We spoke to composer Johan Lenox who broke down the contributions he made to stand out songs from Big Sean, Kanye West, Nipsey Hussle, and more.
Imagine you’re a patent lawyer in the Boston area and you notice your son has taken a interest in the piano in your home. He has even gone as far as to begin teaching himself on it as early as first grade. Yet, when you try to get him lessons, he quits because he doesn’t like the element of structure. What do you do? Well, if you’re Johan Lenox’s father you introduce him to the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack, orchestrated by the legendary composer, John Williams. It seems a bit too perfect that Williams also happened to be the conductor of the Boston Symphony Pops Orchestra, which played lighter fare — including film music — during its summer series close to Lenox’s childhood home. When Lenox’s parents took him to see the show, it catapulted him into his purpose. “The mission for me became, ‘Oh I wanna be that guy,’” Johan Lenox said over a Zoom conversation. “That type of creator and writing music.”
What followed that moment was an odyssey of musical fulfillment. Lenox initially trained as a composer at a community music school in his hometown that eventually led to weekly lessons at the New England Conservatory in Boston. This led to stints at the Boston Symphony Orchestra-backed Tanglewood Music summer program in Lenox, MA. His experience there moved Lenox to apply to even more programs and competitions which, by the end of high school, had him composing music for professional orchestras. Naturally, this led to Lenox attending the Yale School of Music for Undergraduate and Graduate study in orchestral composing. Though during that time he was writing for The Yale Symphony as well as many other choirs, for his Bachelor’s he was also surrounded by many non-classical-obsessed peers who equally affected his perspective. “During college, the fact that I was around all these people who weren’t classical musicians but were my friends who I wanted to come to my shit was actually really good for me,” Lenox said. “That made me think, ‘They can come to this but it’s gonna be boring as fuck for them and I’m kinda bored by it too.’ Or I can make something in a theater with a crazy light show and dancers or moving platforms with cello players on them and it’s still this music, but it’s trippy as hell and everyone will get high and come to it.”
Lenox’s understanding that he must make the music he has a core love for appeal to those outside his musician bubble became ingrained in his psyche. Yet, he still had one more lesson to learn. “I had this show at the end of grad school that cost like 40,000 dollars. We raised all this money and invited all these producers,” Lenox said. “One of the producers was one of the original producers of Blue Man Group, which in the broadest sense had the same marketing of our experimental theatre. They were like, ‘This is great, but we probably couldn’t even do Blue Man Group anymore if we were tryna start it from scratch. It took years of work and word of mouth to get people into it. Anything that big has to open and be a hit within like a week or else you’re just losing millions of dollars that people don’t wanna spend.’ There’s a reason that all these musicals that do well are written by Sara Bareilles or Cyndi Lauper, or they’re by Disney because it sells tickets. So I looked at that and was like, ‘If I was a pop star… that would solve that problem.”
During Graduate School, Johan Lenox was also introduced to the experimental and orchestral feeling compositions of Kanye West on his seminal album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This was all the impetus he needed to fuse the inspirational work of a hip-hop, pop star with his orchestral arrangements. In 2016, Lenox and his friend Yuga Cohler created a concert with a 50 piece orchestra that intertwined the music from West’s Yeezus with the stylings of the classical composer Beethoven. Yeethoven ended up doing two full tour runs.
Lenox eventually gained contact with super-producer and engineer Mike Dean through Yeethoven, which led him to production placements on two Kanye West-produced albums released in 2018. Off the strength of these collaborations, Johan Lenox has placed his production and arrangements on over 100 tracks for hip-hop and pop artists at every level of the music industry. In addition, he has released two full-length solo projects and is prepping his official debut for a fall release. (He just released his latest single, “World on Fire” with Kevin George.)
Okayplayer recently had the opportunity to speak to Johan Lenox who broke down the contributions he made to stand out songs from Big Sean, Kanye West, Nipsey Hussle, and more.
Th interview was edited for clarity.
