John Legend: In the Making

Hip Hop oozes from his lyrics and soul drips off his voice. He is John Legend, born John Stephens, the voice on Jay-Z’s “Encore”, Alicia Keys’ lead single “You Don’t Know My Name”, and Talib Kweli’s upcoming single “I Try”. He was all over Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout, yet for all of […]

Hip Hop oozes from his lyrics and soul drips off his voice. He is John Legend, born John Stephens, the voice on Jay-Z’s “Encore”, Alicia Keys’ lead single “You Don’t Know My Name”, and Talib Kweli’s upcoming single “I Try”. He was all over Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout, yet for all of his ubiquitousness Legend is still a slight mystery. Signed to Kanye West’s production company, KonMan Entertainment, Legend seemingly appeared out of thin air, belting soulful hooks and bridges along side some of Hip Hop’s most talented and visible personalities.

Don’t get it twisted, however. Long before adopting the stage moniker ‘Legend’, Stephens was grinding to ensure that his assumed stage name wouldn’t merely be a visual catch, but rather a fitting title. Stephens will refute any accusation that his relationship with current “It” man, Kanye West, is the result of his fortunate space. From college kid to choir director, from choir director to Lauryn Hill collaborator, Legend has put in years of stage sweat and studio time to bring his current position to fruition.

While mad heads bob to his vocals on the tracks of numerous other artists, Legend quietly signed a deal with Columbia Records/Sony Music, and is planning to shock the music industry with his debut album. Legend speaks with Alternatives about the necessity of positive relationships in urban families and explains why Golden Globe Nominated actor Kevin Bacon gave him a call that sound something like, “You did a great job f**king my wife.” Alternatives: Your real name is John Stephens, so what’s up with stage name Legend?

JL: It was started a couple of years ago by this cat named J. Ivy, he actually raps on Kanye’s ‘Never Let Me Down’, he’s a spoken word artist. People always told me I sounded like an old soul or that I came from another era and he started calling me the Legend, then John Legend and it just kind of caught on. Before I knew it, more people were calling me John Legend than John Stephens. So I had to decide whether I was going to go with my real name or the stage name, I decided to go with my stage name. I thought it would be something that would catch people’s attention and it kind of suggests what I’m coming with musically. Plus, two years later some red haired white dude named John Stephens was on American Idol [chuckles], so it’s best that I changed it.

AHHA: You said the name Legend suggests what you’re coming with musically, what are you coming with musically?

JL: I make you recall an earlier era, with some of the style I bring. The name also has a little bit of a swagger to it, and I feel like some of my music has some swagger to it as well. So the name mixes classic feeling with a little bit of swagger. Some people ask me about it and they’re like ‘well you’re not a legend yet are you?’ I’m like no, I know I’m not a legend yet, hopefully I will be one, but ya know, it’s a name and it works.

AHHA: You use to play piano at a church in Scranton, PA. How do you go from playing piano at a Bethel AME to playing on Lauryn Hill’s ‘Everything Is Everything’.

JL: I was introduced to Lauryn by a girl that went to Bethel. The girl was living in Scranton, but she grew up in Jersey with Lauryn. She is a singer and she was working on with Lauryn on the Mis-education album. She would go to Jersey to work on the album with Lauryn and one day she needed a ride over there. So I gave her a ride, and while I was there she was really bragging on me to Lauryn. So Lauryn had me play a couple of songs on the piano and she loved it. She had me play on ‘Everything Is Everything’ right there on the spot.

AHHA: How did you link with Kanye West?

JL: I was doing demos and records for a while before I met Kanye. I’ve been a solo artist in the northeastern corridor since like 98’, 99’ and I met Kanye in like late 2001. So I was doing my thing in NY and Philly for like three years before I met Ye [pronounced Yay, short for Kanye]. I met Ye through Devo Harris, AKA Devo Springstein, who is his cousin and who was my roommate in college. When Ye moved out to the east coast, it was about 6 to 9 months before [Jay-Z’s] The Blueprint came out, so this is before Kanye started to really get his name out there as a producer.

Anyway, he came to one of my Harlem shows in May of 2001 and that was the first we met and he saw me perform. A couple of months later he called me out to his house in Newark to work on some stuff for his album, tracks like “Home”, and “Family Business”. This is like late 2001 before he even had his deal. Afterwards, he and Devo were like ‘man, you should use some of Kanye’s beats, ya’ll work well together, you should write some stuff for your demo to his tracks,’ and they were right. We started making tracks together and it was just hot. The first joint I wrote was called ‘Do What I Got To Do’, and that’s one of the joints that’s gonna be on my album and one of the joints we’re considering as a single. The song created a little buzz and as Kanye’s name as a producer started rising he wanted me to sign to his production company. So I ended up doing that and ever since then he started plugging me into everything, putting me on Alicia’s record, putting me on Jay’s record, Slum Village, Dilated Peoples, all these records before n*ggas really knew who I was. That situation allowed me to put my name and my face out there before I even had a record deal before I even had my own records out. So it’s been a blessing.

