A Journey Through Babylon

An Interview With Gianni Lee, Written by Erin Duncan

We are a generation of social misfits. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and countless other social media platforms have helped us (millennials) carve out our own paths by showing us all the possibilities. Although we know what is out there, one of the biggest challenges of our generation is time: how to spend it, how to not waste it. Our world is much bigger than the world of our parents, so much so that it’s creating a gray cloud of indecision due to the careers we can visualize and and paint for ourselves.

Many of our interviews at Léte have been directly concerned with steering some sort of collective consciousness toward the aspirations, fears, and everything in between that come with being a millennial. With that in mind, meet Gianni Lee, a 27-year-old creative from West Philadelphia who now lives in Los Angeles. Gianni is reaching far beyond his hometown’s hold and doing nothing close to sticking to the script.

Gianni Lee splits his time between multiple disciplines: as a producer curating mixes and projects and as a fashion designer and public face for the clothing line Babylon Cartel, which he launched seven years ago with friends in Philadelphia. When Gianni speaks his mind on Instagram or on Twitter, it’s clear that the clothing line is an extension of his voice. The characters that are featured on the sides of the pants and shirts of Babylon Cartel symbolize his larger thoughts and ideas, not just his source of income.

Léte got a chance to catch up with Gianni after he released the samples from Kendrick Lamar’s How to Pimp a Butterfly and prior to his DJ set on Sway in the Morning, just before what many unfortunately consider the Baltimore Riots in response to the murder of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department.

A lot of people may know you either from music or fashion. Can you give readers some background about yourself?

I’m from Philadelphia originally. I was raised in West Philadelphia. I’m a clothing designer and I recently started jumping into the world of music production within the last two and a half years. I dedicate a lot of time to music creation - it’s kind of a passion production. I like the idea of creating something from start to finish and I feel like sometimes when you call someone a music producer, it just puts them in a box of only that. I like to take a holistic approach with it like it’s a full thing. It’s not just making beats. That’s something I’ve been more focused with over the past two years.

I run Babylon Cartel which is a lifestyle/streetwear brand. I don’t like to call it streetwear but it fits into that realm. I started Babylon Cartel with three other people about seven years ago. We started off in Philadelphia and we kind of reached a glass ceiling in Philly and we had to move to LA. We started throwing events towards the tail-end of our existence in Philadelphia. We were throwing events at the TLA that was partnered with Live Nation. We were throwing a lot of the first rounds of artists that were new and popping, for example, A$AP Rocky, Trinidad James, Chris Webby, Lil’ B. We kind of got into event production, and we just reached a good place and I just felt like it was time to move.

I moved out to LA not only to reinvent myself but to learn music production and to learn more about clothing production actually. That’s how I ended up here.

"No, I’m going to make some noise. I’m going to

ruffle some feathers. I’m going to make some people scared.

What else am I supposed to do?"

Now that you’re living in Los Angeles, what has been the biggest difference between Philly and LA?

Philadelphia is a lot similar to the Bay Area. People always compare the Bay to LA. Of course, everyone from the Bay wants to come to LA to pursue their passions and their career, but LA doesn’t seem as real as the Bay does. I’ve never been to the Bay, but everybody that I’ve met - I’ve met a lot of artists, and they all seem a little more real. Philadelphia is the same way, there’s just something more real to people in Philadelphia because of the living conditions - it’s a real blue collar City. You go to Philadelphia to settle down and just to work your job, whatever your job may be. Philadelphia is a professional run-of-the-mill American town that breeds those type of people. It bleeds over into the African-American community too because the people from the south moved to Philadelphia because it was easier to transition to than New York - so it just created this mindset of “we are real.” It’s a great place to get your start, but since people are so blue collar, people feel that way - that’s totally different  from LA.

