Mega producer, hip-hop artist, writer, instrumentalist and philanthropist Ryan Leslie has a penchant for world travel with Brussels, Switzerland, Holland, and Austria being some of the places he frequents. At an impressionable 19 years old, the Political Science and Macro Economics major graduated from Harvard and quickly developed his own brand that delivers a unique social media presence and connects him with world music lovers. He talked exclusively with FrontPage Detroit about his start, the impact his parents had on his career and living his dreams.
You have certainly made a name for yourself. Talk about how everything came together for you.
Well in 2010 I bought my contracts from my record label and decided to go independent. At that juncture I knew that there was a paradigm shift in the music industry and that a direct line of communication with my audience was really going to be the lifeline of my business. So I went independent and began a very aggressive social media campaign which was to build on the dialogue that I had initiated with my audience and that dialogue was about creativity in the studio. So I put together a successful video series in which I would give my views and my audience the window into my creative process. It has been the cornerstone of my music. Irrespective of traditional distribution of albums through radio and television, that media has served as the foundation for the multi-million dollar touring business worldwide and just the ability to sustain myself independently and also provide opportunities for young people to travel all over the world to places where they have heretofore not been able to visit.
You graduated from Harvard at age 19 and that is unheard of.
Yes. I really believe that it was my time at Harvard and the mentors, teachers and colleagues and friends that I made there that prepared me for this paradigm shift. All the way back in Harvard we had investments, clubs and meetings and we were talking about the prudence of shorting publically-traded music companies and that is exactly what I did. It was in 1998 and I was a few years ahead of Mark Zuckerberg and the Internet had already begun to light a fire of excitement amongst the students and I was one of the first in the computer lab to really begin branding myself and learning to program my own website and understanding how electronic systems were going to really to be able to create the social network through which we interact with today.
You credit your parents with a great portion of your success. Talk about how they shaped your career.
My parents were immigrants. By no means did they have an easy time in the United States. They came here and matriculated into the Salvation Army training program and became Salvation Army Officers, which meant they sacrificed everything in the service of others. They raised my sister and I on a stipend of about $900 per month. My father and mother wanted better for my sister and I and really encouraged education as the pathway to the American Dream…the dream in which I feel I am living today and the dream which is to make your passion your profession. My father was a very strong proponent of education and a champion of extra homework, extra reading, extra credit and extra everything (laughing) and was very instrumental in my decision to apply to several schools. I almost became a Doctor and I give a great amount of praise to my parents.
You are not one-dimensional with your music. What instruments do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy the piano the most. I find that it has become an extension of who I am as a performance artist.
You are deeply involved in every portion of your projects. Do you enjoy the performance or the producing aspect of music the most?
Well I enjoy every aspect of music. There is no competition to the feeling that I get when performing live. It is my absolute favorite. And that is why I have taken what many would say is a more challenging pathway to earning money in the music business. There I was in my early 20s as a multi-millionaire from being a producer and immediately just took a complete turnaround and built a strong business in Europe and spreading the message here in the United States. I had a Grammy nomination for ‘Transition’. I’ll also be performing in Detroit for the first time ever on March 21, 2013 even though my first album was in 2009.
The industry has its ups and downs. Since your success, do you have the same friends?
That’s a very good interesting question. Growing up I learned that when you moved as much as my family did, that my real core support was going to be my family. They would be with me through the ups and downs and the all-arounds of my career. I do still have friends from Harvard that are still with me and I very much rely on that and my family structure.
Speaking of friends, the same lady appears in most of your music films. Is she just a model and do you find it hard to find love in this business?
No she is not just a model. And really that was the point of that series of videos which was just to provide a glimpse into my life. There is a story and a thread and representation of what is really happening. So my being able to maintain an emotional connection through the confines and rigors of travels and the demands on my time as a self-managed entertainer is difficult, but possible.
What continues to fuel your inspiration on a daily basis?
I would say that when you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. My life inspires me on a daily basis with every trip I take, every person I meet and each piece of music that I hear and make. I am inspired by cultures and the energy of the young people. Just to see their influences in their home country is so inspiring. And I wrote a record about it and every moment of our life we have the opportunity to make history. I want my story to be as interesting and impact possibly can make it.
I went to Vienna to record my last album and I named it Black Mozart. I did that to set the bar as high as I possibly could. We went to a city that could inspire that level of musical complexity. We visited the many music conservatories of Vienna, Austria for it being a Mecca for classical music. And it was the perfect backdrop for the studio album, the studio documentary and the film that I edited and directed. There is a 25-minute studio film that will be released soon. We are just waiting on the ink to dry on the agreements. I will be performing some of the music from the new album when I come to Detroit.
Ryan Leslie will be in full concert at Detroit’s historic St. Andrew’s Hall on March 21, 2013 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets can be obtained at www.ticketmaster.com or www.livenation.com. Stay connected with Ryan on Facebook and Twitter, @ryanleslie.