Performers with songwriting and production abilities are as plentiful as blackberries these days, but running into someone with a resume as extraordinary as Ryan Leslie is like finding the golden ticket to “Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.” With production and songwriting credits ranging from the “Bad Boy II” soundtrack and Donell Jones’ album to Beyonce — and an honorable Harvard degree — Leslie is like the Willie Wonka of R&B: an unparalleled genius in development, inventing seemingly impossible products. Instead of introducing ice cream that never melts, timeless music is the product in Leslie’s hit factory, Next Selection Lifestyle Group. It’s his unique and unknown recipe that makes these releases sell like hot cakes.
After working with some of the industry’s finest, Leslie moved from behind-the-scenes to step his game up with his pre-album release, The Talented Mr. Leslie. Although he created a buzz with the promotional release, his announced ’05 debut never hit the shelves. Shortly after, Leslie returned to his factory site to manufacture a new hit machine: R&B singer Cassie.
Speaking to Ballerstatus, Leslie talks about the progress he is making with his Next Selection Lifestyle Group, recent projects and the reason why his album was never released.
BallerStatus.com: It’s not very common for Harvard graduates to end up in the music industry. Why did you choose to pursue a career as a singer/producer/songwriter and how did you develop your skills?
Ryan Leslie: I realized when I went to school — I was at school very early at Harvard when I was like sixteen — and someone introduced me to the music of Stevie Wonder. I then realized that he put his first album out when he was like 11 or 12, so I said to myself, “I must be behind the curve. I must be a little late starting.” So then, I spent like the rest of my life to now, trying to catch up with him. I think that he’s extremely talented.
BallerStatus.com: So, he’s really an example for you. What other artists do you admire?
Ryan Leslie: Prince, I love Prince. I fell in love with D’Angelo back in the day, and more nowadays, [I like] Kanye West — producers that became artists.
BallerStatus.com: I wanted to talk with you about songwriting. How does it work? Do you write a song with an artist in mind and contact them later like, “I wrote a song for you, are you interested in it?” Or do you just write songs on a regular basis and approach a good artist for it afterwards?
Ryan Leslie: Well, usually the way that it used to work is that I used to write a bunch of songs and because Diddy was managing me, he would listen to everything that I wrote and then place them with people. But after a while, you get to graduate into them coming to the studio with you. So basically they come in the studio, there’s nothing there. Like, the new single I did with Donell Jones featuring Jermaine Dupri, there was nothing. There was no song, no beat. We just went to the studio in Atlanta and I started playing and the song came from there. I recorded it with him right there in the studio.
BallerStatus.com: Did you take any classes on songwriting?
Ryan Leslie: No, just a lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot of Prince and a lot of Curtis Mayfield and Barry White — all of those great, great song writers. Isley Brothers…and actually more recently, I did a lot of work and collaboration with Sean Garret — one of the top writers in the game. He wrote “Lose My Breath” and “U Already Know” from 112. He’s a good friend of mine and we came up together. We keep each other motivated and inspired.
BallerStatus.com: You were talking about Diddy earlier, sp what kind of influence has he had on your career? How important has he been for you?
Ryan Leslie: He’s been extremely important. He signed me to a management contract in 2003. He got my first placement for me with Beyonce on the “Bad Boys II” soundtrack, and everything has started from there. So even now, he’s playing like a mentorship role for me with my new artist Cassie.
BallerStatus.com: Who has a new single out “Me & U”…
Ryan Leslie: Yeah that’s right, “Me & U” is a new song I wrote and produced for her. She’s part of our family, Next Selection Lifestyle Group. We’re partners with Diddy to help us to break Next Selection and break her.
BallerStatus.com: You established the Next Selection Lifestyle Group. I have the impression that, as a producer or songwriter, you don’t just write or produce a song, sell it, and just move on. You seem really involved in the entire project, like you were with New Edition and now with Cassie. You want to support the artist. Why did you choose to go that route?
