Ryan Leslie VIBE Interview
Photo Credit: Devin Dooley

Interview: Ryan Leslie Will Release A New Song Every Month For His 'MZRT' Lifetime Album Project

Music mogul Ryan Leslie will be dropping a new song every month for the rest of his career. 

Ryan Leslie is taking the phrase "fan for a lifetime" literally with his latest musical installment MZRT, a.k.a. Magnificent Zealous Renegade Takeover. Credited for scoping out Cassie (remember Next Selection?), churning out hits for the likes of Kanye West, Fabolous and Mary J. Blige and pushing out radio-friendly jams like 2007's "Diamond Girl," the multi-hyphenate is now looking to remix the blueprint for success.

After his laptop theft made him headline fodder in 2013, R. Les has since been touring overseas and using the independent artist route to his advantage. Still repping for the underdogs, his hustler's mentality is best summed up by the hook on his unreleased track, "Mill'ns": "Out here and I'm killin'/ They still ain't give me no shine yet/ But I'm still countin' these mill'ns." Anything on wax is a true story for R. Les; he just made $2 million off rap in the past year.

Now, he's bounced back with a treat for his A1 fans with a unique new project. Offering his actual phone number, Leslie is connecting with his followers through an exclusive lifetime album journey where he will release one song every month for the rest of his musical career. The album's distribution through the innovative mobile app, Disruptive Multimedia, allows the Harvard grad to personally link with fans through text messages, phone calls and video conferences.

By subscribing to the array of levels from the Renegades leader's website, MZRT Life, the album will be delivered straight to their iPhones and also allow for call-ins during Leslie's sessions and clutch VIP concert passes. Premium subscribers are even granted a private jet ride and access to R. Les' entourage in any city.

Here, VIBE caught up with the young OG to discuss his MZRT LP, recent collaboration with Rich Homie Quan and reinventing the music business model.—Diamond Hillyer

VIBE: Name something magnificent that has happened to you in the past year.
Ryan Leslie: [Making] $2 million off of rap. Aside from that, the special moments that I've spent with my family. I have a niece and a nephew now, and my nephew just turned three. Having the opportunity to watch them grow up and set an example for them to surpass the success I've achieved, that's not only a magnificent honor, but also a magnificent challenge.

What's one thing you're most zealous about?
Leslie: Independent artists and that independent mentality. I'm zealous about how educating these independent artists is rewriting the rules for success in music in 2015 and beyond.

Describe what a renegade means to you in the context of this latest project.
Leslie: The Renegades is the name of my music club. I knew that doing this lifetime album project would be an unorthodox approach to connecting with my fans. I knew it'd be considered rogue to not have my music on iTunes, Amazon or Google Play, and still actually have it for sale. To be a renegade is to have the strength, courage and bravery to blaze a pathway that has only been talked about. I want not only myself to benefit from this, but every single artist that follows my blueprint to benefit from it as well. It's looking at Nipsey Hussle, who is being nominated and recognized as a hip-hop cash prince, and knowing that my technology and platform is a big part of that campaign. Also, Rich Homie Quan, who is on an independent rise to the top of the urban charts. He reached out to me and asked for me to be the executive producer of his new album. We took him to Jamaica and showed him what it's like to record independently. Once you see how we roll out his project, you can understand how it takes one person to go out into the jungle to blaze the trail for other folks to follow in those footsteps with 10 times the success.

READ: Ryan Leslie To Drop “Black Mozart” EP and Documentary Inspired By Lawsuit

What is it like collaborating with an artist who is so new to the game? 
Leslie: Any style of music I want to be involved with is artistic excellence. When you put that level of honesty, hunger and hustle into the same room, it's bound to be a great chemistry and synergy. When we got him out of Atlanta and into Jamaica, we arranged a villa with a 24-hour chef and everything so he could really get acclimated. These kinds of experiences only happened to me once I went independent in 2010. When I was on the label, I had budgetary restrictions that were tied to the sales of my projects. When I had our first meeting in New York City with Quan, I sat him down and showed him my technology of how I'm able to connect with thousands of fans worldwide. It only took one meeting for him as a young hustler in the game to understand that he has the potential to really make music history. He's already doing it. He's the first independent artist since 2006 to top the Billboard urban charts and unseat Rihanna as the No. 1 urban record at radio. I think it's just the chemistry and kindred spirit between us. When we were in the studio, he brought some of his producers down, and I brought my longtime collaborator and guitar player, Gabe Lambirth. We just cooked up and locked out the studio for 10 days straight. I'm inspired by his meteoric rise and the fact that he has remained independent. That is important to me because there are so many confused artists who are scratching their heads about what will happen in the future as they watch sales decline. They battle with the streaming services for pennies. So age didn't play into it, musical style didn't play into it, but it came down to the sophistication in record-making and standard of excellence to which we hold ourselves as creators.

