“A lot of people love music but I really love music. I belong to music, I live within it. I belong to the stage. A lot of people perform, but I belong to the stage.” Sean Leon explains hurriedly after I ask him how he started pursuing his craft. “It's just different with me. I was sleeping in McDonalds and Tim Hortons over this shit, I've sacrificed for it.” Those with an ear to the ground know that there's a growing murmur surrounding Ajax-native Sean Leon. The young artist has amassed thousands of fans seemingly overnight thanks to his dark aesthetic choices and creepy and deliberate delivery. Now, Sean is hungry to prove to the world outside the Greater Toronto Area that he's a musical tour-de-force.
This inescapable hunger is what distinguishes the 23 year old artist from others in the newest batch of rookies from the Toronto hip-hop scene. His relentless and obsessive love for music translates into his songs and gets you in the pit of your stomach. It was this same intense love that caused Leon to drop out of school to pursue music, leading to him spending over 20 hours each day in a studio, tucked away in Toronto’s East end, meticulously perfecting each verse and beat until it was ready for public consumption.
Sean Leon’s mixtapes transport the listener to a world of downtempo synth-driven tracks with slick rap verses. Leon’s signature vocal detuning resembles the ‘chopped and screwed’ tradition of 90’s Houston rap and the flux in his vocals matches the perfectly chaotic meshing of his drawn out synth lines. Leon’s verses sound more like stream of consciousness than the typical hip-hop flow, speaking to his internal struggle that's delivered with equal parts emotion and conviction. This is the dark, macabre world of Sean Leon.
There's a rabid following that is quickly growing around Sean Leon and his collective, the IXXI, as people seem drawn to Leon’s charismatic persona on the digital space. Tweets like “My mind is prettier than my face and my soul outshines them both, I have no worries.” exude a kind of reckless confidence and brash honesty that dances on the border of arrogance and artistry. It's a refreshing departure from the typical promotional Twitter timelines of most unknown artists.
His transparent persona is what makes Leon such a relatable figure. There is no PR team, no manager, it’s just him, voicing his thoughts and making music. With two mixtapes released; 2013’s ninelevenne, the tragedy and 2014’s narcissus, THE DROWNING OF EGO is evidence of a strong contender in the new-school hip hop scene. We spoke with Sean Leon about his past, the IXXI and his relentless desire to create memorable work.
Noisey: What drew you to creating your dark sound?
Sean Leon: I'm the middle child from the middle class from the middle of nowhere. Where I'm from it's grey and lifeless. The people don't live here, they exist here. The music is dark because it's a reflection of where I was raised, there's nothing to do here. In high school we were cutting class to do home invasions because there's nothing to do here. We're smoking weed, fucking, and going to the movies every single night because that's all there is to do here… I never really felt alive until I started making music. It became this thing that was more important to me than anything in the entire world, my family didn't understand how much it mattered to me so I left home when I was young to pursue it. It was more important than high school, so I dropped out. It's more important than any relationship I've ever been in. I love creating music more than anything, and I'm naturally charismatic, that's my charm; my believability.
What is IXXI?
IXXI is something I created in my mother's basement just over a year ago with my friends who are also artists. I created it and ran it, I watched it grow to what it is now, this new wave shit that's slowly starting to really affect people. We're something to be discovered, not brought to you, it's almost poetic and perfect for me to be from the middle of nowhere. I want everyone who stumbles upon my shit to feel like they discovered me so they feel some ownership over me. That's the difference. I don't want casual fans, I want rabid cultists. I want Radiohead fans. I want Tupac fans. I don't want fans that fuck with me but kind of fuck with someone else more.
