“I’m At The Point Where I Would Welcome a Diss Track from Anybody.” Sean Leon Is Ready to Be Rap’s New King
Contrary to Internet talk, Toronto’s famous CN Tower overlooks more than just a city soundscape of half-rapped, half-sung melodies and “woeful” production. Beyond the borders of The 6 (a moniker locals generally don’t use, by the way), lies a diverse mosaic of art culture. Yet, while Toronto has produced acts such as Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall and K’naan over the years, hip-hop culture has reduced the city’s colorful history to one man, one sound, one face—until now.
“I’m not an industry plant. My mission is to be the guy who made it on his own terms, and once I’ve done that, I can break the stigma,” says 25 year-old Toronto rapper Sean Leon, hoisting his daughter into his lap in his home studio. “I don’t have a father that lives on that side of the border, I’m 100 percent Canadian,” he says. “I want to be the first rapper that’s 100 percent Canadian that Americans really mess with.” With his rock-influenced, ominous hip-hop, a perfect match to Toronto’s cloudy chill, Leon is leading the charge of emerging talent, dodging the gimmicks and redefining the Toronto sound, along with newcomers Jazz Cartier and latest sensation Tory Lanez.
Toronto has a potential future as rap’s new capital.
“Recently I’ve noticed a community form in Toronto,” says Leon, “and I think it’s emerging because there’s an obvious superpower, there’s this obvious monopoly, and then there’s all of this other really dope, amazing, talented, refreshing music/art culture that’s just being neglected. What we’re seeing happen now is a lot of artists that are respecting other artists in the shadows are kind of banding together.”
Late last summer, fellow buzzing-newcomer Jazz Cartier spoke about Toronto’s dog-eat-dog rap scene in a Green Label interview and said, “It’s like a movie. It’s the race to the top. It’s very ego-based. Everyone wants to prove that they’re worthy of being the next up. Some guys get co-signs, some don’t. The ones that do feel like they’ve made it, while the others feel like they have to prove themselves. It’s really competitive.”
Yet, despite local competition, both artists have been building in popularity without those major co-signs, a testament to the power of the music. In fact, Leon doesn’t want one.
A united front is necessary for a full Toronto takeover.
“Where it gets hurtful is when they say that that is the Toronto sound, as if that’s the only Toronto sound,” Leon says. “So when I come out and I drop something that doesn’t sound like that, they say, ‘Oh, here’s a guy making music from here, that is not following the Toronto sound.’ No. I am using the same language, using the same words, and I’m from here. This is a new perspective on Toronto sound. I listen to music in colors, textures and feels; that Toronto sound they’re doing represents a specific color. As amazing and as necessary as that color is, it’s one color, and there are other colors, other textures, other feels that are as Toronto as that, but are being mislabeled.”
Leon plans to shed light on some of those marginalized sounds in the coming months with his first full-length, studio album, Black Sheep Nirvana, and is doing so without a major or owl-inked co-sign, supported instead by his collective, IXXI, an art house featuring prolific Toronto (and the Greater Toronto Area) creators of all types.
Sean Leon is ready for war, though, if necessary.
If his unabashed confidence and honesty spawns backlash from other Toronto artists, including the city’s current golden-child, a la Meek Mill, Leon welcomes it fearlessly. “I’ve already prepared for that; I’ve been ready. Anybody that doesn’t go into this thing ready is destined to fail. I’m prepared for that. I’m at a point right now where, honestly, I would welcome a diss record from anybody.”
“Why do we care? I made my records already. I took my jabs and nobody said nothing. They went at Tory instead, so whatever.” Leon says with a laugh. “I’m genuine; nobody can say nothin’ about me.”
Leon’s tunnel vision on Black Sheep Nirvana, padded by the support of his followers, has kept him from being exposed to any awkwardness around potential hometown adversaries. “I don’t go to the club, so I don’t hear those records, and we’re so focused on our stuff that we don’t really bump anything else.”
“I just want it to be about the music. If it’s just about the music, then I have nothing to fear,” Leon says. “Narcissus did more for my city than a lot of albums,” referencing his previous mixtape. “I have people that look to me and are waiting on me to become the thing that they know I can become. And if something’s in the way, I have to do something about it. It’s nothing personal; it’s just the law of man.”
Imagine listening to the opinions of people who have to be told what to like.
— sean leon (@seanleon) January 31, 2016
Leon thinks creators are afraid to be themselves.
“These guys are making the same songs because they just want people to like them the way the original artist is being praised,” says Leon. “Nobody is going to be better at making Future records than Future, so let Future be Future. If not, why even make music? It’s why people don’t respect rappers, and it’s why they don’t respect the culture, because there’s no variation. Everybody’s tracing, so why would you be held and regarded the same way painters, photographers, or architects are?”
“It’s like everybody is absolutely terrified,” Leon says. “I’m not because that’s why I built Black Sheep Nirvana the way I built it. I’m trying to build myself a cult following, a dedicated following, like Radiohead fans. There’s no band in the world that could’ve killed Radiohead. I’m making it so I have my own world and I exist in my world, and that’s my universe—I am the king of that. I am the king of the wild things. I’m the first to sound like me—I’m the first “me” ever, and that makes sense because there was no Matthew Leon, son of Lola Leon, ever.”
In his latest effort to showcase hometown pride, in celebration of All-Star Weekend, Leon has teamed up with Green Label, and fellow “Torontonians” Jazz Cartier and WondaGurl for “Above The Rim.”
“We did it in one night and it was dope,” Leon says, sharing that he freestyled his verse. “I work with WondaGurl all the time, and she’s one of the few people I know that is actually super gifted, so I love working with her. I still learn so much from her, so it’s great.”
“And Jazz, I was in the studio with him earlier last year, and it’s great to just work with a guy coming from where I come from because a lot of guys can’t work together. I respect what he’s doing and I respect how he’s doing it. Anytime we can get together, I think we should do it, when it makes sense. I know both of our fan bases would really appreciate a Sean Leon/Jazz Cartier record. It was a lot of fun.”
With his IXXI and Black Sheep Nirvana movement, Leon feels he can empower other Toronto artists to unite and make the city just as big as NY, LA, or Atlanta, if not bigger. “We do have the talent, it’s just converting a lot of minds, and that takes time. It’s still new,” Leon says. “If I die tomorrow, nobody can say I didn’t play my part in the renaissance.”
Image: Dead Dilly