Meet DaniLeigh, the Dominican Rapper & Singer Who Got a Co-Sign From Prince
“I love proving people wrong. It’s the best thing ever,” DaniLeigh says, giggling and adjusting her 8-bit font nameplate necklace. It’s an intrepid philosophy, and one that captures the singer’s approach to her creative practice and potential for stardom. As she talks about her ambitions beyond music, it’s clear that she refuses to let anyone put her in a box.
Danielle Curiel, more commonly known by her stage name DaniLeigh, is a South Florida-born, Los Angeles-based dancer, singer, songwriter, and creative director. She began dancing at the age of 12, started posting covers on YouTube at 14, and was called on by the High Priest of Pop himself, Prince, to direct and write the treatment for his 2014 song “Breakfast Can Wait” at age 18.
Despite this rare blessing from The Purple One, her journey hasn’t been entirely easy. In 2011, DaniLeigh moved away from friends and family in Miami and relocated to Los Angeles, where she started her career as a backup dancer, gracing the stage for acts like Daddy Yankee and Pitbull. During her time off from dancing, she focused on writing music. “Dancing paid my bills [and] my parents’ bills, but I started to realize no one is going to take me seriously as an artist dancing behind other artists. From there, I was just like, ‘I really gotta quit dancing and just sacrifice everything.’”
While the prospect of moving from stability to uncertainty was intimidating, DaniLeigh is a veritable hustler. Her mother and father – both working-class Dominicans from Washington Heights – instilled ambition and an enviable work ethic in her. “My dad always says, ‘Whatever you put in, you’ll get out of it.’ So that’s the mentality I’ve always had for myself.
Her early career sacrifices have paid off. It’s been close to a year since DaniLeigh’s debut project Summer with Friends was released, and things have all but slowed down for this 23-year-old.
Released on DefJam Records, the seven tracks on Summer with Friends cruise (in a lowrider with the top down, preferably) through bachata-tinged hip-hop, trap, and R&B. Opener “All I Know” features Kes, and includes a sample of Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead” – just like Mos Def’s career-defining 1999 single “Ms. Fat Booty.”
“All Day’s” soft bachata touches are carefree, and the accompanying video is a cheerful nod to the singer’s Dominican roots in New York City, as she dances through parts of the Heights while onlookers dap her up, some flirting as she graces them with her bubbly presence.
Her single “Play,” with the assistance of Kap G, talks about making power moves and reaping the benefits with your crew. The video is a gorgeously executed pastel L.A. dream; it’s easy to get caught up in this aesthetic universe and wish that you, too, were in a girl gang of hustlin’ hustlers and robbing ‘em blind.
When it comes to songwriting, Dani is sitting on a stack of records, waiting for the right person to entrust them to. Dani has a knack for earworms, though; she recently co-wrote J.Lo’s single “Dinero,” featuring DJ Khaled and Cardi B. Its music video has received two nominations for Best Latin Video and Best Collaboration at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
DaniLeigh describes herself as versatile, and is looking forward to bringing that energy on her next project The Plan, which is scheduled to be released in the winter of 2018. “I can tap into going in on a hip-hop trap record, and put my own vibe to it. I can go in on an R&B ballad. I can go in in Spanish – that’s what makes me different and I like to show that off,” she says, self-assured.
It’s all happening at the perfect time, too. Curiel went viral with her playful rendition of the #InMyFeelings challenge, even nabbing an appearance in the credits that run at the end of Drake’s official video. Shortly after, she released “Lil Bebe.” And like the hustler she is, she saw an opportunity between the two. “I was kinda like, ‘Alright, let me do the same for my song and see what happens.’ People went crazy for it, too! Of course the Kiki challenge was crazy ‘cause it’s a Drake song, so I’m like oh, dope, my song’s getting love too.” It’s smart, serendipitous promotion, reflecting Dani’s potential for celebrity.
She’s already planning for the future, including dream collaborations and new ventures in her career both in and outside of music. “I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Drake, and I wanted Lil Baby to go in on ‘Lil Bebe’.” After she releases her album, she’ll be in a place where she can build upon her love of fashion. “I have my own merch line, but I’d like to make it bigger by collaborating with other brands,” she says, citing Off White, Adidas, Supreme, Bape, Acne, Nike and Jordan as potential partners. “I’m trying to tap into everything, and I’m excited to see what I do next.”
At a time when dominicanas are making their presence known in the upper echelons of the music industry – take Cardi B’s ascendant career, or Harlem rapper Melii, who was recently signed to Interscope – Dani has the potential to blossom into a mainstay of the music business, and give visibility to the deep creative legacy of Uptown.
