Soul By The Pound
Kanye West brought the soul back to hip hop beats, but just wait ‘til you hear what his rhymes bring back. By Noah Callahan-Bever.
Kanye West is a confident guy. Supremely confident. If you want to be a jerk about it, you might even call him gassed. He says things like, “If you think about it, I’ve produced the most classic albums of the century.” Which, strictly speaking, is true. He had the most beats on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, ‘01] and Scarface’s The Fix [Def Jam], both judged to be classic by many, including…gulp…The Source.
But just when you think the 25-year-old, Chicago repping rapper/producer’s head might be filled with more helium than The Red Balloon, you remember that Kanye is largely responsible for bringing the soul back to popular hip hop; his beautifully chopped beats-like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love),” and “Guess Who’s Back”—are just fuckin’ incredible.
And just when you acknowledge said facts, the point gets pounded home. Def Jam honchos Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles, followed by Roc-A-Fella CEOs Damon Dash and Jay-Z, burst into the small room in Manhattan’s Baseline studios where Kanye’s been previewing his newest joints. The Willies want to hear if he’s got more fire for Jay-Z’s already monstrous double LP, The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse. The “masters of the universe” take seats and ask Kanye to cue up his masterworks (he’s been on a lockout mission for weeks, which means beatmaking every morning, song tracking every night).
They’re all good tracks, but the first couple don’t grab anyone. Then the third comes on, and it’s funky, in the vein of ‘Face’s “In Cold Blood.” Jay-Z, bucket low, like, fuck it, though, starts nodding, a sly grin creeping up the left side of his face. Def Jam CEO and president Liles smirks and his eyelids lower. Roc-A-Fella moneyman Dame does his patented dance. And finally, Cohen, Def Jam’s co-president and CEO, in his oft-imitated Israeli accent, exclaims, “This is fucking it! This the kind of music we need to be making!” It’s at that moment you realize that Kanye is not gassed at all. He’s just excited. And anyone in his shoes would be too. He’s given his heroes some of the best beats of their career, and now he’s signed as a rapper to Roc-A-Fella, which virtually guarantees him a gold plaque. Just Ask Memph Bleek.
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Born and raised in the Chi by his teacher mother and salesman father, Kanye cites Kid ‘n Play’s debut and De La Soul’s “Me Myself & I” as the first records to pique his curiosity. But in a city with no rap radio, hip hop was hard to come by. “In Chicago, they didn’t even have a world for hip hop, so people would call me ‘Deep House’ because of my baggy pants and backpack,” he remembers.
Never a hard rock (and proud of it) Kanye spent his childhood baseketballing, drawing, and dreaming up video games. But when his syncopated handclapping was getting more props at practice than his layups—and the programming code got too involved—Kanye switched plans and put one hundred percent into the music.
He copped a Casio keyboard and got started, but it was a friend of the family—Common (Sense) producer No I.D.—who taught Kanye how to put it all together. “My mother was friends with his mother; they used to party together. So when I started to get into music they hooked us up,” he says. Though he first met NO I.D., (who, himself recently inked a label deal with Def Jam), during the recording of Common’s energetic first album, Can I Borrow A Dollar? [Relativity, ‘92], Kanye would pick up his ear for soul watching the two work on the rapper’s slept-on sophomore banger, Resurrection [Relativity, ‘94]. Since there’s no guaranteed future with professional beatmaking, Kanye enrolled at Chicago State University and began taking classes. The lure of music, however, would prove to be too strong. “I produced ‘City to City’ for Grav [from Down to Earth, Correct, ‘96] and took the $8,800 and bought myself a big Ghostface Jesus piece and some fly Polo,” he says. He also admits that, believe it or not, “It was the best thing I could’ve done with that money.”
A year later he sold the chain to No I.D. (for his video shoot) and used the money to get himself to New York. Once in the Big Apple, Kanye began unloading heat on Harlem World, Jermaine Dupri (Life In 1472 [Sony, ‘98] was his first plaque), and dead prez (Lets Get Free’s “Hip Hop” remix). Finally, in the fall of ’98, he got one off on Beanie Sigel that would become the title track for his debut The Truth [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, ‘99].
Sold on Kanye’s menacing organs and thumping drums, Roc-A-Fella A&R Director Hip Hop took over his management and Kanye and the similarly minded Just Blaze became Roc The World, the Roc’s in-house producers. Despite his unrelenting drive, it was Hip Hop that put the fire under Kanye’s ass. “He pulled me aside when Hov had done seven songs for The Blueprint—and I didn’t have any on it yet—and he said, ‘You gotta bring him joints every day, ‘cause Jay’ll go and get Alchemist,’” he remembers. “Everyone’s parents have the same records.”
Kanye took that as his cue to go hard—hard with the rhymes as well. “People don’t realize it, but I only started making beats so that I’d have something to rhyme to,” he explains. (In ’96 he actually bested Common in a famed Chicago radio freestyle battle.) So he started shyly playing his tunes during other people’s sessions. One day last spring, Damon Dash noticed and flipped: “Do you guys hear this? Kanye’s got rhymes! And they’re not even wack!”
His currently untitled debut is due for an early ’03 release. Featuring an interesting cast of cameos, including Scarface, Jay, Beans, Ludacris, Mos Def, and Freeway (who actually appear together on “Two Words”), Kanye’s album can only be described as Resurrection meets The Blueprint. He’s an everyman with b-boy Chutzpah—hip hop enough to appeal to the most thugged-out cats, but thoughtful enough to resonate with the underground, and just charming and stylish enough to score with the ladies. “I’m really fittin’ to be a bigger artist than [Jay and Dame] expect. I think that what I got to say will hit a lot of different people.”
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Reclined in baseline, the puppet masters having exited to give final approval on Freeway tracks in another room, Kanye is focused, man. He has, again, produced Jay’s lead single—the Beyonce-guested “Bonnie & Clyde”—and also snuck a verse onto the Blueprint 2. In addition, he recently signed on to split production on Scarface’s next album with ‘Face’s longtime collaborator, Mike Dean. “I knew when I started all this that, if I went at it hard, I could do anything that I wanted,” he says, glancing down at the gold Roc chain that hangs from his neck.
Kanye West is far from gassed, but the immensely talented rapper better watch out, because if he keeps heading in the direction he’s going—straight to the top—it won’t be long before those around him start catching the vapors.