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Interview: Ryan Leslie – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

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Ryan Leslie is a key pioneer in the music-media movement. By harnessing and utilizing the power of the Internet, over the past few years, he has become one of the entertainment industry’s in-demand music producers. To date, his production credits include songs for pop stars—from Beyoncé to Britney Spears—and rappers—from Fabolous to LL Cool J.

Ryan Leslie’s claim to fame came in 2006, however, when he wrote and produced Cassie’s platinum single, Me & U, which topped Billboard’s Pop 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts. As soon as Leslie became an established producer, he released his debut album, on the strength of three singles: “Diamond Girl,” “Addiction” and “How It Was Supposed to Be.”

Upon the release of his sophomore effort, Transition, Ryan Leslie managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on Stevie Wonder, “To the Top,” and the symbolism behind the NextSelection crest.

In almost every interview that I have come across, you pay your respects to your parents, who undoubtedly helped shape you into the man that you are today. It is unclear, however, how they shaped your early musical passions.

Well, my mother is a classically trained pianist. My father is a multi-instrumentalist. His instrument of choice would be trumpet. I grew up listening to their musical influences, great piano composers like Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Beethoven, Bach — and those composers are actually the pieces that I used to teach myself how to play piano. I grew up in a musical household and I was surround by music at all times. So I had no choice.

A feature in New York Magazine said that a friend introduced you to Stevie Wonder during your freshman year at Harvard. Which album introduced to the “wonder” of Stevie, and what elements from his career did you wish to translate to your own?

The album was Songs in the Key of Life. And it had “Love's in Need of Love Today” – which was a record a black student covered and that's why I actually got interested in Stevie Wonder. I was running around singing and lauding Teddy Riley for being a genius. [Blackstreet covered the song on their 1994 debut.] Someone said, “Look, that's actually a Stevie Wonder song.” In terms of Stevie's career, what’s really inspired me is that he is the creative director. He's in control creatively of the music that he wants to expose to the world. And so the fact that he was singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist — those are the elements that make Stevie an icon, in my opinion.

Early on in your career, you had the benefit of two wonderful mentors: [Sean] “Diddy” [Combs] and Tommy Mottola. Is there any particular advice that they gave you or any lessons that you learned as you were working with them?

Well, I would say the learning was mostly experiential. And what I did come to find out is two things: one, that the ownership of copyrights is really where the bread and butter of the entertainment and intellectual property business is. Number two, whereas people don't have to pay for something that's virtual, they do have to pay for something that's tangible. Music is virtual; liquor, clothing and other merchandise is not. So if you can extend your brand into the areas that people will pay for some sort of tangible product that's associated with your brand, then you stand a better chance than just trying to sell music or some other intellectual property, whether it be a film, a book, a television show, or any other virtual content.

Your sophomore album, Transition, is coming almost nine months to the week of your last release, Ryan Leslie. Few artists are able to have that quick of a turnaround. Why did you feel pressed to release it so soon?

To be totally honest, with the self-titled album, we had a listening session in July of 2008. So that record was finished and we promoted it for a year before releasing it. So this current body of work is really not as quick on the heels in terms of creation as it is in terms of release. In my opinion, this is coming nearly a full year after the previous album.

What experiences from your first album are you translating to this current album?

This album marks the transition in me, over my life, from stepping away from the idea of making a record that sounds urgent — which, as a producer, I'm so often called to do — and exercising the creative license that I have as the producer/songwriter to just write about those things which truly inspire me. That's really the landmark of the transition.

My favorite tracks from Transition are “To the Top,” “Guardian Angel” and “I Choose You.” Walk me through the inspiration behind “To the Top.”

That record originally started out as a song called “Better for Us.” The idea was to make a song about, “How can I make your relationship better? Can I do anything to make it right?” I made it on a trip to Amsterdam that I had taken to follow this girl, and had jumped into a studio there. I was mostly recording because I needed to pass time while she was attending to her other family business. I spent a lot of time listening over and over to the record. Then there was a day that the guys in my band had come in to do overdubs on a different record. They heard the song and began to play on the various instruments. That moment in the studio was a magical one that I wanted to capture on record. We ended up recording all of the instrumental overdubs that day.

Transition also features a song entitled “Zodiac.” Since you are a Libra, and your symbol is balance, what have you found to be the “magic secret” to balancing work, love and play?

