With Sir Mix-a-Lot and, more recently, the controversial Macklemore standing as the two most well-known rappers of the Northwest region, it’s safe to say that Seattle has barely made a dent into the broader hip-hop landscape. So imagine coming from nearby Tacoma, which is even smaller, and trying to make a mark. As daunting as it is, however, Leezy Soprano has put his city on his back and made serious headway as far as getting heard, even collaborating with Seattle and other West Coast rappers.
“A lot of people don’t rep Tacoma so I want to be that person that kind of puts Tacoma on,” he explains. But that’s no gimmick. “Being true to myself is why I rep Tacoma,” he clarifies. “It’s where I’m from.”
And being from Tacoma meant that Leezy had no one in the game he could actually model his career after. Even though others naturally reference Seattle, Leezy says that’s not truly accurate. “Sir Mix-a-Lot and Macklemore are different versions of this side,” he explains. “Me, myself personally, I can give a different side of what’s going on around here. Those guys are really commercial so people don’t get the aspects as far as the struggles and the hood part and stuff like that.”
He’s very clear that he’s “not taking away from them because they made it.” In fact, he’s met Macklemore and considers him a “real cool dude. Humble. Approachable.” But Leezy’s journey has been very different. He found this life through serendipity really. His mother and brother first introduced him to music. As a child, he vividly remembers watching videos with his mother after she came home from work, as well as listening to his brother’s old cassette tapes of Wu-Tang, Ol Dirty Bastard, Too Short, E-40, and more.
Life, however, took an unexpected turn thanks to another mode of musical technology. “Growing up my friends and my cousins got this karaoke machine and we started free styling,” recalls Leezy. “That’s when I really discovered my talent because I was better than everyone else and they started pointing it out to me.”
Not content with being the best on the fly, Leezy took the recognition to heart. “When we had freestyle sessions, I started coming prepared so I started putting all my words on paper and that’s when I really discovered how good I was,” he says. Eventually his prowess with the karaoke freestyle sessions found its way into a studio.
“It was kind of natural when I got in there,” he reminisces. “I already knew song structure by listening and watching videos with my mom.” Still he says “I never even thought to try to make a career out of it. Back then, I was just rapping.”
Things got a lot more serious when a friend threw a birthday party and made Leezy one of the main attractions. He went into mogul mode and got a shirt with his face made, as well as burned up some of his music on a CD presser machine a girl he dated had. “I ended up being the talk of the town after they [heard] my music and that’s when I realized that I was real good, that I could probably make a profit off of it and actually go far.”
Even his name came about organically. “On the streets, people call me T-Lay so Leezy stems from Lay,” he explains. “And then the Soprano part, I just added that one day because I watched the show of course and that’s how I was feeling: like a boss. . . .When I said it on a song, it had a major ring to it.” The success of his first “barcoded album” Leezy Soprano proved that.
Adding visuals to his arsenal was another organic move. “When I was making all this music, I had no videos but luckily I caught the wave of digital SLR (hand-held cameras),” he says. “I couldn’t shoot myself so all I needed was someone to kind of learn the program and stuff like that. Producer YG Preach was like give me the opportunity. So I put the camera in his hands and then we got our hands on a MacBook and he learned it. He learned everything!
“It was all natural for us,” he continues. “In the beginning for the longest, we just went out there and shot and our videos came together like that. We just kind of like freestyled the whole video.” And today Leezy Soprano’s YouTube videos are an event in themselves, with their own distinctive look and appeal.
Linking with West Coast luminary Kokane has also helped Leezy, who has appeared on songs with him and Kurupt, spearhead his movement past his city and region. “Kokane is kind of like the big homie, mentor,” he admits.
Leezy counts music from the ‘90s overall as his biggest boost. “The 90s influenced me a lot,” he says. “I think that was like the best music. It’s like cherish-able music and I feel like people don’t cherish music anymore.”
Of course, few rappers can escape the influence of Tupac. And Leezy admits to learning one very important lesson from the iconic rapper: the importance of appealing to the ladies. “From watching Tupac interviews and kind of studying the game, [I learned] the women support you, so you always got to make some stuff for them.”
Being attuned to the ladies hasn’t shielded him from the ugly realities of the struggle. Although he’s been doing this for real for seven years, it hasn’t been seven straight years. Sadly the streets caught up with him. “I actually took a break because one of my friends I was rapping with, he ended up getting shot,” he says sadly. “I just took a break. I was going through it for a few years.”
Today, however, with his sixth album, Never Enough, he’s all in. Insatiable even. “I am six projects in and I feel like it’s still not enough,” Leezy admits. “It’s almost like it will never be enough. My job will never be done. I can always outdo my last project, outdo my last move. Just continuing to outdo myself. I will never be satisfied,” he proclaims.
He is, however, settling into the game a lot more comfortably. With this album, he’s gone out a little more, with a big party for the July 11 release. “In the past, I just put out the music. There wasn’t no big anticipation or no pump up for it,” he explains. “[With] this, I feel like I’m doing everything right. I haven’t had a record release party in a minute. I just feel like I’m doing it right.” Part of that rightness is adding a clothing line to his arsenal and he’s even done shows in Vegas and graced the Summer Jam stage in Seattle.
Resting on past laurels, however, just isn’t his way. Willing to try new things, his first single, “Pray to God,” from Never Enough, has him embracing the West Coast trap sound, “rhyming over a new wave of beats” thanks to Trife, who produced all of the album. Leezy hopes it will surpass the success of “Playa,” which is arguably his biggest song to date.
Looking towards the future, he says “I just want to be huge, huge enough so I can tour like these rockers for a long time.” Even if that should surprisingly never happen, Leezy Soprano has achieved a whole lot. He’s definitely put on for his city, giving Tacoma a name in this rhymefest when previously there was none.
By Ronda Racha Penrice