With a stoner’s cadence, South Florida producer Nick León describes his thoughts about the Colombian peace deal that was – and then wasn’t. “I tend to follow my family’s outlook on it, because, my mom, she lived through those things, through the war.” He pauses for a second, his exasperation evident after a quick breath. “The world is in a weird place, making bad moves, and people are either too cynical to vote or falling for propaganda when the goal should always be peace.”
It’s an interesting turn in a conversation about the producer’s music, but not one that’s entirely unexpected. Born in the Bay Area to a Colombian mother and Italian- and Russian-American father, whose mutual political leanings brought them together in Mexico during the tumultuous Reagan era, León and his family moved to South Florida while he was still a child. Their political consciousness has had a profound impact, evident in his nuanced thoughts about everything from the FARC to our current farce of an election.
As a teen, León harnessed his ear for music into a robust production career, collaborating with a slew of local talent before working with some of the region’s biggest rap artists, namely Denzel Curry and Robb Bank$. Production credits like Curry’s “ULT” and Bank$’ “Pressure” have amassed millions of plays on SoundCloud and brought León’s work to a global audience. Pairing today’s rap trends with a dreamy, arborous soundscape, León has carved his own lane in a scene flooded with trap producers promising they’re up next.
Perhaps a luxury afforded to him because of his success, Nick León has now pivoted from the rap world to work on his solo career, following in the footsteps of beatmakers who have made waves on the strength of their music alone.
Nick León’s dystopian club music samples the sounds of Florida’s diverse ecosystem.
For León, an artist looking for that next frontier to conquer – one where developing his own sound as a producer takes precedent – those artists’ respective successes injected energy into a career that felt stifled by the parameters of genre. “Flying Lotus was one of the first artists who had me questioning what I thought I knew about music. I would soak up game about producing on my computer from studying Aphex Twin’s music and reading a few of his interviews.”
Feeling a bit disrespected by a rap world that likes to pay producers in “exposure,” León took the leap of faith into the beat scene. And that leap of faith has paid dividends. An existing relationship with David Sinopili, co-founder of Miami’s III Points Festival, has earned León a bevy of beneficial, if unexpected, opportunities.
One of the biggest such opportunities, León recently co-headlined the Miami edition of the Red Bull Sound Select concert series. “Without me even knowing, David pitched my music to [Red Bull Sound Select] and he calls me on my birthday – I thought he was calling to wish me a happy birthday – to tell me I’m opening for Cashmere Cat,” he explains.
Nick León’s new freedom has led to a curiosity about music from Latin America.
In front of a capacity crowd, León played a well-received set of original productions. Behind him, an impressive array of lights danced and swayed to his now trademark sound – dystopian club music that samples the chirping insects and birds of Florida’s diverse ecosystem, which he carefully records and chops up from home.
For an artist who had already forged a path to success, albeit one in the shadows, a pivot into the limelight has proven more rewarding creatively. Now, armed with the freedom to fully express himself, León looks poised to do exactly that. “Rap is cool but I love working with female vocalists and I think my music works best with them.” He continues, “I’ve wanted to work with people like Kelela and FKA Twigs, people from the Caribbean and the UK grime scene.”
Drawing inspiration from both the hyperlocal and the global, his Colombian heritage still manages to shine through in his work. Songs from his debut album Profecía, namely “Jaguar Sun” and “Eclipse,” combine elements of the contemporary dance scene, the verdant sounds of the Florida Everglades, and instrumentation native to Colombia. On “Eclipse,” the wind whispers and birds twitter over a four-on-the-floor rhythm.
Weary from a week plagued by a hurricane scare, or perhaps freshly lit, Nick speaks slowly and deliberately as he describes Colombia’s growing influence on his music. “My grandma gave me a cuatro awhile back and my cousin sent me a marimba from Colombia. Recently I’ve been sampling from those sounds.” Increasingly tuned in to his ancestral home, it should come as no surprise Nick León’s new freedom has led to a curiosity about music from Latin America, both old and new. “I’m big on percussion and I’ve been studying Andean rhythms – being exposed to different genres growing up has all played a part in the music I make now.”
His debut album in tow, León treads carefully when speaking on his future. “I’m always working on new music and I have something in the works involving a bunch of producers from South Florida.” Still, allusions to Mexican club titans NAAFI point to an enduring change for the producer, who has come a long way from making beats for the rappers at his high school.
As the election draws nearer and the talking heads move further into their self-serving corners, clinging to party and dogma, musicians like León remind us that, somehow, art often provides the freedom politicians claim to be protecting.