Classic Kanye West Interview: Breakdancing In China, Self Esteem Issues & The KKK

I first met Kanye West when he was touring with his debut album in 2004. He wasn't a shy man and I couldn't believe it when he started comparing the Black Panthers with the KKK.
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I first met Kanye West when he was touring with his debut album in 2004. He wasn't a shy man and I couldn't believe it when he started comparing the Black Panthers with the KKK.

'Imma let you finish, but I've got some of the healthiest gums of all time, of all time.

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"Was it always your idea to do pop music?

Yeah, I remember when I came out with College Dropout it was weird. It was one of the most hip hop albums in a while but one of the most pop albums at the same time. So it kind of broke the barrier of people saying that hip hop wasn’t pop, because pop has a negative connotation. But pop just means ‘popular’ – Michael Jackson was pop.

[Tour Manager Don comes over to ask whether Kanye will play an extra show in Tallahassee]

Don, stop talking to me! This guy came all the way to meet me from muthafucking Israel!

Did you have a very specific idea of what kind of music you wanted to do?

Nah. At what point. I figured it out as I was developing the album. I didn’t know right off the bat what it was going to be. I was just trying to get a record deal really. I had songs that sounded like Jay-Z-esque sound, DMX… but this was way before I got my deal.

For how long?

I’ve been making songs since… like seventh grade.

How old where you then?

I was about 11 years old. I had a computer that I used to make beats on and tried to put together some songs. They’d be knock-offs of Brand Nubian songs that were out at the time. I was trying to make really positive raps because it was just that era. Hip hop goes through the stages…

[begins to rap]

I walk through the halls of the school/and it’s cool to be known by many/for my rapping ability/What about the brothers who ain’t got it like me/making money off the trade/you could say I had it made/death is on the rise/and that ain’t no surprise/you can see your soul in a young brother’s eyes/hardened by the streets cos the streets is kinda hard/but here’s another factor that we wanna disregard…

I can spit all day.

Did you want to rap rather than produce?

I never really thought about producing. No one really wanted to produce when I was young. I never really thought about it that hard. I was trying to rap. And I made beats because what else was I going to rap on? Other people’s beats. So it wasn’t really that well thought out like that.

No-one wanted to listen to you as a rapper?

That was way later than the era I’m talking about. This was when I was 12. I started making money off my beats when I was 15 or 16. Fifty dollars a beat here and there.

To local kids?

Yeah. And then I had my first album come out in stores, with an artist called Gravity on Correct Records, when I was 18. Then I did Infamous Syndicate back when I was 19. Then Jermaine Dupri’s album came out when I was still 19 and that was my first platinum record.

When did you think that you hit upon a sound?

Basically when Jay decided that would be my sound. I had Timbaland sounding beats, Primo sounding beats. And it was really the more Nashiem sounding beats that the one Jay clinged to for The Blueprint. My friend Erin always used to say, you can’t really be an established producer until you got a sound. I used to just be good at doing beats, but everybody else’s style beats. They weren’t really that creative.

I’ve been making songs since… like seventh grade.

What drew you to using 60s soul samples?

Oh, Primo, Pete Rock and Nashiem. They did it. RZA. That whole Wu-Tang sound.

Was it the feeling that you got from using them?

Now, yeah. But not the creation of it. It wasn’t that well thought out. I was trying to bite the way people make beats to get my shit better. And then I got better. Then when the Blueprint came out, I kinda took the soul sound and mixed it with Neptunes style drums – like the drums off of Explosive on the Chronic album. And that became my sound.

When did you start formulating ideas for College Dropout?

I guess well… when I said that rap ‘Mayonnaise colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips’ for Jay I was about 21 years old. So you could say then. The last line you hear on College Dropout is the oldest line, so I call that the beginning.

I was wondering whether your car accident focused your music?

