Sean Leon: If I can’t be your friend, then I’m going to be your enemy [Interview]
Toronto, ON – With so many artists coming out of Toronto, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. But, for young rapper and producer, Sean Leon, he sees this as the perfect opportunity to do something completely different with his sound and overall image and brand. Catching the attention of many with his abrasive lyrical content and edgy live performances, Sean is quickly claiming the ‘Leader of the New School’ title in Toronto’s urban music scene. After years of not getting the recognition he wanted and felt like he deserved, Sean came up with a plan, a plan that he hopes will catapult him to a new level of success. With the help of his artist collective, The iXXi Sean has thrown everything you know about hip-hop from Toronto out the window and is creating a new culture that sets him apart from the rest.
His debut mixtape, Ninelevenne, The Tragedy, which was released on July 23rd is a small sample of his musical creativity and what is to come from a guy who’s as wild just as much as he is well-spoken and intelligent. Sean is carefully setting the stage for himself and the rest of the iXXi crew, but watch out, because they’ll probably tear that shit down and make a mess when you least expect it!
HipHopCanada had the opportunity to speak with Sean Leon recently where he opened up about his journey thus far, his perspective on music, life as an artist in Toronto, his team and his new project. Check out the full interview after the jump!
Sean Leon: Q&A
Written by Natasha Paolini for HipHopCanada
HipHopCanada: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us!
Sean Leon: No problem, I’m just happy to have the opportunity.
HipHopCanada: First things first, when did you start taking a career in hip-hop seriously?
Sean Leon: That would have been… right now. I’ve been rapping for awhile and I had a couple of mixtapes out under a different name. But, I never really looked at it as a career (even though I thought I could always do it), or that something I need to really put a lot of attention into. It was kind of something I was just doing as a hobbie. Then I started to think about life and where I wanted to be, you know, these things that I wanted and things that I wanted to do and I realized to obtain these things, music was the key. So probably late last year I decided to make this my career and that this is what I’m going to do for the next 10 to 15 years, before I get to old and it’s just corny. I have an exit strategy already but I’d say probably say mid last year, in 2012 I decided to really pursue this thing all out.
HipHopCanada: Did you give up something to pursue this?
Sean Leon: Yeah, I played ball first. I know it’s probably so cliché, but I was a baller first. And I was pretty good, I could have gone D1. A lot of my family was rooting for me to play ball, then I started making music and there was just a whole different type of rush. I just fell in love with it, and I kind of started cheating on ball. I remember actually the day I told everybody that I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m going to start rapping – they thought I lost my mind, which I might of. So, if I wasn’t rapping I’d probably still be doing that. I just weighed out my options again, and I figured you know what yeah I might go D1, or high D2, but then after that what would I be doing? I’d probably be working a 9 to 5 the rest of my life or coming back and working at a local gas station, and I don’t want that for myself. I figured with music I’m able to be creative and get into other lanes, such as business ventures and that type of stuff. So, that’s why I leaned towards music in the end.
HipHopCanada: Those elements that you just pointed, the business ventures and what not. Is that what appeals to you the most or are there other things that appeal to you?
Sean Leon: Well, the art itself, is the most important thing to me – the creative process is the most fun. I was actually thinking about that recently ‘What do I enjoy the most?’ and it came down to either performing or the creative process. But, I just really like locking myself in the studio and being in there, 7, 8 hours a day and seeing what I can come up and then comparing it to what I created yesterday and trying to build on that the next day. I just want to leave something; when I’m gone I want people to have something that can attribute to my name. So, creation is the best and most exciting part. But, with the whole music thing we have going on and what I’m trying to build with my team, it’s not really a traditional way we’re going. I don’t even want a record deal; I’d rather have a publishing deal or a distribution deal and be independent. I’m trying to build something a little different.
HipHopCanada: Dope, dope. Do you feel that you represent a certain population of people?
Sean Leon: I think I represent the suburbs…really well. I think a vivid portrait of that. There’s a lot construed constructions about the suburbs in general, but where I’m from there’s such a range of people – I kind of talk about it on the mixtape. When I was in high school, well, I ended up dropping out of high school, but when I was in high school I would be in the cafeteria, stealing lunch, and there would be a kid in my class driving to school in a Mercedes Benz. So, there’s such a range of classes and just, types of people and I think because of that I’m able to appeal to a larger audience because I can speak both languages really well. I can walk into a label’s office and speak with a certain level of eloquence and then I can be on stage at a show and be ratchet as hell…and it’s just natural, it’s not a façade. I’m able to maneuver between both of those worlds. But, I’m talking about the real suburbs, not like Orange County, with super green lawns, nice cars and everybody has a pool type suburbs. Where I’m from, there’s a lot of the people from the hoods that get pushed up here, so it’s not even sweet out here, it’s just as bad. There are the people who really have everything and then there’s people who don’t really have anything at all. I think that’s what I represent the most … the suburbs.
