Jaheim, Musiq Soulchild, and Tank – some rappers just seem to fit better with rappers than others. Then, there’s Grammy-nominated Ryan Leslie.
The Harvard-educated music man, Ryan Leslie, originally from Washington, D.C., has been known over the years for his Hip-Hop flavored anthems such “Diamond Girl” and “Addicted” with Cassie. The fact that he plays the piano and has an Ivy League educational background may have lumped him into a certain lane with his R&B peers.
Still, Leslie says fans should get ready to see him in a whole new light – as a rapper. MC-ing isn’t new to the crooner, he says – it just hasn’t had its turn in the sun.
AllHipHop.com interviewed Ryan Leslie as he prepares for a special “Black Music Month” performance on June 15 at the 14th Street Apple Store in New York, and later, Tunisia, North Africa on a goodwill mission. He also dropped us his Top 5 Dead or Alive before signing off:
AllHipHop.com: Hi Ryan, how are you?
Ryan: I'm good, Seandra. Thanks so much for having me at 11:30 on a Monday morning! I'm actually going to be talking to London and Paris coming up so...they're six hours ahead of me, so I've been up since about 6 already.
AllHipHop.com: Oh my goodness. Well you did a good job performing at [Hot97] Summer Jam recently, a super quick job, but good.
Ryan: Thank you very much.
AllHipHop.com: Was it your first time at Summer Jam?
Ryan: Well, that was the longest I've ever been on stage at Summer Jam. I came out with Jim Jones and Dipset in 2009. I made a record with Jim Jones called "Precious."
AllHipHop.com: Right, ok. Well, I want to backtrack a little bit, and just talk a little bit about your background real quick for anybody who's been living under a rock for the past few years and doesn't know a lot about you. The thing that always stood out about you for me was your musicianship. You play the piano, you know, and you're not just a guy who walked into the studio without some training. So tell me about your early music years.
Ryan: Well, I come from a musical family. My parents are both musicians. My father, his main instrument was the trumpet, and he still plays from time to time, and my mother's main instrument is the piano. She still plays and loves it to death. So it was just only natural that me and my sister would be drawn to music as a way to express ourselves and as a way to just have a bond with the family, I mean, we would sing together and it was a really big part of my childhood, and you know, my parents are Salvation Army officers so we didn't really have the money to have formal training. I mean they tried to pick and choose what they could afford to send us to in terms of education, education and extracurriculars. So my father really, you know, he wanted me to go to karate school (laughs)...
AllHipHop.com: You said karate? [laughter]
Ryan: Yeah. Japanese karate. And my mother, who's actually half Chinese, her cousin in Canada actually ran a karate school so there were many summers that they would just have me go up to Canada to train. And my sister was actually the one who got the piano lessons. I was so jealous. But what I would do is I would take her piano books, or take my mother's piano books, you know, and I taught myself all of the musical proficiency that I have today.
And you know that's not to say I didn't have an environment to practice in because the Salvation Army has a really rich musical tradition, so I was in band camp for a week out of a year or something like that. Really a lot of the musicanship and my ability to play instruments just comes from my own curiosity and approach to learning which was "hey, if I can't take classes I'll teach myself."
AllHipHop.com: Right. You have a pretty impressive educational background, too, that people might not know about. What did you study when you were in college?
Ryan: Well, I actually went to went to...I concentrated in...I majored in Government at Harvard with a concentration in Economics (Macroeconomics) and Political Science.
AllHipHop.com: But the music, I guess, rose to the surface as what you really felt your passion was. Is that it?
Ryan: Absolutely. Absolutely.
AllHipHop.com: Ok. So I want to ask you about the new album "Les is More" and first I want to ask you to explain the title. Why is less more?