Big Sean feat. Nipsey Hussle — “Deep Reverence”
[“Deep Reverence”] has a vocal thing on a break that happens around 50 seconds into the song. It’s a total break where the percussion cuts out and it’s just these vocals I was doing. There are some of my strings on the song later, but the big moment of that song is that big break and my choral kind of texture with just Nipsey rapping over that. It’s a really cool moment.
I do these moments a lot. It’s not usually full beats, but I provide a break from whatever the overall texture of the song is. I work like that with pop producers, too, but they are usually more in control of the structure they want. Whereas with hip-hop, it essentially all starts over a production loop. If it’s a pop song, the structure kind of dictates the change-ups. But in hip-hop — and I think that’s why I prefer it — the structure is much more free to just be like, “Hey we can just drop something out here.”
With Big Sean, I met him at No I.D.’s studio. I met No I.D. through Vic Mensa. Other than with Vic, I’ve worked with No I.D. more than any other producer or artist. Somewhere along the line, Big Sean pulled up and No I.D. introduced us and he took my number. Then he didn’t hit me for a few months, but I’d been working with Ant Clemons and he also told Sean about me. He invited me to his house and I brought a violinist over to do some strings on some stuff and worked with him a few more times. Then he flew me out to New York a few weeks later because he was performing with DJ Khaled on Saturday Night Live. We did sessions in New York with Take A Daytrip and I was in that crew for a minute. From that initial time, my stuff from the Lil Wayne track “Don Life” made it (to Detroit 2). I replayed the whole Michael Jackson sample on that in the room in 20 minutes.”
Nipsey Hussle feat. JAY-Z — “What It Feels Like”
I think I did some strings on it and they’re more towards the end. It’s funny ’cause I also did this other big string section. There’s like an 8-minute version of that song, and in that version, I have strings for a significant part of it. I’m still credited because (Lawrence) “Rance” (Thompson) is a nice guy, but there might be zero of anything I did on that song as it is now. JAY-Z exec produced it, and the edit he did was missing my entire section. But it’s fucking sick. The way it happened was an Ant Clemons thing. He’s on there too. But most of what he did might’ve also gotten cut. There’s like four more features on it but they were all on that section. Even when it came out they were like, “There may be a deluxe,” but at this point, I don’t think it’s ever coming out. I may eventually chop that violin audio and use it for something else though.
Nas feat. Puff Daddy & 070 Shake — “Not For Radio”
That was the period I was working with Mike Dean a lot and Kanye [West.] Mike Dean hit me up on Twitter after my Yeethoven show. Then the second time we did Yeethoven I invited him, but he was out of town. He sent his people to do some recognizance to see if it was cool and see if I was cool. Then by that point, I’d been working with Vic a bunch, and Vic had mentioned me to him. So Mike brought me into work on Desiigner with him and I did two songs on the L.O.D Ep. Then three months later Kanye announced his five albums in five weeks [campagin] so I texted Mike.
So it’s 4 albums into the 5. I’d been listening to the other ones but I hadn’t been involved. Mike texted me while I was at a session and was like, “Can you get me an orchestra and a choir by tonight?” I thought about it for two minutes and was like, “Sure.” (More like) absolutely no way but I’ll figure this out. But you gotta say yes ’cause I knew what he was working on. They wanted me to replay this orchestral thing from The Hunt for Red October. They just didn’t want to clear it. This is pretty common because you can replay it exactly and you don’t have to clear the master ’cause it’s new audio. That entire orchestra and choir in that song is just my one violinist who came over at 11 pm after I got home from that session and recorded these parts that I wrote out. It was maybe five parts and three takes of each. I didn’t have it down to a science at that time because it was one of the first times I ever did this. Then the choir is just me singing. The original is in Russian, but I don’t speak Russian. I didn’t know what the words were. I just listened by ear and wrote down a transcription of some nonsense syllables that felt like the right vibe. I had a roommate at the time, and she was going to bed so I went up to the garage so I could belt. I did 40 or 50 takes of me belting out this part and pitched down the voicing for how I thought it should sound. Then there’s timpani which is just midi from Logic and crash cymbals. I think the choir sounds I made helped a lot because just one violin stacked and midi production may not sound like an orchestra. With the choir, the overtones were filled out. So I texted Mike a rough and emailed him stems. He woke up in the morning and said, “Yeah this’ll work.”
