Ten years ago, a young writer got the chance to write a cover story about a brash, young rapper he knew was about to become a superstar. Here's how it all fell apart.
Written by Thomas Golianopoulos (@Golianopolous)
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Kanye West, Common, and a reporter walk into a record store with the intention of buying every Bobby Brown CD on the shelves—the solo stuff, his New Edition records, the Ghostbusters II soundtrack, etc. A few minutes earlier, we were at Sony Music Studios in Hell’s Kitchen listening to rough versions of records that would eventually find a home on Be, Common’s return to form following his sojourn into Baduism and plaid pants. Then someone, probably Kanye, suggested a run to the Times Square Virgin Megastore.
It’s January 2004, about a year and change before the release of Be and a month before The College Dropout made Kanye West a star. Sony Music Studios still exists, as does the Times Square Virgin Megastore. Kobe and Shaq are teammates. The Curse of the Bambino is still a thing. Jay-Z is “retired.” 50 Cent is the hottest rapper in the world. Barack Obama is a state senator representing Illinois’ 13th District. And I’m a staff writer at The Source on assignment, interviewing Common for the magazine’s Back to the Lab column.
For the past month or so, I’d also been working on a Kanye West story, which, because of the mounting success of “Slow Jamz” and “Through the Wire,” had mutated from 1,600-word feature to 2,000-word feature to 3,000-word cover story. Originally slated for March 2004 but pushed to April because it didn’t fit within the issue’s theme (“Hip Hop Behind Bars” didn’t exactly scream Kanye) the story was almost, kinda done... ish. We—my editor and I—had recently added a sidebar, a quick Kanye Q&A on his attempts to clear the Lauryn Hill sample on “All Falls Down.” I also wasn’t married to my lede. The layout was a work in progress. There was still time to tinker is what I’m getting at. And then it happened. Kanye, carrying a basket full of Bobby Brown CD’s, approached the checkout counter at the Virgin Megastore and went Kanye.
“Excuse me, why isn’t my album on the new release schedule?,” he pattered loudly.
The cashier, a young black woman I remember, stared back blankly.
“Why isn’t my album on the new release schedule?,” he asked again almost screaming, this time pointing to the big board behind the register listing upcoming albums. I looked up. Under February 10 read “Norah Jones, Feels Like Home.” Needless to say, there was no “Kanye West, The College Dropout.”
“Can I speak to a manager? Can I speak to a manager, please?”
“My name is Kanye West, and my album The College Dropout comes out February 10, and it’s going to be no. 1.”
It didn’t escalate from there. A manager wasn’t needed. Security didn’t hit the scene. Kanye just paid for his CD’s and retreated to Sony with Common, and I was soon on the train home to Queens digesting what just happened.
Maybe Kanye was upset no one recognized him. Even with two huge singles in rotation, he had walked through Times Square and the record store like a ghost, anonymous, the kind of non-reception befitting a behind-the-scenes beat maker. Meanwhile Common, fresh off Electric Circus, a flop of all flops if you remember, got so much love from fans that night. So much love.
Maybe Kanye was nervous The College Dropout wasn’t on the Virgin Megastore’s radar. After all that bragging and carrying on, how dumb would he look catching a brick? “Slow Jamz” was ubiquitous at this point, but hit records never guarantee album sales. (Somewhere, Fat Joe is saying, “Story of my life brother.”) Regardless of all that though, my story had a new lede, or so I thought.
My Kanye West story really begins about two years earlier in December 2001 when I was an NYU senior with a double major in Print Journalism and History desperately seeking a magazine internship. I hadn’t heard back from Gear (R.I.P.), and there was a conflict of interest at Premiere (ditto) because of my 30-hour a week gig in the marketing department at Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (then called Buena Vista Pictures). So, long story short, I landed at The Source.
I’d been obsessed with rap from the time I first heard EPMD's “So Wat Cha Sayin’” (my big sis used to joke I was the kid on the Ice-T Home Invasion album cover), but I was always more of a Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, GQ kid—not a big Source reader until college. I had no trouble fitting in—for the most part. Turns out my clothes were an issue.
Disney was corporate and corporate meant no jeans. The rotation was slim pickings: dress slacks from Banana Republic (heather gray, charcoal gray, black), camel-colored Guess khakis, and my go-to guys, charcoal gray slim-fit fine-wale corduroys from The Gap (all flat-front, puh-lease). I worked every morning at Disney from 6:30 to 11 a.m. (with the occasional screening or premiere at night), then headed downtown for class, and then, three days a week, walked up to The Source, located those days on 215 Park Avenue South, where I transcribed, researched, fact checked, organized CD collections, conducted the occasional secondary interview, and, of course, fetched coffee, all while wearing tight, non-denim pants.
Words and phrases like “gay,” “homoed out,” “not hip hop” and “funny style,” were sometimes tossed around, in jest I think. But I wasn’t self-conscious until the time Cormega was in the office playing The True Meaning for editors and exclaimed, “Oh shit, you got the lawyer in here” after I walked into the room.
Those proverbial terms were also tossed around regarding his wardrobe: gay, homoed out, not hip-hop, funny style.
Fast forward one year and I’m a jeans wearing, full-time staff writer at the magazine with my own cubicle. I wrote front of the book items, reviews, edited the three-page sports section, and provided support for senior staff, but my passion was feature writing. The big break was a Gang Starr profile in the August 2003 issue, followed by a Skillz story in September and RZA in November. All the while though, the story I really wanted to write was a Kanye West feature.
His production—the sped-up soul samples, the hand clap snares, all that—was the sound of the moment, his interviews were revealing, also hilarious, his car crash provided a compelling origin story, and his solo career was, in my opinion, about to take off. Sometime in 2003, the editor-in-chief, knowing I liked his work, passed along an early demo of The College Dropout. In the midst of 50 Cent mania, it was refreshing. Here was a young middle-class striver who never sold drugs rapping about things that I, a young middle-class striver who (except for that one dodgy week freshman year in college) never sold drugs, could relate to. I decided to pitch a Kanye story in an editorial meeting. The proposal didn’t go over so well.
He’s just a producer. He’s a Mic Check—the one-page Q&A column for new artists. He’s not on the release schedule. Those proverbial terms were also tossed around regarding his wardrobe: gay, homoed out, not hip-hop, funny style. It didn’t help that meetings habitually turned into a pecking party with editors lobbing personal insults during debates. There was a strategy to a successful pitch—alliances had to be made beforehand, pacts were sometimes struck. I didn’t get the subtlety of it all, or maybe some of the senior staff enjoyed fucking with me.
In the fall of 2003, the anti-Kanye tide at The Source began to turn. “Through the Wire” had MTV2 airplay, his Akademiks Jeanius Level mixtape was well-received, he even visited The Source offices to play records for the music editors. I took my lobbying into the back channels, where all deals get done, petitioning one senior editor, dropping hints to the EIC like, “Hey, ‘Through the Wire’ was on TRL today. Did you see?”
The story was on, then it wasn’t, then assigned to another writer, then I was back on it, and then it was Friday, December 19, 2003 and I was in Chicago.