"To be a renegade is to have the strength, courage and bravery to blaze a pathway that has only been talked about."

As an independent artist, you want to connect with your fans on a different level, like giving out your actual phone number. What message are you sending to fans by doing this?
Leslie: My email and my telephone number are public. When my first album came out, it was by no means considered a success. 180,000 copies. That's not even halfway to gold. The second album came out, and though it was Grammy-nominated in R&B, it was still by no means a success from 60,000 records sold. Not even scratching past a tenth of the way to gold. When MZRT came out, I was independent. I went through Sony Red, and we sold 20,000 copies. I was watching the numbers of sales disappear because people can go get any record they want online for free. It's not even illegal anymore. You can get Spotify and it's ad-supported, so you can listen to any songs that you want for free. Look at what happened with the homie Tyga. He released his album on Spotify, and everyone wanted something to say about 2,200 albums sold in his first week. It's not about the sale of digital copies because what are they worth anymore? For me, it's about real interactions and experiences and blurring the lines between fans and friends. The people that's still with me in 2015, six or seven years since I dropped "Diamond Girl," those are the people that I care about and are truly grateful for. For me, it's worth having a real relationship with those people. I'm not interested in putting myself on a pedestal, but rather people reaching out. Even beyond the $2 million we were able to do off of 13,000 sales of my last record, there is so much more that can be offered from people of all ages and different walks of life.

You also teamed with Joe Einhorn, Fancy's CEO, on the actual MZRT Life site with different subscription levels, where fans can even score a private jet ride with you.
Leslie: Joe is a longtime friend and some of the world's most innovative and coolest products are available in his marketplace. When I reached out to him, I said, 'Hey, I know you got 15 million people. Put me on a homepage!' And he's like, 'Who wants a digital copy of an album in 2015? Yeah, there's people that still buy those things, but my site is really about having the coolest thing on the planet.' He asked me to tell him the cost of putting that anyone could be friends with Ryan Leslie for a year on his website, and he wanted to know what that would look like. It was based off of that discussion that we put those subscription levels together.

The jet ride sounded like one of the most exciting subscription features. What did you get from that experience of being up-close and personal with fans who admire you?
Leslie: We’re actually making a film about that. The screening will be a private screening for influencers, tastemakers and press in New York City. We’re still working on where we can premiere it exclusively online and because I really do care about my fans, I’m planning a premium screening for top fans in New York as well.

How do you balance so many roles at once? From recording artist to producer to collaboration to songwriting and now, releasing a song every month for the rest of your career.
Leslie: At some point in my early 20s, I realized that when you do what you love, it's a never-ending vacation. I was able to turn my passion into a profession. In college, I trained myself to have extended days, which means I work 20- to 22-hour days. I've trained myself to survive on two to three hours of sleep every night, and whenever I'm tired during the day, I'll catch a 30-minute nap. It's a scientific sleep pattern called dymaxion sleep, or some call it polyphasic sleep. Second, I approach my life in the way that I live day to day. The folks that come around me call it "machine-level." In a 20-hour day, working like this allows me five specific areas of focus like relationship-building, fan interaction, music creation, entrepreneurship and building technology. I allow myself everyday to operate on a machine-like level of efficiency. I do spend a great deal of time in front of my computer, and I have a program that will lock the computer every 30 minutes for two to five minutes. During that small break, I jump rope, practice calisthenics or whatever. I'll eat grilled chicken, salad, bottle water and fruit every single day for 35 days straight. Maintaining a healthy regimen, physical activity and then devoting the rest of the time to my music is how I'm able to balance everything.