AHHA: At any point did you fear you might become the “hook guy?”

JL: Nah (laughs), I never feared that because I know I’ve got a lot more behind me. I’ve got songs for days that I wrote that are strong stand alone records. I’ve always been a solo artist, and for me it wasn’t like I’ve been doing hooks for years and now I’ve got to make this transition to being a solo artist. I’ve always been a solo artist, I just happen to start doing hooks recently just to get my name out there. For me it’s just all extra TV, extra looks, it’s good promotion before my album comes out.

AHHA: How would you describe the music you make?

JL: It’s soulful, it’s got great production, great Hip Hop beats. Some of the lyrics are funny some are more classic or old school. There’s a very gospel influence, very upbeat music, feel good music. It’s fresh.

AHHA: What kind of topics will you touch on?

JL: We cover the relationship topics, like hitting on girls in the club, being in relationships and things going well, then things going not so well. We cover me cheating. We cover me talking about my family and growing up in Ohio. We cover some more some more preachy type issues like don’t let money affect you to the point where you value it more than you value your soul. I write about whatever’s on my mind, but most of this album is about relationships

AHHA: What kind of relationship did you see in your home growing up?

JL: My family is very religious and my family valued education a lot and they wanted to teach us at home. I was home schooled for at least four of my grammar school years. My parents are really focused on being educators to their children and that really helped me cause I ended up skipping two grades when I came back to regular school. I graduated from high school when I was 16 and from college when I was 20 all because of the advance education that my parents gave me. We also had our ups and downs, cause my parents got divorced when I was like 11, so I ended up living with my dad for my whole teenage years. Then they ended up getting back together like 12 years later.

AHHA: Since you write a great deal about relationships and you had the fortune of being able to see a positive relationship that had its own ups and downs, but eventual reconciliation, a luxury that many African American and urban youths don’t have, why do you think your experience to see a positive relationship in the home is such a rarity in the Black community and urban communities in general?

JL: Being in a poor situation or not able to have all the resources you need puts pressure on every facet of your life including your family. The fact that we’ve been historically under educated and in the lower income groups, that affects the way you deal with your family, cause when you so focused on how you’re going to make ends meet and there’s so much pressure on the rest of your life it becomes hard to make your family work too. I don’t know what the solution is, I feel like things are getting better and our communities are getting stronger and stronger in aspects like education and income. But when it comes down to it, we got to change the way we look at certain things like young men having kids before they’re ready to be fathers. There are so many kids that don’t grow up with father figures and that really f*cks things up. I was so lucky, cause even when my parents got divorced I was still living with my dad and had a strong father figure in my life. It’s a shame because so many of us don’t have that because of all the stuff that’s gone wrong with us as far as crime, education and overall economic oppression it’s been hard for family’s to stay together, especially fathers.

AHHA: How deep into the album are you?

JL: Very deep, we’re almost done – we start mixing it next week and we won’t be recording much after that. It drops October 12th. The first single is ‘Use to Love You’ produced by Kanye and I’m excited man, I just can’t wait for people to hear it. I wish I could leak it myself [laughs].

AHHA: Obviously Kanye will be on the album and I’m sure some of the KonMan Music camp will represent, but are their any surprise guest appearances?

JL: It’s not totally confirmed yet, but it’s 95% confirmed that we gonna have Snoop on the record.

AHHA: Does the album have a title?

JL: Yeah, Get Lifted. That’s also the name of one of the songs on the album and it has multiple meanings. You could see it as getting high, or you could see it as kind of spiritual, like taking you to another level spiritually. Also talking to a girl, like sexually I’m gonna make you feel so good it’s gonna take you to another level. So it kind of sums up all the music, it’ has the sexy side, the spiritual side and the side of taking people to another level musically as well.

AHHA: You’ve been doing some acting too, what role do you play in the upcoming Kevin Bacon film Loverboy?

JL: I play a musician. Kyra Sedgwick is the star of the movie and she’s also Kevin Bacon’s wife in real life. Anyway, I play a musician and me and Kyra Sedgwick basically have sex on top of a car [chuckles].

AHHA: So you get to have sex with Kevin Bacon’s wife, in an acting sense at least?

JL: Yeah, on top of a car [laughter]. That’s my first film role, my momma-nem don’t know yet.

AHHA: How did you get that role?

JL: My manager actually works with the Bacon brothers cause they have a band as well. He’s cool with Kevin and his whole family and they were looking for a musician to play the part, so I auditioned for it and they picked me. I haven’t even seen it yet, I don’t think it’s finished but Kevin said it came hot and he told me, ‘You did a great job f###### my wife man.’ [laughs].

AHHA: Any things else you want to say?

JL: I just want to tell people how excited I am about this album. It’s going to be fresh, it’s gonna really sound different from anything else that’s out. It’s going to be good, I really believe in it, I’m so proud of it, I just can’t wait for people to hear it.