That one’s crazy ’cause it’s one of the first sounds on the album. Nas just says, “Escobar season begins,” then it’s just me and nothing else happening. I didn’t know it was gonna get used necessarily and I didn’t know where it was gonna sit. When they did the listening party in New York I wasn’t there. I watched on the live stream in a session with this dude Pell and my friend Mika. Then when they started it was the very first fucking thing. I was like, “Holy shit!” I confirmed it was mine because halfway through the song they cut out the orchestra and just left the choir, which you couldn’t do if it was the actual sample because they didn’t have the stems. It was fucking crazy. That is one of my proudest ones.
We were chasing the deal on that for like a year, by the way. I just wasn’t in the thing enough to know how this even works. They weren’t just like, “Oh cool so when the record comes out we’re gonna offer you this publishing.” The album was being mixed more or less the day after I did that shit. The tracklist was being changed and there wasn’t any concept of that at all. If my manager had never hit the label about it I probably just never would’ve been credited. Mike probably would’ve gotten me credit, but it probably never would’ve been paid for. I think that was the first time I was like, “Oh that’s what a manager does.” We had only been working together for five months at that point and I was like, “Oh, I didn’t even know I could get paid for this.” I’m always looking at it as, “What’s the opportunity?” Like maybe if I get closer to Mike I can meet Kanye. But also I just love doing this shit and these moments are crazy.
Teyana Taylor feat. Lauryn Hill — “We Got Love“
At the end of that week, Mike was like, “You around this week for Teyana? It’s gonna be a lot of strings and stuff.” Then I was like, “Great…who’s Teyana Taylor?” I didn’t even know at first they were working on a Nas album. I knew there were five albums but I didn’t know who the five were and I was really ignorant coming from a classical place.
So Mike just sent me the full album and there were like 9 or 10 songs that were gonna get whittled down to the 7. Then he brought me to meet Kanye and he was cool and very brief. He was like, “We want string bridges like Frank Sinatra.” I actually took a big lesson from that as I had just begun to work strings into my own records. His thing was — and I’ve noticed it looking back on shit like Yeezus — if you want people to notice something that’s an interesting element, it’s really good to have that be the only thing happening at the point you want them to notice it. If you’re like, “This final chorus will be bigger if we just throw some strings on it,” when you’re listening in headphones you’ll hear the strings, but if you’re listening on the radio you’re really just gonna hear the vocals, drums, and bass. Those are always the three most important things in the mix. On the Teyana thing, they were like, “We want strings in these sections and nothing else happening in the song.” That didn’t pan out as much as I imagined it would, but there are some on the album like “Rose In Harlem” which has my strings during as well as a big strings outro and “Issues/Hold On” also has a strings outro that I did. On K.T.S.E. is also when I started doing the vocal stacks. “3 Way” feat. Ty Dolla $ign has this opening texture with humming and “ooo’s” that’s all me, too. Later on the phone, Kanye was like, “I like the strings, but I love that vocal thing!” So I was like, “Alright cool, ima just do that for the rest of my life now.” I was just like, “What else can I do besides strings that’ll be interesting?”
So “We Got Love” was on that album. You can see this pretty clearly if you watch the listening party for K.T.S.E. It was on the album, then suddenly not on the album. Then it was on Yandhi and Kanye performed it on Saturday Night Live as his own song with Teyana featured on it and apparently shot a video for it. Then they put it out on her next album and the outro is another one of those Kanye string outros he wanted. I demoed it with a cello and a violin pitched down, which was on SNL. But at some point, they went over it with another orchestra. It’s one of my favorite ones.
There’s also another project that came up later that never got used. Kanye apparently wanted an orchestral version of all five albums. They hit up this woman, Caroline Shaw, that I know from the classical world, who hit me up and was like, “I just wanna make sure you’re involved in this.” I orchestrated and wrote versions of one song off Ye, one off the [Kid] Cudi album, and maybe two off the Pusha[-T] album and no one will ever hear them.
