His Relationship With Kanye West

A lot of the late resurgence of your career has to do with Kanye. He would bring it up all the time, like, ‘No ID’s my mentor and I learned from him.’ How has your relationship with Kanye affected your career?
I’ll be the first to say it helped me, period. The one thing, being humble enough to tell you, is even if you help someone or teach someone, that doesn’t mean they can’t help or teach you. It’s just not like that.

He always gave it up to me, in my opinion, because I’ve never tried to claim anything or ask him for anything or take anything for what I did do to help him. I think he went through so much with people and people felt entitled. For me, I never felt entitled to anything. I always just gave.

The law of life is, you give and you receive. It didn’t surprise me that I would receive. It surprised everyone that he would give to me like that. It’s just the energy of the universe. Everything is what it is. I give to people when I don’t even have a reason to give to people. I gave to him and never asked for anything.

 

I never wanted to even say that I was his mentor. I never once even said that. When you think about it, I never said, like, ‘Yeah I taught Kanye West’ This is what he says. I always thought of myself as the male figure that he didn’t have growing up because his father wasn’t around.

 

I never wanted to even say that I was his mentor. I never once even said that. When you think about it, I never said, like, ‘Yeah I taught Kanye West’ This is what he says. I always thought of myself as the male figure that he didn’t have growing up because his father wasn’t around.

Music stuff was there too, but a lot of the things we’ve always talked about was more about life than just music. With music, we was competitive but were helping each other. It just so happens that when I met him, I helped him get to a certain level before he could help me see things.

Since then, it’s just been back and forth with any talented people. Nobody really ever asked me what I thought. They just say, “You mentored him and taught him.” If you really want my word on the record, I helped him early and he helped me later.

No one ever asked me that. They always say we know you did this and we know you did that. Maybe I did, but I never once used that as a platform for anything. Anything I ever did was out of pure giving at the moment, and it was never planned.

You say ‘I helped him early, he helped me late.’ You’ve known him a very long time—since way before he was famous.
Absolutely. He was a young teenager, maybe 14 or 15 years old.

What was he like as a teenager?
The same way he is now. [Laughs.] Not too much different, just a younger kid with less responsibilities and stress. A little less chasing the girls.

I once heard a story about him getting up on a table...
Well I wasn’t there. I’m not gonna act like I was there. He told me about it too. But it was just so many different things that happened. The stories are endless. Earlier on, I actually co-managed him with this guy Peter Kang, that was Common’s A&R. After a while, I said, “You know what man? We’re gonna stay friends and I’m gonna help you, but I can’t do this. I’ll go crazy.”

Why is that?
Just because that’s a hell of a personality to manage. I only have so much capacity as a creative person. That would’ve been a full-time job and I’m a producer. I wouldn’t cheat him by sitting in some position trying to make some money off of him, when I can let capable people step in and help him get where he needed to get.

You mentioned there’s a million stories. Is there one you can tell that comes to mind?

 

One day, me we took Kanye to meet [former Sony Music Chairman] Donnie Ienner, and Kanye danced around singing this song and saying, ‘I’m gonna be the next Michael Jackson.’ To us, it was like, ‘This is hip-hop! What are
you talking about? Are you kidding me?’ 

 

I’ll tell one story. One day, me and Peter took Kanye to meet [former Sony Music Chairman] Donnie Ienner, and Kanye danced around singing this song and saying, "I’m gonna be the next Michael Jackson." To us, it was like, "This is hip-hop! What are you talking about? Are you kidding me?"

A bunch of other things that were kind of outlandish at that stage in his development was when we met with [former Columbia Records president] Michael Mauldin and he said “I want to be better than Jermaine Dupri!” I’m like, “Are you crazy? That’s Jermaine’s father! Why would you say that?” [Laughs.] Just a lot of silly things happened that day.

After that meeting, that was the day I said, “You know what? I’m gonna fall back.”

Years later, Michael Jackson called him and asked him about his jacket that he wore in “Stronger.” I said, “Oh my God! This dude got Michael Jackson calling him!” It was just the irony of it all. I was like, maybe this is this generation’s “that” guy—in the sense of Michael Jackson with the beaded jacket and the Billie Jean socks.

