In the time I’ve spent with Leslie, he has revealed only two interests beyond his life as a musician and an entrepreneur. The first is buying custom-made clothes. The second is watching DVD biographies of industrial-era titans like John D. Rockefeller. Ask him to speak contemplatively, and he’ll quickly hide behind platitudes or shift the discussion to talk about the next goals in his sights. At these times, he pitches his tone less to the person sitting across from him and more to some sort of vast audience in his head. As though he were speaking into Daytona’s camera and dispensing advice to fans, like in his video-diary entry titled “A Word About Good Representation.” (This tone can sometimes contrast sharply with his surroundings: He once gave a lofty speech to me over a meal at Jimbo’s Hamburger Palace—the cash-only greasy spoon on Lenox Avenue where Leslie eats almost all his meals.)
When the car pulls up at Leslie’s apartment in a brownstone on 136th Street, Leslie waits for the driver to walk around and open the door for him. He steps onto a littery curb next to a leaking fire hydrant. Inside his apartment, there are suitcases and clothes strewn across the floor and takeout-food boxes lying open on the counters. Though Brandon tells me of Leslie’s success with the ladies (“one with a Dior campaign and the other a Victoria’s Secret Angel”), the place could use a woman’s touch.
In less than 45 minutes, Leslie expects a singer named Linda Király to show up at his apartment for their first recording session. Király is 23 years old and has lived in Hungary for the past six years. She had a No. 1 album in Hungary and played the lead in Phantom of the Opera there. She has a five-octave range and truly massive breasts, which is why some of the high-ups at Universal Music think she might be the next Mariah Carey. When I ask Leslie what he’s written for Király to record when she shows up, he says, “Oh, I don’t have anything written. I’ll just work something out once she gets here.”
This stunned me. It turns out hit songs are often written, in a soup-to-nuts collaboration between artist and producer, in about an hour and a half. And indeed, it’s only after Leslie meets Király and her manager (whose primary job seems to be forbidding the pudgy Király from eating anything) that he sits down at his Macintosh and begins to program some initial drum tracks. After the rough beat is laid, Leslie begins to layer in a soft, balladic piano sequence. He then adds hand claps. A high-hat pattern. An echoey synth wash. (Daytona is filming every moment, including long sequences when Leslie is just clicking his mouse around the computer screen.) “Is that in your range?” he asks Király. “I want to fit it to your timbre.”
She’s stepping over to the microphone now, putting on headphones. Leslie types out some lyrics (he’s thinking them up on the spot) in a huge font on his laptop monitor and holds them up for her to sing. “You’re all I’ve ever knoooooown,” she coos. “More than I’ve dreamed of. I should be happy now. So why do I feel I need … time on myyyyyyyy own.”
Leslie is smiling. You can see it on his face: He’s gone into a different brain-wave pattern; he’s in the midst of a creative burst. Király is belting out the verse again, interweaving at least three of her five octaves through Leslie’s music. Here in this tiny Harlem room, to my ears, the song sounds achingly beautiful.
But Király isn’t happy with the direction of the song. She’s getting tired and cranky. Her manager decides to come back tomorrow to try again.
“This girl sounds like she’s singing opera over the track. With Cassie, I swear I’d have this record completely written and recorded by now,” Leslie says with a sigh when Király leaves. “I think I’m over being a producer,” he says. “I should just be an executive-slash-visionary. The Puffy formula.”
Brandon, Daytona, and Leslie sit around in the studio for a few more hours, with Daytona filming their conversations and the occasional phone calls Leslie makes. After a while, Leslie starts D.J.-ing. The room comes to a reverential hush when he hauls out (clearly not for the first time) the Thriller special-edition CD, which includes additional audio tracks on which Quincy Jones narrates anecdotes about shaping Michael Jackson’s demos into full-bodied, hip-shaking dance hits.
When the actual songs come on, Leslie gets to his feet and begins to dance like MJ, his knees and ankles wiggling around. He points at the speakers during a funky synth break and shouts, “That’s the genius of Quincy Jones! Insane!!” He holds his hands high in the air, palms up, and spreads his fingers as though releasing imaginary doves. Daytona puts in a new camcorder tape and starts rolling.