L.E.O. (formally known as Leo Kekoa) is one of the few emcees who has managed to walk the thin line between the mainstream “hip-pop” and underground hip-hop scene of Korea’s ever-growing music industry. Born on the mainland in Washington D.C.Â and growing up in the Hawaiian Islands, L.E.O.’s music and style reflectÂ his American attitude and Korean roots, as he is known to spit both in Korean and English.
Having been in the game for over 10 years, he’s known by his fans as one of the young innovators of the new generation rap and hip hop in South Korea; with some even claiming him as one of the topÂ underrated artists in the glitz and glamor obsessed world that is music entertainment. He’s broken the stereotype ofÂ the angry, antisocial underground emcee by not exclusively collaborating only with other underground acts, but has expanded his horizons and fan base by venturing into the realm of “pop music”. By doing so, he proves that being “real” is being true to yourself, and your passions; and in his case it’s music all day, every day.
While taking a break from recording his 3rd studio album, L.E.O. was kind enough to answer a few questions for his English-speaking fans right here on CrayonBeats . Check out the exclusive interview after the jump.
Tiffny: Before we get started, I’d like to clear something up that’s been confusing me a bit. I’m hearing that you’ve changed your name from Leo Kekoa to just L.E.O. True or false? And if true, was there a reason behind it?
L.E.O : Yes I changed the name to L.E.O from Leo Kekoa because the name Leo Kekoa wasÂ kind ofÂ hard for Korean people to adjust to.
Tiffny: Let’s talk about your influences â€“ what artists inspired you in the past, and who do you look to now for inspiration?
L.E.O : I was inspired by many… but if I have to break it down: Bob Marley, Biggie, A.T.C.Q and DEUX from Korea
these days I watch old school movies.. and listen to a lot of old school songs such as PUBLIC ENEMY, PHARCYDE, LOST BOYZ…
Tiffny: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
L.E.O : Nope it just kinda happend for me. I guess my close friends had a lot to do with it.
T: When did you first get into hip hop actively (as an emcee)?
L: The first tape I ever bought was N.W.A.. but I really got into it when Dr.Dre dropped DRE DAY. I started rapping professionally in Korea 1996.
T: It’s been a few years since you’ve debuted…ever take a listen down memory lane and revisit your old material?
L: Yes, all the time right before I make a new album… so I don’t forget the passion that I had before.
ë– ë²„ë¦¬ [Blabbermouth] feat. Nan-A from his first album, Ill Skill
T: Over the years you’ve featured some some of the best (and often underrated) artists on your tracks and in turn have been featured on some of their hottest tracks. What do you look for in an artist when deciding who to work with?
L: Well, I don’t work by the fame they bring. Usually I featured for people’s first EP or first album. I love gettingÂ people’s first joint because it has that passion, and [is] untouched by the company. When a person have skillz and they wanna feature me for a right reason I will get on it, and when I feature usually I think of it as my own song.
(Some artists LEO has worked with include: Bobby Kim, Bizzy, Nassun, Nan-A, Y.D.G. , Redroc, Big Tone, Zeebra, Dynamic Duo, MC Sniper, Verbal Jint, The Quiett and Dok2 just to name a few)
T: And speaking of collaborations, who is your dream artist to work with and why?
L: I would love to work with Santana. The way he moves people with his guitar its just sick, and even though I rap. IÂ just love music. Especially Ocean Sound Music’s.
T: A lot of Korean stars are focusing on coming to America and singing in English, but have you ever thought of getting a US artist on one of your tracks â€“ and having them rap or sing in Korean? You know, shake things up a bit?
L: Yes all the time. Before that happens I have to become one of the greatest of Korea. Not only in hip-hop section, but in all music. But in the future that might happen.
T: Your most recent release, Black Belt, is pretty solid from beginning to end. Lot’s of soulful jams and heavy hitters! My favorite songs would have to be A.N.G.E.L. Feat Ali, Jammin Jammin feat. ë‚¯ì„ & ìŠ¤ì»¬( Nassun and Skull), and í¬ë¦¬ìŠ¤ë§ˆìŠ¤ ì§•í¬ìŠ¤ (Christmas Jinx) feat. JK ê¹€ë™ìš±( Kim Dong Wook). If you had to pick, which songs (from the album) would you say is your favorite?
L: My favorite is Sign. The person who produced Sign was a member of DEUX,Â the FIRST HIP-HOP TEAM IN KOREA EVER, so it was like a dream come true for me. And I listen to ANGEL the most out of my second album.
T: I wanna switch gears and talk about Korean music in general. How would you describe the current Hip Hop scene in Korea?
L: Its got really bigger than before and its still growing fast. I think our future is very bright!!!
T: A lot of artists in Korea have successfully incorporated what was once considered to be solely an underground genre (Hip Hop), into the mainstream of ‘K-pop’, which in a way is a great look for Hip Hop artists; but do you think this has come at a cost?
L: Well of course. But if an artist is great– hip-hop,underground, commercial music, I don’t think it really matters. The scene has changed a lot. Pop,Â Hip-Hop, Rock;Â sometimes you don’t know what kind a music it is until the vocal hits the track. So if an artist [is] good, they are good in general. That’s the way I see it.
T: Do you listen to K-pop at all, and if so who are you into? Any guilty pleasures, or are you strictly Hip Hop?
L: Well, I listen all hip-hop albums at least one time to see what that artist brings. I listen to hip-hop and R&B and Reggae. I am strictly hip-hop in my own way.
T: What’s on your playlist as of now?
L: A lot. I have like 40,000 songs shuffling rite now. But I am feeling B.O.B’s “Nothing On You” & DJ KHALID’s “All I Do Is Win“.
T: Random question that just popped into my head: have you ever had a sip of orange juice right after brushing your teeth? That shit is disgusting right?!
L: Yes, all the time. I was raised by my Gramma she always made me drink orange juice in the morning. Got used to it though.
T: Back to the business: What are you up to now? Any plans for a new album?
L: Well, I am going back to my home town to Hawaii in April. Going to go relax and feel what I have never felt for a long time. My 3rd album is going to be a Sound Of A OCEAN. A summer album.
T: I want to paraphrase one of your quotes from an interview you did with Hiphopplaya, where you talked about â€œreal hip hopâ€ clichÃ©s. You said something to the effect of: â€œif you’re a rich boy, don’t pretend to be hungryâ€. This struck me as something worth quoting because, there are a lot of artists (not just in Korea, but worldwide) who think they have to mimic American rappers and â€œbe hardâ€ or drop the N bomb excessively and put up other fronts in order to be â€œhip hopâ€ artists. What advice or words of caution do you have for rappers who think they’re doing the right thing by acting as such?
L: I mean, I am from the projects. We don’t have guns in Hawaii but it was kinda ruff growing up as a Asian in a Samoan hood. Well, if they come from a good family, I think they can bring more poet style of music. They might not have that life story telling lyrics but I think being your self and doing just you in a track is very important. If you are not loved by doing you, I don’t think life, love, even hip-hop;Â it don’t matter and it don’t mean shit.
T: Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say to your fans?
L: My third album is coming soon, dropping this summer and end of this year my crew “DOKKEBEEZ” we are making a first compilation album so watch out. And also you can follow me in twitter for more info www.twitter.com/leokekoa
Much love from Korea. And much respect for people around the world making beautiful music.
LOVE, L.E.O Kekoa
Big shout out and thank you to L.E.O for taking the time to do this interview with me, and make sure you keep an eye out for his upcoming CD.–Tiffny