So if you and Kanye don’t have a mentor relationship, what kind of relationship do you have?
I’m not saying we don’t, I’m just saying that I never would have said that word. I don’t know what it is, because I don’t try to access it. It just is. I felt like he was a younger guy, so he wasn’t like my friend like the way Common was my friend. We have a different friendship from a younger-older guy sense.

He says Jay is his big brother, but I feel like a brother. I don’t know if I’m big, little, equal, or whatever it is. We’re more like brothers—fighting when we want to, arguing when we want to, be there or not be there, don’t talk for six months or talk every day. A brother, more than a big brother or the brother. That’s my brother.

You mentioned fighting. One thing about both of you guys is you definitely don’t bite your tongue for anybody. It seems like there could be an epic clash there.

 

Years later, Michael Jackson called him and asked him about his jacket that he wore in 'Stronger.' I said, 'Oh my God! This dude got Michael Jackson calling him!'

 

Nah, because I know how to fall back. I don’t think he falls back. [Laughs.] There was a lot of times where I was like, ‘Okay. Alright. Anyway...’

What was one of those times?
I don’t know, but it could be like when he’s dating. I’m like, “Why are you doing that?” He will voice his opinion to the fullest and sometimes he doesn’t even believe what he’s saying. He’ll say it to test it, and then come back later to say you were right about this or that.

If I know I’m right I just fall back and say, ‘Okay, cool. Nah, do that.” Then later he’ll come back, like, “I know, man. I just had to see.”

Has dealing with Kanye, who's got such a strong personality, been training for dealing with all the other personalities you have to deal with nowadays?
Oh, absolutely. From dealing with him, I’m a master. No one can get to me! [Laughs.]

Life as a Producer and A&R

People refer to you as the “Godfather of Chicago hip-hop.” Do you covet that title? Or is it just something that people say?
I never said it. [Laughs.]. My motto, and it’s a real motto that I go by that keeps me in a good place, is I treat everything as if I’ve never done anything. When I sit down to work on something or someone, that’s what keeps me in a humble place. I don’t remember what I did. I don’t even think about what I did. I’m absolutely not going to name what I did.

I view myself every day as someone who’s trying to make some good music to impress this year’s 17-year-old or 27-year-old or 37-year-old or 47-year-old—who isn’t yesterday’s 47-year-old and so on. So it’s just always a new, fresh challenge. You get caught up into what you did and you’re out of here. I’ve seen it.

I’m one of the few, if not the last—depending on how you look at it—people from my era that can still make relevant records. You have Dr. Dre falling back and Jermaine Dupri going off and doing something else. That longevity is priceless, and it comes from not dancing in the end zone after you finally score a touchdown.

What kind of knowledge do you impart on the young guys like Big Sean or J. Cole when you work with them?
Quality and cohesion. Just being able to make a project that makes sense as a whole product. That’s hard nowadays because that’s not the corporate view. That’s not what the company will say. They’ll say, make a smash around the world.

 

I bet Quincy Jones never gave anybody a beat in his life. That’s really not the role of a producer, to give somebody an instrumental and say, “Write a song.” I’m sure he didn’t say, “Yo Mike, I got this beat. You should put a scary guy at the end and it’ll be something like ‘Thriller.’” That’s just not really the historic way records are made.

 

I would say, “Look at the people you like the most, who sell the most over years and years and stay around. Are they the people that make the biggest smashes around the world? Or are they the people that put their heart and soul in their music and made a cohesive presentation of that?”

What A&Ring should be: helping set-up a process, a template, in order to get the best out of the label and the talent. What a producer is, it’s like, “Okay, let me take that and take it to the fullest extent that it can be taken and make it fit at the same time.” A lot of times people will say, “Do you have a beat?” I’m like, “No. I don’t have any beats. Lets make some songs.” It’s a process that’s long been left out of our music.

Rock-n-roll and country, they make songs. They’re not passing instrumentals around. They don’t do that. They don’t say, “Hey, write to my beat?” I don’t even know what you call it in country. [Laughs.] It’s like, “You got a song? Produce that song.”

It seems like you’re hinting at the difference between being a beatmaker and a producer. A beatmaker may make some sounds, whereas a producer is actually in the studio and works almost in the capacity of an A&R.
Absolutely. I’ll say this: I bet Quincy Jones never gave anybody a beat in his life. That’s really not the role of a producer, to give somebody an instrumental and say, “Write a song.” I’m sure he didn’t say, “Yo Mike, I got this beat. You should put a scary guy at the end and it’ll be something like ‘Thriller.’” That’s just not really the historic way records are made.

