It was 15 years ago that a young and hungry talent from Chicago by the name of Kanye West changed the course of hip hop forever with the release of his debut album, 'The College Dropout'. Talking to some of those involved in the making of this classic LP, Will Lavin discovers that it could have so easily gone another way.
“This the producer on the Roc, he rap better than most rappers,” said Roc-A-Fella Records CEO Dame Dash over the sped up Queen sample on the song ‘Champions’, released in 2002.
It may have been a bold statement – one of many to come out of the mouth of Dame Dash over the years – but it didn’t make his assessment of a then producer-first Kanye West any less true.
Not only did he produce the beat but the way in which Kanye hit his mark lyrically wasn’t something we were used to hearing from a producer. Sure, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest could spit, as could RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, but they were both introduced to the world as rapping producers first.
Kanye West was solely known for his production. Whether it was his early production on albums by Da Brat and Ma$e’s group Harlem World, or some of his more recognisable work with the likes of Beanie Sigel and Jay-Z, he was one of the most sought after beat makers of the early 2000s.
But once Roc-A-Fella A&R Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua heard him rap that all changed.
“I kinda left my job and banked everything on it,” Hip Hop tells NME, explaining that he stepped away from his role at Roc-A-Fella Records to focus on the release of Kanye’s debut album.
Starting Hip Hop Since 1978, a management and production company, alongside partner Gee Roberson, Hip Hop took a huge risk signing Kanye. No one else wanted to sign him but he believed in his new artist and was sure it would pay off.
“My intention was to get him signed to Rawkus Records,” he explains. “But they didn’t want him. Capitol didn’t want him. Nobody wanted him. So when I approached Dame and Roc-A-Fella about working with us he was like, ‘What the fuck? I’ll do it.’
“There was no big build up to get the deal done for College Dropout, the deal wasn’t even $300,000 for the whole thing, and that’s the advance and everything. But of course once they heard it they gave him anything he wanted.”
With Roc-A-Fella on board all that was left to do was sell Kanye and his nerdy blue-collar persona to the consumer, this during a time when 50 Cent and G-Unit were dominating the airwaves with a brand of gangsta rap that was selling in the millions – 50’s major label debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ sold six million copies in America alone by the end of 2003.
“I knew we had to get over a wall,” admits Hip Hop. “But I knew once we got over that wall it could be incredible. I knew that if people could just get over him being a producer and listen to the album for the music and not worry about it being as hard or as street then we would be good.”
And good they were.
Released February 10th 2004, College Dropout sold 441,000 copies stateside in its first week, spawned the hits ‘Through the Wire’, ‘Slow Jamz’, ‘Jesus Walks’ and ‘All Falls Down’, landed at number two on the Billboard 200 chart, and in 2005 took home the Grammy for Best Rap Album.
While Kanye had a big team around him that included Rhymefest, Consequence, John Legend, GLC, Anthony Kilhoffer, Don C, John Monopoly and of course Gee and Hip Hop, once the concept for the album was birthed Kanye went into autopilot and never once steered away from his original idea.
“Once he understood what it was going to be you were just along for the ride,” remembers Hip Hop.
“I remember him telling me about the whole concept when it came to him, it was after we went to see the Tupac: Resurrection movie. As soon as we left the movie theatre I remember him saying, ‘I got it! I can just be myself.’ After watching the movie that’s what came to him. He was like, ‘I get it now, I know what I can do I can just be me.’ And then the very next day he came to me with the College Dropout concept. He simply said: ‘I’ma tell my story and speak for that kid.’ At that point everything clicked.”
Almost ending up a compilation album, Roc-A-Fella treated College Dropout as such until they started hearing the tracks Kanye was cooking up.
“Dame thought it was going to be a compilation,” Hip Hop says laughing. “So he was like, ‘Cool, we’ve got a lot of artists on Roc-A-Fella. Kanye’s got a lot of beats. What’s the worst that could happen?’ So it was kinda treated that way up until they started hearing it. When ‘Through the Wire’ started to get some spins at radio and the video started to pick up and they started to hear songs like ‘Jesus Walks’ that’s when they were like, ‘Okay, this could really be something.’”
One of the biggest moments on the album proved to be a song that originally featured a Lauryn Hill sample but was changed at the very last minute due to it not getting cleared for use.
‘All Falls Down’ is perfect. It was perfect when it appeared on the advance copy of College Dropout still with Lauryn’s vocals on it and it was perfect when it was officially released with new vocals in place of those by the Fugees front woman.
