To kill time, I’m playing his photographer in FIFA, and I’ve just been scored on. I am losing my shit. Leon is filming it and emailing it to his longtime girlfriend, Tania Peralta.
MICAH PETERS: It’s crazy how I feel like I know you both even though we’ve only ever ‘talked’ on Twitter. “Tania’s Song” is still my favorite [recording that you’ve made, to date. It’s what got me hooked in the first place. How did you and Tania meet, anyways?
SEAN LEON: I met Tania [pronounced Tan-yee-uh] at the studio. But we had been talking prior to that, actually. She’s a writer. She was writing for this website – not major, she wasn’t at Noisey yet, this was something else – and she wanted to do an interview or whatever, so she used to tweet to me all the time. Not directly, either she wouldn’t “mention” me. She would type my name like, “Can we talk about Sean Leon for a second?” And this was when I was really obsessed with what people were saying about me, so I was on Twitter searching my name all the time, seeing what kind of hate comments or compliments I was getting. And then I see this girl with this really pretty face that kept asking about me and I followed her immediately. The most attractive thing to me is someone that, you know, finds me interesting. That’s like, the sexiest thing.
Her best friend handed her my initial project because her boyfriend at the time went to high school with me, and he was over in British Columbia on a football scholarship. So it was like, a one-in-a-million shot. She came to see me perform one night at Manifesto, which is this Toronto festival – like Coachella, but not that big of a deal. She saw me perform then hit me up for an interview. I denied it, then invited her to the studio. She came to the studio, and then from that point on, that’s just how it was. Me and Tania. We just had our own thing. She’s just this person, like, I’d never met anybody like that before. She understands music. She really understands it. Like, every facet. She’s beautiful. She’s fucking awesome. She’s so funny. She’s so loyal – her integrity is of that shit you only see in movies. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone her, or that I’ll ever meet anyone like her again.
It always felt right, and it still feels right. So it’s just really dope to have this baby now that’s half me and half her.
That’s beautiful. So what’s it like being a father? Having this baby that’s half you and half her?
[Laughs] Man, it’s great because now I have a real excuse to not go to these things that I don’t want to go to. That I never wanted to go to. Now I can really be like, “Yeah you know, I can come, but I should really be at home with Xylo.” You know? And they’re like, “Ah yeah, I get it.” I don’t have to do anything but music and family now.
“IT WASN’T UNTIL I HELD [MY DAUGHTER] THAT I REALLY UNDERSTOOD THAT EVERY WOMAN IS SOMEBODY’S DAUGHTER. IT CHANGES EVERYTHING.”
My brother had a daughter and he told me it changed his perspective on everything. It changed the way he thinks, how he handles problems; even the way he talks now is different. How do you think Xylo’s going to impact your art or your method?
I don’t know how much about how it’s going to affect my art. I think it’s too early to tell. But as for my day to day, I’m much more compassionate and I’m much more selfish with my time. If I don’t have to do it, I’d much rather just kick it with her. It wasn’t until I held her that I really understood that every woman is somebody’s daughter. It changes everything.
Like, it changes the way you make decisions. The way you think. It’s not a question of work ethic; I’m going just as hard as I ever was. But what it really did for me is that it made that option of failing just not even an option anymore. It’s no longer a thing like ‘what if this doesn’t work.’ It has to.
So it’s no longer like you’re doing it for yourself. You have a better reason now.
What’s IXXI, by the way? I never really understood what it is. I know that you, and the people you make music with claim it, but beyond that, what is it?
It is whatever it needs to be. We were having that conversation the other day. I don’t wanna describe it too much because to do that is like putting a curfew on a party. Like, saying the party ends at 10, but what if it really gets jumping at 9:30? IXXI is just the roof. Underneath it is Black Sheep Nirvana, for right now.
IXXI is just creation. Right now, it’s music. Maybe it’ll end up being film one day, because I’m into that. I’m trying to be Maui Zuckerberg, you know what I’m saying? Any one of us can come in and say, “I want this, I want that,” and we use it to power our projects, whatever they may be. It’s not just an acronym for a clique or whatever. It’s not a gang. It’s not a crew. It’s a machine that empowers whoever needs to be empowered.
While we’re on the subject of “Maui Zuckerberg,” who gave you the nickname “Maui Slim?”
That was my boy Lim. I hit a lick, and I was spending money. I bought a pair of shades – Maui Jims – and I wore ‘em one day in the summertime, and he called me Maui Slim. And it just stuck. I thought it was so fire. I used to give myself nicknames all the time, but it’s just different when someone else gives you one. My favorite rapper, Jay Z, his nickname back in the day was Iceberg Slim. So it just felt so cool, so I ran with it. Now everybody calls me Maui.
So how’d you start making music? I mean, I walk around listening to it and singing or rapping to myself, and I can talk ceaselessly about it, but if someone asked me to freestyle or lay down a track I either couldn’t or wouldn’t want to. How did you make that jump? At what point did you decide that you were actually going to make music?
