In this exclusive interview, Lil Xan talks joining Columbia, starting a nonprofit, purchasing his own Del Taco, and whether or not he will soon change his name to Diego.
It is nearly eleven in the morning in late January when one of Lil Xan’s managers, Stanley Benton — better known to the world as the rapper Stat Quo — hands him a phone for his latest interview. This one is happening via FaceTime, which seems fitting given the pivotal role his phone has played in establishing his Xanarchy brand. With over two-million Instagram followers and two-hundred million YouTube plays, Lil Xan — born Diego Leanos — has become the latest superstar of the internet generation. His name is synonymous with buzzy industry terms like ‘Soundcloud rap,’ ‘YouTube Sensation,’ and ‘viral smash.’ Though barely old enough to drink, the world has become Leanos’ oyster, and because he made it happen with the help of no one other than his closest friends everyone, including Substream, wants to know how he did it.
Dressed in a hot pink Xanarchy pullover sweatshirt, jeans and matching pink shoes, Leonos brushes the long, unkempt black hair he has tucked under a bright pink beanie out of his eyes. The squint in his eyes when the sun darts through the window tells you he’s only recently risen from bed. He is still sipping coffee to wake up when he smiles wide with a decidedly authentic glee. “What up, bro? How’s it going?”
He quickly recounts his plans for the day. After the current conversation ends, he is going to his local Del Taco — his favorite Del Taco — to order a meal on his label’s dime while partaking in a photo shoot for his first magazine cover story. It’s winter still, but in Los Angeles, it’s just another sunny day, and he’d never say no to Del Taco. The label told him he could go anywhere he chose and this, for him, was the only option. “I’m going to open the first Del Taco on the East Coast,” he says with a laugh. “Not in the distant future, but soon. That’s right around the corner for me.”
It’s impossible to tell whether or not Leanos is joking. After the last twelve months, it seems Lil Xan can accomplish anything he desires. His story has been told before, but it’s worth recounting if only to show just how fast things can happen in the age of the internet. Leanos always loved music but never thought of himself as a rapper he chose to pursue photography instead. That decision lead him to begin working with rapper Steve Cannon, someone he always admired, and slowly his immersion into the world of music began. Later, following an incident where someone stole his camera as he celebrated a successful performance on stage with Cannon, Leanos chose to purchase studio time rather than investing in another camera. This was back in 2016, and it only took a few short months for people to begin demanding more.
Fast-forward to last summer, when Leanos graduated to the major league of internet hip-hop notoriety with the release of his smash hit, “Betrayed.” Featuring hypnotic production from Bobby Johnson, one of Leanos’ most frequented collaborators, the track rallies against the use of Xanax at a time when the opioid epidemic has been receiving a fresh round of press from major publications. Leanos himself has struggled with addiction to the pills, which he started taking as a teenager to combat anxiety, but through the support of family, friends, and fans he has found the strength to leave them behind. He doesn’t go quite that deep into his addiction on the song, but he does summarize his relationship with the pills on the hook, singing:
Xans don’t make you,
Xans gon’ take you,
Xans gon’ fake you,
Xans gon’ betray you
It’s a simple message, but an honest one.
Other rappers have rapped about their struggles with addiction in recent months, but Leanos claims he is the one responsible for bringing more honesty to the way rappers discuss their ongoing battle with pills. “Everyone has been rapping about quitting Xans lately,” he says, “But I started that shit. I’m not copying anyone [with my music]. I will say, though, that it is cool to see more people promoting this message. It’s important, and it’s real. Some rappers can do more to get the word out than me, for now, but make no mistake about where this all started.”
Leanos claims he didn’t take his career in music all that seriously until he saw the response to “Betrayed.” That experience helped him understand that his art could make a positive impact on people, if not the world as a whole, and from that realization, he felt reinvigorated about life. “I cannot stress how anti-Xan I am,” he explains. “People don’t always get that, but it’s because they never stop to understand me or give my music a chance. I used to rap about taking those pills, yes, but that is because I was doing them at the time. I quit, and when you listen to my music, you hear that journey unfold. Anyone who sees my name and assumes otherwise isn’t paying attention.”
