Ryan Leslie Interview
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After crafting hit records for a countless number of the recording industry’s most talented artists, one of the most sought after musical minds in the game is finally putting the finishing touches on his own solo project. Well known for helping to propel the career of pop singer Cassie, quadruple threat Ryan Leslie will release his highly-anticipated debut album later this summer.
Catapulted into go-mode after the surprising success of his hit single, “Diamond Girl,” Leslie and his NextSelection label began to craft the groundbreaking album they hope will give birth to the the Harlem native’s solo career. Originally scheduled for release this June, Leslie himself decided to hold the album until August, allowing for the recently-completed single, “Addiction,” to heat up the summer charts.
In an exclusive interview with DJBooth‘s DJ “Z,” Ryan steps inside the booth to talk about his biggest non-musical addiction, predicting Barak Obama’s potential path to the White House, and how he stays out of that proverbial “box.”
Listen to the Interview
Ryan Leslie Interview Transcription
DJ Booth: What’s goin’ on everybody? It’s your boy “Z,” doin’ it real big, and joining me inside the DJ Booth is one of the most talented men in this industry. A singer, songwriter, producer, and just plain nice guy, please welcome Ryan Leslie – how you doin’?
Ryan Leslie: What’s up, Z? Everything is great, man. It’s rainin’ in New York City, but I’m all smiles, ‘cause it’s definitely been a sunny walk in the park thanks to the response we’ve been getting for this single.
DJ Booth: Yes, you’re right about that. The single is the lead-up to your long-awaited debut project, set for release this August. Describe the sense of accomplishment you have felt while completing material for this project, which is your own, as compared to all the records you have done for other artist’s projects.
Ryan Leslie: It’s very, very, very exciting. It’s so strange. People always have been asking me more recently, based on the great response we’ve been getting for Diamond Girl - I’ve always been an artist, and that’s actually the reason why I started producing, is so I could produce records for myself. And I couldn’t afford studio time, so I needed to figure out a way that I could make the records that I heard in my mind. All the success, all of the achievement that I’ve been able to have and accomplish as a producer has really all been byproducts of this dream I’m livin’ right now, the dream of actually presenting and suppressing my artistic vision to everybody in the way that I’m doin’ it.
DJ Booth: Ryan, in a previous interview that we did, you told me that this solo project was not a priority. So from then to now, what has changed so that it is, finally, a priority?
Ryan Leslie: Right. At that point in time, we were really talking because I was getting some great action with the first artist on my imprint NextSelection, her name is Cassie, and we were having [a] tremendous response and encouragement and support of her first single, Me & U, which went on to be my first number one record. So the priority has always been to put an album out, but just to see the way that people were reacting to Me & U, I knew that I needed to focus my time and attention on getting her album done, grooming her, and making sure she could get out there and support this record, and support all the stations and people that were encouraging and responding to her. In that time, I really just made it a priority internally that I wanted to do something that was going to be lasting and timeless and classic, since it would be really my first introduction to many of you, the listeners and people around the world that were gonna be hearing me, Ryan Leslie, actually performing my own record.
DJ Booth: At the beginning of your single, Diamond Girl, you say, “They tried to put me in a box.” Who tried to put you in a box, and, furthermore, what do you do to stay out of that proverbial box?
Ryan Leslie: I just said that in general, and I said that kind of as a call out for anybody that’s ever had a dream, ever aspired to be or do something, and folks told them that that’s out of their league or out of their range. On Diamond Girl, that’s really a hip-hop beat, very clearly evidenced by the fact that 50 Cent jumped on it, so that’s first and foremost, to do an R&B record. Then you got some jazz harmonies, you’ve got some jazzy swagger on top of a rap joint, and then I went right on ahead, just because I felt like the beat called for it, and put a rap on it. I’m sure that there are definitely folks that say, “Ryan, why don’t you stay in your producer box? We definitely enjoy what you’ve done for people like Cassie, Britney Spears, Loon, Cheri Dennis – we like that type of stuff.” Or, “Ryan, if you’re gonna sing, stay in the singer’s box; don’t rap.” “Ryan, if you’re gonna be in the R&B box, don’t try and sing over hip-hop beats.” Bottom line is, creative expression is a freedom that we have, and I wanna be at liberty to freely express myself as an artist. And so, to stay out of that proverbial box, all I can do is be myself. Not only did we do a video, which people have seen, for Diamond Girl, I also shot another video, which is still in editing, and I shot an independent film, I did a photo campaign with a supermodel – I mean, we really just went all out and did any and everything I could possibly conceive of around this song.
