Each week we take an artist, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences. This week, it’s Kanye West!
“I speak in jokes,” Kanye West insisted back in the summer of 2005. “I’m a comedian.” Consequently, as with many of the very best comedians, Kanye West tends to find that pretty much everything he says gets taken very seriously indeed. The Chicago-born son of a college-professor mother and a Black Panther-turned-photojournalist-turned-Christian counselor father, even at kindergarten Kanye was noted for his fulsome self-confidence. In his early teens he fell for lyrical, East Coast hip hop and by the age of 17 he was so involved in the Chicago’s underground hip-hop scene that he cut short his studies at the city’s American Academy of Art and Chicago State University to concentrate on his music. Aged 19, the former Chairman of the Sony Music label, Don Ienner, had offered him a deal – meanwhile, he worked in telesales and at Gap, all the while charging artists $250-500 a beat. Huge production successes with Jermaine Dupree, Foxy Brown and Dead Prez found those fees rocketing, before Kanye teamed up with Jay-Z for The Blueprint which, despite being released on September 11, 2001, still sold nearly half a million copies in its first week. A near-fatal car crash in 2002 inspired Kanye to concentrate on his own career as a rapper, beginning with the Chaka Kahn sampling, Through The Wire and in February 2004, after nearly five years work, Kanye’s debut album, the four million selling College Dropout finally arrived. But what music got him to that point?
In The Beginning
Everything begins with Michael Jackson. “He is my favourite artist of all time,” Kanye has said. “His name is synonymous with being the greatest.” One tribute was the sample from The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back that ended up in Kanye’s production of Jay-Z’s Izzo. As a teenager Kanye was particularly inspired by Nas, Wu Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G. and A Tribe Called Quest; artists who pushed boundaries and, in his words, “actually sold records” too.
Sweet Home Chicago
The famously Windy City’s underground hip-hop scene was a peculiarly vibrant place in the mid-to-late noughties. Common (Sense), No I.D., Rhymefest, GLC (not the Welshmen, no) and Twista found themselves inter-connected with Kanye (attempting) to work with all of them. Kanye began small, turning over a few hundred dollars for each beat he sold, but within a year he was earning thousands at a time – including his first big payday, the $8000 he got for a piece sold to rapper Gravity.
Producers like Diamond D, RZA, Pete Rock and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier had all previously built big hip hop tracks from soul samples – Kanye was determined to resurrect that melodic, textured sound with Jay-Z, using material sourced from The Doors, Temptations singer David Ruffin, New York soul band The Persuaders and many others. In all, six tracks for The Blueprint were eventually born out of one night’s work. “He gave me the streets,” Kanye said of his new partner. “The Roc-A-Fella chain helped me get my name.”
In late 2007 Kanye said, “My music is a mix between some good [fried] chicken and a bespoke suit.” As a producer and an artist – if not an out-and-out global tastemaker – Kanye’s drive is to find and build something new from the best of everything. That might be Can, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Nina Simone, Steely Dan, Eddie Kendricks or Daft Punk. In 2008 he even got to work with his hero Michael Jackson on an odd new version of Thriller’s Billie Jean. “You have to be a little postal,” Kanye once noted, “to really push the envelope…”
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