Ryan Leslie: Right, because I believe that each song that I create is like my child. I want to make sure…if you have a child you would not leave it just to grow on its own. I want to make sure that I follow the path of every one of my songs. Even more important, when I have an artist that I’m working with — Cassie is really a special project for me — I want to make sure that everything is as great as we can make it, from the records to the image to the web, online presence to the promotion of it. Like for Cassie, we even made special vinyl. We just want to make sure that every state of the process…I like to be involved.
BallerStatus.com: Your own album was supposed to be released in spring 2005. Why is it still not out yet or why did you push back the release date?
Ryan Leslie: It’s still not released because my record label, Casablanca Records, is no longer a record label. They closed. Tommy Mottola is only a management company now and so they are the ones that were supposed to put out the album. Since they are not around anymore, I don’t have a record label anymore. I’m thinking about maybe doing it independently, but I’m not sure. For now, we’re focusing on Cassie ’cause for now, she has a lot of momentum and a lot of excitement around her project. In the meantime, I’m going to develop this special thing we’re doing online. I’m developing an online fanbase.
BallerStatus.com: So you’re not working on any material for the album right now?
Ryan Leslie: The album is already finished and I’m just thinking whether I want to distribute it or find a distributor for it. I’m always working on new music.
BallerStatus.com: I noticed that you did a lot of promotion in the UK at the end of ’05. Why did you choose to launch promotional campaigns in that specific territory?
Ryan Leslie: That was before we knew that Casablanca was going to float. I was like 10 or 15 days away from having my album released and then they just folded, so no album. That’s why we did all the promotion, I was in Blues & Soul magazine, Touch magazine, and all the radio stuff. Actually, we even had a soft release in the UK, which was a release to all of the press and the DJs, and then, the record label just closed. It was a little difficult, so that’s why I began to focus on developing Next Selection as a label. Cassie will be the first artist, and when that album is going to be successful, I can just put my own album out through my own label.
BallerStatus.com: Now that we’re talking about releasing an own album, aren’t you afraid of the consequences? For instance, you don’t have time to produce for other artists anymore because you are too focused on your own product and the promotional activities?
Ryan Leslie: That’s what really happened in 2004 and 2005. I really was focused on my own project and making it as hot as I could, so I took very limited productions during that time. I did some work for Usher’s label and obviously, did the Donell Jones record, but that was really all the work that I did during the time that I was focusing on my own album. I don’t think that anything was wrong with it, because I feel that the album is really strong, whether it comes about now or in five years. So, I think that the time was well spent, focusing on my own craft.
BallerStatus.com: You also produced for Nina Sky. It’s different than the typical R&B sound, but then again, you produce a wide spectrum of genres including hip-hop and dancehall. How do you adapt yourself to those genres? And how do you like separate R&B from dancehall and gospel?
Ryan Leslie: The thing is that I like to respect what makes those genres great and then just add my little sprinkles to it. That’s really what it is. I have an appreciation for all types of music and I study before I make a reggae joint or before I make a hip-hop joint. I just study the things that I really admire and then I add my twist to it.
BallerStatus.com: You worked with some of the industry’s finest. Of course all of the artists that you worked with have their own qualities and x-factors. But, from all of the people that you have worked with, are there any artists you enjoyed working with most?
Ryan Leslie: I recently did a song with Bilal, who is still working on his new album. He’s crazy. I don’t know if the song will end up on the album, but we had a really good time in the studio, creatively. He’s open-minded and not looking for a commercial hit. He’s just looking to be creative musically. That was recently, so that’s probably why I said him. It was one of the most recent.
BallerStatus.com: What’s next for you? Are there any artists that you are working with besides Cassie?
Ryan Leslie: Cassie is obviously the main priority, as well as more music from myself. I did some work for Nina Sky’s new album and JoJo’s new album, and I think Usher is going back in the studio again soon. I think that’s it, as well as Diddy’s album, amongst others.
For more information on Ryan and Next Selection Lifestyle Group, visit RyanLeslie.com.