HipHopCanada: How has being from the suburbs affected your sound and your music?
Sean Leon: I’m open to a lot of different things. When someone listens to my music for the first time you’ll hear different sounds, with the way the production is sequenced and the abrasive content. I don’t want to say that it’s conscious, but I’m saying something important, but abrasively so it appeals to a lot of different people. I think my ear is a lot more potent because of where I’m from, because I grew up with different people and having different conversations so I look to have different types of things in my music. I think honestly, I mean I love it, a lot of people complain about being from here, but I love it. It’s really grey and it is hard to be inspired, sometime, but whenever you want inspiration, you can get it…I enjoy it out here.
HipHopCanada: On this topic on inspiration, when you come to a roadblock or when you feel not so inspired, what types of things do you do to get over that?
Sean Leon: I guess, if I’m being honest, I like to talk to girls when I’m not feeling inspired. I always get inspired by conversation for some reason. A lot of my muses are women, but they’re not necessarily flings and I’m not hooking up with all of them. There’s just something about women, women are like the tastemakers. You could have the hottest record, but if girls aren’t really fuckin’ with it then nobody’s going to really fuck with you. And then, in the same sense if girls are fucking with you, then the guys will. So, I just talk to them and have conversations with them. Other than that I watch a lot of interviews, I’ll read a lot of old literature, I’ll look at art, watch documentaries and biographies. But, I don’t really have that issue anymore. The hardest part right now is holding on to all these records…because I have them, but I just can’t put them all out at the same time. I’m already working on, not the sequel to my mixtape, but the one after the sequel – I’m already 2-3 years ahead with material. That’s probably the hardest part, it’s not even creating anymore, it’s just being patient.
HipHopCanada: Is that one of the biggest challenges; holding on to your music and figuring out your strategy and your plan?
Sean Leon: Yeah, because, with my whole team, and the reason why I even created my team, is because nobody was fuckin’ with me, or us, period. Coming from where I was from, they weren’t checking for us, they weren’t coming for us. I might have even sent my shit into HipHopCanada like 100 times, since like 2008.
HipHopCanada: Really? [Laughing]
Sean Leon: Yes! Ever since I can remember rapping, and now I’m looking at how times have changed and shit, and now I got an interview on here, it’s crazy! [Laughing] We’re just young, and when it comes to making music, we’re creative and we’re able to make something out of nothing. We’re on a zero dollar budget and all that type of shit – I record everything in my room, I make everything in the basement. The hardest part is now getting into the whole business aspect, and it really takes away, and it’s already is taking away from the fun of making music. It’s just different, and I tell my guys all the time, ‘Enjoy these last few moments as nobody, because when shit pops off, it’s never the same.’
HipHopCanada: Are you worried about how transitioning into a commercial artist will affect you?
Sean Leon: Not really, because even now when I make the records, yeah I might do a show at Wrongbar or Hardrock, but I’m trying to be at Coachella next year. The goal is always mainstream success. I make the joke all the time, but I don’t think anybody has ever seen anybody change the way I’m going to change after fame, and in a good way. Coming from here, it’s difficult to get on and be seen as an artist, unless you get that American co-sign. I just can’t wait for things to pop off, I’m excited about the mixtape, and then I’ll be dropping the sequel in the Fall. There’s so much I want to do for the city itself and even more importantly, there’s a lot of stuff I wanna do for the young cats on the come up who are rapping too.
HipHopCanada: Do you feel that living in Toronto, and being in the music industry here is like living in a bubble, with a glass ceiling, like you’re stuck?
Sean Leon: Yeah … [Thinking], well, yeah, I think it’s like that. I talk to other rappers, from L.A, New York and whatever, who are at the same stage that I’m at, and they say the same thing. They tell me they want to move to Toronto to pursue music and I’ll be like ‘I feel like that’s going backwards.’ I want to go out to L.A, or I want to go to where you’re at to pursue music. Everybody feels like they don’t get the love that they deserve at home…and, you don’t. Even Jamaica didn’t really embrace Bob Marley until he left, and then he had all this success across the States, and then when he came back they embraced him. With Toronto, it’s like ever since Drake popped off, a lot of people have been checking for us; I have a people mess with me just because I’m from Toronto. So, I think in 2013 it’s a fantastic time to be from here. I’d say maybe 5 years ago it was different. But, I don’t think there’s really a ceiling on any of us. I just think it’s a ceiling that we put above ourselves.
HipHopCanada: Yeah, everything you’re saying is true. Toronto’s been getting a lot of attention, like the producers, the rappers, and the singers – everyone, really.