Lil Nas X feat. Nas — “Rodeo”
That was one of the rare ones where an A&R actually connected us. My manager said I should meet one of the top guys at Columbia, Greg Johnson. I had breakfast with him and he was like, “Have you heard of Lil Nas X?” Then I was like, “I have not,” and within 12 hours I heard about Lil Nas X like four more times. “Old Town Road” wasn’t on the radio yet and they had just signed him like three days before. It was go time, but they didn’t realize how big that shit was gonna be. They were like, “He’s in LA and we’re tryna set up sessions for him. He’s not into sessions with big producers who just come in and play beats. He wants to work with interesting people who want to work with him and make new shit.” They thought I’d be different ’cause I do orchestras. I’m pretty sure I was his fifth or sixth session ever. At that point, he had worked with Take A Daytrip and maybe a couple other people. We wrote a couple songs. He has his debut album still coming up and he’s teased one of the ones we wrote together in the past on his Instagram. All his fans call it “The Whistle Song.” It’s similar to other songs he has out so maybe they’ll never use it.
Then we wrote an Adele-style piano ballad that I really like. It was nothing like that other one. So we stayed in touch and later I also arranged strings on the song “Kick It” from his first EP. He texted me and asked me to throw strings on it real quick and I actually arranged it on a laptop in an Uber on the way to a Sabrina Claudio session. It probably wasn’t that urgent, but I didn’t wanna fuck it up working with the guy who had the biggest song on the planet, so I sent it that night.
Then I met Daytrip through Big Sean, and the “Rodeo” version I’m on is not the one from the EP, but the one with Nas for The Grammys which happened much later. Daytrip hit me up and were like, “Do you wanna give this some Ennio Morricone brass and strings, cowboy movie shit?” I completely understood what they were going for ’cause the song already has that vibe. I was trying a bunch of stuff and texting back and forth. I always say with artists, “The real way to do this is I should arrange strings and hire someone then the label should clear the cost of that.” But every once in a while, when I think it’s something that can only get done that way, I’ll front the money myself and eat the cost if it never comes out. But then (sometimes) if no one wants to do that and I can do it I’ll just chop up strings I have lying around. That song really pushed the limits of what can be done that way. I don’t think melodies really sound good chopped up. Every note that a violin plays, if they change a bow there’s a texture and a way the speed of the note stops. You can’t fake that by just moving around audio and doing fades. But on that song, I did my best. There’s a lot of reverb and all just chopped-up strings. The melody’s the most jerry-rigged nonsense ever. The brass, I’m not even gonna say where it’s from, but it’s just audio I had lying around.
Vic Mensa feat. Chance The Rapper & Wyclef Jean — “Shelter”
I met Vic through his co-manager who was working with Scooter Braun who was also managing him. He came to my Yeethoven show. When I met Mike Dean I did this all more efficiently, but with Vic, it was like, “Let’s get the cost of the musicians cleared and get a whole quartet.” We did strings for eight songs, and even though most didn’t get used, some did on his album The Autobiography.
By the time this new one came, I was much more like, “Send me the song and I’ll arrange some shit on my computer. Then send it over to my violinist.” She records at home and sends me the audio back and I clean it up and send it over. That one I actually tried to do with just the chopped-up audio, but it didn’t work with what he wanted. He sent me a reference with fancy transitions and jazz chords so I actually had to arrange it ’cause I really wanted to get on the track.
With that (situation), now I will hire the violinist and say, “Let’s get you half of your fee upfront and the rest if it comes out ’cause it’s such a good opportunity.” When I arranged it, I tried to give it this old-school Hollywood sound like Frank Sinatra in the ’60s and ’70s. A big aspect of it is the slides in the chords. When I wrote it, there were jazz notations with a downward curving little line that means a hit with a fall off. Jazz musicians use those all the time, but classical musicians might’ve never seen them before. The notation is a way for me to communicate what I need from my violinist Yazmine. That was a time I wished I was in person so I could sing the parts for her because they were so different. But because of quarantine, we did it remotely and even sometimes had a call while she was recording and it turned out great I think. Vic loved it and pretty much used the whole thing.