I just remember how it used to affect me. You know, the magic that came along with it. Like, the first time I heard [Jay Z’s] “Dead Presidents.” I was like, “Man, I wanna be able to do this. I wanna be able to do this too.” Everytime I hear a new record, like if I hear a new James Blake record or I hear a King Krule record or when I really started diving into rock music and I’d take in a Band of Skulls, Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd record, I’d just be like, “This is so fucking dope.” I just wanted to make music that affects other people the way it affected me. It’s so important to me. Like to the point where I just couldn’t see myself doing anything else. You know what I’m saying? I’ve played sports and I’ve hit buzzer beaters, but to me, it doesn’t measure up to finishing a set and the whole crowd screaming for an encore.
“GETTING FROM 50 TO 100 IS REALLY EASY, BUT GETTING FROM 0 TO 50 IS FUCKING HARD.”
I feel you. I feel that.
Yeah man, like, I was taking a meeting the other day with this dude and he’s so fucking miserable man. He’s so fucking salty. He’s working a job that he doesn’t even really wanna do. He had a dream and he gave up on it, now he’s on that long, long journey to the middle. Best case scenario, and he knows it. He hates his life. And even though I’m not as successful as I wanna be, I love my fucking life. I’m at least in the process of working towards something. That’s what music gives me. A reason to wake up in the morning; something to look forward to.
Finding purpose is a liberating thing. A lot of people envy that.
Yeah and they always say that it’s “luck.” Like you’re so lucky, like these things just fell out of the sky. Like you didn’t have grit. Like you didn’t risk it all on this. You have to work at it too!
Yeah, like those Tweegrams say – even though the last thing anyone wants to see on Instagram is words – “luck” is when hard work meets preparation.
Exactly. And there’s no limit to it either. Once I figure out how to be successful at music, it’s a gateway into other things, and that’s super exciting to me. I don’t want any type of ceiling. I don’t want limitations.
It rings through in your music. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed about it – it’s so grand and cinematic. You’ve said before that it has to do with being from Ajax [Toronto] where there’s nothing to do, outside of going to the movies or the mall. That’s not totally dissimilar from Baton Rouge, my hometown which is also boring as hell. There’s nothing to do but watch movies and buy stuff. That’s not something I’ve really grown out of. Nowadays, if my friends want to see a movie, I’ve likely already seen it. It seems like you’re the same way. I’ve seen it in the way you put visuals to music; like the song in and of itself isn’t the point. Does that have something to do with your habit of “re-versioning” short films for your music videos?
Yeah, we put so much time into the music. It’s cinematic, like you say. Me and Matt Wolf were trying to shoot these videos with no budget. We had these grandiose, massive ideas and we just couldn’t pull them off without looking like amateurs. And I never wanted to look like an amateur. I didn’t wanna look like just some guy that makes music in my room, even though that’s the case – I’m still just some guy making music in my room. So I’d Google, I’d hit Vimeo, I’d hit YouTube and I’d try to find a video that matched the feel of the audio. Once I found the right one I’d layer it with my audio and then re-release it, making sure to credit whoever made the video originally. I was trying to prove a point, like, “Look at this $10,000 or $15,000 video that looks like it was made for this song I made in my room. So put me in the position to make my own video with my own concepts and my own treatments, with my music, and let’s make something special.” You know, because getting from 50 to 100 is really easy, but getting from 0 to 50 is fucking hard. I mean, I could go stand in front of the CN Tower rocking a Blue Jays fitted rapping at the camera and shit, but that’s not my record. My shit doesn’t sound like that. It doesn’t look like that.
Making something like that would be a disservice to the music you make.
Right, man. Think about it like this. It’s like having a girl and spending all this money and taking her on all these dates. And then she’s finally ready to fuck, and you’re like, “Actually I don’t wanna fuck.” After you spent all this money and all this time. Realistically, after you put in all this work, you’re gonna wanna hook up with this girl.
Like, I love what Childish Gambino does with his videos. I love what James Blake does with his videos. There’s no other way to do it in my eyes.
Yeah, like, remember when rap music videos had budgets?
Yeah man [laughs]. But the other side of that is, sometimes it works without it. Like, the “Black Punk Motherfucker” video, shit, we shot that with $8. We spent $8 on spray paint, and that was it.
And people, well, I don’t wanna say loved it. But it definitely got people talking.
Yeah, and I’d rather it be a situation where people are saying, “What did I just watch?” than them saying, “That was cool, but whatever.”
Is that a good gauge for the sound you’re going for on this next project, Black Sheep Nirvana?
Sonically it’s gonna be all over the place. Because I’m all over the place. I might be listening to a Rick Ross joint, then I’ll listen to a King Krule record, then straight to Jai Paul, and then, from there, I’ll go to like old Biggie, all in the same train ride. I feel most at home with this music, but it’s gonna put some people off. It’s also gonna be refreshing.
When do you think we’ll be able to hear it?
It’s kind of been finished for a long time. I’ve just been going back over it and reworking it. Usually when I finish a project I just put it out right away, and then I go back a few months later and I’m like, “I could’ve done this differently, I could’ve done that differently.” So I’m gonna make sure I get it right.
I love it though man. I’ve got a feeling you will to. Whenever it comes out. Be that 2015 or 2016. Shit, I might get amped up and leak it tomorrow, though more than likely, probably not.