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.
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.
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.
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