His real name is Stephen Feigenbaum, but it would be a bit much, even in today’s relatively tolerant music industry, to walk into a recording session in Los Angeles or Atlanta and introduce himself as Stephen Feigenbaum. Thus, in his life as a solo artist and classical-hip-hop producer, he goes through Johan Lenox. “Johan” is for Bach (perhaps you have heard of him). “Lenox” is for the town in western Massachusetts where he went to a classical music summer camp run by Tanglewood. “I was the kid who came home from high school and started a Bartók quartet,” he recently said. Pop music, for him, was the Boston Pops paying homage to John Williams. “Other kids would be, like, ‘Pharrell this, Arcade Fire that,’ and I’d be, like, ‘Cool, I have no idea what that is.’ ”
He studied music theory and composition at Yale, where he won a Charles Ives Fellowship and a Morton Gould Young Composer Award. A neighbor, Greg Berman, went to Brown. During a Thanksgiving break in 2010, Berman threw a party. He put on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, Kanye West’s sprawling instant album. It had been out for less than a week, but everyone at the party had already heard it – everyone except Lenox, who was in a state of mind to listen carefully. “I can’t remember if the acid hit first or the Kanye hit first,” he recalled. “All I know is I felt something click, like, Shit, there’s a lot more going on here, musically, than I ever imagined.” The next day, after the acid dissipated, the album still held. Along with his homework – twelve-tone and other compositions – he started tinkering with Kanye West covers on the side. “There was this idea in the classical world, which I totally bought into without realizing it, that you could make sophisticated music, or you could be culturally relevant, but the days when ‘music serious ‘could be part of mass culture was in the past,” he said. “Suddenly it was: But what if you could do both?
A few years later, first in collaboration with the Young Musicians Foundation, in Los Angeles, then at Lincoln Center, he and a friend gave a concert called “Yeethoven”. A seventy-piece orchestra played excerpts from Beethoven interspersed with symphonic arrangements by Lenox to the rhythms of Kanye West (the “Egmont” overture juxtaposed with “New Slaves”; “Blood on the Leaves” leading to the Symphony #5). Mr. Hudson, a songwriter and frequent Kanye collaborator, was in the audience in Los Angeles; he showed up after the show, one thing led to another, and Lenox started passing through the studio. Kanye works with a rotating stable of writers and producers. Lenox began to work his way into the outer circle. “They’re going to do something, and in the moment, depending on what the song needs, they’ll decide who to bring in,” he said. “’This guy has the best drums.’ ‘She’s crazy with the lyrics.’ Or, when they needed an instrumental outing or an interlude – something with strings or woodwinds or whatever – they started calling me.
These days, Lenox lives in Los Feliz. His first solo album, “WDYWTBWYGU”, was released last month; on its cover, a blond kid playing on a suburban lawn while, over his shoulder, the world burns. Shortly before its release, Lenox drove across town for a night and Berman, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, offered his couch. Berman connected his phone to a Bluetooth stereo and played selections from “Johan Lenox: Songs I Helped Create,” a Spotify playlist that runs for more than ten hours.
“A lot of times the mission is incredibly open,” Lenox said. “They send a beat and say ‘Fill in the little void at the end’ or ‘This has to go somewhere new’ – that’s it. You just try shit, and they either like it or they don’t. In 2018, while Kanye was in Wyoming, producing an album for singer Teyana Taylor, one of his studio engineers sent Lenox some raw material, more or less out of the blue. just messed around for a while and threw a bunch of stuff back at them,” he said — contrapuntal strings and stacks of backing vocals. (It wasn’t his first time experimenting with vocal harmony ; at Yale he had sung a cappella with the Whiffenpoofs.)” In Berman’s living room, Lenox played these bits from Taylor’s album: a swaggering autobiographical manifesto called “Rose in Harlem,” an alternate sex ballad called “3Way”.
“Are you on this one?” Berman asked.
“You can hear the voices if you listen carefully,” Lenox said. ♦