Are you nervous at all about the outcome of this venture?
Leslie: Absolutely not. It’s already been as successful as any other independent venture. The difference with this one is that any fan that supports me on this album is a fan for life, so the outcome is that I have lifetime support from my top fans. That gives me a great deal of security until the day I die.


For more from Ryan Leslie, click here.



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"Hey, Jon B's in the house!" says Kobe Bryant, laughing, when I step into New York's Hit Factory.

"Money, you trying to snap?" I ask. "That's why you're wearing bell-bottoms." It's no surprise Kobe and I get along. We share passions—for hip-hop and basketball—and the same high school alma mater, Lower Merion, in Ardmore, Pa. Although I graduated twelve years before he did, I felt much pride when he made our school a household name in 1996, the year he jumped from his senior year in high school to the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers.

In '98, Kobe represented again as the youngest player in history to play in an NBA All-Star game. And while the current league lockout threatens to shut down the Lakers' dreams of a 1999 championship, Kobe's not sweating it. The six-foot-seven-inch guard's making moves as CEO and president of the one-year-old Kobe Family Entertainment. He's also picking up the mike as part of rap group signed to Trackmasters/Columbia. After our interview, he played me some milky-thick instrumentals, then later he rocked complex rhymes during his interview on New York's Hot 97 FM (WQHT). This cat Kobe is smart. And cool—mad cool.

Public Enemy—"Brothers Gonna Work It Out" (Def Jam, 1990)

B: Do you know this song?

K.B.: It's Public Enemy. Everybody knows them. Back in the day, me and my cousin used to do the Flavor Flav dance! My grandma would be like, "Kobe, what are you doing? You got an itch down there?" I'd be like, Grandma, it's the new dance.

B: I used to work at Def Jam—from '89 to '93—and Flav would come into the office and literally take it over. Nothing could be done, workwise, while he was there. One time, he got on top of my desk and was doing his dance. He was like that all the time. It wasn't an act for the stage or videos. That's just Flav.

De La Soul Featuring Pete Rock and InI––"Stay Away" (unreleased bootleg, 1998)

B: This record is beautiful. Do you like it?

K.B.: Hell yeah. It makes you want to listen and do nothing else. Not like some other songs—you hear them and want to punch the table. Even the lyrics have a melody. De La always bring it lyrically. You can always expect that they'll rhyme honestly about what they see.

B: I can listen to their first album, which is ten years old, and still not know what the fuck they're talking about. Regardless, their voices, delivery, flow, and intelligence make them one of my favorites of all time.

K.B.: When one of their songs comes on, you have to listen. But today, a lot of people don't have the patience for that.

B: Do you have a different name for yourself as an MC?

K.B.: Kobe, plain and simple.

B: What's the name of your group?

K.B..: Cheizaw. It stands for Canon Homo sapiens Eclectic Iconic Zaibatsu Abstract Words. Canon is the ruler of the spiritual body. Homo sapien is the [scientific] term for human beings. Eclectic means choosing the best of very diverse styles. Icon is a symbol.  Zaibatsu is a Japanese word for powerful family. Abstract makes concentration very difficult. Words, meaning lyrics. That's Cheizaw—that's how we're putting it down. Six members, all from Philly...Illadelph!

4 Hero—"Loveless" featuring Ursula Rucker (Talkin Loud/Mercury, 1998)

K.B.: I feel that joint to the most. I love the most. Who is that?

B: It's a drum n' bass group called 4 Hero, out of London. The poet, Ursula, is from Philly. She's on the Roots' first two albums, Do You Want More?!!!??! (DGC, 1995) and Illadelph Halflife (Geffen, 1996), and I hear she does a poem on their upcoming release too. She's ill—on some emotional poetry shit.

K.B.: Yeah, man. I love poetry. Don't you have a famous [poetry] spot out here [in New York]?

B: The Nuyorican Poets' Cafe. My man Ricky and I do shows there twice a month. Common, Wyclef, Saul Williams from the movie Slam, and Roy Hargrove have all come down and jammed.

K.B.: I've never been to a spot like that before, but I love poetry. I love writing it.

B: Have you ever checked out Gil-Scott Heron? I highly recommend him.

