Mike Dean needed a second opinion.
It was Aug. 7, and the longtime Kanye West collaborator was working on Donda in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Dean had a few different versions of a song called “Hurricane” sitting in front of him, and a consensus still hadn’t been reached about which one should make the album. So the veteran producer and engineer reached out for feedback.
He didn’t turn to a co-producer or an A-list rapper, though. Dean logged on to a Discord server full of die-hard Kanye fans and asked which version of the song they preferred. Within minutes, a poll was set up, prompting users to pick from three options: the original version that had been previewed on social media, the new version with revamped production and guest vocals from the Weeknd and Lil Baby, or a blend of the two.
Raising the stakes, Dean left a message that promised he was “showing Kanye comments now,” effectively opening a direct line between ’Ye and his fans while he finished the album.
This was all going down on West Server Ever, a Discord server created for members of the r/WestSubEver community on Reddit. Ghost, head moderator of the subreddit, tells Complex that it used to be known as r/YandhiLeaks, before changing its name and shifting its attention to the latest Kanye developments.
“We focus on discussion and news about Kanye West,” he says. Explaining how they differentiate themselves from other fan subreddits, he adds, “The main r/Kanye subreddit has memes that span all the way from College Dropout to Yeezus to now, but on r/WestSubEver, if you’re not talking about something that happened last month, you’re behind. So when people want to hear about Donda, they’ll go to West Sub Ever.”
When Dean first jumped on the Discord and asked about “Hurricane,” he was met with excitement. The @WestSubEver Twitter account immediately notified followers of what was happening, and everyone flooded onto the server. Shortly after the poll went live, close to 1,000 people had voted, and the results were overwhelming: 76 people preferred the original version, 51 liked the newest version, and a staggering 872 people wanted a blended version of both.
The winner of the poll was clear right away, but replies to Dean’s message didn’t slow down, as dozens of people joined in to share opinions about other changes they hoped would be made to Donda.
“At first, it was really exciting,” Ghost says, before admitting, “and then it seemed like it was a little too much. I think the energy switch happened in the span of 20 minutes.” With a good-natured laugh, he explains, “You had people replying to Mike Dean, making bullet point paragraphs of all the fixes they wanted—which songs need organs, which features need to be re-added—and it’s just like, ‘OK, me and you both know Mike Dean didn’t come in here to read your whole wishlist.’”
Still, it was the kind of moment most Kanye fans dream of, so a few overexuberant messages were to be expected. Most members were aware this was a landmark moment for their rapidly growing community. Ghost says the West Server Ever Discord has expanded from 3,000 to 15,000 users so far over the course of the Donda rollout, and the r/WestSubEver subreddit has grown from 35,000 to 60,000.
So how did Mike Dean end up on the server in the first place? Well, according to Ghost, Dean came to the Discord under less-than-ideal circumstances. “Mike Dean heard that a 17-year-old was leaking his music, so somebody told him about the Kanye Discord, and he jumped on,” he says. “I guess he wanted to personally confront the leaker.”
Once Dean joined the server, though, he found value in the community beyond his initial pursuit of the leaker. As Ghost explains, “After trying to accomplish whatever that mission was in November, he stuck around.” Since then, Dean has become a familiar face on the server, popping up occasionally to talk with fans and promote his own work.
For anyone who has followed his career closely, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Dean has a long history of interacting with fans on message boards (like the KTT forums) and he’s never been afraid of engaging with people on Twitter. Still, the “Hurricane” poll on r/WestSubEver represented something new, even for Dean. Very rarely do fans actually get to weigh in on creative decisions while an album is being made, and it’s even more uncommon for their opinions to be shared directly with the artist themselves.
Until Donda officially arrives, however, we won’t know for sure whether the feedback from West Server Ever users actually ended up affecting “Hurricane” or not. Shortly after Dean polled r/WestSubEver, he tweeted and deleted a few vague messages that led many to believe he had developed frictions with Kanye and stopped working on Donda altogether (although he later clarified that wasn’t the case). So it’s anyone’s guess how things have progressed since then. Regardless of how it all unfolds, though, the fact that the Discord community’s opinion was solicited at all is meaningful.
Much of the creative process for Donda has been centered around Kanye’s willingness to seek out feedback from others. By playing work-in-progress versions of the album for stadiums full of people (and making adjustments based on their response), he’s effectively holding large-scale focus groups. Asking superfans in a Discord server which version of a song they like best is only an extension of this philosophy.
Of course, there are downsides to focusing too much attention on fan feedback. Many people believe artists should create music as a form of self-expression, without letting the whims of fans influence their art. Others point out that fans get emotionally attached to snippets and demos, which can cloud their judgment about what’s really best for a song. And there’s a fear that excessive feedback could weigh Kanye down with too many opinions, leading him to continue tinkering with the music and never actually release it.
Of all the fan communities that could have been polled, though, r/WestSubEver is one of the more thoughtful and inclusive. Every message board and fan community has users that act out and cause problems, of course, but this one has more guardrails than others. Whenever anyone joins the Discord server, they must agree to a specific set of rules, including one that says, “No ableist/transphobic/racist/sexist/xenophobic/homophobic terms.” The on-boarding verification process also prompts users to answer a survey that includes questions like, “Do you support trans rights?”
“That goes for both the Discord and the subreddit,” Ghost says of the community rules. “That question actually came in mind from our non-binary Discord staff members. At the end of the day, it only makes us try to get the best kind of Kanye fans we can get. Even on the subreddit, we have a no sexism rule, and it’s really helped improve the community in my view.”
The community is currently overseen by a dozen moderators on the subreddit, around 20 people who help with the Discord, and three people who run the Twitter account. Ghost says they all became friends on the subreddit, and they’re each committed to keeping the atmosphere positive.
As it turns out, Mike Dean isn’t the only member of Kanye’s inner circle who has engaged with r/WestSubEver. KayCyy, a young artist who has been working with ’Ye for the past couple of years, frequently interacts with the WSE Twitter account. For him, the connection is a personal one, because members of r/WestSubEver recently went above and beyond to help his family.
“One day, KayCyy’s brother went missing, and he said on Twitter that he couldn’t find his brother in the area,” Ghost explains. “So members of r/WestSubEver created a Google spreadsheet with dozens of hospitals in the area, and people split up one by one. They were able to finally locate his missing brother in one of these hospitals. These people genuinely cared for him, and just because he communicated with them, they went out of their way to help him when he needed real help.”
The subreddit also came together to hold a Christmas charity event, and they have plans to do more as they expand. (They’re always welcoming new users.)
“If you join the community, you’ll be coming to a group of Kanye fans who love news updates, and a bunch of useless theories that Kanye is going to drop on every Christian holiday,” Ghost says with a laugh. “And we even have people that create music together. They’re united by that, because they’re big fans of Kanye. It’s all about building a community on the backdrop of us all appreciating Kanye’s music.”
Before we finish our conversation, I ask Ghost about his goals for r/WestSubEver, and he gives me a very enthusiastic, altruistic answer.
“We’re just hoping to make the Kanye community the best it can be, and I think that we’re going ahead pretty well. When it comes to news, I feel like we know everything ahead of time, but it’s also about growing a close community where everybody feels welcomed—especially when it comes to fighting different aspects that more toxic spaces wouldn’t. That’s a big policy of our staff. We try our best.”