Ryan Leslie: School Was My Hustle
Many have seen him from his intimate videos on YouTube where he gained online stardom with millions viewing his page or subscribing to it. Some have even gone as far as calling him the R&B Kanye West. He has produced songs for Beyonce, Britney Spears and Usher. Creating the global marketing and media company, NextSelection Lifestyle Group he exemplifies the word talented and knows very well how to handle his time. With his efforts in many different outlets its surprising he had time at all to go through an interview, luckily he made the time.
HipHopDX: Now that it is actually coming, do you feel that your album should have come out sooner or is the time just right with a lot of people anticipating it?
Ryan Leslie: I would say that Im not in any rush at all for my album to come out, just because of the climate of the music industry right now. It seems that consumers are really consuming music that is kind of disposable. You see that there may be a massive hit which only translates into minimum sales. And so for me, my album sales and my live concert tickets and any of the other ancillary income thats gonna happen that results in me putting out an album, all of those things I think are contingent on me illustrating that Im actually an artist that deserves to be supported through all of those outlets. For me, I am really just about building for as long as I can the respect of people who, like yourself, be introduced to me whether it be through a blog, my YouTube channel or MySpace. I want to earn the respect of those consumers because Im doing this for life.
DX: Are you planning on touring once the album drops? I have heard about you performing at clubsdo you plan on continuing at small venues or are you going to try bigger venues such as joining a concert tour?
Ryan Leslie: I plan on going through all the steps that it would take for any artist to build up to stadium status. Ive always enjoyed performing in clubs. Years ago, before my album had any anticipation at all in the States; I was doing little clubs in Germany and other parts of Europe like Paris and London. There is something really intimate about the club environment which I dont think Id ever want to lose, but, I do have a lot of creative and artistic ideas of how I want to express myself on a stadium level. One being with an orchestra or an orchestral arrangement of my record, therefore, I do want to do things at a larger stadium level too. Really, for the time being, I am doing the requisite radio promo dates which consist of me going to whatever club that the radio jock is spinning and Ill perform my record from the deejay booth. But my real bread and butter as a performer is, I put together a seven-piece live band, three horns, bass, keys, guitar drums and also myself on keys that I really think represents me as an artist.
DX: Did you start off playing piano growing up, or did you learn it on your own time later in life?
Ryan Leslie: I just learned piano on my own. It really happened my eighth grade year. My parents, well my mother, had taken a job overseas at an international law firm. We were in school, at the Catholic school right down the street, and the teachers went on strike. My mother had shipped a piano to Europe. So, during the days when we didnt have school I was going through my mothers, my mother is a classically trained pianist, I would go through her piano books or teach myself enough so that I could memorize the classical pieces that she would play as we fell asleep, my sister and I, and so now years later I can appreciate those eight-hour or nine-hour days that I could sit there and figure out or pluck out the notes and Im still continually learning on the keyboard. People like Herbie Hancock, Roger Troutman and other great people who have played, like Stevie Wonder as well, continue to inspire me and Im always discovering new chords and progressions. Its been a lifelong learning experience sort of getting comfortable with the keyboard.
DX: Working with so many artists, such as Usher, Britney Spears and Beyonce, how does it feel to be the man behind the music that helps elevate other careers?
Ryan Leslie: Well for me, it has always been a learning experience. My life has been a learning experience. Ive always been sort of an academic from the time I was very young, so, I really approach things academically, scientifically and working with artists of that caliber really just gave me an environment that I could study those people that were mega-stars. In so doing, I sort of learned what made them tick, what inspired them, what made them excited musically, what made them excited creatively. I was able to take from each one of those artists, take away something that makes me who I am as an artist now because I was able to see their struggles. This is for artists of any level, from Usher, ya know I was just out in L.A. working with him on his score for his performance on the BET Awards, literally just got in this morning from doing that the last three days, all the way to brand new artists like Cassie. I went on the road with her and I went through every stage with her from rehearsals, to shows, to radio shows, to interviews and everything, so, it has been a learning process and being behind the scenes elevating them, I think each artist as a vessel, really just to me, I think they elevate themselves. They elevate my music and they elevate me as well.
DX: Is it harder for you to write a song for yourself than for other artists, because you know they say sometimes we are our own toughest critics?
Ryan Leslie: I say I never look at writing music as a difficulty; its always when youre thinking about it too hard or trying too hard, nine times out of 10 you can hear it in the finished product. So for me, I really just let things flow. Ive been fortunate that people respond to my music. Its really not hard work. The real hard work is, ya know, promoting the record and exposing it and marketing it. But the actual creation of the music is something thats so innate and something thats so apart of me, to me now its like an extension of me. Its like breathing almost.
DX: Earlier you said youre an academic. Im curious to know what made you choose Harvard?
Ryan Leslie: What made me choose Harvard? You mean besides the fact that its historically the best university in the world
DX: Let me explain. I ask this because you are in the music industry and Harvard isnt known for a strong music program... Did you go into the school knowing the music industry was one you wanted to get into?