People in LA are like “I’m about to get it,” “I’m whatever,” “I’m trying to be the next Kanye.” Everyone has those goals and aspirations and that’s all they are chasing. They miss that real part. That like, just connect with people because they are actually good people not because they do something part. Let me not ask this person what they do, but let me ask them what are your actual dreams, not what you’re doing this second, but what are your dreams and what do you actually want to do. That realness is missing from LA so that’s the difference. LA is more for a career - just come out here and make everything happen in the entertainment or fashion industry and to a certain extent it will happen here because there’s more opportunities. There’s bigger budgets. There’s more notable people here. Everything you need is right here. If you want that realness go to New York or Atlanta or Philly or Oakland. Don’t go to LA for that.

Makes sense. Do you see yourself leaving LA after a while?

Yeah but I don’t see myself moving to Philly - Philly is not the place for me. Philly is a place I’ll go and maybe revitalize a block or build houses on a block. Philly is a place I’d go to see my family. Philly is a place I’d go to try to add to the culture that’s already there. Philly isn’t a place that I’d go to lay my head. I feel like as an artist I should continue to grow. I want to move out of the country, not now, but eventually. I want to move to another place altogether I’m over the experience of being an American. I don’t really like the capitalist way of living but I like America and the core values, like there’s actually opportunities to come out here and make something happen, but after I make that thing happen I’m going to go somewhere else and make my life happen somewhere else. I may live in a damn cave and I may fish and hunt deer or something, I don’t know. I’m just so over and down to do something like that when the time is right.

I feel that way actually. Sometimes I feel like I have a jaded view of America and being an American. I love the opportunities that we have, but on the other side of things, America is really a bully to other countries and that’s just something that I don’t like.

We’re spoiled. We’re young and we think we can do whatever the fuck we want to. Because of that, other countries look at us like you know, you might know someone five or six years younger than you and you know they’re talented but they are assholes and you’re like “Ah, well you’re young.” That’s how other countries view us. After going to London and seeing how people were looking at me when I was crossing the street and people were looking at me like what are you doing - I just had a different mindstate because I’m American. I feel like we all never stop learning. I feel like that’s something I should do, learn how people live in other countries because America is so big there’s other places to go.

In order to understand that, you have to get out because people aren't going to know if you're not out there. Even if you're not trying to be a pop star and you just want to travel, it's better to know how people are so you know how to deal with them when you're in another country. You can't go to London and get mad that people are assholes - people just think different over there. You have to kind of adapt to it because if not, you’re going to be punching everybody in the face in London. People are just assholes in London because people know who they are to a certain extent and they are very particular. You have to learn to respect that and you kind of have to meet them where they are because there’s so many people in London and there’s only one of you. You have the American mindset and they have the British mindset. They’re Brits. They’ve been around for almost hundreds or thousands of years - not thousands, but they’ve been around longer than Americans have. Those mindsets are coming from longer generations than ours.

And with going to London, and just in general, how has traveling opened your perspective and even helped you dig more into your creativity?

It helped me dig into my creativity because I was able to see how people are living and what their digesting and what they find is worth monetizing or worth paying attention to. If you are only interested in what America is doing, that's fine if that's what you want to do. A lot of people now want to be global, but don't know how to be global. In order to be global, your mindset and your vision has to be understandable that people in India get it. When you think of Rihanna, people in China know who Rihanna is. People in China know who Beyonce is. The music they are making is so undeniable that people can get something or understand it even in other markets.


That’s interesting and I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of it that way.

Yeah, that’s why they act like they do and that’s why we act the way we do

Very true. For Babylon Cartel, when you first started the brand what did it mean to you then and what does it mean to you now? I think it’s pretty cool because you said it started seven years ago, which is a long time. You always see people start brands and give up over time because of life and other things, but you’ve been working on the brand consistently for all of these years. With that in mind, how has the brand changed or developed over the years?

Well if you think about it, six of those seven years I was in Philly. By the sixth or seventh year, I came to LA and Rihanna wears my jacket and then everything just changes - that’s an example right there. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, but you have to stay at it. I didn’t even have that mindset like you have to stay at it because something is going to happen. My mindset was just that I really love it and it doesn’t change. That’s why you have 50 year old guys who still try to rap, or you have 65 year old guys who are retiring and they’re trying to start a business because they honestly always wanted to do it. That drive and that passion never really dies in you and you always want to continue to do it. I wasn’t ever really thinking about the outcome. I just didn’t know what else I wanted to do. The only thing that brings me joy and happiness is creating something and putting it out to the world.