Ryan: Why is less more? Well less is actually a play on my name, L-e-s, and in a lot of my productions or when I've actually mentioned my tag in songs that I produce or I'm a part of, I use the shortened version of my name RLES and so this album's title is actually that everyone's always toyed with when they hear my nickname RLES. "Oh RLES is more. You should do an album like that." And at this juncture in my career, I really, really feel strongly about sharing more of myself, and what I mean by that is I feel like there are so many other dimensions to me that I really haven't shared as an artist to this point, and one of the most probably obvious changes from everything you've heard from me is that this album is a Rap album so to actually go from being a Grammy-nominated contemporary R&B artist to deciding his next album is going to be a Rap album may catch some people off guard.
But I've been rapping ever since I was a teenager and actually you know that's because my sister always had the beautiful voice in the family, and I just always had an affinity for Rap as a medium of expressing myself. So I think that calling this album "Les is More" is really just to sort of give everyone or make everyone prepared for an offering which may be way more than what I have offered in the past. And that's not only from a musicianship tip or in the vein of this being a rap album, but also visually, because I also have a very strong visual concept for this album, and I think visually, and I think visually, starting from the "Glory" video. A lot of imagery that people may not associate with me is really going to be shared this time around. And I'm really excited about sharing it and I really believe that it's a really engaging and interesting story just because I think that my life's been really interesting so far, and it's just a very exciting time and an exciting project for me.
AllHipHop.com: Well, I have to admit, when I heard you were rapping I thought that was pretty zany, only because you've been so well received as a singer. You had those summer-time banger-like anthems, you know "Diamond Girl" and those songs that people really crank in the car, and I was like, "Gosh, why would he leave that?" So, are you worried about the transition for some of your fans, how that would affect them, or how they will receive it?
Ryan: Well, I'll say this. I'm not abandoning singing altogether, you know, I mean, "Glory" doesn't have any singing on it, but I guarantee that a lot of the other records, or most of the other records I'm just taking over all the duties. So I'm producing the records, I'm playing the instruments, arranging it, but really producing the records. You know, I'm rapping on the verses, and you know, taking care of the singing responsibilities on the books. So it's not a total departure from what you may have heard in the past. Yeah, when you listen to "Diamond Girl" or you listen to something that I like on my transition album that we had, you know, Pusha T come in and feature on, it's not totally a departure from what I've done on previous albums, you know records like "You're Fly" and "Diamond Girl.”
On the Ryan Leslie album, they have, the Ryan Leslie album being my debut on Universal, they both have rap verses, and man, you know, it's just a part of the art and a part of the culture that I've always loved and wouldn't disrespect it by not giving it my all. And I've been around and collaborated with enough Hip-Hop artists from Jadakiss to Kanye to Jay-Z to Rick Walsh to Red Cafe to Fabolous to Jim Jones to Lloyd Banks to Snoop Dogg and the Dogg Pound, to know that I wouldn't, if I felt like I couldn't do it respectfully, I wouldn't do it, so yeah, I'm not abandoning singing altogether but this is, like I said, it's just a part of the culture that I've always loved and I have the creative license and freedom to explore it, so I'm going to exercise that license on this project.
AllHipHop.com: Ok, so, well I agree that your chemistry does really work well with Hip-Hop artists like, of course, look at "You Be Killin Em." I love the visual of you and Neyo and Fab in the studio together. It seemed like you could see chemistry there happening. So what was that experience like working with them?
Ryan: That experience is always great. I think that Fabolous, actually on my very first radio single which was a record called "Used to Be," when no one else would deal with me, Fabolous took the chance and said "You know what, I think that this is good music," and he came in the studio and he did a feature on that record. And since then, there's been such a mutual respect there and we've made some great music together culminating in this last remix here, but "You Be Killin Em," yes, a top ten record in the country, and I mean Neyo is another person that's really, once again, I was just on my early touring grind, he gave me a look and said "Look Ryan, you come and open for me on some dates in Europe" and he put me in front of audiences of 15,000 and sometimes 30,000 people, and I always had an immense respect for what he does, creatively and...all three get into the studio.
That chemistry was just really, really, really inspiring, and I know there's been talk about a super-group, and it's really just a matter of scheduling because all three of us are committed to getting together and just making the best music we can make, so I would have to say that that was one the most inspiring and sort of artistically edifying experiences I've had in my years as a music product and artist.
