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The Perfect Score

SATS: 1600. Harvard graduate: age 19. Ryan Leslie: hip-hop’s unlikely new star-maker.

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H ey, hey, superstar!”

L.A. Reid, chairman of the Island Def Jam Music Group, shouts to Ryan Leslie, as a man with a video camera trails behind them.

Everywhere he goes, Leslie is filmed. This is because he pays someone to film him.

Leslie—wearing metal-studded sunglasses and a thicket of gold chains—struts into Reid’s cavernous midtown office. Reid’s assistant shuts the door behind them with a polite smile, which leaves me waiting in his anteroom with Leslie’s full-time videographer (a do-rag-wearing 22-year-old named Daytona, who films every waking moment of Leslie’s life) and his publicist (an unpaid teenager named Brandon, who wears sunglasses that look a lot like Leslie’s but are clearly much, much less expensive).

Holding out the camera, Daytona hits rewind. “Can you hear where L.A. says, ‘Hey, hey, superstar’?” he asks Brandon. Daytona then presses his face back to the eyepiece and begins to review the other shots he’s captured this afternoon. At the end of the day, Leslie usually edits down Daytona’s footage into a highlight reel that he posts on his Website. (It’s not clear to me what today’s highlights will look like—in the course of the hour-plus I’ve spent with them so far, Daytona has filmed five separate elevator rides.)

Leslie flew back just last night from two weeks in Europe. He’d been guiding Cassie, his breakout R&B creation, through a whirlwind promotional tour. (Relevant Cassie facts: She is 20 years old; she is a former fashion model; she is of mixed Mexican, African-American, West Indian, and Filipina ethnicity; she is atomically sexy.) Leslie met Cassie at Marquee last year, and soon after adopted her as a pet musical project. He wrote several songs for her and produced them on his own. He did all the recording himself, with a few keyboards and a desktop Macintosh, in the living room of his Harlem apartment.

This past August, more than a year after it was recorded, and to the shock of the music industry, Cassie’s “Me & U” went to No. 3 on Billboard’s singles chart. It reached No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart. And so—because Cassie’s success came out of nowhere, owed very little to a voice the Washington Post called “Janet-Jackson-after-20-flights-of-stairs thin,” and was the product of not just Leslie’s musical vision but also a masterful MySpace campaign he orchestrated (with no corporate backing, until Sean “Diddy” Combs, whom Leslie had previously produced songs for, spotted the burgeoning hit and offered a distribution deal)—music executives’ fevered hope is that Leslie might re-create this Svengali-like miracle. “The label CEOs all want an audience,” he says. “They’re courting me. It’s insane.” Today is also Leslie’s 28th birthday.

At this point, I’ll ask you to rewind back through half of Ryan Leslie’s life span. Erase from your mind the current incarnation of Leslie (a.k.a. “R-Les”), in those oversize shades, gold chains, and leather jacket with epaulets. Instead, envision R-Les at 14 years old, attending public high school in Stockton, California. His parents, Salvation Army officers who frequently relocate for work, are planning to move again. Rather than switch to his fifth high school, Leslie decides he’ll start college after his sophomore year.

He takes the SATs—and gets a perfect 1600 score. He writes letters to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other universities, explaining his unique situation, and is accepted everywhere (save for Stanford, which was concerned that he wasn’t socially mature enough). In the fall of 1994, at the tender age of 15, Leslie begins his freshman year at Harvard. He intends to go premed.

Leslie has a musical background, playing cornet as a child in the Salvation Army band. (He later switched to piano because his overbite made it difficult to get proper embouchure on a brass instrument.) At Harvard, he quickly joins the Krokodiloes, an a cappella group. But it’s when a friend plays him a Stevie Wonder CD freshman year that Leslie suddenly saw a new future for himself.

“I became obsessed with him,” he says. “I wanted to chase that man’s career.” And thus began the transition from premed Poindexter to R&B Romeo.

Leslie becomes a constant presence at the on-campus recording studio. Fellow student Chiqui Matthew remembers Leslie making beats at every free moment. “He was on a different level of intensity. Most of us were pretty realistic—we’re Harvard students; this music stuff is fun, but this isn’t the future,” says Matthew, who now works with credit derivatives at Goldman Sachs. “But Ryan always had a ten-year plan about how he was going to take over the music industry.”

While still a student, Leslie begins producing tracks for local Boston artists. Meanwhile, R-Les was beginning to mold his own image, too. “He had this pseudo-sexual, thugged-out Lothario thing,” says Matthew. “I never really bought it. He seemed more like a music nerd to me.”


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