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The Perfect Score

Ryan Leslie delivering the Harvard oration at his commencement ceremony in 1998.  

Leslie graduates in 1998, at 19 years old. He delivers the prestigious Harvard Oration at the commencement ceremony, looking extremely clean cut in a blazer, tie, and one tasteful earring. The speech is a rather hammy affair, complete with preacher cadences and an interlude of soulful a cappella crooning. Leslie proudly announces his plan to pursue a career in “the arts.” There is a video clip of this speech on Leslie’s Website.

A few years later, after bouncing around the Boston music scene for a while, ultimately moving back home with his parents (then living in Phoenix), he wangles a music internship in New York and comes under the tutelage of Combs. A few years after that, “Me & U” became a sensation. And now R-Les is one of the hottest record producers in the world.

Even as Ivy Leaguers invade and occupy all sorts of new realms, from the waves of Harvard Lampoon veterans who make our lowbrow comedies to the laptop-wielding sabermetricians who’ve taken over baseball’s front offices, hip-hop remained one of the few industries immune to the beguiling powers of an elite degree.

At the same time, there’s always been a striving element to the classic hip-hop success story. Guys like Jay-Z, Pharrell, and Diddy are endlessly bragging about how hard they work. How many entrepreneurial projects they’re juggling. And what could be more striving than a 15-year-old with perfect SAT scores begging to start university early? What on this earth could exhibit more hustle than a high-schooler with eyes on Harvard?

Given how seamlessly the hip-hop and Harvard mentalities entwine, it’s almost surprising it hasn’t happened before. But Ryan Leslie represents a new archetype: the Harvard hip-hop hustler.

From the waiting room, which contains a piano, an acoustic guitar, and a six-foot-tall plaque of Mariah Carey astride a pile of platinum records, we can hear Leslie playing “Ditto”—a forthcoming, insanely catchy Cassie single—over the sound system in L.A. Reid’s office. When it’s done, Leslie plays Reid “Like That,” a track he recently produced for the 15-year-old singer JoJo with the refrain “Do me like that.”

This is all part of an audition for a producer gig for Island Def Jam. Ever since the Cassie record blew up, Reid (Jay-Z’s boss and a legend in music circles) has been eager to meet the man behind the megahit. He’s even told Leslie that “Me & U” is his “favorite song right now.” Before Cassie, it seemed possible that Leslie was destined to live out his career as a mid-tier beat-maker—languishing on various record-label payrolls, producing forgettable hip-hop songs for forgettable artists. (New Edition’s non-comeback single “Hot 2nite”? That was Leslie.) But a hit changes everything.

Across Reid’s waiting room, Leslie’s intern, Brandon, furiously thumbs his BlackBerry. Brandon first became aware of Ryan Leslie on MySpace, where he kept seeing Leslie’s avatar cropping up as a “friend” on the pages of various fans. Brandon became intrigued by the jet-setting, celebrity-schmoozing, hip-hop-mogul lifestyle Leslie’s own MySpace page portrayed.

“He impressed me,” says Brandon. “I thought, This guy’s a really good entrepreneur.” One night this spring, at about three in the morning, Brandon sent a MySpace message to Leslie asking for an internship. Leslie immediately replied with his cell-phone number, and they had a conversation right there in the wee hours. Brandon’s been Leslie’s unpaid publicist ever since. “It’s weird, if you think about it,” he says.

Leslie’s thoroughly modern marketing theory is that by providing fans with a daily behind-the-scenes look at his life (full of self-promotion and name-dropping, of course—video clips on Leslie’s Website show him mingling with Diddy, Snoop, Usher, and Quincy Jones), he can make them feel they’re riding shotgun on his fabulous hip-hop dreamquest. “The secret is that I pay them some attention,” says Leslie. His is a nerdy, diligent kind of stardom.

He has clearly mastered the art of MySpace viral promotion. Three weeks after he posted “Me & U” to the site in November last year, 60,000 people had made Cassie’s song their MySpace background music. Then it snowballed. “He had 10 million in audience before the Atlantic promotions people [from Diddy’s parent label] even got involved,” says music executive Tommy Mottola, the former president of Columbia Records (who launched his former wife, Mariah Carey, to megastardom).

Never before had the MySpace hordes been so skillfully manipulated. Leslie parlayed all those kids’ asking Cassie for an “add” into a label deal and a national radio hit. Though most artists are savvy to MySpace these days, the nowhere-to-No. 1 ascent of “Me & U” was unprecedented.

“This is not just some kid making beats,” says Mottola, whom Leslie acquired as a mentor after he came to New York. “When you add into the mix that Ryan is a Harvard graduate, I think he’ll become an entrepreneur on a different level. Something very big. Probably having to do with the Internet.”