Pledge Week: Kanye West in the final countdown to The College Dropout
Interview by Donnie Kwak (@KwakaFlocka)
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Around the time I first interviewed Kanye in 2003, I was freelancing for a bunch of different magazines, mostly writing short profiles of “artists on the rise.” Until I wrote about them, that is. Looking back through my clips now, my byline must've been like the kiss of death: Lumidee. Da Band. Mike Shorey. Jin. Young Gunz. (Well, at least Chris and Neef are still kicking around.)
Most of my interview subjects were younger than me—teenagers, still basking in that happy-to-have-a-deal phase. But Kanye, like his Big Brother, was relatively old and industry-hardened by the time of his first album. In fact, we were (and are) the same age. On June 11, three days after he turned 26, I called his house in Hoboken to talk to him for a KING magazine piece.
Going into the convo, I knew of Kanye as a dope producer but not much else. I remember that his verse on Jay-Z’s “The Bounce” caught my ear, as well as some random freestyle on a Roc-A-Fella mixtape. Honestly, though, I thought of his upcoming debut the same way I would have had Just Blaze announced back then that he was going to embark on a rap career—not exactly skepticism, but not really anticipation, either.
Reading this transcript for the first time in over 10 years, I’m struck now by how the whole interview feels so timelessly Kanye. There are contentious moments, bold proclamations, brief glimpses of insecurity…plus a shitload of raps. Like six full, uninterrupted verses. And that’s not including his warbled rendition of John Mayer’s “No Such Thing.”
Apparently, his impromptu talent show wasn’t enough to impress the 10-years-ago me. At the end of our interview, Kanye invited me to Quad Studio to listen to an early version of “The Workout Plan.” I declined, saying I had to stay at work—a weak excuse that I find totally comical today. Like the umpteen nameless A&Rs that passed on Kanye during his come-up, I found him interesting enough, but not so much so that I was moved to act. And that’s why I’m never getting invited to Hawaii. Or Paris.
Epilogue: I spent an entire day hanging out with Lumidee.
How you doin?
Where are you at now?
I'm at the crib. In Hoboken.
So how's everything going?
Artist woes of like, trying to break through and figure out which record I'ma come with. The problem isn't that I don't have a record to come with—I do have a single to come with. We just have to decide on which one I'm gonna do. Because I got so many incredible records. Do we want to jump to "Jesus Walks" right now or do we want to hold it? You know what I’m saying?
I’ve been hearing things on the tapes and stuff. Do you find it a little frustrating being on a roster with so many acts coming out at the same time?
Well it would be frustrating if Gee and Hip Hop weren't my managers. They're setting it up where they're gonna be doing a lot of the work for me that a label would usually do. They're the Vice Presidents of Atlantic Records. They manage me. Being that I'm under them, they can do a lot of work, and I put together my own team. Under my production company, my cousin, my assistant ... like, I put together my own little baby label and that's how I put out our mixtapes and press up the T-shirts and whatever little shit that we have. Before I had a publicist, my cousin would know somebody and Plain Pat would know somebody at The Source .... You know what I’m sayin?
Is it similar to how Dipset is on Roc-A-Fella, but they have their own piece of the pie?
Depending on how you word it. I wouldn't word it like that. I don't have a label deal. I had to make my own people that’s focused on Kanye West. That's the only way it would work. If I was to leave it up to Roc-A-Fella, I don't know exactly what the situation would be. You got to create your own buzz. You gotta go out there and work. The hard part is afteryou get a deal.
I had to make my own people that’s focused on Kanye West. That's the only way it would work. If I was to leave it up to Roc-A-Fella, I don't know exactly what the situation would be. You got to create your own buzz. You gotta go out there and work. The hard part is after you get a deal.
Talk about doing the mixtape route. Those tapes got a lot of heat on them. The mixtape is something that Cam started back in the day, and everybody followed suit. Then, you know, 50 made it very popular. Now it's one of the main tools of breaking yourself as an artist. It's like, if you don't hit the mixtapes first and get a buzz from that—because the Internet is so popular and people can trade music and blah blah blah—on the same token, I feel like it takes away from the real music itself, when people want to sit up and make a quality album. If you're, like, trying to fight the mixtape battle, you might not be able to win the war of the album.