AllHipHop.com: Ok. Well, you talked about production and good producers, and I happened to catch you on the radio this past weekend talking about working with Quincy and how you would like to work with Alicia Keys because y’all have similar styles and you both play the piano and that kind of thing, so they're on your wish list. Who are some other artists out there that you'd love to work with in the future?
Ryan: Well, I hear that Madonna's working on a new album. So I would love to be a part of that creative process in some early discussions, but yeah, I would love to be a part of her creative process. I think that she's one of the few remaining artistic institutions, so to speak, I don't think anyone can really question the impact that she's had on culture and music in the decades that she's been in the business. Uh, Prince as well. Stevie Wonder is on my wish list. There's a record called "Joan of Arc" which really, really...I released on March 16 this year and got some great buzz online and for the album version, I'd love to have Stevie on it if he would be interested, I mean, these are big dreams for me, but I haven't got to where I am so far in life without dreaming big, so...Stevie Wonder, and then, you know, just a lot of folks that I've been in the studio with and just actually haven't made records that have been released.
So, Usher, Drake, Rick Ross. I've been doing some work with...on "Watch the Throne." But Jay-Z of course, Pharrell, and I think the list goes on and on, Bruno Mars, so many amazing folks out there that are doing music that I would love to just get in the studio and collaborate with, so I think that's the short list for the time being. But that list is actually much longer so. This is the APB to any artist that's doing their thing. You could get at me on Twitter or Facebook and I'm sure we could make some beautiful music together.
AllHipHop.com: I have two more questions and the first is to ask what do you have coming up in the immediate future? Where will you be performing or where can people find your music at?
Ryan: Yeah, well I'm actually performing in New York City as part of Apple's Black Music Month, I'll be taking over the 14th Street Apple Store on the 15th of June at 8:30 and that's a free concert so you know, it's best if everybody comes early on that. And then I have a lot of great events that are coming up and those are New York events. I'm going to be out in London and Paris performing next weekend for those readers that are overseas.
I'm going to do Lollapalooza which is a big festival in Chicago on the 5th of August. And I'll be doing some summer stage events, just because I always love performing in conjunction with the city for summer stage. I'll do Harlem summer stage in August and then one of my favorite venues SOV on July 28. That's really going to be amazing. And for everybody's that reading in Australia, I'll be in Australia in the middle of July as well, Sidney and Melbourne. So, I love to perform and this summer is going to really just be kind of a preview for the more robust tour that I'll be engaging in in the fall in support of the Album "Les is More".
AllHipHop.com: Ok, great. I wrote a story on Apple's “Black Music Month” series and I noted that you were going to be there so we're definitely going to try to come out and catch it.
Ryan: Please, I would love to have you hear the new album live.
AllHipHop.com: There’s a great lineup with that series, too, so there are a lot of good artists to be seen with you amongst the bunch. So last question I have for you is a question we ask of just about all of our interviewees. And that is for you to list your top five rappers, dead or alive, if you can, and I know...almost impossible. So who would you say your top five rappers are, dead or alive?
Ryan: Man, I'd like to say Jay, Kanye, Wayne, Biggie, and I gotta give a newcomer. Let me give a newcomer. I actually like Drake a lot, too.
AllHipHop.com: Ok, and out of that bunch, whose music over the years has made you say "You know what, I gotta grind harder...because that guy is Phenomenal...”
Ryan: I think Jay-Z's just the bar for everybody, just from an entrepreneurial standpoint...from a consistency standpoint, from an integrity standpoint. I think he just sets the bar for all of us.
AllHipHop.com: Ok. I like that. Ok, Ryan, well did you have anything else that you wanted to add that we didn't cover. If not, I have all my questions answered.
Ryan: No, no, I think this is good as long as you come back once the album comes back. Then we'll do a listening session, and I don't want to lose all my steam with AllHipHop.com, so we'll keep this interview to this and the next one will really be about hopefully just really digging into the album and the actual tracks and the music!