How Kanye West Pulled Off His Iconic Headlining Set at Coachella 2011

Ten years ago today, Kanye West took the stage for his iconic headlining set at Coachella 2011. Pusha-T and other collaborators tell us how ’Ye pulled it off.

Kanye West Coachella 2011

Image via Getty/Wendy Redfern

Kanye West Coachella 2011

As Pusha-T emerged on stage in front of 80,000 Kanye West fans to perform his “Runaway” verse on April 17, 2011, something was looming over him. 

It wasn’t a figurative “looming over,” but rather a gargantuan set piece rising above him—a mural made entirely of stone (a composite of a piece from the Altar of Zeus at Pergamum) that Kanye had requested to be rigged up for his headlining set at Coachella. 

“Whatever that structure was, it was so massive,” Push tells Complex on the 10-year anniversary of the performance. “I was like, ‘I hope this doesn’t fall on me.’ These were all my thoughts. It was my first time seeing a stage performance and him putting it on like this. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. This is a huge deal.’ Watching him be obsessed… It was like, it couldn’t go any other way for him.”

The wind was fierce that day, but luckily for Kanye, it wasn’t disruptive enough to knock over any stone backdrops or spoil what’s now looked at by many as one of the best festival sets in hip-hop history. Just five months after Kanye released what Push refers to over the phone as a contender for the greatest album of all time, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezy rallied up a team of creatives from varying artistic backgrounds—some of whom he’d never worked with before—to put on his first headlining set at Coachella. He was following in the footsteps of acts like Prince, Jay-Z, and Paul McCartney, who headlined in years past, but nobody had ever done it like ’Ye. 

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Tapping multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Dean, as well as the show’s artistic director Virgil Abloh and musical guests Pusha-T and Justin Vernon, Kanye put together a stacked group of collaborators. And beyond the familiar names, he also assembled a dream team of new faces, including Yemi A.D. (who had recently choreographed the Runaway short film) and Laura Escudé, a music programmer with only a couple ’Ye shows under her belt at the time. 

With only a few weeks to prepare, the crew created a festival experience unlike anything that had come before it, with elaborate stage designs, dance routines, and an unbelievable amount of hits. Ten years later, Pusha-T looks back at the performance as a moment when hip-hop was appreciated in its purest form.

“I was watching one of the biggest moments in touring, with the biggest artist in the world, off the best album of the year, doing the purest form of hip-hop,” Push says now. “I was like, hip-hop is being appreciated. They’re appreciating the purest form of hip-hop at the highest level. It was overwhelming. It was overwhelming to see the youngest genre of music, the music that comes under the most scrutiny, the music that wasn’t supposed to last, if you let my parents tell it… It wasn’t gonna be around for 20 years. At that point, for me, it was like, ‘Oh, we are the biggest. And we’re not [just] the biggest, we are the best.’”

Some of those involved in the production of the performance had been preparing for months beforehand—they just didn’t know it yet. Choreographer Yemi A.D. had the task of running two auditions to narrow down the ballerinas: first for Kanye’s October Saturday Night Live appearance in New York and another for Coachella in California. The Czech choreographer, who Kanye had scouted for Runaway and entrusted to direct shows, tours, and music videos, kept things low key at first.

Kanye West Coachella 2011

“We couldn’t say it was for Kanye—we couldn’t say what was going on,” Yemi recalls. “So in the beginning, for the first audition, I just had 60 or 70 people show up. They were sitting on the floor and I was saying, ‘OK, so we’re gonna do the show. It’s for one of the TV shows that runs here in the states, you might know it, Saturday Night Live. They were giggling. Then I said, it’s for this rapper named Kanye West.”

Auditions would sometimes last eight hours, as Yemi was adamant on learning the backgrounds of each of his potential dancers and finding out what they had to offer. “If I’m working with someone, I want to know not only if they’re a good performer, but that they have something more from their background.” Early in his career, he auditioned for both Michael Jackson and Britney Spears, without ever getting a chance to actually dance, so he was determined to run auditions differently when it was his turn to select talent. And apparently, so was Kanye. 

“I was watching one of the biggest moments in touring, with the biggest artist in the world, off the best album of the year, doing the purest form of hip-hop.” – Pusha-T

“[Kanye] would spend time in most of the rehearsals,” Yemi says. “I could see it was both ways: It was not only that his music would influence the movement, it was that the movement would influence his music. When there was a solo like for ‘Runaway’ or ‘Love Lockdown,’ he would totally connect with the dancer, play the machine, and look at the person. From a five-minute song, he’d make a 20-minute song. The dancers were always so afraid like, ‘Oh, he’s gonna play forever.’ He could see with the tension in their body, what their reaction was to the music. It’s a beautiful moment, and I don’t think it’s ever happened this way.”

Dancer Caitlin Conlon, who at the time was only 21 years old when she unknowingly auditioned to perform with Kanye on SNL, still remembers the moment Kanye walked into her audition, before she had any clue she was auditioning for him. 

“We all gasped and held our breath, like, ‘Holy shit, are we auditioning for Kanye?’ Not only that, but there weren’t that many of us left, so are we performing? He sat there and continued to watch the auditions and they got us down to the last girls that would be performing.”

Kanye Coachella rehearsals
Kanye West Coachella 2011

In that Paramount space, Conlon and her peers rehearsed for several strenuous days on cement, without any mirrors, in an area she describes as “not a dance space.” Still, Kanye’s dancers were locked in to the task at hand. Conlon was impressed with the energy ’Ye brought to rehearsals, and she still clearly remembers a message he shared while they prepared.​​​​​​

“He said, ‘Thank you for being here. I don’t see you guys as being my backup dancers. I wouldn’t be here and it wouldn’t look like this without you,’” she recalls. “So it was one of those moments where you’re like, man, I feel very lucky to be here. And it’s not just music. It’s not just backup. We’re not just here. We’re a part of it. We’re a part of the artwork, and it feels really special.”

Pusha-T says he was around Kanye most of the time throughout early 2011, coming off of MBDTF, even hitting the stage with him at SXSW a month before. That meant seeing some of what was going through Kanye’s head before the Coachella set, and getting a glimpse of just how important the moment was to his friend. 

“Leading up to the show was crazy. It felt like a war. It was like a war zone. People were screaming and shouting.” – Yemi A.D.

“It had to be right,” Push says now. “Everybody had to be on point and on time. You know, just the musicianship of Mike Dean and the rest of the guys who were playing and shit like that. It was a very tense time in regard to everybody just practicing and making sure they were on time.”

On Sunday night, for the final headlining performance of the first weekend of Coachella 2011, Kanye’s dancers were bussed out to Palm Springs. They all entered their trailers, which had construction paper signs labeled with markers. The text read, “allerinas.” Conlon still isn’t sure if that misspelling was on purpose. 

Kanye West Coachella 2011
Kanye and Yemi A.D.
Kanye West Coachella 2011

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