DaniLeigh is now gearing up to release a new project, The Plan. Ahead of the release of her debut album, we talked to her about finding a balance between gritty trap and R&B, her sudden dose of viral fame, and what she plans to do with her bright future.
One thing that I’m really curious about is your fan base, because I know you had a connection to Prince and that you wrote and directed his video for "Breakfast Can Wait." Do you find as a result of that you get some older R&B fans tuning into your work?
I would say so. I definitely have some Prince fans that’ll be like, “This is Prince’s protege.” I’m an R&B artist, too, so I have all my fans that I do my hip-hop tracks to, but I have a set fan base for my R&B stuff, too. I think I’m a pretty versatile artist. My passion is R&B, so I make sure I’ve got those records as well. My next project has R&B records and it has my trappy records on it too, so I like to blend them both.
When did you start making music that is in the mold of who you are as DaniLeigh now?
I think Summer With Friends is where it started and where I tapped in on playing around with my voice and seeing the different types of production and tracks I can hop on. That’s when I really started to get in my pen bag and find myself and what I could do with my voice. I think my voice is pretty distinct, I think my tone is different, I think my melodies are different, too. I always like to put that in there.
On your new single, "Lil BeBe," you showcase what feels like a bunch of different flows and cadences. Does having the dance background inspire how you approach flow and phrasing?
For sure, for sure. Even when I’m just in the booth freestyling melodies, I’m literally dancing, so it definitely is a part. It’s funny, because I was with my producer and I was like, “Yo, make a beat that makes me do this move.” And I was showing him the move, and he was like, “Okay.” He started doing the drums and I said, “Perfect.” It’s definitely there, my dance background has a lot to do with my music.
How do you know when you’re working on a track that it has that and captures whatever that means to you?
I think, with my music, you’ll always bob your head. You’ll always move. The production I pick, it’ll always move. Even if it’s an R&B track, it’ll still make you bounce. That’s what I always want with my music. I think that’s what I would say my sound is. DaniLeigh: you’re going to dance and vibe to it.
Speaking of you and dancing, obviously your Drake “In My Feelings” challenge video blew up. How quickly did that take off?
It’s funny, because I posted it and I was like, “Oh, this’ll probably get like, 100,000 views.” My good videos, they’d get that amount. I didn’t check - the videographer wouldn’t let me check it ‘til an hour later, and I was like, “Yo, can I just see it now?” When I looked at it, it was at 300,000, and it was only an hour.
That’s insane. What was the most surprising reaction? Did anybody hit you up?
Drake just hit me after it. He followed me too, so - that’s what I was really waiting for. I was like, "Yo, I need some recognition from the GOAT."
Get him on the album.
I know. That’s the next goal. Anytime people ask me what’s my dream collab I always say Drake, so it just so happened that this boosted me up right before my project, and it had to do with him, so that’s dope.
Between your work with Prince and now this association with Drake you've certainly got a lot of big names orbiting you. How do you make sure that your own artistic identity as DaniLeigh doesn't get masked by those connections?
I think it’s about continuing to put who I am in my music. After the ["In My Feelings"] thing happened I was like, “Okay, this is the perfect time. My engagement on my page is crazy, let me put out music.” And that’s why I put out “Lil BeBe,” so people knew what’s up and they didn’t think that I’m just a dancer or that I’m just some girl who went viral or whatever. It’s dope, because it could have went both ways. I could have put something out and people could have been like, “Yo, this is weak.” So, the reaction was amazing, and the majority of the comments I saw said, “Woah, this girl really does music. This is lit.” I was excited to get that response. That’s what I want to blow up from is my music. That’s what I want to be known for.
Did you choose to release "Lil BeBe" after the video blew up because it would flip peoples’ expectations?
That was actually the plan before that video. I’m about to drop a project, it’s called The Plan, and we were going to tee it up with a single, which is “Lil BeBe," so it just so happens that it worked out. That record is different, and I wanted a record for the clubs for real, because at the end of the day, I’m a dancer, and I really wanted to sell that as a whole package with “Lil BeBe.” The swag behind it, the dance, the way it makes you feel, my tone.
I wanted Lil Baby on it. [Laughs.]
You worked with Kap G on "Play," among a couple other rappers. Do you want to collaborate more with MCs?
I’ve been collaborating with a couple people. I just did one with Lil Yachty the other day, I did one with YBN Nahmir. I’m just taking my time, because as a female sometimes it’s just hard to be taken seriously so fast. That’s why I want to build myself up by myself and have the respect already. Now they know who I am, so the respect is different.