Nancy Wilson—"Call Me" (Pickwick/Capitol, 1966)

K.B.: Sounds like the melody from that TV show, from back in the day. The one with two girls in it...two roommates...

B: Three's Company?

K.B.: Nah, I think it was Laverne & Shirley...I don't know this record at all. I don't know what you want me to say.

B: Well, does it make you happy or sad? Does it make you want to take a sh*t?

K.B.: It makes me...[snaps his fingers and shimmies with his shoulders]. You know what I mean? Ha, ha!

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Grammy Contender Lucky Daye Is Waving R&B's Melodic Flag With Pride

Perhaps it was a baton passed by February 2019 Vibe digital cover star H.E.R. during Grammy that solidified Lucky Daye’s 2020 nominations. At an intimate gathering during Grammy weekend last year, the 2019 Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance winner sweetly sang a rendition of “Roll Some Mo,” much to Daye’s amazement. As H.E.R. struck gold with five nominations last year, walking away with two gramophones, Lucky is poised for a similar fate, nominated for Best R&B Song (“Roll Some Mo”), Best R&B Album (Painted), Best R&B Performance (“Roll Some Mo”), and Best Traditional R&B Performance (“Real Games”). Though the nominations were announced merely two months ago, for Daye, the news finally sunk in as he attended The Recording Academy’s L.A. Chapter Celebration.

“My body doesn't react to verbal news, it’s like a normal thing. I'm so used to expecting stuff that people say--especially in music--and it not happening,” Daye says, as we speak a day following the L.A. Chapter Celebration. “Now that I should be excited early--because I want to be excited this whole time--it [doesn’t] happen until I walk into a room. Then I get all jittery and nervous, like, ‘oh my God, this is happening.'”

While the Grammys have previously been attuned with Black artists accruing few awards (only ten Black artists have won Album of the Year in the show’s 60-year history), the Recording Academy has attempted to diversify their categories. This means adapting to the stark change in the R&B climate, leaning on subgenres and mixtapes, rather than solely mainstream artists. Daye’s 2019 debut album Painted was transfixed in the lush, instrument-driven sounds of funk’s heyday, enriched by vocal sensibilities and near-spiritual opulence, stamping his destiny in R&B. Fellow singer-songwriter Victoria Monet shared with Billboard that Painted was her favorite album of last year, noting that Daye’s hometown of New Orleans was “the soul of the project”. For Daye, Painted wasn’t just a reclamation of home, but a testament of emotional reverence.

“I got a chance to get everything out, like, my deepest emotions and feelings. To finally say it without getting cut off, or to finally say it and not get a rebuttal before I actually try to get people to hear it… Most times, I get feedback and it discourages me, [but] this time, it was too late for anybody to discourage me since the album was done,” he says. “I was already like, ‘I love it, so I don’t care what anybody thinks’. To me, it felt good to get a response from people [but] a positive one, for once. I’m still adjusting, [so] I’m kind of new to how it’s moving and I’m new to the people liking stuff from me. People don’t really get it, it’s a different side of life that I’ve never been on.”

Daye, previously known as D. Brown during a run of being a songwriter and background vocalist, follows a tradition of fellow songwriter-turned-full fledged R&B artists including D’Angelo and Faith Evans. However, he assures that crafting music behind the scenes wasn’t his end goal, as collaborating with producer D’Mile ignited his passion of re-pursuing solo stardom. In a recent Rolling Stone profile of D’Mile, the producer noticed an uptick in contemporary R&B paying homage to the 70’s, notably psychedelic cut “Redbone”, which snagged Childish Gambino a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance in 2018.

Both Daye and D’Mile followed suit, with their own formulaic reverence to 70’s funk and soul on Painted, ushering in a modern take. Daye mentions that while D’Mile is knowledgeable of music theory, it was Daye’s “chemical imbalance” over D’Mile’s production and radical instrumentation that essentially made them musical soulmates. “When it comes to music, [it] will teach consciousness in the body to be open, to be understanding of everything. To have multiple perceptions, it’s rare, and [D’Mile] has that,” Daye says. “If anything else, we know that at the end of the day, it’s all going to boil down to music. We’re here to do something on Earth at this age and time, and I’m indebted to him.”

