Cool Jobs: Gianni Lee Emboldens ‘New Philly’ and Champions AFROPUNK

The genius behind Babylon Cartel shares his origin

Image: Gianni Lee

The entertainment world has been overrun by those looking to become the “next big thing.”

With the game full of people searching for success, using social media to stand out, and just basically trying to appeal to the masses— it can become ad nauseam whenever someone deems themselves an MVP within the game. Despite all that madness, Phildelphia’s own Gianni Lee supersedes expectations by being a multi-hyphenated performer with dreams of changing the world.

While your favorite Internet celebrity is shilling his or herself out to the masses, Lee is in the lab cultivating a new wave and implementing a maverick sound at the same damn time. A former Temple University student, the millennial entrepreneur has created his own clothing line (Babylon Cartel), created his own lane within music (Yeezus: The Samples), and proves that you don’t need a cosign from a legend to turn a party out.

Fresh from performing at Brooklyn’s celebrated AFROPUNK Festival, the man named after two fashion legends sits down exclusively with Black Enterprise to talk about his imaginative origins, how his preparation and presentation allowed him to circumvent roadblocks, and why AFROPUNK and New Philly are just the tip of the iceberg. Enjoy!

Black Enterprise: For those unaware about who Gianni Lee is — can you share with us your origin story?

Gianni Lee: That is an amazing question. I never thought I had an “origin” story, but it sounds epic. Heroic even. I would have to say that I was bitten by a radioactive spider; was born on an alien planet; raised by humans in Kansas and doused with gamma rays on a military base. That is how my childhood felt. I had a very active imagination and it helped me cope with the realities of life in West Philadelphia. My mother and sister were the closest people in my life.

We moved from house to house and I remember telling my mother that one day I was going to be famous and take her away from it all. That day had to be the beginning of Gianni Lee. I decided that I was going to be great. My father was my only other catalyst for success. He suffered from drug addiction, so my father’s absence in my life and habits taught me all about how real the Ronald Reagan era was. I discovered that it was already written in society for me to share his fate. I stopped hanging on the block with my friends. My mother moved me to a better part of West Philly. I got myself into an architecture and design-themed high school. I played sports, participated in some Karate tournaments, and decided that “college” would be my way out of the hood.

I attended Temple University and I had a ball. College is when I first started finding myself and exploring my artistry. When I graduated I focused every bit of energy exclusively on Babylon Cartel.

Growing up in Philadelphia, did you ever see yourself as a product of the environment? If so, can you talk about how you were influenced by your surroundings? If not, can you talk about why?

I was a product of my environment just like every other person that grew up in my neighborhood. The only difference is that I was one of the few that actually made it out. Regardless of my flight I retained certain habits: trust issues and certain education that you can only get from the streets. I was influenced everyday. I saw how the popular guys in my neighborhood were dressing. I saw the attention that they were getting and to a certain extent I wanted it too. I started dressing that way. It was a certain culture in my neighborhood and you naturally learned how to live with it and be a part of it. From the places you go to the people you interact with. I believe that everybody is a product of their environment and it can be looked at in a positive way or a negative way for sure.

You’re a multifaceted performer and artist. Specifically with Mike Blud and the sample series you release — can you talk about the formalization of the idea and how the execution of these sort of niche projects help to establish your overall brand?

Performing is definitely a new thing for me but it is amazing and surreal. Being able to play music that I made for thousands of people on stage is a great feeling. There is nothing in this world that captivates me more than dance music, honestly, and that is why I spend so much time making it outside of designing. The samples series holds a special place in my heart, though. Mike Blud and I have an amazing relationship on top of that. We met via the Internet and the entire “sample” tape was his idea. He presented it to me and I thought it was incredible to start doing it again.

While it has been done before, it was put forth that we would do it in a totally new way. I am big on presentation. I took care of the art direction and I would always remix one of the original samples into an intro. I believe that it was because of that creative that always made our work stand out. Our Yeezus sample tape, still to this day, is one of our most popular endeavors. People always praise me on the job I did with production on the intro. These niche projects helped get me onto a bigger platform. When you release these projects and folks like Pitchfork and Hypebeast write about them—it puts eyes on you. These are eyes that can now pay attention to the other things that you do. When people find out about me they also find out about Babylon Cartel. Unfortunately, I got bored with the samples projects recently only because I wanted to focus more on my original production and remixes.

I didn’t feel artistically challenged by compiling samples, I felt more like a historian versus being an artist. A good friend of mine made a good point during my time at AFROPUNK this year. She spoke on how Mike and I should continue the series because they spread so fast and that we are doing the masses a service by educating them on music. She said it is always amazing to have accessories to the main things you do. That being said, look for more sample projects in addition to my original production.

On the next page, read as Gianni talks about Babylon Cartel’s creation…

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