Ryan Leslie: Seeing Stars

After he juggling business classes at Harvard with the process of teaching himself how to make records, Ryan Leslie finally broke into the big leagues as a producer in 2003 when he signed a management contract with Sean “Diddy” Combs. The 25-year-old Atlanta native has extended his musical genius to everyone from Beyonce to gospel recording artists Virtue. Leslie’s passion for his craft impressed label executives from L.A. Reid to Tommy Mottola and Diddy, who have all solicited music from him for their top stars.

From developing a welfare-to-work technology curriculum for the Urban League, to leading his own music production company Next Selection Lifestyle Group, it’s clear that Leslie’s forte is making things happen. It’s no wonder that he has manned the task of facilitating the emergence and growth of R&B newcomer Cassie, with the help of his unlikely muse – the internet.

Because Leslie’s such a people person, he spent some time with us, sharing his views on the music industry, his struggle onto the music scene and watching his brainchild bring monumental success.

AllHipHop.com Alternatives: If you had to choose, would you rather sing, write or produce?

Ryan Leslie: Literally, I couldn’t make a choice ’cause if I had to choose I’d be bored with my life. Number one, I get very little sleep. If I spent 20 hours singing I wouldn’t be fulfilled creatively. I’m multi-dimensional and I like to mix it up.

AHHA: I understand Tommy Mottola is your mentor. How did you get hooked up with him?

Ryan: I give a lot of credit to people working with me from the beginning – Ed Woods and Glen Niles. They both have played an incredible roll in connecting me to my current mentors, Tommy Mottola and Diddy. They both shaped the person I’ve become. They were both mentors of mine in college coming up in the industry, so it’s such a great honor to work with them now. Tommy’s one of those guys that moves quickly, so my first meeting he offered me a publishing opportunity. It all just started immediately. [It] didn’t take long. Same with Cassie. First time Tommy met Cassie, [he] immediately signed her to a management deal.

AHHA: You’ve been working with Diddy for a while now. Was that something you aspired to do, or did it kind of just fall into your lap?

Ryan: The day I met [Diddy] is the day the relationship started. I had songs on a CD. He fell on one song which was “Hot 2 Night,” which ended up being used for New Edition, and he liked it. From that day I was signed to him and managed and mentored by him. What I would say to everyone reading this is… people feel like I got a lucky break, but before I met with [Diddy] I was selling beats for $200 a pop. Like I always say, luck is equal to preparation plus opportunity. I honed my craft for five years before seeing any real results. And now I’ve been fortunate to work with some of my biggest inspirations in the music industry, from Beyonce to Britney Spears and Diddy. But at the end of the day I feel like I haven’t achieved half of what I am set out here to achieve. I have a lot more work to do.

AHHA: Cheri Dennis has been on the scene for over four years now, but she’s just coming into her own and gaining widespread popularity with her debut single “I Love You,” which you wrote and produced. Do you think waiting to bring her out has helped her success as far as the response from the public?

Ryan: Everything happens in its own time. We actually cut that record in fall of 2003. Just like with my musical career, I had recorded a lot of music and even though I signed to Universal Records in ’03, I never had a record dropped. Cheri’s management got together and signed on this record that we all really believed in and just exposed it a little bit. Once DJ’s took to it, the people were the ones who really made it a hot single. At the end of day, timing comes down to when people have a demand for something. She’s always been as talented and as beautiful as she is now. So I think Cheri’s time is now and any other time wouldn’t have been right time.

AHHA: You have a new artist, Cassie, which you manage and produce for. What makes her different then, let’s say a Cheri Dennis, a Ciara, or any other beautiful, young women who can hold a note?

Ryan: I’ll tell you one thing, Cassie has also been a go-getter and she is literally rising to the opportunity that’s being given to her. At the end of the day, she understands that money is the necessary step to making a career, which a lot of people don’t get. She came to New York and got on her modeling grind in a serious way. She knew she had to get her money right before she just jumped on the first deal given to her.

Another unique point is that her success has been born through the internet, MySpace in particular. She averages 200 song plays a day, she’s multi-ethnic – her vice isn’t like an Aretha Franklin or Mary J. Blige. For instance, her first single is just such a simple voice in the midst of all the bells and whistles you hear on the radio. She’s across genres, across ethnicities. Yahoo made her the most searched female artist above all, and I think she really represents those people that are looking her up. And with my company, Next Selection, we’re all about that cross genres, cross ethnicities, smorgasbord of talent.

AHHA: Do you think that her being multi-dimensional made it easier to push her on MySpace?

Ryan: The value of online entertainment is that it extends beyond the boundaries of the U.S. and that’s great – we’re very proud of that. Cassie’s one of the most viewed music pages on MySpace, and the artists to the right and left of her are white, not urban, and I think it really has so much to do with her accessibility. Like when she stepped on TRL with her video camera. Like on the way to a radio interview, someone stopped and asked her if she read their message on MySpace. She didn’t have to know them. And we really instilled in her the importance of her fans. I don’t know how many other times Christina Milian or Ciara have personally done those kinds of things, but Cassie really is one of kind.

AHHA: Your media company, Next Selection, tell me about it’ birth and your goals with the company.

Ryan: I’ll tell you like this, I always knew the internet would play a big part in my entrepreneurial career. When I graduated school I realized I wanted to create an iTunes type of service. The initial problem was that I was using Internet Explorer instead of proprietor software like [iTunes] uses. I really decided, like Cassie, that I would need money to create this, and I knew I had this knack and talent for music. So that was my gateway for making money to make this happen. So in the fall of last year we decided to be the first to break a pop, urban cross-over act, online, and that’s how it started.

Once I signed Cassie last spring, I started cassieworld.com. And with my own website, I decided that we would switch our company to a media company and not just music. As a young business man it seemed clear to move into business so I could make enough money to have a significant impact on the socio-economic status of our country. I’m really excited about our next venture. I’m actually working on my release with Universal so I get to work on my own thing for a while.

AHHA: These days everyone wants to be a singer, everyone wants to be a producer. How do professionals weed through the good, the bad and the ugly?

Ryan: MySpace is a great training ground for taking your project into your own hands and controlling it. Your song plays and hits are based on how much you grind. So people should look into that and we, in turn, look at that to see the drive a young artist has.

AHHA: Now I know you’re also working on putting your name out there as an artist, and people don’t realize that no matter whom you know, it isn’t always easy. So what’s going on with you?

Ryan: Wow! What’s going on with me is going to be crazy. I’m getting my rights as a recording artist back, and then we’re going to get a revolutionary model where people can receive music. I can monetize my artist career by not selling any records at all, and practically giving it all away. I know this will be a risky endeavor, but we’ve already broken down several barriers with Cassie’s record. Five months from signing with Bad Boy to having a record in stores is amazing. So we’re really turning the music industry on its head.

AHHA: You’ve worked with a lot of artists, who haven’t you written or produced for that you want to?

Ryan: I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to be able to work with all of my heroes. Next, I think I’d either like to work with people who’ve had the greatest influence in music, like Quincy Jones, Prince, and Stevie Wonder – people I couldn’t get that knowledge and insight from anywhere else. On the flipside, I’d also like to work with those new artists that haven’t been discovered. I really want Next Selection to be synonymous with finding that new, raw talent; that new spice.

AHHA: What’s been the best part of all of this so far?

Ryan: Watching the dream of a young person, Cassie, come true in a medium that we, me and my team, are pioneers of.

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