At 15, he went to Harvard. At 19, he had a degree in government and politics. At 29, Ryan Leslie is a budding hip-hop mogul.
It’s Thursday in Manhattan, and Ryan Leslie is getting down to business: the complicated, consuming, cutting-edge business of creating Ryan Leslie.
His new song, a slinky club track called “Addiction,” is blasting from the speakers of a midtown recording studio. Leslie, a soft-spoken man, is whooping and dancing and air-drumming with startling abandon. The rising R&B star Raheem DeVaughn has stopped by the studio, manager in tow, to talk about a remix, and they’re half-listening, half-staring at Leslie.
Evan Rogers, one of Leslie’s interns, is filming the boss’s every move and will continue to do so in the hallway, the elevator, the car, and the parking garage, at the late-afternoon speaking engagement, the Vogue party at 1 Oak, the Rap-Up party at the Adidas store, and the after-party at Leslie’s place in Harlem.
In the wee hours footage will be edited and uploaded to one of Leslie’s websites. Rogers’s 18-hour-a-day job is to generate Ryan Leslie content.
Leslie’s job is to become Generation Next’s big-name music impresario – star and starmaker – a future-forward Diddy, a fully wired Jay-Z. But this 29-year-old artist, producer, and businessman brings a radically different resume to the street-savvy world of hip-hop. The whip-smart son of Salvation Army ministers, Leslie was raised in a dozen cities and accepted to Harvard University when he was 15. He graduated at 19 with a degree in government and politics. And while his elite education is only tangentially related to Leslie’s life’s work, his standards of achievement are strictly Ivy League.
“When you find your passion, the best is always demanded of you, not by the expectations of others, but by the bidding of your heart,” Leslie told Harvard’s Class of 1998 during his commencement address. A decade later his message hasn’t much changed. Leslie – who performs today at JAMN 94.5′s Summer Jam and will attend his 10-year reunion in Cambridge next weekend – delivered a variation on the stump speech last month at the Time Warner Center to winners of the annual USA Today Dream Job contest. He has a prominent link on his MySpace page for students to click if they want to invite him to speak at their schools.
Leslie’s vision for, and of, himself is vast – vast enough to span a glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle and a deeply ingrained missionary spirit.
“The folks that have achieved the quote-unquote American Dream, which is getting paid for what you love to do, are the folks that understand the work ethic that’s required,” Leslie says, leaning back in a leather chair in the studio’s control room. He’s wearing low-slung denim pants hand-sewn for him by a Boston tailor, a crisp white oxford shirt, and a diamond-and-enamel snake on his ring finger to deter the ladies from getting serious. Leslie is married to the music business. “I make it my duty to explain that being a creative professional is not a cakewalk, but if you’re really passionate about doing it, following that passion is the No. 1 way you’ll contribute to society.”
Among Leslie’s contributions so far: a bona fide hit for model-turned-singer Cassie (the pop-funk bauble “Me & U”), a near-hit for himself (“Diamond Girl,” the synth-driven first single from his forthcoming solo debut, due out in late August), and production work for everyone from Britney and Beyoncé to Usher and Danity Kane. He’s signed as an artist to Universal and as everything else to Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Bad Boy Entertainment. Combs heard “Me & U” while partying at New York’s Bungalow 8 and shortly after made Leslie an offer he couldn’t refuse: a joint artist deal for Cassie and a distribution deal for Leslie’s label/production/media/marketing company, NextSelection Lifestyle Group.
So far, Leslie’s biggest impact has been on the Web, a mainstay for indie-rock artists that has proved a more elusive tool in the mainstream urban music world. More than a year after he wrote, produced, and recorded “Me & U” at home on a few keyboards and a desktop computer, the song reached No. 3 on the Billboard singles charts and No. 1 on the R&B/hip-hop charts – thanks entirely to an online marketing campaign orchestrated by Leslie.