I think the secret is to make sure that they all are the same. I love what I do, so it's not really considered work, but it makes me a living, so I guess you could consider it work. Loving what you do, in many cases, is considered being at play. Work, love, and play are intertwined in my everyday life in the pursuit of creative expression.

As an artist, you are very well-known for crossing the virtual divide on a daily basis. What real life experiences do you think have shaped your online evolution?

I took some time out over the summer to read, experience, and be in the throes of a new relationship. And now, armed with those experiences, not only have they inspired an album, but they've also inspired a film project that I'm working on – a documentary-style featurette which tells the story from her perspective. That will be coming very shortly.

I would like to learn more about your company, NS4Life [NextSelection Lifestyle Group], since you tend to branch out beyond the confines of the music world. The crest has three animals featured: a lion, a unicorn and a griffin. What significance do those animals hold for you?

The griffin is the traditional animal in the Scottish heraldry of the name Leslie. Music is magical, like the unicorn, and the lion is the king of his environment. It's symbolic of what is applicable to everything that I am inspired to be and that I inspire for my company to be.

When you look toward the future, what are your short-term and long-term goals?

Well, in the short-term, it's just to continue to experience the work creatively that we're doing. And when I say creatively, I mean musically and non-musically. And in the long-term, I happen to be taking a day of study with Dr. Monica Sharma of United Nations about the need for new archetypes and emerging icons, global icons and what the characteristics of those global icons will be. And Next Selection is my hope that we can develop the characteristics – in our staff and in the artists we represent – of people that are going to be the new global icons, and as the Internet makes the world smaller and more accessible to wider audiences, we are demonstrating in our daily work a way of life that is positive, that is focused on the preservation of our planet, and that is really impactful in terms of our creative expression.

While listening to you speak, it is obvious that you are an academic. In addition to music sets, you host lectures and Q&A sessions on college campuses. Why do you think it is important for you to reach your audience outside of a musical context—especially within academic settings?

I think it's important to allow young people to ask the questions that will help to direct them towards the pursuit of their passion, because I believe that doing what you love to do, that is the way that you'll contribute to your environment and to the history of your generation. I know it sounds lofty but a lot of folks need to understand the specifics – whether they be financial basics or career pathway specifics – so that they can make better-informed decisions about choosing to pursue a career in entertainment.

Over the past year, you have sporadically toured the college circuit, instead of embarking on a traditional tour in traditional music halls. Why do you think that you have gravitated toward college communities?

Well, the energy of young people is infectious and incredible. Being in a college environment, you are in an environment where the students have so much hope and so much freedom because all they really have to worry about is going to class and learning. In more traditional venues, you have folks that have jobs and families and some of the more greater responsibilities of life. Not to say that college isn't a great responsibility, but that energy and that useful excitement is always infectious.

Keith Murphy, who was the senior associate editor at Vibe magazine, described you as an artist who doesn’t “[take] himself too seriously but [takes] his music very seriously.” Although the latter part of the quote is quite obvious, do you think the first half is on-target?

I think that's very on target. I'm very cognizant of my limitations as a human being. Nonetheless, as I approach the creation of art – and that goes for anything that I create, whether it's even just an online video or a short film or a music video or even a photo story – I take it as an opportunity to do the best that I can with the resources and the relationships to which I have access. By that, I mean if I have access to great instrumentalists, then they should be on the record. If I have access to a great studio, then I should maximize the use of that studio. If I have access to great equipment or a great technology to better execute the creative vision that I have in my head, then I should utilize and exploit that technology. So that's the way that I approach all of my creative endeavors.

At the beginning of your very first album, in the opening track “Diamond Girl,” you pronounce: “They tried to put me in a box.” For those who have not had the opportunity to hear your debut album, what impression do you want to leave upon your new fans?

Well, the impression that I would love to make is that creativity should just be appreciated for the sake of its impact and not be categorized based on a preconceived notion of what someone can or cannot, or should or should not, be doing. That's the impact I want to make. If you're really committed to doing something great, and you understand your limitations, and you understand what you have to offer, and you showcase that which you are most proficient in, then you should be able to do that, irrespective of what someone may want to categorize you in. To break it down: you can do whatever you want. And if you're going to do something, please make sure that you do it really well and that you do something that deserves and earns the respect of consumers and colleagues alike.

For more information on Ryan Leslie, visit his official website.

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