We do a lot with very little. To a lot of people it seems like we're being supported financially, like we're funded, but that's not the case. Our sound is our sound because we take it seriously. Our aesthetic is our aesthetic because we take it seriously. I sit down with J'vell and have conversations about how we want our shit to be impactful and polarizing. I take everything seriously. I even take something as trivial as twitter seriously, you can read through my old tweets like classic literature. That's because I feel like if I die tomorrow those thoughts, my tweets like this interview, are cemented in time. They're frozen, anyone with internet access has access to them long after I'm gone. That's apart of my legacy. I put a lot of thought into every facet of this shit. I love creating more than anything in the world and it shows, and because of it I'm going to prove to be prophetic. My death is going to affect a lot of people. If I die tomorrow I'm going to have an effect on a lot of people.
I created this thing because it's 2014 and I don't believe in anything anymore. I don't believe in the major labels, I don’t believe in the need of distribution, I don't believe in the industry, and I don’t believe in radio like I don’t believe in blogs, or at least most of them. IXXI is something that was created so that I could have something to believe in. I don't believe in fame, the rockstar is dead, instead there's reality television, instead there's TMZ and internet memes, fame is cheap as fuck now, why would anyone want to be famous in 2014? It's not the 70s or the 80s, it's lame now. I listen to old Pink Floyd records and I swear the music coming out of the speakers is laced with something, I just feel it too much. I want to restore that feeling. I want to be the first rockstar of this era. That's how controversial it's going to be when I come again with my new material. Rock's saviour is this black rapper from the suburbs. I won't do anything I don't want to do. I'm just a kid. Black Punk Rap Rock Motherfucker. That's what inspires my music.
Could you elaborate a bit on your stage name, Sean Leon and the alter ego Maui Slim?
My mother named me Matthew Sean Leon, my grandma wanted to name me Michael, but my mother chose Matthew because she wanted me to have a biblical name. Maui Slim isn't an alter-ego, I'm as much Maui as I am Sean, it's just nice to have a nickname, especially when it's given to you, you know? It's just nice. I like it so I ran with it. It's cool, I've seen people change their twitter names to Maui Slim, they call me Maui when I'm out, it's nice, I like it. It reminds me of when I hit my first lick.
What inspires your aesthetic choices?
I was doing videos but they weren't coming out right. I had been doing videos that were doing more harm for my brand than good so I had to get creative. I had to be proactive. I started "reversioning" videos, so I would take a popular or obscure visual that matches the feel of the visual and re-score it with my music, no different than how Tarantino or Scorsese would score their films. I always credit the director and cinematographers and whoever else is involved with the original work, it's important to me that they receive their credit, but it's also important to me that I have visuals for my music that aren't just me standing in front of the CN Tower, rapping. If I'm spending 20 hours a day on my records I want visuals that reflect that. I take it seriously, I make it so that it's so cohesive your first thought isn't, “he stole this,” your first thought is “this is amazing.”
What does the future hold for Sean Leon? Anything else you’d like to add?
I feel like this is the best time to be alive, the world wants change, the culture is looking for someone to shift it because there's been very little magic presented to the world as of late. The creatives are going to survive and the chameleons are going to die. These are the times of our lives. Inventors and innovators are going to flourish. Cultural dinosaurs and their medieval ideologies and principles are going to be wiped out. I'm pretty sure this is going to be the best year of my life, if it isn't already. I wanted to be Ice Cube but I'm realizing I'm much more like Kurt Cobain. Sometimes I think I'm too sensitive for this shit, but if I don't do this I won't do anything ever, and there are worse things than opinions. Opinions don't really matter so long as the fam good. People don't really think you know? For any of my fans reading this, making music too, or doing whatever, don't let your dream die. Store all of your hurt and suffering in your memory bank. All of your pain, rain, all of the the loss and fear. Believe me, it pays off. Cash out all the pain and angst from your memory bank when the time is right, bet big, the reward is priceless. Channel all loss. Harness it, it's a gift, It's yours, use it as a tool, equip yourself with it, fight for your dream. The goal is to be larger than life. Daniel Caesar season's approaching and Maui Slim's forever. Peace gods.
Francesca Saraco is a writer living in Toronto. She is on Twitter.