Columbia Records believes Leanos. The twenty-one-year-old inked a deal with the major label home of Juicy J and Solange in late 2017 after fielding offers from everyone. “To be honest, the Columbia deal didn’t offer the most money,” he confesses. “They didn’t come at me like that, but they didn’t have to because Columbia is family. One of my managers is part of Columbia, so it made sense to be here. That is where I belong, with people who get the vision and get Xanarchy and what we’re trying to do.”
He continues, “I don’t want to talk about every label that came after me, but you have to watch some of these groups. Unless you’re their biggest star, they don’t care about you.” He names one major label, in particular, he believes to have this problem, which Leanos later says asks we withhold, but says he took the meeting anyway before laughing at his hypocrisy. “I figured, why not?”
Xanarchy, according to Leanos, is an anti-Xanax movement. “We’re out here trying to tell kids that these pills are bad for you,” he explains, his eyebrows now furrowed in such a way as to express great concern for the subject at hand. “We posted something on Instagram last week asking kids to upload photos or videos of them dumping their Xanax. The response was absolutely crazy.”
At this point, Stat Quo, who has been silently sitting beside Leanos since handing him the phone, speaks up to emphasize the response. “It was really crazy, man,” he says with his deep voice conveying a sense of great pride. “I was surprised.” Leonos smiles as he here’s this, and you get a sense that it means a lot to him to hear Benton speak so highly of his work.
Leanos focuses in on one post in particular, which he chose not to share with other fans to protect the identity of the person who posted it. “There was a guy who, I’m not joking, must have dumped hundreds of Xanax. I don’t know if they were all for him, or if he was previously a dealer, but he must have flushed thousands of dollars’ worth of product. I didn’t ask why he chose to do it then, but it’s hard to explain what it felt like to see that. We’re really making a difference, bro, and that’s so cool to see. [Posts like that are] only the beginning.”
It’s unclear precisely what Leanos means when he says the previous statement, but later he reveals that plans are already well underway to develop the Xanarchy movement further. “I just started a non-profit, man. It’s something I’m very excited about because it’s the kind of thing I keep telling people I want to do with Xanarchy. It’s more than music. In a few years, if we keep going like we are now, there is really no telling how big this will become. I want to have a storefront here in Los Angeles. I want people to be able to come here and connect. Not just with me, but with each other. This music is [part of] a community. Xanarchy is a family.”
When asked about his most devoted fans, Leanos is quick to admit he believes his success is due to the support of young women. “Girls know what’s up with music,” he says. “They’re always ahead of us.” To further express this point, Leanos brings up his current relationship. “I’m seeing this girl right now, and she shows me stuff all the time. I mean, I’m the only one working in music, so how does she know so much more than me? We really need to listen to women more. All of us.”Remaining on the topic of music, Leanos cleverly deflects from any question that appears to request a simple definition for his sound or influences. Most would call him a rapper, but he’s not one to embrace labels of any kind. “I’m an artist,” he explains. “I rap right now, but it’s not like that is the only skill I [possess]. People haven’t seen what I’m capable of yet, and they need to realize that.”
Leanos has a point. Prior to February, there were only sixteen Lil Xan songs available on streaming services. Of them, only three were released after Leanos claims to have started to become more serious about his career in music. To say he is anything other than an artist just yet would be a disservice to curious music fans everywhere. He is, for lack of a better word, an ambassador for those who believe they never see themselves represented in pop culture. You might not get it, but chance are he doesn’t understand your lifestyle either, and that’s perfectly okay. All Leanos asks is that people listen with an open mind and allow the music to speak for itself.
The conversation briefly turns to the art that influences Leanos’ creations. He speaks about other rappers he enjoys, specifically highlighting Steve Cannon once again as one of the main reasons he makes music at all, then excitedly mentions his favorite record. “I’ve never heard anything like Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” he explains. “The Arctic Monkeys are my favorite band, and that is my favorite album. The first time I heard it…I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. And it’s still good today.”
