Discovery: Ryan Leslie
Published June 10, 2011
Though his eponymous debut album was first released only two years ago, 32-year-old Ryan Leslie is far from a stranger to the music industry. After enrolling at Harvard after finishing his junior year of high school, he went on to graduate at the ripe old age of 19 (and if you’re not sufficiently impressed, we’ll add that he speaks English, French, Dutch, and Japanese). Instead of going on to medical school (as was planned during his precocious, Doogie Howser-esque teen years), he found himself pursuing his lifelong passion, music. Until recently, his reputation has been as a producer on songs for the likes of Beyoncé and working with the support of heavy hitters like Sean Combs and Tommy Mottola. With 2009’s Ryan Leslie (NextSelection/Casablanca/Universal) and the forthcoming, independently released Les is More, the musical wunderkind and his soulful R&B and rap beats have made their way into the spotlight. Read on to learn more about Leslie, and click through the slideshow above for a behind-the-scenes look into the shoot for his latest video.
HOMETOWN: I actually consider home anywhere that my parents, who are Salvation Army officers and move around quite a bit, live. We all get together at holidays and my mother cooks Chinese and West Indian food. It’s the closest experience I have to a home life. Barring the idea of family, I really have fallen in love with New York City. I moved here in 2003, wide-eyed, naïve, ambitious, and in search of excitement and success. I found it, and the wealth of my experience here makes my relationship with it unlike any other city in the world. I have cheated with Paris and London, but I always come back to New York.MUSICAL ROOTS: I’ve been around music, singing and instruments for as long as I can remember. My parents were the first example of musicianship that I encountered. My father is a proficient multi-instrumentalist and I would fall asleep to the sound of my mother playing through piano books like novels, turning pages whilst never missing a note. As a child, I was intent on making them happy, and I would be very content to perform in church plays and compete in music and talent shows to make them proud.
My first instrument was a cornet. I played in the Salvation Army junior soldier band and went to music camps every summer. I was always envious that my sister got to play the piano, and in Brussels when my teachers went on strike for a few months, I would pass the days learning Chopin and Liszt compositions note by note from my mother’s piano books.
FINDING HIS VOICE: The first recordings I produced were crude a cappella songs that I wrote in Brussels in the eighth grade for talent shows. Using a dual cassette recorder, I would sing each part and using a second cassette, I would layer enough harmony parts to sing a lead over them. The vocal arrangements were very new-jack-swing inspired. When I moved to the San Francisco area for my sophomore year of high school, my dad and uncle let me front a band that they formed to jam at church functions. After a youth retreat, I met a girl and was inspired to actually record two songs to send to her. I used the tape deck at the church and recorded them over and over again until they were good enough by my standards at the time to send along to her. In college, I was able to improve the quality of my recordings by joining a student recording engineer group. I would take my favorite CDs and try to emulate them sonically. First I would completely re-make songs that I loved, tweaking each drum and synth sound to match what I heard on the recordings. Then I would create original variations over which I would write/record new songs. I would perform these songs at college events.
ON PRODUCING: Two years after I graduated college, I produced a song for a student at Berklee College of Music named Corey Williams from Philly. We entered the song in a Teen People magazine contest and went on to win a chance to perform at the Apollo in NYC for an audience of record execs. That kid got signed to Motown in 2001 and try as I might, I couldn’t get anyone to believe enough in my own artist project to give me a deal. Regardless, I got paid to work on his album. From then on—and even today—most folks see my potential to make money in my ability to produce. When I got introduced to Puff in 2003, he saw the same, and I worked with him as a staff producer/understudy until 2005. Producing kept the lights on and gave me the capital necessary to fuel my artist ambitions.
PRODUCING VS. PERFORMING: I feel most comfortable as a performer. Even my studio sessions become imaginative experiences in which I visualize the performance of the song at this festival or that award show. Usually you’ll find me embellishing on any record I’ve produced, creating live outros or arrangements as though I was performing live for a huge audience beyond the onlookers in the studio with me.
INSPIRATION: Really, I’ve written almost every song on every album about a girl that I’m pursuing or that has broken my heart to smithereens.
MUSICAL INFLUENCES: There is probably no more influential musician to me than Stevie Wonder. As a freshman in college, someone pointed out to me that he released his first full-length album at the age of 11. His career, his writing, his musicianship, and his creativity in the recording process have all been the gold standard for me in my work.
LES IS MORE: Until this album, I paid little attention to lyrics. I was generally content with the marriage between a great melody over an interesting and moving instrumental arrangement. Often the lyrical offering was elementary and secondary to the more sophisticated musical contribution. Writing a rap album has encouraged me to really explore the power of words to increase the potency of my expression. This album is the most honest reflection of who I am and what I’m experiencing that I have ever written. Its subject matter is covers everything from my frustration with regards to my perception as an artist to my lifestyle to my vices.
PRE-SHOW RITUALS: Three to five sets of 30 push-ups before going onstage, and a five-minute conversation with my girl usually consisting of a few words of encouragement and her telling me where she will be standing for the show (and a kiss).
UP NEXT: Finishing a trilogy of Helmut Newton-inspired, black-and-white rockumentary-style videos for this album shot in Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, and New York. I also have a strong interest in Africa and will be visiting the continent several times this year, including a trip to Tunisia with my girlfriend Kenza Fourati, whose outspoken position on the newly formed democracy there has inspired me to visit.