John Legend — “Favorite Place”
This guy named Digi, who’s a producer who works with Khalid and a lot of people, said he needed strings for this John Legend shit. In that case, he wanted me to help sell the song and convince John to fall in love with it. There were actually two that we worked on and I kind of liked the other one better. The lyrics were kind of strange, but I liked the music. It was about how his love is a boat or something. But “Favorite Place” was another one where I hit my violinist and asked if she’d do it on the cheap. Then if it came out she’d get her full pay. But it was John Legend so we all did it. The funny thing with that one is our strings are on the record, but John has an in-house string ensemble. Or at least a guy he works with. Mine are on there, but the ones mostly audible are another layer that was added by a different musician.
Channel Tres feat. Tyler The Creator — “Fuego”
That one has this big ambient vocal outro with an adlib with a lot of autotune, reverb, and delay. It has a Bon Iver style vocal and then these jazzy chords. I’m aware that a lot of people are gonna use my shit as intros and outros, so a lot of times they’ll send me a song that’s a certain length and I’ll add stuff on top of the song. But then (I’ll) also extend the length of it in both directions so they hear it that way. Then a lot of the time the stuff on top won’t get used but the outro or intro will. There’s a really hard drum beat that’s a part of that song with a dance tempo. My stuff is the contrast to that. Again, it’s what I learned from Kanye that the value of this stuff is greater when it’s the only thing happening. I have Channel on this other upcoming project of mine that’s contemporary classical music, rappers, and singers. It’s a quarantine project I made that’s highly atonal chaotic shit.
Johan Lenox feat. Kota The Friend & Lil Keed — “Throwback Thursday”
I actually fully wrote my part on that. Usually, I co-write with other songwriters. My friend Franz produced the original demo and then I took it from him and added a lot of strings. It felt like a big song, but it felt too happy for where my album is. The chords are very poppy and my album is a bit darker. I wanted the most random possible features. Kota and Keed are the biggest possible contrast. Not even remotely in the same world. Kota is the more obvious fit for what that song is, the more backpacky pop song about being in middle school and missing that shit.
Then for the Keed part, he sent me this verse for the beat that I had that was really slow. So I was like, “What if I cut out this beat entirely and make this whole new orchestral section to go around this?” I was trying to create a journey like these Kanye records I’m such a fan of. He’s really big on putting these features that you don’t expect. I think some artists are like, “My first album’s not gonna have any features,” but for me, a lot of the fun is having these different vocal textures that I get to go in and out of. Then hearing Lil Keed over an orchestra is something no one’s probably heard before or will hear again. It’s also really funny cuz he’s just talking about getting his dick sucked with the orchestra in the background. Again, it feels sort of like Kanye. I also have a (solely) string version of it that will be out soon.
Johan Lenox feat. Cousin Stizz — Phases
I’ve been moving away from a sort of Pop inflection I noticed I was doing in LA being in Pop sessions. On my unreleased album, I went in and re-sang my vocals with a more personalized weirder vocal tone. I wanted it to feel like an instrument like everything else. “Phases” is the first single off the album. That song I wrote sitting in this chair with this microphone for five hours. One thing that it has on it is woodwinds. It has this big flute and clarinet that’s live, then also cello and violin. All the songs on the album are gonna be no synths or guitars, just orchestral instruments, drums, and vocals.
Stizz I’ve known for several years from Boston. I did a bunch of additional production and outros on his last album. So when that came around for a deal I was like, “Can I just get a feature instead?” I really like it cuz he doesn’t always do melodic shit, but he does here with a very monotonous melody. There’s something really emotional to me about him hammering that one note over and over. My melody is very acrobatic in a few spots so it’s a cool contrast.
Miki Hellerbach is a freelance music and culture journalist from Baltimore, whose work can also be found on CentralSauce, Euphoria Magazine, Notion Magazine, GUAP Magazine, and Complex. He also regularly co-hosts the In Search of Sauce music journalism podcast highlighting the top tier work of other writers.