Sean Leon: I’m happy to be alive in 2013. If this was ‘93, I don’t know how I’d be doing. I don’t even know if I’d be getting the opportunity. I’m happy to be doing music right now.
HipHopCanada: Are there any artists in Toronto that you’re a fan of or that you’re looking to collaborate with?
Sean Leon: Outside of my camp, I like PartyNextDoor. I used to work with him a long time ago, that’s my guy, I’m looking forward to working with him when I get to that stage too, because he’s out of here, he’s big time now. I like Raz Fresco, and his whole Bakers Club movement – I think it’s really fresh and I like that he has his own lane. There are a lot of young cats that I see at the shows and stuff that I mess with and I bump their stuff. As far as collaborations go those are the two young cats that I really mess with.
HipHopCanada: Yeah, they’re really good. Tell me a bit about your team, and your camp and what you guys have going on and the movement you’re trying to start.
Sean Leon: Like I said when I started it (mid 2012), these are guys I had been messing with forever. Things weren’t really popping off the way I thought they should be for me musically; I wasn’t really getting a lot of attention, from blogs and the masses in general. So, I created this coalition, this collective, and we banned together and are viewed as the rebellion army towards what Toronto represented. If I can’t be your friend then I’m going to be your enemy, and at least this way, I’d be a part of the conversation still. The problem was that we weren’t even a part of the conversation … it was formed to create this electricity and this excitement around, not only me but around every other artist in the collective. Within the collective are rappers, singers, producers and some people that handle the business side of things. I try to keep a certain level of mystique around it, I try not to talk about it too much just because I don’t want to define it… because it’s growing every single day, it changes and it evolves into bigger and better things. What I’ve been trying to do and what the goal is, is to create an entire culture. You can blow up as a rapper and become a part of pop culture, but what I want to do, when it’s my turn and when I’m on, I want to be pop culture. I want to be doing to be the go-to sound. I want to come through with my own wave, I don’t want to be on anyone else’s wave…and I just want to come through and shut shit down…I call it ‘smashin the building.’ I want to build Rome, so within my collective I play Julius Caeser. We’re trying to revive music and be influential for the next 100’s of years.
HipHopCanada: You guys have definitely found an interesting niche. So, tell me about your new project Ninelevenne?
Sean Leon: Ninelevenne is the prequel to the project coming after that, which is called Animal King. Ninelevenne, is a short story that I wrote, because I write on the side, I picked that up in high school, and we just made music for the story. The original goal was to do a short film for it. It was going to be a trilogy, so I would do a short film for each chapter, all 3 chapters, and have it all tie together, then put out the short story. The goal was … to get a book deal, a movie deal and a Grammy … off of the one mixtape. I figured if I fell short, at least it would still be special to somebody, and I should have those types of goals for the project. So, I’m excited. The response has been good so far, people really like the music. Right now I’m just trying to get some visual shots. I don’t want to just do a traditional hip-hop video, because the original goal was short films so now it’s like okay, being in the basement and having the budget we have, we have to settle or we have to be super creative. I’m excited to see the public response to it. They might accept it or they might not. It might be too massive … just sonically; I had to go back and re-sequence certain things, and take certain records off. Because at one point it seemed that when you listen to it the first time you really enjoyed it, but it was just so heavy that you probably wouldn’t listen to it every day and I wanted to step away from that.
HipHopCanada: So it’s supposed to be an everyday type project?
Sean Leon: Yeah, I definitely wanted it to be something that you could listen to every single day. There are certain records on there that I know, to be specific there’s a song on there that is 8 minutes long and it’s a string solo and I got my guy to do a guitar solo. The first time you hear it, it’s amazing, but you probably wouldn’t listen to it every day, because who wants to listen to 2 minutes of strings?
HipHopCanada: Well, congratulations! Do you have any last words?
Sean Leon: I just want to say that I’m happy to be doing this interview. Thank you HipHopCanada for giving me the opportunity, because like I said I can vividly remember sending my stuff in, to the website, and not getting it posted and having to … not the chat, I forget what they’re called, I haven’t been on one of those things in a long time.
HipHopCanada: Oh, the message board? [Laughing]
Sean Leon: Yeah, the message board! I posted it up on there, just hoping that people would mess with it. It was getting a shitload of hate on it. Because, it wasn’t that good cause that was way back! But, whatever, I’m just happy to be here. Like I said just happy to be alive in 2013, and making music. Shout out to you Natasha and giving me the opportunity!
HipHopCanada: No problem. You definitely have something good going on, and I’m looking forward to seeing your progress.
Sean Leon: Thank you.
Stream & download Ninelevenne here
Stream & download Ninelevenne here