Producer-Arranger Johan Lenox on Metro Boomin’s “Creepin” and Other Hit Songs


John Lenox, Variety’s Hit Maker of the Month, is known for the flexible splendor it brings to different projects as producer, arranger and/or composer. These are from the lofty springy swell of ‘Creepin’, subway boomThe Weeknd and 21 Savage’s current top 10 hits, from Travis Scott’s “Astroworld” and Nas’s “Nasir” (both produced by Mike Dean) to epic orchestral and choral arrangements and tracks by Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly .

Lenox’s background is a classical music prodigy (18 years old, his compositions played at Boston’s Symphony Hall and New York’s Alice Tully Hall) and a musical theater composer (in 2012 the off-Broadway musical “Inpendeds” was featured in The New York Times). Critics selected) Choosing). However, he has his own band, which has greatly expanded with the release of solo projects such as the 2022 room-pop-hop vocal debut. “WDYWTBWYGU.”

“I never understood all the factors that brought me to classical music, except for the fact that I didn’t grow up consuming pop culture in general,” Lenox says. Born Stephen Michael Feigenbaum, he got his stage name by pairing his favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, with the town of Lenox, MA, where he studied music at Yale.

In Lenox’s youth, modern pop, R&B, and hip-hop were not part of his listening diet.

“Before I watched the movie, I was excited by the soundtrack of John Williams – say ‘Indiana Jones,’ and my family, academics who supported my love of the classic, took me to see Williams with the Boston Pops. An orchestration like this fed my musical inspiration.

Lenox’s long story short when it comes to classical composition, orchestration, and production comes down to taking tough piano lessons (“but calling me a pianist is an insult to other pianists”) and writing studies (“I don’t like memorizing other pianists”). the rotation of people”). Yet Lenox preferred improvisation and risk to tradition.

“If you want to write for instruments, you learn how instruments work… To be honest, I could have done most of what I do today in terms of string arrangements in high school,” he says. “You have to learn how the strings work in a pop song and how to deal with the performers. That’s why I’m often referred to as a producer – you need to intuitively know how songs work to make their strings and what the job of that arrangement is in each song context.

Johan Lenox (Photo: Sydney Osaka)

By the ninth grade, Lenox’s original compositions were being performed by the ensembles at the New England Conservatory of Music with the Cincinnati Pops and at the Berkshire Hills venue Tanglewood. Ultimately, Lenox began to feel like an outsider in the classical world as her tastes began to turn to Broadway (“The Phantom of the Opera”), then Billy Joel and Ben Folds. “This was just random music that crossed my path when I was in a cappella choirs at the time,” says Lenox, who has also appeared on NBC’s competitive vocal program “The Sing Off.”

Everything changed when Lenox fell under his spell Kanye West“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”

When the “symphonic scale” and textures and “monumental musicality” of West’s 2010 album offered the young composer an opportunity, Lenox was looking for a way to draw the attention of his friends to classical music. “A greed A Kanye song like “Runaway” starts with a super-high-pitched minute of all the notes on a piano for a bell-like effect – it’s something you can write a (separate) piece of and is well received. in the classical world…. When I finished school, I came to the conclusion that the Kanye thing is the way to go.

By 2016, Lenox had composed and co-created “Yeethoven,” a live, 50-piece orchestral concert event that combined works by Kanye and Beethoven with critical acclaim and multiple staging, as the program addressed West’s production styles more reminiscent of complex classical music. than hip-hop. What Lenox says is “Kanye is a risk taker” Time On the occasion of the Ludwig Von-Kanye mix.

In addition to gaining traction with “Yeethoven,” Lenox began taking her chances in Los Angeles and contacted entertainment lawyers and production houses about original song art. “Gary Stiffelman, the father of my roommate’s ex-girlfriend’s friend from Homer, who forwarded my stuff to Andrew Gould at BMG,” Lenox said hurriedly. “I was taken to sessions with other pop writers who taught me how to run Los Angeles’ factory-style system.”

After meeting and working with Kanye collaborator Mr. Hudson early, he teamed up with hip-hop artists like Lenox, Vic Mensa, No ID, and Big Sean. Best rap performance at the 63rd Grammy Awards. Another producer who initially caught Lenox’s interest in “Yeethoven” was Mike Dean.

“We tagged Dean in one of the viral video clips of ‘Yeethoven,’ a guitar solo he did on ‘Yeesus’ – ‘Hold My Liquor’ – and then Mike followed me on Twitter,” Lenox recalls. “His relationship with Mike also came from working with Vic Mensa while I was doing the series on ‘The Autobiography,’ so that helped.”

Working with Dean on the producer’s own synth songs like “This is Home” and creating cello arrangements on songs like “Coffee Bean” for Travis Scott’s “Astroworld” was a big challenge, Lenox says.