I’ve seen you talk about Rihanna as a role model and someone whose path you want to follow. How has she inspired your approach to your career?
She’s just a trendsetter. Everybody wants to be Rihanna. [Laughs.] Who doesn’t? And what I love about her is that she’s so versatile, and that any type of record she gets on she kills. It could be a rap one, it could be pop, straight EDM, reggae, she’ll kill it. I think that’s what inspires me to be super versatile, she’s definitely an inspiration behind that.
One of the bigger throwback moments on Summer With Friends was the Aretha Franklin sample on "All I Know." How did that come together?
I was with Dem Jointz and Yanni and Kes, we were just in the studio vibing. We were going to make something from scratch, and we were really just looking through different samples on YouTube, and we heard that one and everybody felt some type of way. We were like, "Yo, that’s the one." So then we did it. It’s funny, because when he first started it I was like, “Man, this doesn’t feel right. Slow it down.” And it created a whole different vibe.
Like a lot of artists you're very active on social media, and you talk about it in your music on tracks like "Lurkin." How does that impact the way you approach writing and making songs?
I don’t know if I really have in mind the social side. I think of things that people are going to relate to, I guess you could say, when it comes to writing my music. Everyone can write Drake captions, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs.] I think like, “Damn, this would be a dope caption.” Or I think of merch and I’m like, “Yo, this would be dope on a shirt or something like that.” I always think when I’m writing lyrics, I definitely think of things socially that people could relate to.
You said that initially when you started making music that you were shy about it and recording covers. Has being a more present person on social media doing the dance videos and things like that helped you get over that?
Sometimes I still get nervous for sure, but I am confident in my music now. I feel like it’s just different and dope and it’s me and it’s my sound, so I’m definitely confident now. Back then, I have a little sister who does music too, and she has like a Beyoncé voice, it’s crazy. Since she was six years old she would be the one to sing in front of everybody, I’d just be chilling. I was like, “I could dance though!” [Laughs.] So I was more shy with it, but now I go in.
And you come from a highly musical family in general, right?
Yeah, my brother does music, too. Me and him write together all the time.
How have they reacted to the stuff you’ve been putting out? What did they think of “Lil BeBe?”
My brother is so hype, he’s like, “It’s a hit! We on!” My family is super supportive. My mom, she moved us out to Cali and dropped everything in Florida just so we could make it in L.A. Definitely giving back to the fam for the sacrifice, you know?
Tell me a bit about The Plan.
I would say The Plan is focused on my plan, which is to take care of my family, win, not give up, and be confident. And then there's a relationship side, I’m more low-key when it comes to that, but I do talk about it a little bit in a couple of records. They’re about not having time for relationships because I’m so focused. I would say it’s a motivational project. I really feel like it is a bossed up type of project that people will listen to and feel inspired to go get it. I’ve got different vibes on there, I’ve got my hip-hop records, I’ve got my R&B records. I’ve got a Spanish joint in there, too. I’m excited, because I just wanted to show my versatility on this project. I haven’t even really picked a second single off the project. I’m just excited to see what people pick. I’m just letting it happen organically.
I noticed that you don't talk too much about relationship issues in your music, and I think it’s kind of refreshing to have an R&B singer focused on other topics and using that style to…
Versus singing about love all the time? [Laughs.]
Exactly. How would you say The Plan differs musically from your previous work?
I think The Plan is a little bit darker than Summer With Friends. Summer With Friends was more light and it was... summer with friends. [Laughs.] I have my fun records on The Plan, but it’s more serious and personal for me. It still rides though, I think there’s a lot of club records too, which is dope. I’m excited about that.
So if someone is not familiar with your music yet and the first thing they hear is The Plan, what do you want their takeaway from the record to be?
Motivation. I think what’s cool about it is that there isn’t really a girl in this lane. I feel like right now for females in the music industry, it’s more R&B singers, and I feel like I kind of tapped into everything. I feel like people are going to listen to it and be like, “Oh wow, this girl can do everything.”
You’ve been on stage more or less your entire life, and you’ve been part of these big shows and productions. What are you going to do for a DaniLeigh show to have it be special?
Man, you already know I’m going to go crazy with the dancing. I’ve got crazy dance breakdowns that are going to get people hype. I’m really excited, because this is pretty much the college market and everybody just wants to turn up nowadays. I’m excited to be that girl that makes everybody turn up.
RockLan One Magazine - DaniLeigh