I totally agree with that. Mixtapes change the way people listen to music. It gives them a more of a short attention span.
They want to listen to short sound bites. On a mixtape, you ain't really listening to see if somebody spitting or if that song is really good. It's more like, “Who name beat that?” If you got beef with this person, “What kind of shit is he talkin'?” But that's not really what I'm about. I'm more about trying to make some really good records.
Since mixtapes are so popular, making a complete album is kind of a lost art.
Nobody can really appreciate an album and the fact that you might want to play a song over and over and over. People are definitely gonna know who I am after this album comes out. The sampler tape that I'm fin' to come out with, called The Cheat Sheet. The album is called The College Dropout, my second album is going to be called Late Registration, the third is Graduation and the fourth is going to be Good Ass Job.
Yeah, I saw that on MTV.Com. So you’ve got it all planned out?
Is The College Dropout title based on reality? Did you drop out of college?
Of course, who didn't? Who's successful that didn't? Once you're in college, you're in the real world. Kids have already been influenced by that time. This is not “The Grammar School Dropout” or “The High School Dropout”… By the time you're in college you have to make your decisions as a grown person about what you want to do and where you want to take your life. Maybe with what you want to do, the only opportunities are if you go to college—it makes more sense. A lot of kids use rap as a cop out from working hard. Like I was working hard as hell. I wasn’t just rapping. My job was producing and I was in school for art and I had a thousand different ideas of different things I wanted to do. It was taking away from me because college was slowing me down. That's why I dropped out.
Where did you go?
I had a scholarship to like three different art schools. I went to the American Academy of Art. I stayed there for one semester. Then I went to Chicago State University, where my mother worked. And I just went there because I was already good at English. I knew I had English on smash because my mother's an English teacher. She was the head of the English Department. My vocabulary game is crazy.
People are definitely gonna know who I am after this album comes out. The sampler tape that I'm fin' to come out with, called The Cheat Sheet. The album is called The College Dropout, my second album is going to be called Late Registration, the third is Graduation and the fourth is going to be Good Ass Job.
Which is important for an MC, of course.
Some MCs don't have a good vocabulary. You remember when rappers used to have the vocab down with they shit? It wasn't like about killing people and shit like that. Not to be on some nerd shit. On the same token, it wasn't like "I got this many words..." It's all about how you use it. It's good just to have that.
Going off that then, what do you think are the essential qualities of a good MC?
Charisma, originality, and believability. Is that the word? Yeah. Any good MC will have all three of those things.
I was reading in another interview you were saying you have the best of both worlds presentation. The street side and also the book side, so to speak. Is that what you’re trying to get across? It shows in your producer work too. You can vibe with all kinds of artists.
Yeah. I feel like I'm bridging the gap. I feel like I'm doing something that's never been done before. I'm going be the D'Angelo of this style. I heard bits and pieces of people trying to come exactly how I'm coming, but I'm not even gonna say they names, because I want to get the credit to be the first to do it.
You don't have to say the name, but what do you mean?
Like, the first nigga with a Benz and a backpack, which is the regular people. Plenty of people that drive nice cars that listen to Mos Def. Because you have a nice car, you can only listen to Cash Money? Who set that rule? Or is it if you're on the train, you can only listen to backpack music? You can like what you like. Everybody try to point fingers at artists and say the artist has to be “this” exactly. “OK, this is what you are. You represent this to the fullest.” To me that's some played out 1990s shit. People are real people, and I make real songs for real people. I think the average person should love what I'm doing.