It gave me the chance to really focus on my music. That was the first time in my career when I could tell people, ‘I can’t go to the studio with you’, and people weren’t trippin’. Because at that time I was an established producer everybody wanted me to go to the studio to work on they music and they didn’t even take it seriously when I said I was going to work on mine. But when I had the accident, my manager had to tell them I couldn’t go. They were like, ‘OK, he almost died’. But instead of resting and trying to recover, I was sneaking into the studio to work on College Dropout. I already had it [the album] but that’s when I started to master it. That’s when I went over to Jamie Foxx’s and wrote Slow Jamz. When I wrote that chorus and Jamie Foxx sung it, I don’t think I even had the Michael Jackson line at that time.

So did the accident happen at the end of the writing?

I wouldn’t say it was at the end of the writing, because think about when the accident happened and how long it was before the album came out. I went back and re-spat everything. The only thing that had the original vocals on it before the accident was Breath In Breath Out. There’s a bunch of new lyrics, more polished. I went back and line for line tried to improve on it. I’m really meticulous with my lyrics.

"And the kindergarten teacher came to my mother and said, he doesn’t have any self-esteem issues."

The album had been leaked onto the internet?

Yeah. I put four new songs on it and re-spat the album. That’s it. When people leaked it and wanted to play it, I looked at it as a kid wanting to open up their Christmas presents too early.

Did the accident focus your mind in terms of what you wanted to communicate?

Yeah, I think it opened up that side of me. I already had All Falls Down and Jesus Walks though, all completed with the same lyrics. But I wrote Never Let Me Down after the accident, Spaceship, School’s Spirit. So I already had that vibe. It’s not like I had the accident and became a conscious rapper afterwards. I’m not really a conscious rapper. I’m just a regular person. And regular people have a conscious.

That’s kind of the focus of the album is it not, regular lives and the struggles that people go through?

Yeah. Regular life has so many fun things that happen, live interesting things. Regular people’s lives are so much more interesting than performer’s lives. What’s a performer’s life? I went and bought a Benz today. There are things that regular people go through – which I still am even though I have this good-ass job – that are real problems. Love. Pain. Work. Dreams. Following your dreams. That’s why the name of my label is Getting Out Our Dreams (GOOD Music).

Do you think that’s helped the success of the album, that it’s brought something different back to hip hop?

Uh-huh. Well, I don’t know how you can bring something different back. You can either bring something that’s done back or else bring something different. That’s like an oxymoron.

OK, I guess bringing something different. Hip hop is fixated on fantasy.

It was. And it was fun. And that’s still fun sometimes.

Do you think that what you’re doing fits into the climate of the country?

Well, you know what’s weird is that when I say, ‘We're at war’, we weren’t at war at the time.

You were talking about people at war with themselves?

Yeah. And then when it dropped, we really were at war. It’s almost like God wanted me to say that.

Did you want to tell a story with the album as well, not from start to finish?

I think it definitely has a thread, a storyline that holds the album together. I just tried to put it together well. Some people say they have a problem with the skits. [breaks off to talk to designer about logos]

I thought there might have been a direct connection between Through The Wire and Jesus Walks, but I guess there isn’t?

That’s a common misconception. You can answer that just by listing it out. I had my deal when I did Through The Wire but I say on Last Call that I already had Jesus Walks.

But did you not have a vision while you were recovering about Jesus walking behind you?

Yeah I did.

Was that something you experienced or just an idea you had for the video?

It was an idea I had for the video.

Was there at any point when you were coming up and were trying to get your deal that you didn’t have that self-belief?

Nah. Never. If anything I’m way more humble than that. The whole thing is I’m not arrogant.

People say you’re arrogant.

All I do is work with people who don’t believe. I say it loud before the fact so when it happens I can say, I told you so. So I’m more like a psychic.

Do you feel vindicated now?

Yeah! Because you know, they said I was arrogant because… What if I said some asinine shit like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna get nominated for the most awards ever.’ What would people say? Wouldn’t people say that was an arrogant statement?

I guess. Did you ever say it?

No I never said that. But my thing is, what’s arrogant about that?! To want something, to want something great. What’s arrogant about that?

It’s more like self-belief and conviction?

