5th Anniversary of John Legend’s GET LIFTED

I’m b.s.ing on twitter when the homie @Shen78 sent a shout out to John Legend on the 5th birthday of his debut album. Get Lifted was dropped on Legend’s born day so I’m sure its a special time for the god. A former Sony rep, she worked his project and talked about how easy he was to work with. And she was right. He was cool as a fan as the oldheads would say.

That got me to thinking. One of my first interviews was with Legend. I was a fan instantly after hearing a demo version of “Used To Love You” on Kanye West’s I’m Good mix tape. “Wait! An R&B dude who WASN’T singing about the VIP? Yeah I can rock with him.” So in July 2004, we talked in the lobby of his hotel right before he hit the stage for Jamn 94.5’s Summer Jam. Easy to talk to and full of humor, Legend was excited about the album that he was working on for Ye’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint. And he was so grateful for the chance to talk he offered me and my photographer tickets to the show. Class act and worthy of being remembered. So at Shen’s request here is my first sit down with John. Kinda cool to see what his view of the game was then on the eve of his first joint. Hopefully we can build again soon.

Congrats and happy belated birthday, Brother John. Thanks for the music and the tickets! HA!

Get the full interview after the jump.

The Talented Mr. Legend

By G. Valentino Ball

“I just feel like this is going to be… I don’t even want to talk junk about it, but I really feel like it’s going to be a great album. It’s going to be a fresh new thing for R&B.” Convicted by association, the confidence that John Legend has in his work-in-progress Sony Urban debut album, Get Lifted, could be mistaken as the arrogance of which his frequent collaborator Kanye West is often accused. But the 25-year old R&B newcomer doesn’t exhibit the same bravado. One gets the sense that he’s just genuinely charged about seeing the impact of what is, essentially, his life’s work.

It’s not like he doesn’t have a right to be cocky. His team is winning. Kanye busted through with hit production or remix work for everyone, from Jay Z to Britney Spears. John’s been there the whole way playing, singing, co-writing or all of the above on West’s productions. In addition to being all over West’s The College Dropout, John’s lent vocals to Dilated Peoples’ “This Way”, Slum Village’s “Selfish”, Jigga’s “Encore”, and Alicia Keys on two occasions, “You Don’t Know My Name” and “If Don’t Have You (Kanye West Remix)”. His ivory tickling can be heard on Janet Jackson’s “I Want You”, and Twista’s “Slow Jamz” and “Overnight Celebrity.” In TV Land terms, he’s racking up more guest appearances than Charo has rides on Love Boat. Add to that the fact his debut disc is being produced by proven hit makers like West and Will.I.Am of Black Eyed Peas (as well as newcomers Dave Tozer and Devo Springsteen) and he’s earned his swag the old fashion way–hard work. But winning is not something new to John, neither is singing.

Born into a family of singers, the Springfield, Ohio, native began playing both classical and gospel piano at age 4. The young former Mr. Stephens started in that classic breeding ground for Soul singers: church. He has been singing solos since age 6 and playing piano regularly in church since age 10. He went on to lead various choirs and was BMI’s choice to receive one of the 2002 Songwriter’s Hall of Fame Scholarships. A University of Pennsylvania freshman at age 16, and, University of Pennsylvania graduate at age 20, John started living two lives, corporate gig in the day and music gigs at night. And the night gigs paid off. John carved out a significant reputation up and down the East Coast with units of his live sets moving before he connected with Konyeezy. It wasn’t long before his voice and piano skills became instruments in West’s chart topping orchestra.

Guest shots may be how he is getting in the game, but don’t make the mistake of pegging him as heir apparent to Nate Dogg. His music has got a classic R&B feel that rests comfortably on Hip Hop beats without being dated or forced. The old Soul vibe shines through on John’s work, but lyrics like “May-be, I should rob somebody/So we can live like Whitney and Bob-beeee!” show he is firmly entrenched in the here and now. With a freshly remixed version of the upbeat “Used To Love You” which had already gained attention as part of the “I’m Good” mixtape, he is poised to get his day in the sunshine.

DT got a chance to build with him shortly before he hit the stage at Jamn 94.5’s Summer Jam and find out why he is feeling like a Pointer Sisters jam in anticipation of his new release.

Downtime: Let’s start off with the name. The first couple of releases were under John Stephens. Then you switched to John Legend. What made you make the change?

John Legend: Well it was a nickname that started [amongst my crew]. I didn’t give it to myself. [I got it from] a friend of mine, J. Ivey. He is a poet. I met him through Kanye. We was in the studio and he just kept calling me “Legend”. He was just so impressed by what I was doing. And how my vibe is so old school and how I sounded like the old greats. So they used to just call me “Legend”. And then they started calling me “John Legend”. I used to just laugh it off. You know like, “Whatever”. Pretty soon it caught on.

DT: How do you feel about being known through the hooks first?

JL: I think its great. If the people get to hear the work first before the hype then they only associate you with the good things they’ve already heard. They heard [Jay-Z’s] “Encore”. They associate me with that. They associate me with Slum Village’s “Selfish”. They associate me with Dilated Peoples’ “This Way”. It’s all good music. I am proud of being associated with that. And once they find out and put the pieces together and are like “Aww”. Then I come out with my own joints and then I live up to it. I feel like it only helps.

