Read how Kanye got along with Hov in 2003, and what he thought his future held before the release of The College Dropout.
Interview by Thomas Golianopoulos (@Golianopoulos)
RELATED: All "The College Dropout" Week Posts
When I first interviewed Kanye West for The Source, it was in fits and starts, 30 minutes here, 20 minutes there mostly in the back of a van as we drove through the streets of Chicago. In all, we talked for a few hours that day, enough at least to fill up two microcassettes. Those interviews from December 19, 2003 are gone. I still have the tapes, but I recorded a Fabolous interview over them in August 2004 for another Source cover story.
For our follow-up interview a few days later, Kanye was supposed to call sometime in the morning. Instead I received a phone call from Don C, his longtime friend/manager telling me Kanye couldn’t make outgoing on his phone, so I’d have to call his hotel and connect to his room through the front desk. Once on the line, Kanye (surprise!) controlled most of the conversation, and for the next 80 minutes or so elucidated on everything from his failed attempts to land a record deal to the validity of The Source’s vaunted 5-mic record rating to that time Jay-Z banned him from performing at Madison Square Garden...
What did you think of the Jay-Z shout out at the beginning of “Lucifer?”
I thought, I’m going to take that and capitalize off that. You heard the Kon the Louis Vuitton Don mixtape, and how many times I used that? I used that on every song and shit.
Did he tell you he was going to do that?
Nah, he did everything on the spot. Well, I thought it was good for him to say that, to start putting that into people’s minds. Every month I seem less and less arrogant, or less and less cocky, in interviews because I have accomplished something else I said I was going to do. In years past, people were looking at me like I’m crazy. For him to say, "Yo, you’re a genius," that’s an accomplishment for me.
My definition of genius is not being that person the actual human is a genius, but it’s a person that just allows God to work through them. Some of the shit, I definitely couldn’t have come up with a lot of that music I have out on my own. A lot of that is just me sitting back and praying. You know how people just joke about praying for a hit? Most of it is not formula based. It’s like just trying to be original and out of the blue. I feel like that’s God working through me.
I’m just going to jump around a bit because I want to fill in gaps from our last conversation. You were an English major in college. Who are some of your favorite writers?
You know, I didn’t read that much, but I can say, from the books that my mother read from when I was a little kid…the things I studied were public speaking. I took all stuff that related to being a rapper. I would definitely say Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks. I told you the story about when I met Gwendolyn Brooks when I was a little kid, right?
I forgot what grade I was in. I think it was fourth grade or sixth grade, maybe, and they had some dinner at the president of Chicago State’s house in Beverly Hills, Chicago. There is a place called Beverly Hills, Chicago. It’s an area. I moved there when I moved out my mother’s crib. They had a dinner and Gwendolyn Brooks was there and everyone was reading their poems. She said, “Do you have a poem?” I said, [switches to a high-pitched voice], “No, but I can write one real quick.” I went in the back, wrote a poem, and then read it for her and the 40 staff members.
What classes related to being a rapper?
Public speaking, piano, voice training, even though I was an English major, um, I had essays. I forgot the name of the course. My first college was…People who interview me always get this wrong. Now they can get the full information. I got a scholarship to the American Academy of Art, but it was only for one semester. It was like hook, line, and sinker—they get you in the school and then you have to pay $8000 for the next semester. My mother couldn’t afford for me to go to that school the next semester. I would have had to take out a loan, or I could go to Chicago State for real cheap because she worked there. Both her and me knew that I was going to be a rapper or work in the music field anyway.
So I left the American Academy of Art, which, in my class I was the number one student. That’s the reason why whenever we do graphics you see me spazzing on people. I can’t take it. I see certain people that I work with on art, and to me, they just remind me of students that I was in class with, and I was killing them as an art student. It’s like, you can’t really tell me about art, about layouts.
If you notice, a good point to bring up is my Source ad. I came up with all the words for my Source ad, the picture—definitely put this in. I came up with all the words that were the main bullet points, the type of font I wanted to use for the “College,” the way it said “College Dropout,” how big I want it to be. February 10th at the bottom is supposed to look like it’s on the floor but the graphics people, we were rushing that day because that was going to take five hours but The Source—and I love you guys so much for this—stayed up till 4 a.m. on the 19th on the night of the Christmas party, to 4 o’clock in the morning, Saturday morning waiting for my ad. So we didn’t have a chance to place the “February 10th” like it was a part of the basketball floor but one of the main things is that I had the words “Most Anticipated Debut Album of 2004” and “Dropping Out Second Semester” and the singles look like they were part of the bleachers.
