What I Learned as a Classical Composer Working with Kanye, Lil Nas X, & Big Sean

How Johan Lenox went from listening to Kanye’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ to working with him, No I.D., Big Sean, and more.
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Until a few years ago, my only musical experience was classical. I studied how to compose for orchestras in high school outside of Boston, and then later in college. I won awards. Starting when I was 16, I flew to many random cities to hear orchestras perform new classical pieces of mine. My friends outside of the classical space all supported me, but it bothered me how ineffective the classical community was at reaching them as music fans. I made it my life’s goal to try to address this disconnect.

Back then, I had no knowledge of contemporary pop and hip-hop music and was living under a rock concerning pop culture in general. Then one day, while I was tripping on acid at a house party, my friend played me Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. My outlook changed completely. The album appealed to my classical background because of Kanye’s bold musical decisions. 

Seeing a roomful of people loving something as bizarre as the opening of “Runaway” made me realize having a platform like Kanye’s might allow me to do what I wanted for classical music’s mainstream appeal. This experience changed my career path, and I moved to LA, pursuing my new dream of being a singer/producer. 

Today, I have a new song out called “Reckless” featuring Young Nudy and Key!. Here’s some of what I’ve learned along my journey.

Yeethoven

In 2016, my friend Yuga Cohler reached out to me out of the blue. He was now a professional symphony conductor, and he wanted to do a program focusing on the music production of Kanye West. Together, we came up with an orchestral concert that compared the insane compositional choices on Yeezus to some of the radical musical choices Beethoven made in his own time. 

We had a 50-piece orchestra performing both artists, minus the beats and rapping, and in some cases, mashing their works together. Seeing a purely classical concert get covered in major publications from Complex to Time Magazine to Rolling Stone, and selling out 1000-seat orchestra halls like NYC’s Lincoln Center helped me gain confidence that my new path could work. Now we have a residency at Lincoln Center doing orchestral concerts like this twice a year.

Vic Mensa

That same year, I met Vic Mensa through some people who had attended Yeethoven. Vic had me do string arrangements on his The Autobiography album, which I wrote on sheet music and recorded with live string players. Pretty soon, I was playing keys for Vic—when he opened for JAY-Z at Boston’s TD Garden arena, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and at his album release party where Beyoncé was standing directly in front of me, watching me play. 

Vic Mensa is one of the most generous people I’ve worked with, and through him, I learned to take care of your collaborators at all costs. He also works insanely hard and often engineers himself—that self-reliance is critical.

No I.D.

I met Dion Wilson through Vic Mensa, and since then, he’s become a major mentor to me. I always play my projects for him, asking for feedback. He’s had me produce alongside him for numerous artists, and I’ve learned a ton from his Yoda-like wisdom. 

Dion often says, “There is no Santa Claus.” People think their heroes are superhuman, but when you meet them, the truth is always the same: they’re just people. They’re not perfect, and they don’t do it all alone. They simply work hard, stay humble, and keep learning. 

I’ve never met someone more attentive to what’s currently happening in music than No I.D. He stays incredibly on top of it, and that’s why he’s outlasted many of his peers over the past three decades.

Mike Dean and ASTROWORLD

Mike Dean followed me on Twitter after Yeethoven, and pretty soon, we were working together. I saw what he could do when Kanye was producing his “five albums in five weeks” in 2018. Mike asked if I could get an orchestra and a choir together on six-hours-notice for NasNASIR album. I was terrified at first, but I figured out a way to do it with one violinist stacking parts in my living room, and me singing all the choir harmonies myself, belting at the top of my lungs in my garage at 2 a.m. Three days later, Kanye’s live-stream began, and the very first sounds on the entire album were mine.

Later that year, Mike had me arrange cello for “COFFEE BEAN” on Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD. He was too busy mixing the album for me to track stuff at his house, but he also didn’t feel safe emailing the song with Travis’ final vocal. I needed to hear what the song sounded like to track the cello parts, so I convinced Mike to send me a version of the song with crazy distortion on it. It was mostly unlistenable, but I could still make out the beat and the melodies, so I did the arrangement and made the cut. 

More than anything, what I’ve learned from Mike is how to work with unusual situations and deliver under extreme pressure. No one knows this better than he does, especially during the absolute insanity of those five Kanye albums.

Kanye West

During the Nas and Teyana Taylor albums, Mike Dean brought me in to work with Kanye. Most of what I did was string arranging, but Kanye was a fan of my choir-style vocal stacks. He specifically had me do them on “3Way” for Teyana’s album, and now it’s a signature part of my production style. Later, a song I helped write and produce called “We Got Love” was on Yandhi (before the album was scrapped), and Kanye even performed it on Saturday Night Live.

Kanye influenced how I use strings on my own songs. I had always used strings mainly to support a big section like a chorus, but Kanye wanted them to go in sections where nothing else was happening, like an outro or a bridge. He was right: If you want people to notice something cool, it needs to have its own moment in the song to shine, with nothing else in the way. I applied this a ton to my music.

Lil Nas X

I was lucky enough to write some songs one-on-one with Lil Nas X, right around the time “Old Town Road” was at its peak. I also did strings on his song “Kick It” and his “Rodeo” remix with Nas. I was impressed by his ability to stay calm when things around him were going completely nuts. It’s easy, when artists blow up, for them to lose sight of what they’re doing creatively, but Lil Nas X was amazingly clear on his sound and vision—even when he’d only done a few sessions in his life.

Big Sean

Big Sean might be the most prominent artist who I’ve gotten to know well, and I think what puts him on that level is his strong sense of his own story. For the most part, major artists aren’t just responsible for putting out good albums; they’re responsible for keeping millions of people invested in their journey through their music. When I work with Sean, it’s always clear he understands that.

All of these artists have an incredible work ethic and focus. I can’t think of anyone I’ve worked with who is lazy but still succeeded. You can stumble upon a hit song, but if you aren’t obsessively focused on following it up and building a lasting career, it won’t happen. Working with great artists reminds me of that every day.

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