All of a sudden hundred and thousands of people are wearing your shit and they know what it is - that’s a good feeling. I’m pretty sure with you guys having this magazine, you don’t want to reach 200 - you don’t want to just have ten people who buy it or who go to the website. You want to reach a vast amount of people and that takes time. I always tell people like damn, it took me six years to get Rihanna in Babylon Cartel. I always use that to keep going because if I would’ve stopped the sixth year, Rihanna would’ve never wore Babylon Cartel. That’s how I look at it.

That’s good advice to share. I think people get jaded when they don’t feel like their work is getting noticed.

Yeah, people are jaded. Not only are people jaded but people don’t really take their work that serious, they just want to do it because they want to be cool. They want to do it because they want notoriety and they want to be known for something. Social media has kind of ruined us to a certain extent. As much as it’s helped us, it’s hurt us as well because now we’re just on some instant gratification and we feel like it should just be rewarded to us because we put it out there, but no, it still takes a lot of real work for things to stick.

People miss the fact that they need to have a work ethic-- it can’t be immediate like that.

If you were in New York at the time that Kanye dropped his collection, you would really see how crazy he has to be. He not only dropped a collection, he performed all over New York Fashion Week and then he had a show in the middle of New York City for 3,000 people and then he had just came back from LA for the Grammy’s where he gifted certain influential people with a sneaker. Then he dropped a sneaker. Then he showed up at certain Foot Lockers to personally give people the sneaker they ordered on the app that he helped put out. If you saw someone do all that stuff that wasn’t Kanye you’d be like damn that man is really trying to do something but then it’s Kanye and he’s already done something over and over again and he doesn’t really have to do anything else but he chooses to because it’s more than the money, it’s like that passion and that’s what people who are trying to do stuff have to realize. There’s these rich guys that don’t need to do anything, but do it because they love it and they need it to be bigger than it is - it’s like a thrill. It’s like damn I could do this, but I could do this too.

 photo by Julian Burgueno

photo by Julian Burgueno

  photo by Julian Burgueno

photo by Julian Burgueno

Speaking of Kanye, what did you think of his line?

I think Kanye’s line is a direct, it’s not like -  you can quote me on this, I just don’t want it to be taken out of context. I don’t think his line is necessarily innovative. I think his line is just of the time. It’s where fashion was going anyway. Fashion is what social media is. Social media is all about trolling and not being so serious about everything and if you look at his line everything about it is serious. It’s not like this is 2014 Alexander Wang and it’s all about certain cuts, no, it was like I like the way the color of this shirt is. It’s military and it’s very minimal. Some of it is distressed. Some of it fits weird. The pants are big it’s just like whatever it wants to be because that’s where fashion is going anyway. It’s not that serious. When you look at that stuff it’s not that serious. Fashion was going there anyway because that’s how the youth dress. It was kind of like taken and he put his own spin on it. That’s the stuff he was wearing anyway. All the stuff he wears when he’s out day-to-day, that’s the stuff he was wearing anyway. He was wearing baggy shirts and jeans and weird military nike boots. I mean that’s where it was going. He was part of the reason why it was ushered in. I don’t really call it innovative, but I call it of the times and it serves a place in fashion. He knew what he was doing basically.

I read an article about it and they didn’t say it wasn’t innovative, but they did say that if it were someone other than Kanye West like Alexander Wang or someone who would have done it, it would’ve been considered forward-thinking. With Kanye doing it, it kind of had a different undertone like they were kind of saying how in fashion, there’s different stereotypes if you’re a black male doing it. As a designer, do you see that being true?

Yes. I honestly feel like sometimes I’m not really taken seriously because I’m black or because certain black people have worn my clothing and I feel like it’s harder for me. Everything I do with Babylon Cartel is strictly from the muscle. We don’t have PR. We’ve had Rihanna, Iggy, Teyana Taylor, and Meek Mill wearing our clothes, but we haven’t had any real polarizing figures in fashion aside from Rihanna. We don’t really have a super cosign in the fashion world so my back is already against the wall. I honestly feel sometimes because I’m black or because you know my thought process when it comes to fashion, I might not be taken that seriously.

