Uptown on Harlem's West Side, there's a quiet block of newly renovated brownstones where everyone from Usher to Nina Sky has sought the deft touch of an up-and-coming young producer. His style is considered by such arbiters of taste as P. Diddy to be the future of urban club culture. But Ryan Leslie humbly deflects the lofty praise, preferring instead to point out that with a sensitive ear, some God-given talent and a little perseverance, virtually anyone can get to where he is right now.
“I really want what I do to be an example to other young people who are trying to produce,” he says, hunkered down amidst a small array of minty-fresh digital and analog synths, including Novation's K- and X-Stations, Alesis' Ion and Andromeda 6 and a Korg Triton. “People will say, ‘Oh, I can't get that sound because I don't have all this gear,’ but I literally just run all my vocals strictly through the DigiRack plug-ins — regular 4-band EQ, regular compressor, medium delay or reverb and that's it. It's all strictly right-out-of-the-box stuff.”
Leslie's latest coup is the sleeper hit “Me & U” by Cassie — a sultry, otherworldly sounding pop-funk confection that generated thousands of hits on MySpace and led to the singer's hookup with Bad Boy Entertainment. With its stripped-down beat structure and hooky Triton line, the track is testament to Digidesign Pro Tools' power of simplicity and to Leslie's savvy, not only as a musician, but also as a forward-thinking entrepreneur. To increase the online presence of his music and his artists, Leslie founded the NextSelection Lifestyle Group, and the results have already proven to be lucrative.
“There are online magazines, or even record labels for that matter, that have incredible amounts of content,” he explains, “but they just don't understand the way the Web works. I think our emphasis on interactivity is the difference between where we are and where MTV is. When you sit down and watch MTV, it's just a passive experience, but with us, it's about creating a real sense of community, so that when we release something high caliber — whether it's a video or an MP3 — onto the Web, its ‘stickiness’ and its ability to spread virally will help shape how strongly young people identify with it.”
Of course, another part of Leslie's appeal among the notoriously fickle (and content-overloaded) Web community is his ability to tap into an engaging mix of classic-sounding funk and R&B, in the mode of Quincy Jones or Curtis Mayfield, while giving it a shimmery, tech-inspired twist that recalls the efforts of Detroit gurus Derrick May or Carl Craig. His work on Game's “Fly Like an Eagle” and New Edition's “Hot 2nite” perfectly illustrates the spacey, quirky production stroke that Leslie has developed; it's a simple, almost scientific approach that actually succeeds in elevating, rather than suffocating, the artist's performance.
“I know the music industry has really been producer-driven recently,” Leslie notes, “but I just want my music to be a backdrop for what the artist is saying. But having said that, nothing is really manufactured here. There's no cookie-cutter formula. It's really just about music and exploring the boundaries and pushing the envelope.”
Although it might be said that, so far, Leslie's endeavors have gone largely unnoticed by the masses here in the States, it isn't for lack of exposure in other territories. Last year, word of his artist debut, Just Right, gained him a loyal fan base in the UK and other parts of Europe, even though Universal pulled it from release at the last minute. Like “Me & U,” the album is rife with the extraterrestrial synth patches and meticulously crafted beats (culled from a personally compiled library of sampled drum kits) that would seem to guarantee Leslie's eventual stateside breakthrough.
“I don't know — even though it caught on in the UK, it's almost cool that no one really knows about my music,” he shrugs. “I mean, it's almost insane. I'm thinking that at some point, maybe it'll be like a Shuggie Otis thing — years later, people will just be like, ‘Oh man, this is great!’” It totally baffles me, but in any case, I'm thankful for the people who do get it, and I'm hoping that for fans who are looking for something new, they'll immediately gravitate towards that sound.”