And everybody says, “Yo, you should have made this”—and they read it off exactly what it says—and they say, “You should have made this darker so we could see it.” And I say, “Most hip-hop ads have too much information so you can’t gravitate towards one information.” This will be so good because then people will look at my ad and talk about this, if you want to put this in there because you have a point of reference in the magazine of the ad and it references to me going to art school.
The reason why I made it darker is, for one thing, I think it looks ill like it’s part of the bleachers. Another thing is, you just read to me what it says, so obviously it’s dark enough. So I asked him, "What are the first things you read?" They said, "College Dropout, February 10th." Now if you had all that other shit on there at the same time, what are you supposed to read first?
It’s one of the first hip-hop ads with the depth. It’s like the ad is moving like a video. It’s like the ad is 3-D, almost. Oh shit, look at that right there, though. That’s my explanation for that. So the art school was the first school I went to but I couldn’t afford the second semester. When I first went to Chicago State, I had prerequisites that dealt with English. I forgot what English courses. I just remember taking voice and piano.
How long were you there for?
Almost two semesters. I dropped out my second semester. I went to Chicago State second semester freshman year and I dropped out in the fall sophomore year.
Yeah. Did I tell you the story about why I dropped out of college?
Yo, that’s the craziest one. I was about to get a rap deal with Donnie Ienner at Columbia Records and he flew me in.
And you left school?
Yeah, I flew in, they wanted to sign me. I met with Mike Mauldin. I think I got in front of him and said, "Yo, I want to be bigger than Michael Jackson. I want to be bigger than Jermaine Dupri." And this is no offense to Jermaine Dupri, so you have to word it like that so it don’t come off like what JD said came off to Timbaland. [Laughs.] This is what I said as a 19-year-old before I met Jermaine Dupri. I was just trying to pump myself up to him, but I didn’t know Jermaine Dupri’s real last name was Mauldin.
So then I went in front of Donnie Ienner and he was feeling me for the most part until he hit me with those three words: "We’ll call you." What’s so funny is that they had limos, just to exaggerate, it sounded like a helicopter and secret service picked us up at the airport and after they told us, "We’ll call you," we couldn’t even catch a cab to get to the hotel. I’m dead serious. I had a Korean manager Peter King and we had to make him stand out there by himself to hail a cab for us, no car service nothing.
Once I got back to Chicago, I left school at that point and had to figure out a way to make it. I was still staying with my mother, calling A&R’s every now and then. I wish I could remember that A&R’s name. The demo they were going to sign me off of had taken a long time to come together. So here I am thinking I might have a record deal, not get my deal and try to make up songs to try and get me a deal, within a matter of a couple of days.
Nothing was up to where it should have been. Damn, I had one point I was getting to with that. I really started grinding, just trying to sell beats to people. I worked a telemarketing job. I always worked those because I always knew how to talk to people and I always knew how to sell because my father was a salesman. He used to sell vacuum cleaners, payroll services to companies, so that was natural for me to go into sales.
Plus telemarketing, I could sneak and listen to the headphones. I could never be in a situation with a job where I was not allowed to listen to music all day. I would rather work at a fast food restaurant where I could turn on the radio all day rather than be in a situation where I have to sneak and listen to music.
What happened with D Dot’s label? You said that one of your managers wouldn’t let you sign to it.
I had like three managers at that time. My whole career I’ve always had 1800 managers at one time.
I think I’m a whole lot to handle. I definitely am, on every aspect. I’m the video director. I’m the graphics designer. I’m the rapper. I’m the visionary. I’m the music producer. I’m the executive producer. I’m just going to end it off to be poetic: I’m the future of music.
And put “dot, dot, dot, humbly.”
And you’re the editor too.
Oh yeah. You know I wanted to do the lay out for this article.
Man, I could lay it out. I told everyone at The Source, man, you should have let me design my new cover. I feel like The Source should do at this point is do a new facelift to stand up for the fans and own up to the mistakes they’ve made in the past, like mic ratings they’ve done in the past that are crazy.
We did that two years. We bumped up The Chronic and The Score to five mics.
I just hope—and please put that in there—I just don’t want them to have to do that with my album. I want The Source to either give me five mics or zero. I want all or nothing. Either give me my just credit or don’t rate it. Other magazines, people think it’s good because they gave me 4 out of 5 or a B+ and all that and it makes me almost feel like crashing off the side of the road.
That’s an awful analogy for you, of all people, to make.
Yeah, but that’s how real it is. When you hear “Two Words,” and you hear after my second verse and that choir goes up but the choir starts before my verse is over because I just had to keep spitting, and the choir goes up to the second part, and that little 14 year old boy hits that crescendo note before it gets to Freeway’s verse, and the piano sprinkles behind Freeway’s verse, and after Freeway’s verse we don’t go to the original chorus but we go to an amp out that a choir would do for real, “Throw your hands up, throw your hands up, throw your hands up, throw your hands up.”