DJ Booth: Well, for as long as I can remember you’ve always told me that NextSelection is about a multimedia jump-off, and all the things you just mentioned in support of this upcoming project I’m sure is exciting everybody at the possibilities. The new single off the project is the Cassie-assisted Addiction. Ryan, this is now going to be spill-the-beans time – what is Ryan Leslie’s strongest addiction, other than music? ‘Cause I think that’s be the obvious answer.
Ryan Leslie: Other than music?
DJ Booth: Mm-hm.
Ryan Leslie: Hm… ah..
DJ Booth: You were gonna say music, huh?
Ryan Leslie: I was definitely gonna say music. But, you know what? I think, honestly, video – video may be the next one. And I think that can be evidenced in my YouTube channel, with top 25 most subscribed all-time musicians on YouTube. There’s millions of channels, so that’s definitely a testament to my love for video and expressing myself through the visual medium.
DJ Booth: Are you also an avid DVD collector, Ryan?
Ryan Leslie: No. I am an avid movie collector, but not DVDs, per se, or CDs, per se, when it comes to music. But I have a very expansive and insane digital library.
DJ Booth: Okay, so a New-Age pack-rat, if you will?
Ryan Leslie: Exactly. I could honestly have my entire life on two hard drives and toss them in a backpack, and there you have it.
DJ Booth: Are we talkin’ terabytes, one terabyte apiece?
Ryan Leslie: Yeah, you’re definitely talkin’ terabytes. [laughter]
DJ Booth: [laughter] Just this past week, Ryan, DJBooth debuted a feature that enables our members to submit questions for all of our interviews, and, needless to say, we received a hefty batch of questions for Mr. R. Les. The most commonly-asked question among our members was, out of your three most well-known talents – singing, songwriting, and producing – what is your favorite element of the process?
Ryan Leslie: I would have to say that I equally – and I can’t stress it enough – equally enjoy all three of them. And if you’ve ever watched me create in the studio – and you can do that on my YouTube channel – really, at the end of the day, it’s about all three of those working in tandem to create some sort of expression. I really would feel helpless and lifeless if I were deprived of any of those three avenues for expressin’ myself.
DJ Booth: Well, let’s not take any one of them away from you. Next question comes from our member, ClevelandAssassin. He wants to know if you also are responsible for arranging all of the music that you record, and, if so, how difficult is the arrangement process in recording?
Ryan Leslie: I really just play it by ear. I really think that in art, there are really no rules. For me, it’s really about having a vision, and executing that vision to the best of your abilities. If you hear strings and you can’t hire an orchestra, you do your best to play those strings and replicate what you hear in your head on a keyboard or a synthesizer. And nine times out of ten, having restrictions really requires ingenuity, so you can actually come up with something that fills that void, if you’re unable to get it into the studio. So for me, the arrangement process is always very very natural and organic. I just go with the flow and do the best that I can do to achieve and execute that vision that I have creatively in my head.
DJ Booth: Is that the most time-consuming portion of the entire recording process?
Ryan Leslie: I think, in my experience, the most time-consuming portion is listening, ‘cause I listen over and over and over again. The creation piece is always very spontaneous. I really believe that that’s going to be your most genuine representation of your artistry.
DJ Booth: Well, speaking of spontaneity, our member Matt C. wants to know, when you recently appeared on Green Lantern’s Sirius radio show, and freestyle piano-played over the beat to Lil’ Wayne’s current hit, Lollipop, was it straight off the dome, you heard the beat, you went with it? Did they tell you beforehand it was going to be dropped?