The way I spit my raps, any one of my raps, every single rap down the line I could spit that exact same rap that I spit at the barbershop for a white person that’s never listened to rap and they'll still understand. That's what I got on niggas. I word my shit where everyone can understand what I’m saying. It's not no shit where I’m saying I took all the cursing out—nothing like that. But I used to rhyme like Canibus back in the days, with mad punchlines—then Bad Boy came out. Ma$e was my favorite rapper. He is, to this day anyway. Ma$e is my favorite rapper and l used to attempt to produce beats like Bad Boy. The reason why I got so nice is because I'd be at home trying to be Stevie J, Nashiem, D-Dot, Ron Lawrence—all them combined. So when I came to New York niggas were like, “Damn, Nigga! You play your own strings? Damn nigga, You program your own drums?! Your own samples?!”
A lot of kids use rap as a cop-out from working hard. I was working hard as hell. I wasn’t just rapping. My job was producing and I was in school for art and I had a thousand different ideas of different things I wanted to do. It was taking away from me because college was slowing me down. That's why I dropped out.
Wait a minute, I need to rewind for a second. You said your favorite MC was Ma$e?
That might be an unpopular opinion but I have to say I like Ma$e too. Not a lot of other people do though.
You know what? I don't do the popular thing. Fuck popular. I try to do opposite. I got throwbacks hanging in my closet. I know the hangers is poking out the tops of the shoulders right now, they been in there so long. I ain't wear a throwback in two years. I don't do whatever the popular thing is. I had that shit five years ago.
The throwback game is so diluted right now it’s crazy.
Man, I haven't even thought about purchasing a throwback in the past two and a half to three years. I still had them but I wasn’t buying any new ones. When Majestic came out with the $60 ones I stopped wearing mine altogether. I had exclusive, ill ones that niggas didn't have. I was the first nigga with the Nuggets joint. I was the first nigga with the Astros joint after Big Boi. I don't want to go into a whole thing about throwbacks, that's like talking about something that's not happening no more. That's like talking about slavery. That’s not around anymore.
Let's go back to your musical history. You say you went from Canibus punchline styles and then you were emulating Bad Boy a little bit and then?
As far as emulating, you can’t put it in layman’s terms like that. You got to say what I was doing. I was trying to get all the production styles of all the Hitmen in one. I finally came to New York and people were blown away. Like, “Nigga, your beats be sounding like how they sound on your beat tape. Damn, dog you program your own drums? You find your own samples? Damn! You play your own instruments? Damn! What’re you doing man? You’re putting in too much work.” I learned. I was in the crib by myself, sometimes it would take me five days to make a beat. I'd try to make it sound as close to a B.I.G. beat as possible or a Ma$e beat.
I think I misunderstood you in the beginning, you said you would take a Bad Boy beat that existed and re-do it?
No. When did I ever say that?
Charisma, originality, and believability. Is that the word? Yeah. Any good MC will have all three of those things.
Isn’t that what you were just saying? That you would recreate a B.I.G. beat?
Oh, I would try to make it sound as close to a Biggie Smalls record. I never said recreate. Something tells me that when I read this interview you’re going to change my words and don’t do that. I will never do another interview if you do that because I speak in a way that my shit, when you word the way I word it, it might have four or five meanings to it and if you take it and try to cut it down to one meaning, you're taking out the depth of who I am.
You’d be destroying my character and I’m not trying to accuse you and say that you’re going to do that but if you run my shit the way it is people could read it and take it three different ways. If you try to specify my words, that's not the way I speak and it wouldn't be a proper representation of Kanye. I could break up my rhymes and I could show you how one line could mean three different things, you know what I’m saying?
The only unfortunate thing is the limited space constraints. That would be the only reason if anything was shorter.
But dog, you can’t reason saying I’m trying to get my beats to sound as close to a B.I.G. record to recreate. How did you get I was trying to recreate a B.I.G. beat?
I thought that’s what you were saying. That’s why I asked you again.
What else did I say that you might—that scares me man. You scaring me, dog. My shit ain’t going to come out right.
The fact that I’m asking you to clarify means that I didn’t get it right the first time. But everything else I think is good.
Anyway that’s not even important. We can just fast forward to hooking up with the Roc.