There are certain opportunities for example, this one store, they hit me up because they wanted a supply of Babylon Cartel--before I say that, I think it just goes by being black. It’s what you choose to put out there in the media because right now, everything that’s trending and everything that’s popping is putting poison into the media. I’m talking about lean and fucking this bitch and sipping on this and smoking on this and coke this you know what I mean--that’s what we’re telling the youth to do right now. I decided with the Capsule collection that we came out with to shed light on the Black Power Movement and I did that by creating these in your face garments. They were just graphic tees, nothing super crazy, but the graphic tees say “Counterintelligence Program,” which references the FBI organization that was trying to quiet a lot of black figures during the Black Power Movement.

All I did was switch around the words and make it more Babylon Cartel. I basically created this world of Babylon and communicated through the shirt. I thought it would be crazy to really show people what these documents said not because people would think it’s cool and edgy and weird. The store basically said you can send us a Line Sheet with everything but anything dealing with that collection. I was just like that’s funny, you don’t want that because it’s really saying something, but you carry shirts that say 666 on them.

It’s an agenda out here and people want to pick and choose what they associate themselves with and sometimes they feel like something that’s positive, which is still edgy mind you, is not what they want to show in their store. If I was white and I did that, it probably would’ve been received a little better. Maybe they would have wanted those shirts, I don’t know - it’s all speculation to me.

With examples like that, does it make you feel like you have to work that much harder though? For me, my parents have always said because I am black I had to try to work a bit harder because people already look at me in a certain way. Does it make you want to work harder to be like fuck you?

Yeah, it makes me just want to say fuck everybody. It would make me feel even better to know that I got it on my own. I had to realize that when I was starting to figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted to be everybody’s friend. When I stopped trying to be everybody’s friend and started to focus on myself and not trying to be everyone else, I realized all I needed was myself and to develop my brand and my voice, and to make it so sound that people would eventually fall into place.

I just started to realize no, fuck everybody else, and that right there could discourage a lot of people because that store is a big store that I should be in. Maybe they don’t think my clothes are cool enough, or because I’m Black or too radical. I’m not even the most radical person; I could be saying a lot of things I don’t say. I’m not the conventional Black man in 2015 right now. What everyone talks about on Twitter all day, that’s just not me. It’s nothing wrong with it, but what comes with it is when you decide to take another path that’s not the norm you have to realize it will take a little longer for people to catch on and you have to be fine with that. That’s why I have this fucking mentality and I’m still going to do me. It’s going to happen and it’s still going to happen, but I’ll appreciate it that much more if I decided not to lose myself in the process.


For Babylon Cartel, where do you see it going in the future?

With Babylon Cartel, I see us getting into more contemporary designs and finding different ways of monetizing the brand and reaching a broader demographic other than just garments. Why can’t we make a clock with just the logo that you can just hang in your room? Why can’t we make furniture? Why can’t we make handbags for women? Why can’t we make toilet paper like Babylon Cartel printed toilet paper?

You take  a piece of toilet paper and it would have Babylon Cartel on it over and over again. That’s cool, why not do that? That’s the reason I designed the logo they way I did. People don’t really notice it and It’s so simple. I was inspired by Chanel but I took a little flip on it. At the end of the day it’s so simple it could be on anything. If I would’ve had a crazy little weird logo it wouldn’t translate well if I decide now I want to do something with Martha Stewart. Not saying I’m going to do anything with Martha Stewart but the Babylon Cartel brand would fit well with Martha Stewart’s brand, just as nice as the Babylon Cartel logo would fit nice with the Rocafella or MMG logo. It’s about having something so synonymous that it can exist in more than one realm. You know multimillionaires have more than one stream of income anyway. I want to give Babylon Cartel the opportunity to make as much money as possible. What are we in it for, you know what I mean? Part of is it is influence, part of it is to actually make a living.  