One does not need to hire a private investigator to discover similarities between Leanos’ catalog and the material found on that critically-acclaimed 2006 album from Arctic Monkeys. Both artists find success by exposing the bad behavior that makes great songs. They detail the moments most ignore, and in doing so come across as far more authentic than their peers. Whatever People Say I Am… was not sold as a concept record but as a whole, the album details the experiences of people who frequent nightclubs while chain smoking and looking for love in all the wrong places. Leanos, in comparison, shares stories of late nights and blurred memories taken from firsthand accounts of moments that felt as though they might last forever. He too is looking for love in all the wrong places. The only difference is, his vices have a bit more bite to them.
The similarities become more obvious when one considers the role culture plays in each artist’s work. Whatever came about during a time just before cell phones and social media would replace traditional dating practices. It captures a moment when people still had to leave their home to hang with friends and meet potential mates. Leanos’ material, on the other hand, captures the now. “Betrayed,” for example, finds Leanos rapping about his girlfriend hates his Instagram feed and how so-called “evil bitches” want him to mention them on social media. He talks about using drugs to get through the day, something more and more people are doing on a weekly basis, and he also talks about not knowing how to regain control of his life. His world is the rebooted version of that presented in the past by bands like Arctic Monkeys, and just like a Hollywood remake, it’s far grittier than most may recall.
Leanos says he credits his father for his broad knowledge of music. “My dad loves everything,” he confesses, now wearing a smile that reveals his bright, white teeth. “He is into everything and I, being his son, learned to love everything as well. Good music is good music, and that is what I want to make.”
Another person believing in the movement Lil Xan is trying to build is videographer Cole Bennett. Founder of Lyrical Lemonade and director for videos from many of today’s most notable hip-hop stars, Bennett has helped establish and shape the Xanarchy brand for the past year. “He’s full-blown Xanarchy gang,” Xan explains. “I mean when we connected he really helped make this more than rap. He’s going to be making movies one day. He already is, but I mean real shit. He and I found one another at the right time, and we’re trying to build something bigger than both of us.”
One of Bennett’s most recent collaborations with Leanos was the video for “Wake Up,” a single released just four days before the start of the new year. The song’s hook details feelings of nausea that can follow a long night of hard partying and drug use, while the verses offer braggadocios lines about “fucking the game up” and how “your bitch want sex.” The video chooses to emphasize the hook over the verses by featuring Leanos and other Xanarchy members doing their best to recover as a new day dawns. It’s a simple clip that uses bright colors and sing-a-long bouncing ball to keep viewing engaged, but it’s more than enough to do the trick. The video received more than 10 million views within a month of release, during which time the pair filmed two additional videos in promotion for Leanos’ upcoming debut album.
Titled Total Xanarchy, Leanos’ first proper record is scheduled for release on April 6. Leanos claims he cannot say much about the record, but he does promise to deliver a wealth of music for fans to enjoy. “I like to make short songs,” he admits with a laugh. “So we’ll probably end up using [fifteen] songs or something crazy like that to ensure we give fans something they can enjoy for a while. We can’t do all this work for a record people hear and immediately forget. I have to give them something memorable.”
His preference for shorter songs has drawn the ire of some critics who claim Leanos releases material in an incomplete state. Only four songs in his catalog, “Betrayed,” “Who Are You,” “Sorry,” and “Vicodin,” crack the three-minute mark. Some, such as the breakout hit “Slingshot,” deliver something memorable in under two minutes. “It’s just a feeling you get,” Leanos explains. “When something is good, you know it, but you have to trust that feeling.”
Before blessing the world with Total Xanarchy Leanos must first complete a nationwide headlining tour, his first, that begins in just a few short days. “I have to get a camera down my throat in a couple of days,” he says with a hint of concern, “but then the tour starts in Vancouver. I’m excited about that. I’ve never been to Vancouver before. I’ve always wanted to go because I always felt like they got me, so it’ll be great to start the tour there. I’ve done sold out shows in Los Angeles and New York recently to get ready for this run, but I don’t really know what to expect from this whole thing. I’ve never done a headlining tour like this with shows pretty much every day. I definitely won’t be partying every night. I’ll probably be on vocal rest most of the time.”