For long-time fans of Daye, some were initially surprised once playing the album, as songs featured on his introductory EPs I and II were featured prominently on Painted. For Daye, he wanted to ease his listeners into living with his music for a while longer before presenting the remainder of his debut, unexpectedly recommended by a rap icon. “I didn’t want [fans] to listen to it and be like, ‘yo, it’s a jumble of a bunch of mess’, because honestly, that’s how I felt at the time. I just felt like, ‘they’re not gonna like it’. If we’re going to really put it out and [make] it a big deal, I don’t want to mess this up. The best advice was putting it out piece by piece. I talked to Nicki Minaj about that and that’s where the idea originally came from,” he says, referencing that he accompanied a friend to a studio session with Minaj.

“This was probably eight months before [Painted] came out. We’re sitting in there, they couldn’t come up with [any] ideas and she was like, ‘Why you sitting over there quiet? What you humming? Sounds like you got something if you wanna hop in, you can.’ I just hopped in and freestyled a whole song.”

Taking Minaj’s advice made for the organic success of his EPs, and a gradual acclimation of ‘Daye Ones’--a token for Daye’s dedicated fanbase--especially those who witnessed his performances during a streak of three tours in the past year. After joining Ella Mai and Kiana Lede during Mai’s debut tour, Daye launched into The Painted Tour, later heading to Australia with Khalid during The Spirit Tour. Daye admits the stage is where he’s most carefree, but that he’s still getting acclimated with finding time to rest. “It’s so crazy because I look around [and] sometimes I’ll push my friends too hard, or I’ll push other people too hard because of my expectations,” he says. “Fresh off the Khalid tour, I didn’t sleep for a week, I was like ‘I don’t know what’s going on’. I’m calling doctors, Kehlani’s helping me like, ‘maybe you should drink that’, I just realized it was adrenaline. It’s hard to go to sleep when you’re running off that kind of energy.”

Daye’s adrenaline and charismatic stage presence made his mainly-female audiences buckle at their knees, even intimately crooning select attendees to violin-driven track “Concentrate” at shows. But it was the track “Roll Some Mo” that stood apart from his catalog, instantly becoming a fan favorite and soundtracking The Photograph, which premieres on Valentine’s Day next month. Though “Roll Some Mo” is beloved for its penchant in marijuana-infused desire, Daye says he initially rejected the song being featured on Painted. “That was the fastest song I did. Most times when I write fast, I’m not trying and I felt like I didn’t put my all into it. That’s why, to me, “Roll Some Mo” wasn’t strong. I felt like I could do better, but everyone else was like ‘that’s the one’,” he says. “So I should just write and not think, that’s a lesson I’ve learned from misjudging “Roll Some Mo”: don’t overthink and do not try to make it perfect.”

Long accustomed to songwriting, Daye had a natural inclination to join the ranks of Keep Cool Records, especially the intensity of their songwriting boot camps. Prior guests of the boot camps have included Masego and Baby Rose, and Daye mentions that he also attended recording sessions of Revenge of the Dreamers III on their final day. “It’s so much pressure at writing camps like [Keep Cool Records] because there are so many people that are amazing. They go in with that mindset--and I understand that because I can write, as well--I just don’t do it with that type of intensity, because my confidence has been killed in that area,” Daye says. “Being in a room with those people, you learn different ways to make music and that’s the beauty [of it]. Music is art, it’s in me and I can’t do nothing about that, so to be in that environment is paradise.”

With writing credits for Keith Sweat, Boyz II Men and Keke Palmer years prior to releasing Painted, it was mentorship from Mary J. Blige during recording sessions for Blige’s 2017 album Strength of a Woman, that aided Daye with honing in on lyrical simplicity. Co-writing “Love Yourself” and “U + Me (Love Session)”, with admiration for Blige, Daye even attended her 2018 Walk of Fame commencement. “[Blige] always speaks vulnerability and she always taught me a lot about changing words [for them] to make more sense,” Daye says. “I’m way more abstract than I was when Painted came out, and she’d always bring me back, like, ‘why don’t you just say it like this?’ I’m like, ‘that’s ghetto’. (laughs) She’d be like, ‘but it’s good’. I’d be like, ‘Well, alright, I got it; just do what I normally do if I was talking to somebody.’”