Changing not only the course of Kanye’s life, the song also shone a brighter light on the career of Syleena Johnson, who at the very last minute was asked to re-sing the lyrics to ‘The Mystery of Iniquity’, taken from Lauryn’s MTV Unplugged album, for ‘All Falls Down’.
“I was actually in the studio with Kanye working on a song called ‘Bull’s-Eye’ for my third album, Chapter 3: The Flesh,” explains Syleena. “So while I was writing to the track in one room he was in the next working on College Dropout.”
After being told that he was having trouble clearing the sample for ‘All Falls Down’ Syleena, daughter of blues legend Syl Johnson, was asked if she could help Kanye out by singing the hook.
“It was probably five or six o’clock in the morning,” Syleena says, breaking down her role in the song. “Lauryn Hill is one of my favourite artists so I know all of her music and how she sings, plus our tones are similar so I can mimic her, but that’s not what Kanye wanted. ‘Put some flare in it,’ he said. ‘Do it how you would do it.’ So i just sang it and put my little twist on it and then stacked it a bunch of times and that was it.”
Then after heading home in the early hours of the morning Syleena got a call just a few hours later from John Monopoly, Kanye’s manager at the time, who proceeded to tell her that the song was going to be the first single following the album’s release.
“A couple of weeks after recording it I heard it on the radio,” she adds. “I had no idea it was going to be one of his biggest hits ever. I was just singing a hook for a friend and it took me around the world and for that I’m very grateful.”
While Syleena was always unaware of why Lauryn wouldn’t clear the sample, Hip Hop sheds some light on the situation:
“Lauryn said that it was from a song that never came out. She felt like she never actually released that song, she only sang it live for her MTV Unplugged album. So she didn’t want Kanye’s version to come out before her version – I think she intended on releasing it.
“And also Lauryn wasn’t the easiest person to deal with, even to this day. Plus she didn’t know who Kanye was. So that was the excuse I remember hearing at the time and then we made the last minute move and got Syleena on the track.”
Aside from the unreleased version of ‘All Falls Down’ there were a few other tracks that didn’t make it off the cutting room floor. ‘The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’ ended up on Consequence’s debut album, while ’Keep the Receipt’ with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, ‘Heavy Hitters’ and ‘My Way’ have made their way onto various mixtapes over the years.
And while ‘Hey Mama’ ended up on his 2005 album Late Registration according to Hip Hop it was intended for College Dropout.
“Yeah, ’Hey Mama’ was real old,” he explains. “He didn’t want to put it on College Dropout because he felt like he wasn’t big enough, he wanted to wait until the next album. He wanted to be in a different place as an artist when he released it. He thought it might have gone over peoples heads. He felt like ‘Jesus Walks’ was enough for that album.”
Pushing the envelope and breaking free from the shackles of what was commercially appealing at the time, College Dropout was a complete body of work that “gave ordinary kids permission to be ordinary kids in their creativity,” according to Syleena.
“It gave J. Cole the lane he’s in now. It’s relatable. It says, ‘Hey, you can talk about other shit and still be lit, you know what I’m saying? You don’t have to talk about gold chains, strippers and how much money you’ve got. Kanye talks about real stuff.”
Hip Hop agrees that it opened the door for J. Cole, but also the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator and many others:
“If this album hadn’t come out I feel there would have been so many people who would have had a harder time getting to where they are now. I think he took the bullets for so many artists. He kicked the door down.
“Also a lot of the album to me isn’t on the album – if that makes sense – it’s on him because it was an introduction to him. So I think him as a concept people were wrapping their brains around seeing themselves in a similar fashion.”
But is College Dropout a classic?
“Absolutely. Of course it is,” says Syleena without any hesitation. “It will forever go down in hip-hop history.”
And while Hip Hop agrees, for him it’s more about impact than its timelessness.
“I compare it to A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory,” he begins. “I like Midnight Marauders more but I understand what Low End Theory did for it. It had to happen for them to be able to make Midnight Marauders, just to give them that, ‘Leave them alone, whatever they do is going to be great,’ type of freedom. College Dropout did that for Kanye, it allowed him to make Graduation and then of course My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
Giving Kanye West a purpose, something to fight for, a reason to survive the horrific car crash that inspired “Through the Wire”, no other album has impacted today’s musical landscape quite like College Dropout.
Fighting for his vision and for it not to be turned into a compilation album, we may have had a very different album had Kanye West not been so adamant about what he wanted to do. In fact it might never have come out at all.