Before taking another question, he quickly adds, “But I’ll still make time for my fans after every show, of course, that’s why I am doing this in the first place. They’re the whole reason I get to do this, and I’m going to make sure they know how much I appreciate it. They made this happen!”
The shows Leanos’ mentioned, which happened in December of last year, were among some of his very first performances. Videos found on YouTube show coastal venues packed with fans largely under the age of eighteen rapping along to every song while waving their cell phones in the air. Leanos’ seems to smile throughout his shows, but that happiness does not always translate to satisfaction. Much like with rapping itself, performance is a new concept for Leanos, and he is very much looking forward to developing his craft. “The shows have been crazy, but we can do better. We have to. We want to create a vibe for everyone that makes each night something special. I mean, it already is, but this is important to me. This run of shows is my first big tour like this, and I’m going to see these fans I’ve only interacted with online. They need to know how I feel about their support.”
Leanos’ plans to give back to fans extend beyond the tour and his debut album. To hear him tell it, this is all just a setup for bigger and better things that will be coming down the line. These plans include but are not limited to, additional records and tours. He’s feeling energized at the moment, and he wants to capitalize on the forward momentum he and the entire Xanarchy movement has been able to develop over the past twelve months. “It’s a good time to be part of Xanarchy,” he says, “but things can always improve.”
One thing that may be holding Leanos back is his stage name. His fans understand his stance on Xanax and similar prescription drug abuse, as does anyone who cares to Google his name, but he knows the vast majority of consumers are not able or willing to research an artist before judging their craft. To combat this, Leanos has been publicly considering changing his name to Diego purely for the sake of potentially creating more opportunities for exposure.
“The second album will be from Diego,” he begins. “This one, Total Xanarchy, that’s a Lil Xan release. It just makes sense to do it that way. Some people don’t do their research, and I can’t help that. They see the name, and they think I’m promoting doing xans, but it’s the opposite.”
He adds, “Diego also makes sense in certain places, like [The Tonight Show with] Jimmy Fallon or those other late night shows. It’s hard to imagine someone like James Corden saying my name, but they may be more open to having Diego on than Lil Xan, so for now, I’m just going to use both.” He laughs, “Parents seem to like Diego, too, but I don’t care about that as much.”
He pauses briefly before adding, “I kind of like Diego. Some fans have been calling me Diego for a while now, and I like that because it’s my actual name. Like, it’s me. I think we’re able to connect on a deeper level because they are not talking or thinking of me as Lil Xan, just Diego. I’m not a celebrity, I’m a person, and when fans call me Diego it’s easier to remember that I’m no better than anyone else.”
Whether he chooses to remain Lil Xan, embrace the identity of Diego, or continues to use both names, the question of where to go from here continues to loom over Leanos’ head. The past two years have proven that the sky is no limit for him. He can attempt anything he wants right now, including things beyond the world of music, and there will no doubt be people there to support him. That is an envious position for any aspiring talent to be in, but it also creates the potential for disaster if Leanos should choose to listen to the wrong people.
“The people around me now have been there since the beginning,” he says, “and I mean that. I have only been rapping for a short amount of time, man, and these people, Xanarchy Gang, have been a part of this with me from day one. They’re always going to be there as far as I’m concerned, and we don’t do anything without one another. This movement, Xanarchy, is a group effort.”
Stat Quo interrupts briefly to inform everyone that they should be arriving at the chosen Del Taco location soon. Only twenty minutes have passed since the call started, but already Leanos is looking more alert. He nods to acknowledge the update before sipping his coffee and returning his focus to his phone. He stares into the front-facing camera and authoritatively says, “You too. You’re part of this now, and you can continue to be if you want.” He laughs at his forced seriousness before adding, “Xanarchy forever.”