My Interview With John Legend

Grammy-winning soul singer John Legend was an omnipresent figure during last week’s Democratic National Convention. After performing his new anthem, “Are You Out There,”on the convention’s first night, Legend fielded interviews from CNN, MSNBC and a gaggle of reporters from around the country. He was on stage again at Thursday’s rally at Invesco Field, singing the internet hit “Yes We Can” with Will.I.Am before an audience of 70,000. For Legend, who had emerged from humble roots in Springfield, Ohio to become the Obama campaign’s most visible musical surrogate, the moment represented both a political and personal apotheosis.

I caught up with Legend at Harold Ford’s Democratic Leadership Conference party on August 26. It was a private affair for big Democratic donors, party activists and anyone connected enough to get their name on the VIP list. Though the club management had forbidden filming, I slipped into Legend’s dressing room after his performance for an impromptu on-camera chat about his involvement on the Obama campaign, his anti-poverty crusading, and his development into an activist entertainer.

(I’ve been having some Youtube trouble; if the embed doesn’t work, watch here.)

 

I first met Legend when he was a 16-year-old freshman at the University of Pennsylvania named John Stephens. I lived down the hall from him in Penn’s massive dormitory complex, the quad. At the time, John worked two jobs, commuted regularly to Scranton, Pennsylvania to lead a gospel choir, directed an acapella group on campus, and took five classes. He was usually too busy for the partying and social distractions that characterized student life at Penn. While many other students busied themselves with drinking and carousing, confident that their Ivy League degree would guarantee them a cushy job after school, John was on a mission.

In my spare time, I taught myself to play drums. By senior year, I was performing around Philadelphia in informal bands led by Dave Tozer, a guitarist and aspiring producer from a hardscrabble town in South Jersey. At the same time, I helped run “The Gathering,” a hip-hop open mic on campus that drew large crowds from all over. John’s roommate, Devon Harris, DJ’ed the event and helped promote it around town (nearly ten years later, The Gathering, is still an active Philly institution). Devon told his friends he was inspired to make hip-hop by his cousin, Kanye West, a producer from Chicago who had managed to eke out a living making beats. But no one had ever heard of this character or seemed to care who he was. This was 1999, after all.

One night during senior year, I invited John to a jam session at a friend’s home studio in West Philly. To my surprise, he packed up his keyboard and came along. Inside the studio, a converted storefront Baptist church basement with red shag carpet and a trap door that led to a baptismal pool, John met Dave Tozer. After some chit-chat, they launched into a version of “Crusin,” the Smokey Robinson ballad. I sat down at the drums and joined in with a pair of brushes. For about an hour, we ran through the classics — Stevie, Marvin, Al Green — until John had to get home.

Soon, John began branching out. He sat in on keys at The Gathering, fronted a few gigs for us, and played a session for Lauryn Hill that gave him his first major album credit.

After graduation, John took a consulting job in New York City. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to pursue music full-time. But he continued performing, singing at clubs around New York with a professional quality band assembled by Dave, who had become his musical director. By this time, Devon’s cousin, Kanye, had developed a national profile and was poised to release his first solo album. Kanye had succeeded by cultivating a unique sound steeped in classic Chicago soul that brought hip-hop away from the plastic glitz of P. Diddy and back to its roots. When Devon introduced Kanye to John’s music, he was blown away. He knew his production style would present the perfect compliment to John’s elegant, gospel-influenced vocals.

John finally quit his job and took up music full-time. Dave, Devon (who now goes by Devo Springsteen), and Kanye produced the bulk of his first album, “Get Lifted.” Thanks to John, they each have Grammys on their shelves and platinum record plaques on their walls.

A few months before last year’s Iowa caucus, I asked John if he wanted to participate in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency. She was up by 20 in the polls and was almost certainly going to be the nominee, I told him. John said he would support her if she won the nomination, but he was backing another candidate in the primary. I arranged a phone call between Hillary and John, but John held fast to his support for Barack Obama. The rest is history.

5 thoughts on “My Interview With John Legend

  1. Preston

    DAYUM, Max, I had no idea you had connections like THAT! Now, see, I thought I was the one who crowned you an honorary brother about a year ago, but it turns out you were already that in college!

    Legend is a cool guy. While not a big fan of his voice (sorry, but as someone who listened to Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder as a kid, many of these young cats such as Alicia Keys and John Legend fall very short in the vocal department), I like a few of his songs. There seems to be a lack of originality with this generation of R&B/Soul artists. I went through Alicia Keys’ liner notes and most of her well known songs were largely sampled or blatant ripoffs (much like “Fallin” being a major ripoff of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”). In a sense, I can understand why artists such as Keys and Legend are showered with praise and awards by the music industry: R&B has become so watered-down, soulless and commercialized, even artists who are less so seem fresh and innovative. But if you want to hear a TRULY gifted soul artist, you should check out this one British cat by the name of Lewis Taylor. He’s a white guy (Jewish, I believe) who is strongly influenced by Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, but he doesn’t sound as derivative as Legend and Keys. Even VOCALLY he’s more soulful than those two — and this is from a black man who was raised in a black church where those type of vocals are cultivated. If you get the chance check out his self-titled debut CD and “Stoned”. He doesn’t make music anymore, but the type of praise Legend and Keys receive should all go to this guy since he predated the whole neo-soul movement that is usually credited to D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Maxwell.

    Anyway, sorry for the long post. Good video. It’s good that you’re back posting on your blog on a regular basis now; you’ve been missed.

  2. Black Quotations

    John Legend has such as amazing voice – I am a huge fan of his work. As far as I am concerned he is the most vocally talented of all the black male musicians of his generation. It would be great to see him release another album soon.

  3. loan modifications

    He is one of the those few people that can really sing, he is very talented and hasnt produced to he capability. He will have a next couple great CDs. I cant wait for his next project.

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