“Ryan launched and promoted a completely unknown artist who went to No. 1 for seven weeks as a result of a viral experience. Normally I would think that would be a mountain too high to climb,” says Tommy Mottola, the former chairman of Sony Music, who signed Leslie to his Universal imprint, Casablanca Records. “He’s a brilliant and forward thinker, very plugged in to the new technology that’s going to be a critical piece of how music is made and distributed. But he’s also a different animal than usual, and by that I mean he’s not a street kid, which most everyone else is, including myself. Ryan is plugged in to the highbrows, the intellectuals, the finance. If music is his launching pad, that’s fine. But he’s motivated to be successful on every level.”
Leslie, who scored a perfect 1600 on his SATs, began college with every intention of going pre-med but soon switched to government. He joined Harvard’s a cappella singing group, the Krokodiloes, discovered Stevie Wonder, and spent long hours in the recording studio at Pforzheimer House under the tutelage of Sandy Green – then a grad student at Harvard Business School and resident tutor at Pforzheimer, and now an assistant professor at the University of Southern California. Leslie was put on academic probation for poor performance three times during college, and three times Green – himself a former aspiring musician – persuaded the university not to expel him.
“When the press asks me about my mentors, I usually name Tommy [Mottola] and Puffy [Sean Combs]. They gave me my break and cut me the big checks,” says Leslie. “But really, it’s Sandy Green. He gave me my first sampling machine. He was the one who said, ‘I see something in you and I think you should hone your craft.’ “
Green saw in Leslie not just a promising musician but a budding mogul – albeit a naive, 16-year-old mogul who was struggling to balance his studies and his passion for music. Reached at his office at USC’s Marshall School of Business, Green says, “Ryan was a good kid but very young, dealing with all the teenage issues and hanging out with folks three and four years older. We had serious conversations. I told him his role model should be Berry Gordy, that his skill sets, his knowledge, everything that we were thinking about could be done at Goldman Sachs or in the music business. The creation of art is great, but Ryan is a strategist. That’s the true power of this young man.”
And yet Leslie’s ascent is proving slower and bumpier than he’d like. He stayed in Boston for a few years following graduation, producing local artists, cultivating his signature electro-pop sound, and working for the local chapter of the Urban League, where he created a technology training program for mothers on welfare.
“My internship program is an extension of that,” Leslie says. “If you’re fortunate enough to get into my internal internal internship program, you actually travel the world with me and are part of my entourage and you help pick singles and make music videos and create marketing campaigns. It’s a pretty unique experience. How unique is your experience, Yamil?”
Yamil Vallecillo is a quiet young graphic designer who shadows Leslie all day, but the only thing he actually does over the course of many hours is hand Leslie a laptop while riding in one of his two Mercedes Kompressor SUVs.
“It’s really unique,” Yamil says.
Leslie has been signed to Universal since 2003, but his first album was shelved in 2005 – depending on whom you ask, due to the failure of his singles to ignite at radio, the suspension of activity at Casablanca Records, or Leslie’s feeling that he had already outgrown the material. It’s been nearly two years since Cassie’s sleeper hit positioned Leslie as an industry wunderkind; her second album comes out in September. Leslie only worked on a handful of tracks. Still, he makes sure her sweet new single, “Official Girl,” is spinning at the Vogue party, where Cassie is hosting and Leslie is roaming.
“I like the clubs, but I prefer it,” he whispers, “when they’re playing my music.”
Leslie continues to develop talent via NextSelection – the latest is Mia Rose, a 19-year-old YouTube phenom – and post his own music and video content online. Leslie says he’s ready for his close-up, but the release of his new album has been delayed repeatedly.
“It’s really my fault,” he says. “I’m consistently updating. This is my first impression as Ryan Leslie the artist, and I want it to be right.”
According to Leslie’s calculations, that sort of flexibility is a key equation in the industry’s newfangled math.
“I’m at 100,000 friends on MySpace and 14,000 plays a day on my little music player. I’d love to be at 60,000 plays and half a million friends,” Leslie says. “In the meantime I can be making records, continuing to be really strongly entrenched in the online video community, releasing behind-the-scenes stuff. And when there’s an insane, incredible demand for my album that cannot be contained anymore, I can put it out tomorrow.”
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com.