A report by Darryl Robertson for Vibe.
On the uptown side of New York City — a couple of train stops north of Harlem — sits the Boogie Down Bronx. This rough and rugged space is also known as the birthplace of hip-hop, and thanks to this fact, the MCs who live off the 2, 4, 5, B or D trains have a lot of pressure on them. This is the home of the late Big Pun, KRS-One, Fat Joe, Slick Rick, and others. These are legendary names in hip-hop. Newcomers Cardi B, French Montana and the burgeoning A Boogie Wit da Hoodie–all Bronx natives– are also achieving a respectful amount of success on the commercial level.
Even below the wide-ranging success of the aforementioned artists, the borough, named after Dutch immigrant Jonas Bronck, has a crop of underground rhymers who are heavyweight champs when it comes to throwing jabs of wordplay. Rappers like Westside Parele, A$AP Twelvyy, Tray Pizzy, Maliibu Miitch, Don Q, among others, aren’t to be taken lightly on the mic. Then, there’s Axel Leon, a crack-spitter who raps like he has an infinite supply of raw tucked inside his mental arsenal.
You probably saw the burgeoning Puerto Rican artist at this year’s “BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher,” where he unloaded lyrics like: “Look ma, I’m at the awards without a hit song/They said I should kill it on BET/Don’t be human, be an alien, Be E.T.” This caliber of bars flood every track that Leon laces. But with melodic raps and top-notch songwriting from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Drake, is there room for punchline heavy MCs like Leon?
“Man, I don’t even care. If there is, that’ll be cool,” Leon says to VIBE during an office visit. “If I can live comfortable by doing verses and doing clubs, that’s cool. I used to want a deal, and I’ll still take one if it’s right. If this was 10 years ago, the BET cypher would’ve been a different look for me. But with police killing blacks and the president, Eminem and Mysonne’s message grabbed everyone’s attention. But it should’ve, though.”
Before the BET cypher, fans may have heard Leon alongside Harlem-bred rapper Jim Jones on “Bando.” But Leon first stirred dust as a battle rapper, who went by the alias AX, in 2013. Raised in the Hunts Point section of the BX, Leon, who moved to the Bronx from the Caribbean when he was only a year old, credits his fellow BX hip-hop heads with falling in love with the genre. One day, a young curious Leon approached a group of kids who were engaged in a cypher. One of the rhymers spit a mind-altering bar, which Leon can’t recall, that left the crowd in a frenzy, and unknowingly launched his rap career.
“Outside my building, this kid was rapping to an instrumental playing out of his radio,” Leon remembers. “At this time, I wasn’t listening to hip-hop, so I didn’t know what it was. We didn’t play hip-hop in my house then. I thought it was dope and he was making this stuff up as he went. How the crowd reacted to him. I said, ‘I want to do that.’ After this, I started listening to Eminem and JAY-Z. I was around 13.”
Citing Eminem, JAY-Z, and Canibus as some of his early influences, Leon stepped out on faith and started penning rhymes when he was about 16 years old. He flourished quickly as an MC, too, becoming a neighborhood star. Local dope boys would slip Mary Jane and a few dollars into his hands after Leon devoured would-be MCs in rap battles.
“I would rap, and guys in the hood would hit me with sour, and tell me to keep rapping,” Leon recalls. “I wasn’t thinking about using rap to get out of the ‘hood or nothing like that.”
But this lackadaisical mindset quickly changed, and Leon found himself embarking on a career in the music businesses. Known then as AX, Leon’s name spread throughout every borough in NYC at a time when SMACK and Come-Up DVDs were popping. But given a lack of consistency, focus and a real plan, Leon grew discouraged with rap and quit to work a 9-5.
After a brief hiatus from cyphers, and some encouragement from this then-girlfriend, Leon, father of three kids, renewed his focus and decided to turn over a new leaf. He started going by his government name and began crafting songs as opposed to battle-ready sixteens.
“I used to make a battle record, cut it in three and try to put in a hook and I was like, ‘Why y’all ni**as not calling that a song?’ And they were like, ‘It’s not ready.’ I used to think people were hating, but I wasn’t really ready.”
Complete with fresh energy, Leon made his name ring in hip-hop circles again. DJs like Sway, and Funkmaster Flex took notice as well as fellow New York City spitters like Smoke DZA, Bodega Bamz, Tru Life, and even Jim Jones. Leon even secured his fair share of money bags by ghostwriting. This year, the Liv Hie boss (Life Is Valuable, History Is Everything) released two solid mixtapes, Rich Port 2 and J.U.G.O. You can also spot the rapper doing a few modeling gigs for LRG.
“The money is going to come,” says Leon. “Money isn’t my main focus anymore. I want ni**as to f**k with me because I’m the best at what I do. That’s it. Like I said earlier, I’m living comfortably.”
While Leon isn’t stressing over a record deal, labels have been generous to Bronx MCs as of late. Atlantic Records inked Cardi B to a lucrative deal. Soon thereafter, her hit song, “Bodak Yellow,” spent three weeks on Billboard Hot 100, breaking Lauryn Hill’s 2008 record, in which her song, “Doo Wop (That Thing)” previously held for longest-running No. 1 song by a woman artist. French Montana has been in the habit of depositing checks from Bad Boy and Epic Records, and A Boogie joined his Bronx sister Cardi B at Atlantic.
“I hope they shine a light on us. I love it that they are in those positions,” says Leon. “They are the best at what they do on that level. Right now they are the best up there. But on my level, I’m the best at what I do, and I’m cool with that. We have our own lanes.”
A few weeks after Leon visited our office, the streets were whispering that his hard-work and dedication finally paid off, and he landed a deal with Steve Rifkind’s revamped Loud Records. VIBE hit Leon on the phone to see whether or not the rumors were true.
“We sign in a week, but it’s solid,” Leon replies. “I met him at the BET Awards. He was part of the audience. When I walked through the hallway, he was there talking to Capo [Jim Jones]. Capo said, ‘Yo, this is the next Eminem.’ Steve said, ‘I know, I heard of him. I’ve been listening.’ One thing led to another, we had a meeting at the motel room. I thought we were only going to talk music. I didn’t know I was getting a deal. He said, ‘Hey, I can give you guys an undisclosed amount. And let’s get to work.’ Now, we’re just waiting for the paperwork to come through.”
“I’ve been wanting to restart Loud,” says Steve Rifkind via e-mail. “And I knew it had to be somebody from New York. I heard Axel for a while and his name was buzzing then I saw the BET cypher and then I knew I had to sign him.”
The news of Leon’s record deal was a bittersweet moment for the rapper. At the time of his original interview, the BET Awards and his new deal with Loud, Leon’s mother was dying of cancer.
“I buried her about three weeks ago, but I got to tell her,” Leon recalls. “She was in the hospital, but she was conscious. First, I told her about the awards and she said, ‘I saw you.’ My grandma was there, too. Her house got washed-up in Puerto Rico. I told her, ‘Mom, we’re going to get this much money.’ She told me not to say nothing. Don’t put that in the air. I said, ‘Bet, but you know it’s real,” and she said, ‘I believe it. Finally.’”