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.
The first thing that pops into my head about that day is the smell of McDonald’s. When we met outside a hotel at around 8 a.m., Kanye, Don C, GLC, and another one or two guys I can’t recall sat in a van reeking of grease, butter, and maple syrup eating breakfast. Someone squeezed a jelly packet onto an Egg McMuffin or something. Disgusting.
Our first stop on that busy day was the Prosser Career Academy, a vocational high school on the Northwest (ha) side of the city where Kanye was to perform a surprise concert. It didn’t go so smoothly at first. The sound system in the auditorium sucked and then stopped working entirely. With no instrumental track, Kanye regrouped spitting acappellas of “Through the Wire,” “Slow Jamz,” and “Champions” over a cheering adoring audience. Then, as we hustled through the halls towards the exit, we saw a crying girl, a diehard, a fan for life.
Kanye jumped into the van first, and then grabbed my arm as I attempted to escape the cold. “People said I couldn’t rap and everybody said it’s based on the beats,” he said, not breaking eye contact looking angry. “But I didn’t hear no beats right there.”
From there, we drove to another school, a radio station, another radio station where the host was way too geeked to hear GLC do his part from “Encore,” (“It’s star time. This man is mean. He’s killing all y’all jive turkeys….”) before finally settling in a small room at the W hotel. Interviews were conducted in the van between stops. (Those interviews, about two hours worth, are gone; the interview accompanying this piece is from our follow-up phone interview on December 28.)
On this day, we chatted mostly about his background, transitioning from producer to solo artist and the album. He was honest, thoughtful, funny, gave great answers to stupid questions and always landed on his point even after meandering off course. Small talk went well too, although I laughed in his face after he stated his love for The Strokes second album Room on Fire. It was a good record, but compared to their debut? Come on dude.
We nearly missed our final stop of the day, the United Center for WGCI’s Big Jam Holiday Concert, because Kanye spent an hour trying on outfits. “This is what happens when you have no stylist and you care about clothes,” he said amidst the mess in his room. Then on our way to the show, he made a pit stop at the Louis Vuitton store on the Magnificent Mile picking up a $400 pair of gray sneakers and a $900 blue backpack. Don C screamed the whole way, something about missing their set time.
Everything from my time in Chicago was great scenery but the Virgin Megastore episode was my in to writing a really good Kanye piece. It fit perfectly into the story of this super talented guy on the cusp, boulder-sized chip on his shoulder whose mouth occasionally got him in trouble. It wouldn’t be a hatchet job, just honest and true, warts and all as the saying goes. The next day at work, after recounting Kanye’s tirade, my EIC who was editing me on the story, gave me a look. She probably said, “Tahhhhhh-maaaas,” which was usually code for me overstepping my bounds or discussing things that went above my pay grade.
The magazine at the time was embroiled in a ridiculous feud with Eminem, which also meant feuds with 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, G-Unit, Shady, Aftermath and Interscope Records. Everyone hated us. XXL had passed us in relevance and quality. Sales had slipped. Jay-Z wouldn’t appear on our cover, opting instead for XXL and Vibe to promote The Black Album. Layoffs hit in early January.
I never received an order to “stand down,” but it was inferred we couldn’t afford to anger another big artist especially one signed to Def Jam, which, like Interscope, was under the Universal umbrella, and so the Virgin Megastore incident became an anecdote I’d tell colleagues over drinks or at dinner parties with non-industry friends.
The cover story was toothless, a “slob job.” Instead of opening with the Virgin Megastore, I went with a horribly written flashback lede about his Roc-A-Fella “Chaining Day,” speciously depicted in the “Through the Wire” video. “In the video we make it look so glamorous, like I got my chain and we move on,” Kanye said. “What y’all don’t realize is that as I keep on rapping, I’m rapping to a crowd, and about six bars in completely bombing in front of 20,000 people in my own city, completely embarrassing the entire Roc-A-Fella.” It still could've worked, but maybe I wasn't good enough back then to pull it off.
There was no thesis, no real nut graph, it leaned heavily on quotes and read like an artist bio with secondary interviews (Donda West, Damon Dash, Shawnna, and Common). I also should have made a bigger deal over the fact that Jay-Z banned Kanye from his November 2003 Fade to Black concert at Madison Square Garden. I should have pleaded my case. I didn’t even try.
In a funny twist, the owners of the magazine almost pulled the cover following the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake controversy at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. Remember, the wardrobe malfunction? The nipple? Janet caught all the blame, blacklisted in a way. Justin went unscathed. Well, the owners thought it fit within their anti-Eminem screed and there was talk of putting Janet and her boyfriend at the time Jermaine Dupri on the cover of the April issue.
Talk also persisted of pairing Kanye with his “Slow Jamz” collaborator Twista, who already had a feature inside the book. There was concern that a cover featuring Kanye West in a salmon-striped button down under an odd, almost turquoise colored blazer wasn’t The Source. It was more funny-style.
In the end, Kanye got his cover, the story came and went and I recovered professionally the next month with a decent DMX feature, which I think was one of the first times he copped to his drug problems. At the time, I’d meet for secret lunches with an editor who worked at Harris Publications, home of XXL, rival of The Source, and it was secret because Source employees had been fired for fraternizing with the enemy. I remember him stating that it was good I had quickly rinsed off the “wack juice” from my Kanye West story.
Still, every Kanye album cycle made me think about that story, that lost opportunity. This time around there was also a tour, and like most rap fans there I was ticket in hand at one of the Yeezus dates (November 24 at Madison Square Garden, if you must) taking everything in: the mountain, white Jesus, the snow, the masks, the Yeezus Yak, the nakedness, the hits and hits and hits, the rant—the rant, which, oh my God, was obviously part of his set list every night! (At one of his shows he said, “I wish I could have given you a better rant tonight.”)
After hearing the premeditated rant at MSG, flashbacks to the Virgin Megastore in January 2004 swamped my thoughts. It wasn’t exactly Chazz Palminteri in The Usual Suspects after letting Verbal walk out the police precinct, but I laughed at the possibility that maybe Kanye screaming at the checkout girl all those years ago was premeditated, just a performance for a reporter. A glint of a smile flickered on Kanye’s mug during the outburst. Then, when it was all over, he let rip a dorky half-laugh, the very definition of a chuckle.
In tennis, it’s called “a sitter.” Billiards players have “pocket hangers.” A big fat hittable pitch in baseball is a “meatball.” Journalists just cry, “Oh, that’s my lede.” To use one last sports analogy, when Kanye West screamed at that poor woman in the Virgin Megastore, he put the ball on the tee for me. And somehow I swung and missed.
Thomas Golianopoulos is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to Grantland, the New York Times, the New York Observer, and XXL. You can follow him on Twitter @golianopoulos
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