It’s a process that should really be discussed, envisioned, and executed in stages—not just, “Here’s the beat. Write a song. Okay, there it is,” and then all the other songs, the producer didn’t have anything to do with the process. I think that’s why albums don’t sound as good today.

If you were in the studio, and you met with a rapper for the first time, and they asked for a beat, would you not give them one?
It depends on the situation, but I would frown upon it. A lot of people I work with don’t understand it and they think maybe I’m Hollywood. They walk out afterwards and they say, “Man, this guy didn’t even give me no beats.” But the people that I do work with and exercise these principles with, we get the best results—all the time.

I’m not trying to work with everybody anyway. I’m just trying to work with who I can work with. It’s not like I’m trying to get a beat to everyone who’s popular. It doesn’t matter. It’s like, “Do you want to work with me, and discuss music, and try ideas, and spend more than a day or two?”

You get a lot of people, like, “Okay, this person, they’re big time, so you’ve got two days. What you got?” I’m like, “Okay, well, maybe that’s not for me. I’m not trying to put some music in your hands, and you walk away with it for a year and a half and decide to put it out, and I haven’t touched it since and it hasn’t grown.” There’s just a lot of silly things going on in the way that we have it set up.

Why do you think hip-hop ended up in this weird situation?

 

I always joke with Nas and tell him it’s his fault, that Illmatic caused a problem. Before that, when I started doing music, there wasn’t a concept of, “I could work on a Public Enemy album,” It was a closed issue. You didn’t submit a beat to Pete Rock and CL Smooth. When Nas didn’t have a DJ-producer in his set-up, he reached out to some of the better people and they respected him enough to work on it. That was the, “Oh wow. You can work with these guys?”

 

It’s the hustle. You get hustlers, you get people who come from street backgrounds, who want to maximize the hustle of the game, and it’s not about quality music. You get a person who wants to go onstage and stand by themselves because they’ll make more money—versus somebody like Kanye, who will spend a lot of the show money to make the show great. It’s that hustler mentality.

Country music artists and rock artists, they’re just interested in the quality. They’re not even worried about the first week sales. They’re doing what they do, and they’re cool with whatever the results are because it’s really what they want to do.

In urban music, there’s a lot of, “Damn, man, I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to make the most money, get the most cars, the most this, and the most that.” It doesn’t have anything to do with creative anything. It’s a pure hustle.

It’s like, “Who’s the hottest person? We need them. Let’s go find all the hottest people.” It’s not, “Hey, I’ve got a vision for this music, this album, and this product, and what it’s going to represent, and how it’s going to sound, and this person can bring that out the best, whether they’re the most famous person or not.” My favorite albums, and classics, most of them weren’t done by a lot of producers anyway.

Right, the era of the super-producer. In the 2000s there were a lot of records where you had to get a big name guy for your single or else it didn’t really work out for you.
Yeah. I always joke with Nas and tell him it’s his fault, that Illmatic caused a problem. Before that, when I started doing music, there wasn’t a concept of, “I could work on a Public Enemy album,” or an Ice Cube album, or A Tribe Called Quest, or Gang Starr. It was a closed issue. You didn’t submit a beat to Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth.

When Nas didn’t have a DJ-producer in his set-up, he reached out to some of the better people and they respected him enough to work on it. That was the, “Oh wow. You can work with these guys?” Then you had Puff put together The Hitmen and have success, and I think that’s when it turned into, “Well, using a lot of people might work better.”

Through the 2000s that was pretty much what you saw. There were hip-hop albums where every song had its own producer.
Yeah. I really think that’s the worst thing for albums ever. If you look before the ‘90s, you might not find many—if any—albums with multiple producers. It just didn’t exist in the history of music.

That would have been like Michael Jackson telling Quincy Jones, “Look man, I know we did well on Off The Wall, but I’m hot now, and I need to see some other producers for Thriller.” It just doesn’t make sense.

There’s great producers he could’ve worked with, but that’s why it sold 100 million. He made a commitment and a decision with a vision, and the writers came together and worked and put these things together, and the producer coordinated and put it together and made it cohesive.

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