When you think about the $10,000 I spent on them, and I had to go to someplace in the Hamptons, or near the Hamptons, that looked like Camp Crystal Lake off a scary movie, and round the Harlem Boys Choir up after the label had countlessly never listened to me, and then finally listened to me and tried to force me to get the Hezekiah Walker Choir because they are only $3500 but after they did it, it wasn’t really good, and I was set on getting the Harlem Boys Choir.
I got those 16 boys all in the room and designed that whole track for them to sing that, and the way Mos Def’s voice sounds on that, “Red! Black! Green! Motherfuckers, get back,” and the way we put an effect on the piano so it sounds like it’s an electric guitar but it’s not, it’s just like an amp driven guitar, and it hits the crescendo at the end so it’s like three endings. I do that on so many formats. I gave you three endings on the “Through the Wire” video. I gave you three endings on “Two Words.” And then I hear that and they gave me 4 out of 5.
Who gave you 4 out of 5?
I’m not going to say their names. Magazines gave me a B+.
Who gave you a B+?
I’m not going to say their names.
Spin gave you a B+
I don’t want to reference their names. Okay, Vibe gave me a 4, Spin gave me a B+
Well for you, as a new artists, it’s a big deal that Spin reviewed your album because they don’t do hip-hop like that.
Spin is a rock magazine. They are probably more of a rock magazine than Rolling Stone at this point.
But my music is rock. I listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers and I listen to one of my songs, and if I don’t give you the same emotion that Anthony Kiedis is, then I go back and re-spit.
Do you find more inspiration in rock music than hip-hop nowadays?
Most definitely. Wait, I want to finish my vamp out on how it affects me, and how those ratings affect me. When I hear “Two Words” and I really look at how its put together, and everything I went through, I go through what someone goes through to make an album, like you know how The Blueprint was made in two weeks, “Two Words” took three weeks itself. “Slow Jamz” took three weeks itself. “Jesus Walks” took me four months to write that second verse. “Drug Dealing” took me like eight months to finish writing that, that was one of the hardest songs for me to write.
This rating, for them to only give me a 4, it crushes me because I know that I know I’m going to keep on making good music for the fans, but I know they’ll never ever ever ever be another “Through the Wire”—ever. “Through the Wire” could be a song on an album with a lot of other mediocre songs and you have to give that album….
”Slow Jamz,” no critic wants to give me credit, they thought it was a joke, now it’s no. 1. “Jesus Walks,” those samples, you can’t just go find those samples. I’ve heard people try to do fake “Jesus Walks.” I heard two of them come out last year but I’m not going to name what songs they were. Y’all know what they are—fake ass “Jesus Walks.”
There’s only one real “Jesus Walks.” And that album that has “Jesus Walks” on it deserves 6’s because it started the other ones. It was the beginning of the other ones just like how Blueprint was the beginning. As much shit as you want to talk about The Source, that five mic rating is the holy grail for anyone that’s striving for perfection in hip hop. I don’t know if hip-hop can be perfect but I feel like this album, The College Dropout is over-perfection.
The songs that I chose are all based on the fans. I could give the critics all the songs that they want but the fans need shit that they can just vibe off of and that’s who I’m making this album for. This All Star Game, you are going to hear Kanye West just like you heard the should’ve-been-5-mic 50 Cent album at last year’s All Star Game.
Who else did we drop the ball on?
dead prez, please put this in there and let me just voice my opinion. On the same token of me voicing my opinion, I’m also saying that I feel like that 5 mic rating is the most important rating you can get in hip-hop.
You can say anything you want about The Source: “I don’t read The Source blah blah blah,” “I hate them, blah, blah, blah,” but there is nothing that can be said over getting the 5 mics. I felt like dead prez was 5 mics. 50 Cent was 5 mics. Of course The Score, oh my God, are you serious? Did they give The Chronic 5 mics?
Nah, 4.5 the first time.
Did they give what’s his name 5 mics? Ready to Die?
Not the first time around.
Yeah. What about the first three Tribe Called Quest installments?
The first two got 5 mics, Midnight Marauders got a 4.
So Midnight Marauders got a 4?
Look at this, Midnight Marauders was a 4. Do you want me to bring up other albums that got a 4 and you’re going to tell me they are equal?
It’s a different staff. What can you do?
But it’s the same magazine. When you see that bear in that ad, when you see that ad without me on it, when you think about what I had to go through at the label to not have myself on that ad, the thing is at this point everybody can have their opinions, and Dame and Biggs will say, "He hasn’t fucked his career up to this point, just listen to him."