Everybody that's read a magazine before knows how I hooked up with Roc-A-Fella. We can fast-forward to another question. Look at how long I’ve been on Roc-A-Fella. At this point would you ask Bleek, “How long have you been on Roc-A-Fella?”
People associate you and Just Blaze together in terms of production styles and obviously both working closely with the Roc. What’s your guys’ relationship like? Is there competition? Are you guys close at all?
I used to be in competition with Just until I started rapping. I'm not competing with producers no more, I'm competing with rappers. That's what rappers don't realize. They think I'm doing it just to be doing it. Until they see their names moving down and my name is where their name used to be on the chart, they won't believe it. Nobody in their right mind think that I would possibly sell records or do more than one album. Anybody that has any type of sense thinks that I'm going to come out, do a producer album, brick and…
I don't think that. I don’t think people that have heard you spit before think that.
The first n***a with a Benz and a backpack, which is the regular people. Plenty of people that drive nice cars that listen to Mos Def. Because you have a nice car, you can only listen to Cash Money? Who set that rule? You can like what you like.
I think a lot of industry-type muthafuckas. But let me say this, because it sounds dramatic and shit. I want to word it like this: a lot of these industry people, nobody in their right mind really thinks that I’m going to sell any type of records. They think I'm gonna come out, do a producer album, and brick, and then by chasing this rap shit put my producer shit back, basically. After my album bricks, I'll have to do everything I can to rekindle my producing career. That's what people's agenda is in my mind. They're like, “OK, he going be back trying to submit beats and niggas going be looking at him crazy like, ‘Man, that album that came out bricked and now you're trying to get some beats off and it's a wrap for you.’”
What’re the pros and cons of being a producer first?
You know what the good thing is? I turned tragedy to triumph, I flip positive in from the negative. I almost died. So I flipped around and made my first single, “Through the Wire." People have to feel that single. It's definitely a blessing that I'm here but the fact that what I went through gave a story—a true-life story that people can cling on to—they can hear that and be like, “OK, we fuck with Kanye more than just on the beats—as just a real person that goes through the exact same shit that we can go through.” When you can feel like a person like that, when they speak, what they're saying holds more weight.
When you see the picture of my face [after the car crash], and then you hear me say "My friends couldn't tell if I/looked like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky,” that holds more weight. The fact that my mother is an English teacher and she used to give me homeschooling from when I was little is the reason why I can say shit like, "Imagine how my girl feel/On the plane scared as hell/That her guy look like Emmett Till.” I rhymed "hell" with "Till" and shit.
Little kids might hear that in school, they’ll hear that name and cling to it. They’ll learn about Emmett Till and that rings through their head and makes them remember it. I drop jewels like that. I don't preach to the kids. I’ll get on an interview all day and say, “Yeah you know me, I’m just saying stupid shit.” But if you sit up and have me talk to you, like on a TV interview, people try to corner me and point out the knowledge that I drop and shit, and I deny it because I don't want to put it in their face like that.
I want them to not know that that's what they're getting. I want them to think that they're just having a good time. I be saying some shit inside my raps.
I was the first n***a with the Nuggets joint. I was the first nigga with the Astros joint after Big Boi. I don't want to go into a whole thing about throwbacks, that's like talking about something that's not happening no more. That's like talking about slavery. That’s not around anymore.
[Raps] Always said if I rapped I’d say something significant
But now I’m rapping about money, hoes, and rims again And it’s still about the Benjamins
Big face hundreds, and whatever other synonyms.
Strippers named Cinnamon
More chips than Pentium
What you gon’ buy next? Whatever new trend it is.
I’m trying to spend my stacks
And I’m so broke, I look back like, “Damn was I on crack?”
I mean 12 platinum chains, was I on that?
What the hell was wrong with me, dog?
Sing along with me y’all
Now that’s the way I rap. That’s my whole key. That’s why I got them right there. I’m going to take over the world with that right there. Everybody else is saying: [Imitating Raps] “I’m rocking chains and you broke as hell. I got a chain and you broke and I’m rich and you very, very poor. And I’m very, very well off and you very, very fucking poor.”
