"What if somebody from the Chi' that was ill got a deal/On the hottest rap label around?" —Kanye West

No ID: “He really had to climb walls just to get a shot. Every door was being slammed in his face. It was Kyambo ‘Hip Hop’ Joshua who first took that leap of faith in him as an artist.”

Hip Hop: “No I.D. introduced me to Kanye in 1996 in Chicago. I had just got my job at Roc-A-Fella as an intern/A&R. I remember meeting Kanye right next to Harold’s Chicken. [Laughs.] As time went by, he started to send me beats but I wasn’t into managing producers at the time. Two years later, me and Gee started a production company and I went back to Kanye.”

One day, Kanye played me the beat for ‘This Can’t Be Life’ over the phone. I was like, 'Send it.' This was pre email, so I had to send him money just so he could send the beat to me. [Laughs.] - Hip Hop

Gee Roberson: “We were looking for a small group of producers to have under our stable since both of us were heads of A&R for Roc-A-Fella Records. The logic was for us to make our life easier by having an in-house team to produce for all the artists we had on the roster. We were going to imitate the Roc-A-Fella model and it started with sorting out talent.

“Kanye has done a lot ghost production for Derrick ‘D-Dot’ Angelettie and a whole bunch of producers Puffy had. He was producing a bunch of other things that he didn’t get credit for. Hip Hop brought him to my attention, like, ‘His beats are crazy, we got to mess with him.’ Kanye was our first signee in 1998.

Hip Hop: “That’s when Beanie Sigel’s ‘The Truth’ beat happened. One day, Kanye played me the beat for ‘This Can’t Be Life’ over the phone. I was like, 'Send it.' This was pre email, so I had to send him money just so he could send the beat to me. [Laughs.] Jay heard it and he was blown away. He did it right then and there. That opened up the door to the whole Roc-A-Fella/Kanye thing.”

"This Can't Be Life" was the first song Kanye West produced for Jay Z

Coodie: “Kanye wound up moving to New York. One day, I’m watching BET and I saw Jay Z’s ‘Izzo’ video and I was like, ‘Wait a minute—that’s Kanye’s track!’ That was one of the first tracks I heard when I met him in like 1997. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh I got to get to New York.’ So I moved to New York when Kanye was working on The College Dropout and going to different labels trying to get signed.

“Everyone was looking at us crazy because he’d walk in with a camera filming. They’d be like, ‘Who is this?’ Like Dame Dash used to be talking shit about us. But what was crazy was next thing you know, everybody in hip-hop had cameras. But believe me, it started with me and Kanye. He been working on the album way before he even moved to New York, but I documented the making of that whole album. I have [hundreds] of hours of footage.”

Dame Dash: “I remember one time I asked Just Blaze to flip this beat for me and he wouldn’t. I was aggravated. So then I had asked Kanye to flip the ‘Champions’ beat and I had liked the fact that he reacted with speed. It was just respect. I knew that there was a work ethic that it takes to win on a professional level, and I saw that he had two times that.”

To me, it was all about lanes. The lane that was wide open was being that guy in a Benz with a backpack. Timing is everything, and I saw Kanye West filling that lane.
—Gee Roberson

Gee Roberson: “In the midst of working with him he was like, ‘Yo, I’m not just a producer; I’m a rapper. You’ve got to sign me as a rapper.' I’m like, ‘We going to sign you up. You gon' get the production out there, and after that we’re going to get the domino effect; the beats into the raps.’ We started moving accordingly, focusing on his production and spreading it out—in-house as well as shopping to people outside the label. We built his production value which created and exposed his sound.

“I lost track of the phone calls I used to get whenever he used to do a session and they would be like, ‘Why he won’t just stick to beats? Why he want to rap?’ I’m like, ‘Yo, you guys bugging. He got some shit.’ They’d be like, ‘It’s cool but he should just stick to doing beats.’ I always would brush those comments off. People were actually mad when he would be rapping in their session. Now it’s like, ‘Yeah, I bet you wish you had him rapping for you now?’ [Laughs.]”

Kanye produced "Champions." Dame Dash introduced Kanye's verse saying, "I bet ni**as didn't know you could rap huh?"

Hip Hop: “When I first brought him on as a producer, I was shopping beats and they weren’t getting sold. It was like, ‘I want my beats to get placed.’ They started getting placed and then it was, ‘I don’t want to shop beats no more; I want to go to the studio and make the beats.’ When we could go into the studio and work hands on with somebody, the next problem was, ‘I don’t want to make beats for him because he’s wack and I’m better than him.’ Eventually it was, ‘I don’t want to sell beats no more; I just want to work on my album.’

"It’s like what he’s going through with fashion right now. Something pushed him to do more. It’s always been a fight for total creativity. I’ve never seen that kind of uncompromising drive in all my years.