DT: You’re not nervous that you’ll turn into the “hook guy”?

JL: The thing is, I already knew what I was doing before I got all those hooks. I had been making original music for my project for so long. I already knew who I was as an artist. I know my music is something that people are going to get with. So it was never an issue of whether I was just going to be “the hook guy”. Cuz I write songs. I have a whole style. I have a whole movement of music that I feel like I’m going to bring about with my first album. So I am not even worried about being just associated with hooks cuz I write way more than hooks. I write songs. I arrange. I co-produce all my joints. We have a full album that the people are going to be ready to hear. We’re finishing right now. [Smiles] That’s why I am so excited about it.

DT: You talked about a whole new movement. Tell me about that.

JL: We are bringing great song writing back to R&B. I feel like we are bringing… just good music. I feel like R&B has been missing that classic stuff for a while. I feel like we are trying to bring it back. And it’s not completely a nostalgia record even though it definitely does remind you of a lot of old stuff. It’s going to be fresh and hip. The lyrics will be current but we have a flavor that captures some of the old greats like Marvin Gaye. We capture some of that Stevie Wonder feel, that Al Green feel. We got it on this album with brand new current songs.

DT: You seem to make Neo Soul that non Neo Soul heads can get into.

JL: A lot of Neo Soul is very vibey. It’s a groove. It comes out of the poetry scene, which is cool in some ways. But it kinda hurt it on some levels too cuz people thought more about the poetry than they thought about the melody and the song structure. I try to get dope ass lyrics and a great melody and song structure. I feel like the Neo Soul scene–a lot of it was from open mics and improv. So people just kinda groove over the beat and see what happens. I like to really define a song. I like it to be chiseled. I like the hooks to be chiseled. I like the verse melody to be chiseled. I have an A section, a B section. And it sounds nerdy, but that’s what actually people respond to. Part of what they respond to is the structure. They don’t know that’s what they are responding to but that’s what makes it sound like a pop song to them, or a song that can cross a lot of barriers. They don’t know that. But that’s what it really is; the structure. And also the message, of course. I am a big songwriting aficionado so I listen for songwriting from a lot of people.

DT: How has your start in the church influenced what you are doing now?

JL: You’ll hear that in my album. Gospel music is clearly influential to me. We even have choirs on the album. Gospel music, to me, is some of the most exciting music in the world to me, if done right. It’s so passionate, so spiritual, so spontaneous if you in a Holiness church like I grew up in. Everything is so spontaneous. You just wild out at church. We try to get all that energy and put it on a record. We bring that soul. We bring that energy. We bring that rocking church band feel. Might come in with a guitar solo. The drummer might get loose. All these things might happen in church. And we try to bring that energy onto the records.

DT: How has being part of the Kanye West College Dropout experience been?

JL: It’s been great. [I’m] having a great time being exposed to people all over the country and all over the world that may have heard of me but didn’t really know what I was doing. Kanye’s really given me a great opportunity for them to see me and start to put a face to the voice. I am just glad to be a part of great music. I feel like almost every record I’ve been part of has been a really good record. The albums have really been great. I’ve been working with really great artists through out my career. And this has been one of the best experiences. I guess I am spoiled. I was thinking. I haven’t been part of nothing that is bricking, “How’d it feel to be part of a tour for an artist that just bricked when it came out?” Like the music was good but nobody bought it. No one was coming to the shows. I just feel so blessed that I’m part of something that’s really exciting and big and that everybody is checking for. I just feel blessed and hopefully that will continue with my project.

DT: What’s the working relationship between you and Kanye like?

JL: I have a lot to do with the songs that we create together. I am his right hand man when it comes to the productions that we work together on. I’m like his second ear. Or his third and fourth ear, since he has two himself. [Laughs]. We just vibe so well, together. We’ve worked together for two years now. And we know each other’s taste really well. We bring out the best in each other cuz we both push each other to do the best we can. Like I will be like, “Naw I ain’t feeling that.” And he’ll be like “Naw I ain’t feeling that”. And just keep pushing each other till we get the best thing we can. We both have an ear for soul music. We both love soul music. We both love Hip Hop. And we bring those together and just try to make it the best we can. I feel like it’s working so far. Everything we have done together I feel real proud of.

DT Y’all haven’t thrown a brick yet.

JL: Thank God. I think we just hold ourselves to a higher standard. We’re not just gon’ throw anything out there. We want it to be the best. We want it to be always fresh, always different. We keep pushing ourselves and holding ourselves to a higher standard. Hopefully, we wont come out with any bricks. But you never know. [Laughs]

DT: A lot of people think you’re going to do for R&B what he did for Hip Hop.

JL: That’s the plan. [Laughing] I believe we can. I believe R&B needs something new. I want to do what he did for Hip Hop. I want to do what Lauryn Hill did when she came out with “Miseducation [Of Lauryn Hill]”. [She] reset the standard. [I want to do] what D’Angelo did as well with “Brown Sugar”. He shifted the game a bit. I want to do something similar to that. And I feel like we can. You never know how it’s going to play out. [You don’t know] what the people going to be ready to hear. But I feel like we have something good here that people are really going to get.