In actual business you want to make money from it so I can’t shoot myself in the foot before I even get there and make a logo that a lot of people are not going to fuck with. That’s where I see us going, finding out other ways like maybe philanthropy, and giving back to the youth, it all make sense. It all just comes together with all the things I wanted to do when I was younger, but now I have a platform with my brand, and am actually able to do things and have a voice.

That’s tight. Since you do music and you do fashion, how do you find the balance to do everything and to perfect all of those things that are kind of different worlds?

I kind of gave up my social life in order to do it. Literally from when I wake up to when I go to sleep, I’m trying to do something that benefits either music or fashion. I fit other things into it definitely. I’m not waking up and from 9 to 9 I’m working all day grinding, nobody does that. It’s a time and place for everything. I’ll just be on the computer and I’ll have a lot of tabs open and I have another screen. I’ll just work on music until I don’t feel like working on music anymore and then I’ll start doing anything with fashion. With the fashion part, it’s like maybe half the day I’m shipping clothes. I look at it like as long as I’m doing something related to music for the day or related to fashion for the day, I did my job.

I don’t really have a list of things or bulletin boards or all of that - I should actually have those things, but as long as I did something with clothes, cool I can work on music for the rest of the day.  Or okay, I just finished a remix for this artist, or I worked on a remix for this amount of hours, cool, let me look up some inspiration for my next collection. Let me look at the internet for a minute or let me go somewhere or go outside or something or maybe I’ll have a meeting or something. I just love what I do so much that the time just flies and I don’t think of anything else. You’ll find the time if you’re doing something you really love to do. You’ll find the time for anything. You’re going to find the time.

That’s why I like that question and dislike that question.I feel like sometimes that question doesn’t always have to be asked because you already know, if you want to do it you’re going to do it. You’re going to find the time. It’s like how people find the time to watch tv all day. They watch TV because they want to watch TV.

You just released the Kendrick Lamar samples from How to Pimp a Butterfly, what about that album made you want to pull the samples for the release?

Well the reason why I do the samples altogether honestly, is because of Mike Blud. Mike emailed me when Babylon Cartel was a blog type thing and we just had clothes also, back when you were blogging for us. I guess he knew that so he sent some samples for whatever Drake album was out at that time and he was like yeah this is for the website and I emailed him back like this is genius like why don’t you have a cover for this. He didn’t have a cover or anything he was like here’s the samples, this will be good for your blog because people are into this and I was like “yo, why don’t you release this through Babylon Cartel. I’ll design the artwork and I’ll handle the whole other side of putting this out.” All I did was add a cover and I put it on my SoundCloud, uploaded the songs, did the artwork, make it official: Babylon Cartel presents Mike Blud and bam. And then, I just sent it to a few emails that I had and people started posting it, then we kind of just grew a relationship and we started putting them out all the time.

Kendrick’s album just made sense. It’s a big album, and people are going to want to hear it. We kind of do it because it just spreads so fast and it’s kind of dope to have another way to digest the album other than just listening to it. You can really see the origin of where it came from. We just do it for fun honestly, but you know it’s beneficial to us. The last one that we did has 30,000 plays in 3 days. That’s like wow, 30,000 people have heard it and have seen our names. And the Yeezus one we did has over 150,000 plays and I actually produced the intro. I knew it was going to go places and I was like why not showcase myself? I used one of the samples and produced the intro and put Marian Mereba on the intro. I kind of just sampled her voice from another song and put it together and bam, now 150,000 people know I’m a producer. That’s how I looked at it. I already knew it was going to go places. It’s just a thing that we do for like the love of music, and it’s just a good way to get our name out.

For Yeezus, I didn’t like the album but I think hearing some of the samples kind of made my hatred or confusion for the album decrease some.

