You may not have heard of Ryan Leslie but you've heard his music. He's the
songwriter/producer responsible for 2006's infectious "Me & U," sung by his former muse Cassie. He's also crafted songs for Beyoncé, New Edition, Diddy and others, but making hits for himself is his true passion. Born to musician parents in Washington, Leslie is something of a wunderkind. At 15, he scored a 1600 on his SATs and was accepted to Harvard University, where he cut class to be in the studio. He managed to finish on time, receiving degrees in government and economics—and a standing ovation after delivering the graduation commencement speech at age 19. After landing a New York internship with Sean "Diddy" Combs and working with the music industry's elite, Leslie finally had his breakthrough as a solo artist. His self-titled debut album is buoyed by his unpolished falsetto and electronic production, and full of love-soaked knockers like "Addiction" and "Out of the Blue." ESSENCE.com sat down with the 30-year-old rising star to talk about his musical roots, the inspiration behind his songwriting and his rumored split with Cassie (who reportedly left him for Diddy).
ESSENCE.COM: Your self-titled album speaks for the brothers. When did you start doing music and who are your influences?
RYAN LESLIE: I've been doing music since I was young; my mother and father are both musicians, so they definitely got me into music at an early age; I play by ear; self-taught. As far as my inspirations, it's anyone who is self-contained. Prince, D'Angelo, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles. The list goes on and on.
ESSENCE.COM: As a producer and songwriter, you have a handle on all of your music and love is a constant theme. What's your inspiration?
LESLE: I draw from personal experiences and from the muses that I've had the good fortune of running into over the years.
ESSENCE.COM: Speaking of muses, was Cassie your real-life "Diamond Girl?"
LESLIE: Yeah, she definitely is.
ESSENCE.COM: And you two were once dating but are no longer together?
ESSENCE.COM It's been rumored that Cassie and Diddy, whom you worked with closely on many artist's projects, are now romantically involved. Has that affected your relationships with them?
LESLIE: It's definitely affected our relationship. Unfortunately, once you get to a certain level of exposure in your career your personal life becomes something of interest and it becomes something that entertains people. But to be honest with you, I don't really think that the parties involved would be entertained by the notion that their personal lives and business are being shared with the world. I never have held a position that my personal life should entertain folks. I made a record to entertain folk; I tour and do my shows to entertain folks and [entertain] via my Web site (ryanleslie.com). I've let folks pretty deeply into the areas of my life that I believe to be insightful, inspirational and motivational, so the rest of it I look at it as mine.
ESSENCE.COM: We can respect that. So what does the future hold for Ryan Leslie?
LESLIE: I just did two records with Mary J. Blige and I had never worked with her in the studio before, and hands down, it was one of the most amazing, incredible and inspiring experiences in my musical career to date. I'm very excited about the Mary J. Blige records. But I'm most excited about the idea that I'm going back into the studio already to work on my second album, which I'm looking forward to releasing in the fall.
For more on Ryan Leslie, visit www.RyanLeslie.com.