Or rapping like, [Imitating Raps] “Man, I don’t give a fuck about your chain. I will take your fucking chain. I’m broke but I’ll take your chain. I’ll kill you for your chain.”
Or somebody else will be like, [Imitating Raps] “How you wearing a chain? Played out chain. That’s so stupid. Bless the Gods! Ride on a train. Read you a book!”
[Laughs]. You know what I’m saying? No real person is those three, but those are all the classic cases of the rappers—bailer, gangster, and backpacker. And baller rap is not always gangsta rap to the fullest. Baller rap is just putting gangsta rhymes to throw a little piece out there in the air so they get tested less for their jewelry. Throw a little intimidation factor out in the world like, “I will kill you if you try to steal what I have.” But that's not truly gangsta rap.
Gangsta rap is like, [Imitating Raps] “Nigga, I dont give a fuck. I’m going to choke you up.” That's the key. I'm what a regular motherfucker feel is. [Raps] “I'll be in church one day and feel that. I'll see a girl's ass and I wanna feel that.”
I'm just a real fucking person. I'm still in the confused state. I'll go to dead prez like, “Man, dog I feel the movement but I'm scared right now.” And I'll admit it. "You niggas is scared to riot." I'll be like, “Yup. Too scared to do that right now but I’m dressed good.” I got it in me. I know I’m going to take it somewhere in the future. I don’t know where yet, but this is where I'm at right now. I'm always gonna rap about where I'm at now.
Where is that?
Where the average person is. Like where are you at? Do you wanna kill somebody right now?
Something tells me that when I read this interview you’re going to change my words and don’t do that. I will never do another interview if you do that because I speak in a way that my sh*t, when you word the way I word it, it might have four or five meanings to it and if you take it and try to cut it down to one meaning, you're taking out the depth of who I am.
Nah. Not right now
If somebody gave you a Roc-A-Fella chain, just put it over your neck, you wouldn't wear it? Would you just straight not wear it? Seriously, would you wear it or not wear it? Like, “Wear this.” A $40,000 chain.
I don't know. I'd probably wear it.
Okay, so you'd wear it. Now tell me this, have you ever read any books? Do you know any Black history? Do you know anything about slavery?
Okay. So you do know about slavery. So if you had a Benz, would you drive it?
How are you gonna know something about slavery and drive a Benz at the same time? What's wrong with you? What’re you doing? [Laughs] You see what I’m saying? That's why I'm a regular person. It’s that I got to break down those examples for you so you can really understand.
I know you talked at length about the accident in the current issue, how much of The College Dropout was recorded before the accident?
I'd say about 50 percent. There are songs that I had before that are now going to the second album. Because a lot of times I think so to the future, that I know with certain shit people won't catch until they see us in a certain light, and then they'll understand where I'm going.
Surviving the accident was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me because it gave me an opportunity. I was doing the producing thing, and keeping up with the Joneses and a certain lifestyle. I had to have this much in my account, so let me do these beats and charge niggas this. I think I was getting caught up in that. Knowing I wanted to be a rapper, but the accident gave me time to focus.
I read a quote that you said you deal with less shit now.
Yeah. I separate the real from the fake. It gave me a chance to focus on myself for a minute. It gave me a two month period where nobody was asking me for beats, where I could not pick up the phone for a couple months and people weren't offended or feel like I was trying to play them or “Lauryn Hill” them out.
You know how 50 Cent, you could tell the difference between—
Oh yeah, I went back and re-recorded some of the joints I did after the accident. "Through the Wire,” of course, is after the accident. I'm trying to see, are there any vocals I kept after the accident? Probably "Family Business." My biggest drawback is my clarity. I never had clarity in the first place. I was never a really clear rapper. The actual crispness, you see the way I said “crispness,” you wouldn’t understand it? That’s the Chicago slur. I was never able to pronounce my words that well. I don't know if it was my overbite or what. It actually added more flavor because I had to focus on the tonality. [Raps] ”Dogs couldn’t tell if I/I looked like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky.” You don't even realize that I'm hitting different tones. That's what B.I.G. used to do, that's what Ma$e had. Ma$e had a tone. [Raps] ”Was in an accident like Geico/They thought I was burned up like Pepsi did Michael/I must got an angel.” That’s my shit too. Certain words, [Raps] ”First nigga with a Benz and a backpack!” That’s my style.