With Blige’s guidance in mind, Daye knew that he wanted the apex of Painted to revolve around intricacies of love, his previous relationships being the basis of the album, notably, overexerting himself while in those relationships. “On Painted, I wanted to convey love as being misunderstood and not what you always expect it to be. I feel like we watch all of these things around us and we got these high expectations of what love is supposed to be and it’s really an illusion. When you find somebody who’s actually a real person and they don’t meet your illusion, they fail in your eyes,” he says, subtly warning women to beware of overzealous suitors. “I just wanted to say ‘it’s fine to not be perfect, it’s fine to be normal’. Being normal is actually what love is, everything else is extra. You can’t always exhaust yourself. I’ve exhausted myself and I wanted to portray that on the album, like, I’ve done that already. I’ve tried everything I could to try to stay in love and try to be in love. It allowed me to fall in love and get my heartbroken, and that created more content for me and it created more depth for my character.”

With room to create meaningful content, though not intentional, Daye withheld from having collaborations on Painted. For many listeners, the “Roll Some Mo” remix featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Wale was the first time they heard Daye accompanied by featured guests. “I don’t think I had any power to even get anybody that wanted to get on my record. I would like to think that the music industry would hear good music and want to get with it because it’s good to them, not necessarily good to popular people,” he says. “I wanted to at least do my first album complete and not wait on features. I think all great artists can do an album with no features and you’ll still be able to listen to the whole album. I don’t care who it is, if someone’s not good on my record, I’m not putting it out.”

While Painted didn’t lack in vulnerability, Daye is open to the possibility of having features on his sophomore album. With his majorly-female audience in mind, he wants to reintroduce an influx of female features to create melodic balance. “The second album might be a little bit different. I’m probably gonna do an album that has a great amount of features on it and I’m working on that right now. We’re reaching for gold,” he says. “When it comes to singing, girls are listening to me. Most guys, they have too much ego to listen to me, I’m too real. They don’t want to feel soft. I feel like if get girls featured, it’ll make more sense for me than male features because I talk about love a lot. Ain’t too many guys I know that’s gonna open up like that on a record. That’s one of my goals, I want to do a lot of songs with girls like Marvin Gaye did.”

With music videos traditionally having a cinematic, thoroughly crafted feel, Daye shares that a visual album is soon to come, with a slew of screenplays already written. Initially wanting to release a visual album alongside Painted, he’s tentatively reserving it for his sophomore album. Though he’s mapped out his plans for 2020, Daye says that he’s willing to let go of his reigns to get better acquainted with fans. “I’m gonna make myself more uncomfortable this year when it comes to putting myself out there--controlling less of what I think I should be controlling--and just be more free and just be present. I want them to know, if there’s anything I should do, I’m open [to it].”

During a generation of R&B when artists are arguably most hands-on with their creative intention, Daye fits right in, nominated in nearly every R&B category of the 2020 Grammys. Hinting at surprise single before the ceremony, while arguably a veteran, Daye assures that his journey is far from over. “The fact that [artists] can reach so many people, just with one button, that’s awesome. Most people have to climb, they climb a long way from city to city and it takes years just to get to a level. I have millions of views in a year, and I believe [“Roll Some Mo”] might be gold. Just to do that in one year, being able to touch so many people, I feel like we’re getting closer,” he says. “It’s come back around, for sure, [but] there’s way more to accomplish. I plan on having at least eleven albums, and I feel satisfied, kind of, but this is the beginning. I just started, it’s the first day.”

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10 Problems With The Grammy Awards And How To Fix Them

Going into the 2020 iteration of the show, The Grammy Awards couldn’t be more irrelevant and in a place of struggling to attract younger viewers. Each year sets new lows in the coveted 18-49 demographic, and the show continues to take one step forward and ten steps back when it comes to its relationship with hip-hop. The step forward this year will be the confirmed tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle featuring Kirk Franklin, DJ Khaled, John Legend, Meek Mill, Roddy Ricch, and YG. Fixing what was once the most cherished institution of the music business and one of the most-watched events of each year is complicated and will require drastic directional shifts and changes to elements of the show that have been part of its fabric for many years. These are the 10 problems with the Grammy Awards and how to fix them.

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