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Johan Lenox Interview: Hip-Hop’s Beethoven looks to become your favorite pop star

Composer-turned-popstar Johan Lenox seemingly transcends genre at every turn he takes.

Curating a new, classically-charged soundscape rooted in the undertones of rap, Lenox has become known for channeling his orchestral background into a slew of hip-hop hits over the years — looking to bring “weirder classical shit” to bigger stages sooner than later.

“I want to be a pop star because that’s going to allow me to do so much weirder classical shit and all this other stuff with a big stage that I want.”

Johan Lenox to Our Generation Music

Having a hand in hits from legendary artists like Ye, Ty Dolla $ign, Big Sean, Nipsey Hussle, Lil Nas X and many more, those who are unfamiliar with Johan’s work are often dumbfounded to uncover that he is an integral part of hip-hop’s cultural fabric. Striving to be cinematically left-of-center, Johan’s unique experience separates him from your average producer — presenting an entirely new perspective that deviates from traditional instrumentation in rap, R&B and pop music.

Graduating from the Yale School of Music after studying contemporary classical, the Boston-born composer was first introduced to the theatrics of Kanye West through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Finding a new passion for the performance art music brings forth, Johan jumped at the opportunity to work with a fellow classical musician on the idea that would change his life: Yeethoven.

“It’s kind of interesting because that single concert changed my life, but it wasn’t actually my initiative. A friend of mine who also did classical shit hit me up and was like, ‘You’d be the perfect person to help me figure out this thing I want to do with Kanye and orchestra’ and I’m like ‘Oh sure, sounds fun.’ So I’m just doing it for fun basically cuz it sounded like a great idea and then once I got invested and started doing all the music I said, ‘We gotta make this thing go viral its such a great idea.’ So I figured that part out, but I never knew all of that was going to be the thing that got me to Mike Dean and Mr. Hudson.”

Johan Lenox to OGM

Yeethoven proved to be a massive success, garnering attention from both Mike Dean and Mr. Hudson, two close collaborators of Ye himself. Johan’s unique ability to integrate orchestral strings and choir vocals around hip-hop-centric tracks became a hot commodity, quickly granting him background placements on tracks off ye, NASIR, Detroit 2, Cheers to the Best Memories and other notable albums of the last decade.

Despite the opportunities provided through his instrumentation, Johan’s true motivation for making music was to emulate the experiences of events like the Donda release parties — altering the stereotype of classical performances being limited to formal, black-tie affairs. His vision is to bring together the stagecraft of Kanye with the composition of Beethoven, but unlike Yeethoven, he wants to do it with his own original music.

Johan has had an uphill battle trying to make it as an artist, even with his prior establishment as an upper-echelon producer/composer. Opting to use his exclusive talent as currency, he began negotiating contributions from other artists by waiving his fees in exchange for features.

“The real reason [I can get these features] is that it’s people I’ve done an extensive amount of work for, sometimes at a pretty low rate, or I do the whole album and then they’re trying to figure out the deals for everybody and I’m just like, “I can waive all my production fees and shit if you just do this [song]’ and they fuck with you at that point. I mean, if they don’t want to do it, they wouldn’t, but I’m definitely finessing my way as a producer/arranger first and using the relationship.”

Johan Lenox to OGM

With his first few projects, he began fleshing out his artistic direction by composing and arranging pieces that he would then sing over. He views his own style as a middle ground between pop, hip-hop and classical, explaining, “It’s been tricky and I think it doesn’t quite sound like anything, which makes it cool but it also makes it hard for people to place it. I think of it as living in the same world as SAINt JHN and shit like that but a lot of people stereotype him more as just a rapper. Musically, it isn’t that different from what I do here.”

Dropping his debut EP Wilds in 2017, the sonic mastermind cultivated his vocal delivery around cinematic instrumentals — producing, performing and arranging every track down to the last detail. With a sole feature from Vic Mensa, the six-song project foreshadowed the artistic direction Johan would be taking with his music.

As he continued to operate behind the scenes of mainstream projects, his discography began to gain momentum in 2019 with his full-length debut, everybody’s cool but me, with the title track attracting remixes from Chuck Inglish, Kina and Bertholet. He followed up in 2020 with cancel the party, enlisting previous collaborators Yung Pinch, Landon Cube and Wifisfuneral for his sophomore album.

