The Bronx, known as the birthplace of hip-hop and once regarded as a breeding ground for elite rap talent, has taken a backseat to its neighboring boroughs in terms of cache and notoriety due to its lack of star power over time. But with artists like French Montana making waves on the mainstream, and a growing crop of promising upstarts like A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, the Boogie Down appears primed for a comeback, and rapper Axel Leon will surely be at the forefront.

Axel, who recently made waves with his Jim Jones-assisted heater “Bando,” is no stranger to the industry. He's been steadily building his buzz since 2013, when he was known as AX. Born in Puerto Rico, Axel would move to the U.S. at the age of 1, with his family settling in the South Bronx. Spending his formative years living on Watson Avenue and Boynton Avenue, at age 9, he and his family would move to the Hunts Point area of the Bronx, where he would fall in love with hip-hop. “As a fan of music, probably like back when I was like 13,” Axel recalls. “Back when Em was popping crazy, when Jay Z was becoming God, around that time.”

Despite coming of age in the Bronx, Axel’s exposure to hip-hop came during his early teenage years. Although a bit of a culture shock at the time, the rapper would quickly take a liking to the genre. "Actually, it was nobody famous, no video or nothing,” he says when asked of his first interactions with hip-hop. “I walked outside my door and a kid, he had an instrumental on coming out of a boombox and he was rapping, I guess. I didn’t know what it was because we didn’t listen to rap music in my house, so my mom never birthed me to that, so I had to learn that on my own."

He also got his first introduction to what a freestyle was at this time. "I just remember he rhymed protection with direction or something and when I walked off they started laughing, and I’m like, oh shit, he’s making that up on the spot, that’s crazy. What is that? And I kinda always wanted to do that with that," Axel shares.

Hearing hip-hop in this way would be his crash course into the genre, first as a fan, with songs like Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Jay Z’s “Jigga My Nigga” serving as early favorites. Axel credits both as his favorite rappers. “Hov is who niggas wanted to be like on my block,” he remembers, before noting that his taste would become more diverse the more he immersed himself in the music. “I got weird and started liking Eminem. Not that it’s weird, but I was really into it and niggas was like, 'Nigga, we cut from this cloth, you buggin'' and I’m like, ‘Nah, this nigga’s dead nice.”

Not long after, Axel would try his own hand at rapping in seventh grade, initially imitating artists like Canibus, Jay Z, Eminem, Ludacris and others, before coming into his own as an MC. But by age 16, he began making waves in his neighborhood, finding his first audiences and fans in the form of local hustlers who were taken aback by the youngster’s ability as a rhymer. They would help build Axel’s confidence in his craft.

“My block started giving me free weed for rapping,” Axel reveals. “I was rapping and niggas was throwing me bags of sour, like, 'Yo, homie, keep rapping shorty, we gonna take it to the club.' I just learned that shit would get me anything I want on the block. I was never thinking of being rich or none of that stupid shit, [I was just like] I’m nice. You know how niggas play ball without thinking about the NBA they just wanna cross a nigga from the block, that’s what it was.”

Rapping may have started as a casual pastime for Axel, but before long, his hobby had turned into serious business. However, a lack of traction would initially discourage Axel, causing him to take a reprieve from the music biz. But in hindsight, the rapper admits that his impatience and haphazard approach were stunting his growth. “I used to do one good thing and for two weeks, I’d bank on it, like, damn, why’s nothing happening. I just killed this. I’m calling people every day, and I’d be so unenthusiastic about it at the end that I don’t got no juice to write and I’d feel mad exhausted. I don’t play that shit right now,” he states.

After regrouping, Axel returned to the scene with a renewed focus and a stronger skill set, which the rapper’s manager, Gaby Acevedo, who had taken a special interest in Axel, would take note of upon running into the rapper’s producer.

“When Gabby first ran into Jimbo, he was like, ‘He’s making records now!’ which was a big thing ’cause I ain’t know how to make ’em [before],” Axel admits. “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 niggas not calling that a song?" and they was like, ‘But it’s not ready.’ I used to think people was hating, but I wasn’t really ready.”

After some self-realization, he had a rebirth of sorts, with the Bronx bomber settling on his government name as a new moniker instead of AX. “You couldn’t Google and get me, AX is too popular, you get an axe, a real fucking axe,” Axel explains. “So one day I just wanted to delete my past, I was like, I’ma just start a new leaf of me. How can I be recognizable just from a marketing plan? And I thought my name by itself is just the coolest thing ever, but as I grew up, I noticed my name was kinda cool.”

Getting the public familiar with his new handle via freestyles for heavyweight DJs, including Funkmaster Flex, Sway, as well as collaborations with the likes of Jim Jones, Bodega Bamz, Tru Life and Smoke DZA, Axel Leon is looking forward to further stamping himself as one to watch for with his new mixtape, Rich Port 2. “A lot of people think it has to do with some Harlem shit, like Rich Porter,” Axel says of the title. “Rich Port just means Puerto Rican in English."

Building on the momentum set by previous projects like Black Hole, Rich Port 2 should be another step in Axel solidifying his brand, as well as opening the door for his collective, Liv Hie. "We gonna run a multi-million dollar empire with clothing and music and movies and restaurants," he says.

An acronym for "Life Is Valuable, History Is Everything," in addition to being a street family or collective, Liv Hie is evidence that Axel’s mind is on much more than music. “We doing cancer walks, autism walks, we stand for everything,” Axel affirms. “We gonna give a new meaning to living high, you ain’t gotta smoke weed or you can smoke weed. It’s not about drugs, it’s about high expectations.”

Currently an independent artist, Axel Leon says he is in no rush to sign with a major, and is instead focused on setting the table for his forthcoming project, J.U.G.O. (Just Us Game Over), which the rapper feels will be his biggest release to date. As for his aspirations for himself as an artist, he holds back nothing, stating that immortality is the only benchmark he’s concerned with. “Trying to be the best ever, the greatest in the world,” Axel proclaims when asked of his goals. “I don’t wanna have 20 million dollars. I got over the idea of money. I want niggas to say niggas can’t fuck with me, not for being a Puerto Rican, not for being the best in the Bronx, but the best in the game. Better than my favorite rappers, I don’t care who it is. I’m aiming high."

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