Flint native chose homelessness to kick-start his music career, scoring reality shows, major label placement
FLINT, MI -- Flint musician Joe Ryan III wakes up to sun shining into his Los Angeles apartment and begins brainstorming song ideas before driving to a studio to write, produce and record music for Rex Rideout, vice president of A&R for Motown Records.
Recent sessions have resulted in placements for eight-time Grammy nominee Ledisi, and a collaboration between Grammy-nominated singer Kem and iconic rap star Snoop Dogg. His songs have appeared on TV shows and he did the musical score for a reality television series.
But the big time didn't come easy for the 28-year-old former church musician who slept in his car in Los Angeles until a little over a year ago while toiling his way toward the top.
"Joe Ryan is an extremely rare talent," said MC Lyte said in an email. "Multi-faceted, creating original works as an artist/producer/engineer, he's an anomaly to this industry and exactly what the business needs. He's definitely headed to the top."
Ryan began to develop his musical chops while handling piano, drums and organ duties at True Light Holiness Church on Clio Road, started by his grandfather and passed down to his father. The Flint native moved to Madison Heights at age 15, where his basketball skills earned him a spot in the Junior Olympics and a scholarship at Tiffin University.
But less than a semester into college, he was skipping class and basketball games to focus on perfecting his songwriting and production skills. He dropped out of college to pursue music and got a job in Wisconsin, where he met the mother of his children. Recording under the name J Rilla, he won a three-month contest conducted by Milwaukee's 103.7, a radio station owned by KISS FM.
After responding to a Twitter call by Lyte for new producers and writers, he began to compose for her company, Dubose Entertainment. He landed songs in "My Moment," a reality show starring Grammy-nominated R&B artist Trey Songz, and he later handled all of the scoring for the BET reality show "Toya: A Family Affair."
In 2012, Ryan won a contest with U Rock that was scheduled to send him on tour with stars such as T.I., Big Sean, Wale and Soulja Boy. But the contest fell through, and his production deal with Eddie Galan's Mark 1 label died because of differing musical philosophies. His musical career was losing momentum quickly.
After weeks of deliberation and a sleepless night, Ryan decided there was one way to resolve his career drought: send his wife and children to stay with her parents in Wisconsin, and make the 1,879-mile drive to Los Angeles to take another shot at music.
"I told her, 'We should sell everything we've got, you stay with your parents, and I'm going to go out there and make it happen," Ryan remembered. "She knows I never make decisions on other than how I feel in my spirit. Any situation I've been in musically where we have to take a loss, I've shown her ... it's to take 10 steps forward."
He reached out to Rideout, who Lyte had introduced him to a year earlier while Ryan was writing choruses for the late rap legend Heavy D in Rideout's studio. Rideout had just gotten a job at Motown as the VP of A&R, and he said he was hoping to hear back from him soon.
Ryan made the drive across the country from Wisconsin to California, and met with Rideout at the Motown offices in Santa Monica, Calif.
"'I don't have a place for you to stay,'" Ryan remembers Rideout saying, "'but I've got a studio you can work out of when you want to.'"
That was all Ryan needed. For eight months, he spent his days in the studio, working on his own music while grabbing inspiration from award-winning stars such as Pharrell and Hit-Boy, who recorded only rooms away in the same building. At night, he lived in his car, and used free seven-day passes at a variety of gyms to take showers. To sleep, he parked in the lots of McDonald's restaurants, fitness centers -- or, if he was lucky, the gated parking lot of a Hollywood studio where friends would let him in at midnight.
Rideout took notice of Ryan's vast skill set -- not only did he write and make beats, but he also had the know-how to engineer studio sessions for other artists, and to mix down the sounds of their productions to make sure they sound of music do re mi right together. He initially tasked Ryan to just work on the artists' drums, but Ryan wanted more.
"It got to a point where I'm like, 'I'm not sharpening all my skills if I'm only doing drums. I can play keys, I can write, I can do melody,'" Ryan said. He played something for Ledisi that ended up being "Missy Doubt" from her album "The Truth." He later produced fan favorite "Lose Control" from the album.
He also connected with Kem, who had his own bouts with homelessness in Detroit before becoming a Grammy-nominated singer. Kem admired Ryan's persistence, and he went to the studio one day to give him an envelope with a note and some cash -- just enough to help Ryan make his car payment that day. He also asked Ryan for production on a song, which he ended up using for an upcoming song with Snoop Dogg.
Ryan's TV scoring is also continuing. In recent weeks, he completed the scoring for "Hip Hop Sisters," an upcoming BET reality show that will star MC Lyte, Lady of Rage, Lil Mama, and other female rappers' careers. Ryan said the show is going through editing.
The process for this was different from his previous work, since this show contrasts with his other projects.
"This show is less drama-based, so it's situational and has less points of aggression. With the Toya show, they specifically needed somebody who does movie scores," he said. "With this one, it's more cue-driven -- a lot of hip-hop beats -- and I can be a little bit more free with the format."
For Ryan's birthday in February 2013, Rideout offered him a gift for his hard work: He told him to go find a place to live, and that he would take care of it.
"When he said that, I just started crying," Ryan said. "It's not comfortable sleeping in that car. Your back is hurting, and feel like you're losing your mind."
Ryan eventually finished his own album, "1879" - -named after the miles he drove from Wisconsin to Los Angeles. He released the album around his birthday in February. He wants to use the number to describe anyone's hard journey toward reaching their dreams.
"We all have goals we're trying to reach: I want 1879 to be the representation of the grind and whatever you have to do that it takes," he said.
In California, he also connected with fellow Flint native Terry Crews, who shot a video praising the record.
"It's classic, and classy--but it still got that bump, because that's what I've got to have," Crews said in the video. "You're going to enjoy it. You're going to love it."