Ryan Leslie: Well it was many different reasons for me choosing Harvard. First and foremost, just the historical reputation of the university was an immediate draw. I had applied to two other top tier private schools, Yale and Stanford; Stanford had accepted me. Yale had not, they felt I was too young and wanted me to do another year in high school. I got into Harvard as a Junior in high school. I had applied to several different medical programs. I went to college initially with the idea and aspiration of being a brain surgeon. I got into a couple other California medical schools as well, but my father suggested Harvard because he felt that Harvard would allow me to spread my wings as a young adult and get out of my parents hair, so to speak. We were just moving to Sacramento at the time, so if I went to Stanford I would be 45 minutes away from home, and probably, most likely, would come home every weekend. Now that Harvard is clear across the United States, my dad felt that it would give me a chance to learn and grow and much to their chagrin, with that independence came the realization that I wanted to pursue music. That was in my freshman year and after spending 30 hours a week in a rickety studio in the basement of my dorms teaching myself the basics, I was on academic probation three times during my Harvard career, I ended up changing my major. Which ended up having more of a focus on Political Science and Economics; they were also on the graduate level so we met once a week. This gave me more time to devote to music.
DX: Now that you have an album coming out, do you consider yourself Ryan Leslie the artist solely or are you still planning on being Ryan Leslie the producer, executive and artist?
Ryan Leslie: Yes, I think all of those things make me who I am. I would not be me if any of those things were missing at all. In my opinion I am all of those things in one. Producer, songwriter, entrepreneur, I am definitely exploring the boundaries of music and new media and what they mean combined in the changing industry. All of those things sort of play into how I express myself creatively; I am always just going to remain me, being myself and all of those things in one.
DX: Since you seem to be so well versed in the aspect of the music industry. You know many different aspects of the industry from an artist prospective and the business side. How do you handle yourself within the industry? Do you feel like you can manage yourself?
Ryan Leslie: I have a team around me and I also have an internship program where really I hand pick some of the most talented young people from around the world to lend their talent, time and creativity to what Im building at NextSelection. Combine that with an attorney and manager whom Ive worked with for quite a long time, I really feel like Ive got a great team. The object for us is to create, at the end of the day, the best art that we possibly can create; and, also to really promote a positive role model, imagery or concept within music and art. My pedigree as an academic and sort of as a good kid, non-drinker, non-smoker and hard worker definitely had dealt with my own short comings and faults and I am aware of those. It has happened not even with music but just personally sort of exemplify this level of humanity that people can relate to and still entertain them with great art.
DX: On YouTube you have a video with one of your interns. How do you go about finding interns? What does it take to work with Ryan Leslie?
Ryan Leslie: It really just takes a degree of dedication, discipline, drive and desire. Somebody has to really want to understand all of the different aspects of the music industry, well, the entertainment industry and how it relates to technology. Social networking, whether it be through MySpace or YouTube, have been great tools in sort of giving young people a chance at creating virtual business cards. I am consistently inundated with messages, e-mails and different videos from YouTube that inspire me. When I see someone that is really dedicated, driven and has the desire and discipline that I think exemplifies or applies to what were doing at NextSelection, I reach out to those people, or sometimes they reach out to me and Ill respond and I invite them to come and be a part of a 24 hour workday at NextSelection. There have been a few that havent really made the cut, but the ones that have made the cut have gone on to do some really incredible things.
DX: I like your song "I-R-I-N-A." I read the blurb about how you came up with the song and it lead me to think, what gets your creative juices going?
Ryan Leslie: I really just let it flow. No matter what time of day or night, if something inspires me or I hear something in my head I have enough command of my little studio or my portable music creations software on a lap top where I can put down an idea. Sometimes I gotta sing it into a voicemail or sing it into a Quicktime on my computer. I capture those moments because those are the inspired moments. Then I can get to the work of producing the best record around them that I can. It really just comes spontaneously and I just try to be as open and perceptive to those ideas as they come.
DX: In the midst of you working on this upcoming album you are still working with other artists as a producer. Who have you been working with in the midst of it all?
Ryan Leslie: I am going to be working with and collaborating with Fabolous [click to read] on his next album; just got off the phone with Busta Rhymes [click to read]; Omarion stopped by the studio when I was working with Usher, and we talked about working together; a couple of joints with LL Cool J. Like I said, for me, its about things happening organically. LL happened to be in the same photo studio as I was. I was shooting pictures for a magazine and he was in the adjacent room shooting some album artwork, heard the music, we connected and two days later we were in the studio. Like I said, I was working with Usher on some things and next thing you know Omarion stops by the session, I played him something which inspired him, were gonna go back in and work. Busta Rhymes heard my record Addiction on the radio [click to listen]; he did his own remix of it, reached out to me so I will be doing some work with him. He has his own label, and its really for me I try not to force anything creatively. If you do good work, it's sort of a calling card for other artists to either be inspired or respond to the music that Im making. I sort of pick my collaborations based on a great vibe that I get.
DX: You sound like you never sleepdo you sleep at all?
Ryan Leslie: From the time I was in college, I really became accustomed to just two to three hours of sleep and it really hasnt changed since.
DX: What is your personal motto that you live by?
Ryan Leslie: Do what you believe in and believe in what you do. Very Simple, I wrote a speech about that when I was in my mid teens for the Rotary International Scholarship. Rotary International ended up giving me a scholarship to go to school. Just the idea that is behind it, despite what other people may feel, despite other peoples beliefs and perceptions or pre-conceived notions about you capabilities, if you believe in yourself and you apply yourself with sort of the unbridled passion and what I like to call the 4 Ds, discipline, desire, drive and dedication.