Gee Roberson: “I honestly thought every label would put a deal on the table just off of GP because 1) It’s an act that we work with, 2) He’s our producer, 3) Clearly we could sign him ourselves, so we giving you the opportunity to work with us. What’s crazier than you passing on the A&Rs from Roc-A-Fella Records bringing you this? That was the part that was mind-blowing to me.

“To me, it was all about lanes. The lane that was wide open was being that guy in a Benz with a backpack. Timing is everything, and I saw Kanye West filling that lane. People have to remember something: let’s think back to 2000. You had a whole different sound of rap. You had this guy who had a demo with 'Jesus Walks' on it. The same guy would tell you that, ‘I’m going to be the biggest rapper in the word.’ And, people are like, ‘What are you talking about? You're a producer, cut it out.’

I needed Kanye to knock on the door because of the way he was dressed. When they opened the door, Roc-A-Fella would be hiding behind him and we’d all run in the house. He was someone that could articulate authentic culture in a way that was safe to white people.
—Dame Dash

“You had a guy who jumped up on tables in meetings. You had a guy who went to a meeting at Columbia to meet with Mike Mauldin and he told Mike Mauldin that he’s going to be bigger than Jermaine Dupri and Jermaine Dupri is like Mike Mauldin’s son. That level of confidence, that level of perseverance, that level of "I’m going to show the world"—that’s the Kanye West that I met. That’s what excited me. The drive and passion that the world sees today is the same exact guy that I met in 1998.”

Hip Hop: “The Roc-A-Fella deal was more like a default—we couldn’t get no other deals and that’s where I was at and that’s where, of course, they’re going to at least let me do that.

Dame Dash: “Kanye always had something to prove because you weren’t respecting him as a rapper. He was a producer and I was trying to put out a compilation album. But then I saw that he had something special; it was like his fear made him fearless. It was weird. I never really realized [he could rap]. After Jay and Cam, I was more into authentic experiences delivered a certain way and I didn’t really care. But I realized that he was going to make it happen and he didn’t mind being an asshole. If you don’t mind being an asshole, you’re not going to lose. He wasn’t scared, he had gall.

“I needed Kanye to knock on the door because of the way he was dressed. When they opened the door, Roc-A-Fella would be hiding behind him and we’d all run in the house. He was someone that could articulate authentic culture in a way that was safe to white people. He still would’ve been what he has become.”

John Legend: “Dame Dash and Roc-A-Fella signed him but I don’t think they really took him seriously. They just signed him because he was such an important producer for them and they wanted to keep him in-house. I had met Kanye in May 2001 through his cousin Devo Springsteen, who was my roommate in college for a couple years in New York as well.

"I was there during the early time when he was just developing a lot of the material. When I first started working with him, I honestly didn’t think his album would be special. As a rapper, he wasn’t that great. Kanye improved a lot. And it wasn’t just his rapping, but it was the songcraft, the production, the storytelling, everything about it came together so beautifully.”

"Getting Out The Game" was one of the early collaborations between Kanye West and Consequence

Consequence: “I met Kanye West through 88 Keys when Kanye first moved to Newark in 2002. I rung the bell to his crib and he was just so excited to meet me. He ran down his whole ambition to be the next Michael Jackson and I was just like, ‘OK...’

“He had questions for me because I hadn’t really been on the scene since A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes and Life. It was kind of like he was looking at a ghost. At that time, I was so disenchanted. I had my own baggage. He made an offer like, ‘I feel like I could make a classic with you. You were incredible on Beats Rhymes and Life. I’m doing beats for Jay Z, Beanie Sigel, and the Roc is on fire. So if you help me put my album together and we form a team, I’ll eventually let you rhyme on the beats they’re paying x amount of dollars for.’

I was so tired of taking the train that I would steal his Benz truck and go to Queens. I’d come back and he be, ‘I thought you was going to the grocery store!’ I’d be like, ‘I did...in Queens.’ 
—Consequence

“We knocked out a song that day and I went home to Queens. Later Kanye called me like, ‘Did you hit my assistant up to give him your address so he could mail you out a beats CD?’ And I was like, ‘Uh ah nah not yet.’ He was like, ‘Come on man, I want to work with you, work with me.’ So I was like, ‘Alright.’ After that phone call, I started coming to his crib for the weekend and staying for days. We was hanging out, messing with chicks, we formed a friendship. Kanye had a vision at the time for me that I didn’t even know.

“I was still taking the train, he had just got the G5 Wagon. It was so crazy, I was so tired of taking the train that I would steal his fucking Benz truck and go to Queens in that shit. I’d come back and he be, ‘I thought you was going to the grocery store!’ I’d be like, ‘I did...in Queens.’ [Laughs.] But then the next day we would knock out some fire shit.

“We would study everything, we would study G-Unit, we would study Grafh who was hot at the time, the Young Gunz was hot at the time, and the whole Philly movement was on fire. We were just sitting back figuring out what’s going to be the point of entry for us to get in? We knew once we got in we could make a change.”