I understand that, and that’s only because we’ve listened to albums so far in one kind of way, and he decided to release an album in a different way and it was hard on our ears. I’m not going to sit here and say that every song on Yeezus was “Oh wow I loved it.” It grew on me because Kanye kind of taught us other ways of digesting music. There’s people out here making music that isn’t really good on our ears but they serve a purpose because it’s like sound design. I think he just utilized those things because there are different experimental albums and contemporary albums with artists that kind of look at music differently. They aren’t doing the same chord structure or the same melodies that you would normally hear on music and that is good for the ears. It may be hard or harsh on the ears because people take music differently.

I think he knew that and knew that that would make it more polarizing. People were like what’s this and I don’t like this and I kind of like this and people still don’t like it but it’s got people talking. It would be different if he came out with that first but he did College Dropout and he did My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and he did Graduation and 808’s and Heartbreaks. He had so much music in his catalogue that he could do that.

Yeah! I can listen to like half of it almost. I listen to “Blood on The Leaves,” and I can listen to “Bound 2.” There’s like four or five songs that I can listen to in their entirety now, but before, I couldn’t listen to any of them. It’s happening slowly.  

It might take you another year.

I wouldn’t doubt that. With the Kendrick album, I made my parents listen to it with me, and I obviously started with “Wesley’s Theory.” Initially, they didn’t like it because of what Kendrick was saying. Then I played them just the samples that I like with “Every Nigger is a Star” by Boris Gardiner and they kind of drew the connection to why the Kendrick song is important right now. For you, why do you think this song and this album are important, especially now, in the midst of the turmoil we are living in with police killings and related events?

Really that’s why I think it’s important. No black man that we can relate to is speaking out on these topics. Kendrick is no older than anyone that is his fan. Kendrick has older fans, but no older than 2 Chainz fans or no older than A$AP Rocky’s fans--they’re all about the same age and cultural bracket. There’s differences. Some are more hipster, some are more conscious than others, but at the end of the day Kendrick is relatable and Kendrick is cool. Kendrick isn’t just some guy with a backpack on screaming at us about how we don’t get it. For someone that influential on that level, it’s going to change music and hopefully it will change the world.

That’s why his album is so important. I can sit here and ask you to name a black man who is speaking up on injustices and the way that black people are portrayed in the media and how they want to see how high we can jump with our broad noses and all that stuff. Name one artist who is speaking out about these issues. You can’t name an artist, Kanye isn’t even doing it.

Speaking of black men in the media, with the current events that Kendrick is covering, like Ferguson, how do all of these topics make you feel?

Sometimes it makes me scared like I don’t even have a voice and like I don’t even matter. If you could walk up to a black man and you can kill him for him just being black and you being under the impression that he’s doing something, it makes me feel like there’s no help for us. Or if I could just walk into an Uber and my white Uber driver automatically turns to Hip-Hop because he just assumes that that’s what I want to hear. I didn’t get mad at him, he played Gucci and I was happy like “Damn, he’s playing Gucci.” I was fucking with it but still, in the back of my mind I’m like damn that’s what it is because a black guy gets in the car you automatically turn on some Gucci. I didn’t like that at the same time.

I just hate that we are supposed to be such an advanced civilization but we are still judging people based on color. It just give mes no hope because it’s been going on for so long and the only reason  that it’s like that is because it stems from slavery and it’s just the same connections. We’re drawing the same conclusions like anybody who is halfway intelligent knows that slavery is the reason why this happening. We were cattle, we were like property, we were owned, and it was like okay cool you’re free now you’re free but we’re not going to let you be that free because you’re black. You can’t come here. You can’t eat and drink here. But you’re free. That’s what you wanted right?

So fast forward so many years later and you can just kill a kid on the street or you can strangle a man to death and he didn’t do shit. It makes me feel like there’s no hope. At the same time, I could potentially be that person to change things, but if not, I’ll just die trying because like what else am I going to do--we’re going to die anyway. While I’m here, I might as well try to do something amazing instead of being another drone or another vanity in the matrix letting you suck me dry and take all my money. I could just wait until I’m old enough to get a pension and just live the rest of my remaining years quiet and docile. No, I’m going to make some noise. I’m going to ruffle some feathers. I’m going to make some people scared. What else am I supposed to do?

All photos are via the artists Instagram account. You can view his website here.