“I’d like to think that Mike and I have a connection as solo artists most known for our collaborations,” Lenox jokes about Dean getting the arranger into stressful, awkward recording situations. Have Dean ask Lenox to put the choirs and orchestra together with a few hours’ notice for Nas’s “Nasir,” only to have the arranger sing all the choral harmonies himself while stacking a violinist’s pieces. “You just do it with Mike,” Lenox said, admiring Dean’s synth albums like “4:23” and wanting to write orchestral scores for the producer. “I’m in. Anytime Mike wants it.”

Working with live string players or folders of unused self-made string parts (“If you’re looking for something in D major, there’s probably a viola-type piece pad I recorded”), Lenox’s specialty is making small sound big.

“I can orchestrate a cello sound by layering and stacking, as I do with my vocals, and I can get it done in 24 hours,” he said. “This is why collaborators like me. I like the control I get from one-by-one miking of musicians, then stacking and shifting – the opposite of how classical music is recorded.”

Lenox and Dean also co-wrote and produced Kanye West projects like Teyana Taylor’s “The Album” and songs like “3Way”, as well as “We Got Love” from West’s 2018 album “Yandhi”. Considering West is Lenox’s entry point into hip-hop, the arranger is cool when discussing their relationship and fast pace.

“Kanye was very clear about what he wanted, but my vocal stacks in the choir—just me, a choir, stacking me a million times—was what he truly loved,” Lenox said. “I was learning to try things beyond making strings. I would go do my work and bring it right back to him. When he said he was digging my vocal stacks, which actually goes back to my a cappella harmony days, I use this effect on every record now, including my own album, because Kanye thought it was great. That gave me confidence.”

It was Lenox’s rising orchestral sweep and rise of choral vocals that kickstarted the release of “Heroes & Villains” alongside producer Metro Boomin’s current chart-topping “Creepin”. It’s Johan’s stacked harmonies that fill Metro Boomin’s opening song “On Time” (with John Legend) with a rich, warm ambiance.

Lenox reached out to Metro Boomin through Che Pope, former COO of Kanye’s GOOD Music and producer of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” With Pope’s support (“this guy is crazy about string arrangements”), Lenox embarked on a collaboration based on Metro Boomin’s love of orchestral music. “My goal with ‘Creepin’ and this album was to saturate it with as many orchestral voices and choral vocal ins and outs as possible. The Weeknd with 21 Savage is great – classic – but I’m also proud of “On Time.” That’s all my vocals in the first 30 seconds of that track.

Like his work with Mike Dean and his frequent collaborators 070 Shake, Lenox and Metro Boomin are now well-suited for future projects.

“Anyone can put the strings of a song once, but whether it’s the orchestration I brought to ‘Creepin’ or the stacked vocals for ‘On Time’, Metro appreciates what I bring – that monumental cinematic sound that Kanye thinks is so cool and Big Sean when working with Nipsey.” “It’s a beautiful trademark that no one can steal from me.”

The flamboyant strings and unforgettable choral stacks of Metro Boomin’s “Heroes & Villains” are featured on Lenox’s solo mixtapes (“Everybody’s Cool but Me” in 2019), EPs (2021’s “World on Fire”) and classical instrumental albums (“Isomonstrosity” in 2022), solo pop and pop music centered on “WDYWTBWYGU” (short for “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up”), the debut artist debut in 2022. chamber hop music. -finished next album, “I Think We’ll Find It.”

“Singing my own songs has always been part of my plan since I started attending industry conventions in LA,” Lenox said. “I was aware of producers who were artists in their own right. This route made more sense to me than shooting from open mics or in the dark and hoping to be discovered. Also, I wasn’t a Stan who could identify pop signatures, I was a classical music person who randomly discovered this Kanye album and had an enlightenment. So I had to work with other artists to see what the shit was like, how they created it, to make the music I heard in my head…. What I do is production and not really editing.

How this works on “WDYWTBWYGU” and “I Guess We’ll Find Out” shows how Lenox tuned to different tones than a violinist and a cellist, then layered it for what he called “that rich, haunting, alien string ensemble sound you’ll never hear.” . get it alive.” Lenox’s self-written stories touch on the frustration and loneliness she felt were inherent in her generation. “Spending time on Twitter and watching people worrying about the future all day will do that, especially if you can make fun of it.”

The endpoint of Lenox’s aesthetic and career goals is to continue producing and arranging for other artists while recording her own solos in pop and beyond. “I would love to have this career as the audience that watches my Broadway shows also come to my classical concerts and pop shows, listening to the autographs I bring to other artists like Mike Dean, 070 Shake and Metro Boomin. says Lenox. “And I want to bring outspoken contemporary classical music to the masses without being cheap and stupid.”

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