With his first few releases under his belt, Johan began taking his concept further on chamber johan, updating a couple of his existing songs and adding on collaborations with Cousin Stizz, Lil Keed and Kota the Friend. The lead single, throwback thursday, brought Keed and Kota together to fuse two schools of rap that would probably never interact without the addition of Johan’s immaculate production.

World On Fire was a compilation of refurbished tracks except a single by the same name, bringing fans a comprehensive look at Johan’s favorite tracks and the overarching themes of frustration and uncertainty he presents with every project. Continuing his mission to perfectly combine his knowledge of classical music with up-and-coming styles of rap and R&B, the young composer began to work on a project of all-new material for his growing audience.

“If you look closely in the videos, whenever there’s a sky, its usually lit up in flames or lightly smoldering. That’s in most of the videos and in the album cover, which I’ll reveal soon… I really do always tell a very linear story with the music. The chamber EP was almost like a remix compilation, but definitely the previous EPs I dropped all tell a story, I just wanted to really make sure that came through.”

Johan Lenox to OGM

Leading up to his fourth full-length offering, What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up, Johan has blessed his fanbase with his most cohesive material yet, starting with “phases” featuring Cousin Stizz. This track appeared on a few of his previous projects, with this final version perfectly blending Stizz’s quick-witted lyricism and Johan’s relatable crooning as they motivate listeners to confront their day-to-day issues.

From the fast-paced falsetto of fellow Ye collaborator Ant Clemons to country-rapper RMR‘s soulful delivery and OGM fan-favorite Lancey Foux‘s autotuned ad-libs, Lenox has mastered the craft of combining traditional rap and pop vocals with orchestral elements to create grandiose singles in preparation for his upcoming offering.

Most recently, underground veteran Thouxanbanfauni joined forces with Lenox for “Get My Shit Together,” an introspective track that brings Fauni into Johan’s world of strings as the duo laments about their apprehension with maturity.

Describing his process going into this project, Johan said, “I like to collaborate just because it gets me inspired even though I’m able to do it all myself. Some of the songs like ‘You Up?‘ and ‘phases’ I basically just wrote and produced the entire thing myself, but there are other songs like ‘I’m A Mess‘ that was really my friend’s [idea] initially. I try to go to other studios and just be the artist and not be too much of a control freak and I really benefit from having people around me who have differing opinions on stuff and can tell me if they like or don’t like something.”

His emphasis on collaboration is heavily influenced by Ye, with his unorthodox use of features reminiscent of Chief Keef‘s appearance on Yeezus or Elton John on MBDTF. With such a prevalent storytelling aspect to this album, Johan had to take a page out of the Donda emcee’s book to curate the sound he was going for.

“[Kanye] uses features very liberally and to help create a world and sometimes even almost like a production texture to have certain people’s vocals on there. If you listen to ‘I’m A Mess,’ I’ve got Lancey’s ad-libs throughout the entire song. It’s just part of the track, I moved them around and made it part of the loop in addition to his verse. I restructure the songs around the features once I get them usually so they become a big part of how the songs were produced.”

Johan Lenox to OGM

Though Johan takes inspiration from the greats, he is unapologetically himself when it comes to his art. He openly shares his personal interests of drink-making, social media and rollercoasters, even contributing the title track for an amusement park documentary by Coaster Studios.

Patience has been crucial in Johan’s journey to stardom, with every production placement pushing him closer to making it as an independent artist. As the opportunities continue to line up, he already has a plan to push his sound to the next level. His upcoming effort after WDYWTBWYGU, titled Isomonstrosity, will dive headfirst into Johan’s experiment — joining a number of composers with the likes of Danny Brown, 645AR, Masego, Kacy Hill, Channel Tres, Zacari and more.

With so much potential on the horizon, the future looks bright for Johan as he gears up for the release of his album. Ironically, it seems like he has his answer for the question posed by his album title, and he can’t wait for you to join him for the ride.

“There’s a lot of people who only see me as a producer, there’s a lot of people who only saw me as doing classical shit and they were like, ‘Why are you trying to get into hip-hop and blah blah blah you’re already successful.’ I was successful in classical music. But now I did it, and it was hard and it took a few years, and it was pretty agonizing, but now I’m in that shit. I can link with anyone I want in that world and do what I want.”