Ryan Leslie: [laughter] Well, I’ll tell you this: his show’s really hip-hop-driven, so I was definitely honored that he wanted to have me on the show. And two seconds before I walked in, my radio promo guy, Rich Dollaz, told me, “Look, Green Lantern’s going to put you on the spot.” I had no idea what that meant, until I walked into the studio and saw that it wasn’t a regular radio studio; it was actually him with some turntables, and a keyboard was set up for me. And yes, that was one hundred percent extemporaneous piano-playing, right off the dome, man. To really be honest – ‘cause I can really evaluate myself – all I did was a simple arpeggio, man, and a couple of different fills that I heard in my head. The response really has been crazy, and I definitely appreciate it, but I definitely do that with great humility to those players who are out there, that, from an improvisational standpoint, I gotta take my hat off to ‘em.
DJ Booth: Well, you were certainly very humble, Ryan, but the buzz that this has created on the Internet I think allows you to brush some dirt off your shoulder, if you will.
Ryan Leslie: [laughter] Thanks a lot, Z.
DJ Booth: No, my pleasure. Ryan, I’m gonna go back to our earlier interview one more time. I asked you to choose anyone in the music industry to replace George Bush as President, and you wisely picked yourself and said, “Watch out – ten years from now, Leslie’s gonna be in office.” But, later in our conversation, you said you were, however, encouraged, very encouraged, because of what Barack Obama was doing in government. It’s two years later, and Obama is very close to getting the Democratic ticket to run for President. Are you surprised at where we’re at right now, or can you honestly say you did see this coming?
Ryan Leslie: I can honestly say that the proof was in the interview – I definitely saw this coming. I’ve been out on the road and I’ve seen the hope and I’ve also seen the despair that’s in different folks’ eyes, as I traverse across the country, and I do believe that people are very hopeful, very excited, and very encouraged by the fact that there can be change, there can be something different, there can be a new future for the young people. We’re really the ones that are gonna have to take the reins of the country, take the reins of the world, actually, the globe. There are so many things that we have done as human beings and taken for granted. Now, as we look towards future generations, I really believe that the time for change is now, and I’m very excited about it, very very excited about it.
DJ Booth: Well hopefully the future of our government is in good hands, and likewise, with you a part of the music industry, it seems like it’s in good hands as well. Go ahead, let everyone know when this highly-anticipated, far-too-long-delayed debut, self-titled, will be out, available to the public.
Ryan Leslie: Initially it was June 17th, and, like you said, Addiction really came out and started lighting everything up. That record was, truthfully, only completed two weeks ago, and that was turned in with a batch of other records to the label, and records that I believed were strong enough that we wanted to take the time to really tweak those, mix and master them, and so we’re gonna put the album out, push it back a little bit so we can improve those records. But bottom line I think we’re going to end up puttin’ this thing out in August.
DJ Booth: Well, hopefully not any longer than that, because I know a lot of your fans are pretty anxious to get their hands on that CD right about now.
Ryan Leslie: I’m really lookin’ forward to this album being sort of the cornerstone and foundation for a long-lasting and engaging and entertaining career, as it provides a lot of enjoyment and a lot of great music.
DJ Booth: Well that’s what I’m talkin’ about, Ryan. You’re doin’ your part, we’re certainly tryin’ to do ours. Go ahead, give everybody a website or a MySpace page, so everybody can find out more about what you got goin’ on.
DJ Booth: When I tell people, “Ryan Leslie’s taken over the Internet,” they laugh, but it’s the truth. Ryan, thank you so much for takin’ the time to join me inside the DJ Booth, and I personally wish you nothin’ but the best of luck.
Ryan Leslie: Thank you so much, Z. I always appreciate bein’ involved – I’m actually honored that here I am, I’m bein’ interviewed as Ryan Leslie, the artist. It’s an amazing feeling.