Yeah, I like the way you came on "The Bounce."
[Raps] ”Magazines call me a rock star, girls call me a cock star/Billboard, pop star!”
Everybody quotes that one because that’s hot, how it comes in. At least me and my people.
That’s when we was like, [Snaps fingers] “Bow!” I don't leave no room on the beat, just line after line after line. Niggas usually wait, you know what I’m saying? [Raps] ”Magazines call me a rock star, girls call me a cock star/Billboard, pop star, neighborhood block star.” Wooh!
Then, “changed the game, brought back the soul”
Yeah. [Raps] Changed the game, brought back the soul./Got tracks to go, got plaques that’s gold./Platinum to go, yeah that’s the flow!” Yeah like, nigga peep this! [Raps] “I don’t know what’s better, getting pussy or getting paid/I just know when I’m getting one the other’s getting away.” Man I’m about to. [Raps] “Hate when the girl acting bougie as hell/When I already seen her naked like Blu Cantrell.” You don’t know about that new shit we working on!
There's something I saw on the Internet—it was a clip of you and Common battling at a radio station or something like that? Oh yeah, he murked me on that. I used to try rap like I was from New York at that time. I was going through my Wu-Tang era. [Laughs]
When was that? A long time ago?
A long time ago, nigga. It's been a long time since that. I don't even know. 90-something. It’s crazy.
Do you think there's anything that's holding you back from your ultimate potential?
No, I'm on Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam. All I gotta do is get people to notice me. Now if I was on Rawkus, I think it would definitely be something holding me back.
So you feel like you're in a good position to shine?
Yeah, I got the best people around me. I got John Monopoly, Don C, I got Gee, and Hip Hop. I got Dame on my side. I got this Roc-A-Fella piece on my neck, but I'm on stage with Kweli. How l ain't got best of both worlds and shit? Every audience looking at me. I can say whatever the fuck I want and get away with it. I can say all that backpack shit. You know what's one of the markets that I want to corner, even though I don't know that much about their culture? The Japanese market. I just like they style and shit. I'm real stylish. I'm about to bring the "I know you sick of this name brand nigga with shit," back to the game. At the same token, you're the nigga that did "Get By" and soul beats back to commercial. How this nigga going to say he going to be on some clothes shit?
You know what's one of the markets that I want to corner, even though I don't know that much about their culture? The Japanese market. I just like they style and s**t. I'm real stylish. I'm about to bring the "I know you sick of this name brand n***a with s**t," back to the game.
So you're gonna be the next rapper with a clothing line?
I wouldn't want to classify myself as that. I'm talking about some next, next, next shit. Like, I wear the LRG jackets. Those are my people right there and the piece I have, that shit is not in stores. So I’ll wear shit that’s not in stores. I think urban clothes in general, I don't know. That's just not me. I'm not trying to influence nobody in no kind of way. Do what you like. I have no idea what you got on right now. So I'm not trying to disrespect or nothing.
I take no offense whatsoever.
Just doing me. [Raps] You right, do whatever you like/I got front row seats on the night of the fight.
You got rhymes. This other thing I saw, you refer to a John Mayer song?
Oh my God. That's one of the people I definitely listen to before I start writing. I listen to that and Dipset. Dipset, bitch. They just got out of jail and shit and I don’t rap shit like them niggas. They’re like rappers rappers. They be rapping about what they're doing. You got to be them niggas to be them niggas. I listen to Dipset for real. It sounds more dramatic if I just say I listen to John Mayer. That’s how you get where I’m at. If I could be inspired by both, like I said earlier in the interview, I can rap the exact same shit in barber shops or I can stand in a cypher and spit it on stage—and spit the same shit for some white person and they will all understand what I’m saying.