Yeah, self-confidence. I don’t see what’s wrong with going in and saying, ‘I’m going to sell 3 million records’. Not even saying ‘I want to’ but ‘I’m going to’! What if someone was like, ‘I’m going to finish school’! [fires out each word, punches the air as if slamming his fist on a desk] ‘You’re kind of arrogant for that!’ What if it was just as hard for that person to finish school as for me to sell 3 million records. But in order to give themselves that confidence, they say, ‘I am going to do it!’ And people turn around and say they’re arrogant. [his voice gets louder, more defiant, eyes blazing with passion] Now they even doubting them. They’re saying, first of all, you can’t do it. And secondly, you’re method to build your esteem up so that you have something to believe in and to set your goals, your methods are wrong also. So they bashing you on both ends. It’s basically like saying, ‘Fuck you! You have to be a fucking loser!’ [raging now] You can’t believe that there is something greater for you out there. You can never believe that you’ll be performing for 20,000 people every night. Why?! Why you?! Who the FUCK are you to think you can have anything in life? And if you say, I am going to do it. I will sell 3 mill. I will be the biggest artist. You ain’t NEVER seen the likes of me. NEVER seen nobody like me in front of you. NOBODY’s going to do what I’m a do. [puts on disbelievers voice] Oh, he’s so arrogant! He has dreams. Why the fuck should he dream? And if he does dream, don't let him say it loud!

Is that the message of the album?

Yeah. But the album has so many messages, so many boundaries, broke so many walls. The stigma of the rapper-producer. The Chicago hip hop artist. The hip hop artist. What hip hop artist’s talk about. How hip hop artists dress. The death of the compilation producer album. The rebirth of… you know what I’m saying… the real.

Have you always had self-confidence?

Year. When I was at kindergarten, I said, I’m gonna draw this. And the kindergarten teacher came to my mother and said, he doesn’t have any self-esteem issues. If anything, there would be times when we was at talent shows and I would get my shit together and then help other people with their stuff.

What kind of talent shows?

We had dance, rap, singing or whatever. I would help the others because I just knew I was going to win. Then the teachers said, you know we’re going to change this to a talent showcase. This ain’t meant to be the Kanye West show. But now they can’t stop me. It’s all in the fans hands now. They tried to stop me at art school. I got scholarships. They put the suck work up on the board to give the students esteem, instead of putting my work up. But now they can't stop me.

At school, I used to be fresh to death. I worked at The fucking Gap. Instead they gave some kid who wore *** **** best dressed. They didn’t even nominate me. But now they can’t stop me. I’m on the red carpet. I am the best dressed. [self-satisfied laugh] A lot of stuff I just say ‘cos it sounds fun. I’ll be dead-ass serious but I’ll also have fun.

Did you get your drive or self-confidence from your parents?

Yeah, I guess my mother always told me to really believe in yourself. My thing is, it seems like other people should have the same drive. It obviously works for somebody! You know what it is… Nobody really comes up in the mix till they struggle. They act like it’s all good, meaning just the game. My thing is, they should never have let a real nigga in. They come in and they make changes. Jay comes in and spreads his opinion. 50 comes in and makes changes and doesn’t take any shit. And because of my mild mannered demeanour, people were expecting something less of that. But I’m really cut from similar cloth. My way or the highway.

Has the background you come from, and your parents background, contributed to your desire to change things and shake things up?

Uh-huh. That’s what is. It was my father and grandfather. And my mother. All of them were activists. My father would always be like, ‘No, that’s wrong!’ And would confront people. So that’s how I grew up. Now that it’s my chance to speak up about so many wrongs I can’t help it, man.

Was your father a Black Panther?

Hell no!

I read that he was...

Yeah, he was! That was something… my father was a military brat. He would be in Germany surrounded by a bunch of white people, and he was darker than me. He’d be around all these white people so he would sound white. Now, this is the thing - black people hate black people that sound white. So he would be around black people and they wouldn't like him because he sound white. He get around white people and they wouldn’t like him because he was black. So sometimes, in that situation, you got to find a place where you can fit in, where you’ll be accepted. To be a part of a movement. To be a part of a struggle. So he became a part of that. Somewhere they accepted him. They accepted his energy. He would go up and grab the mic from someone at a college and be right there in the front of rallies they had. But he started to realise that regardless if this was the hate that hate made, that from his perspective it was still a hate group. But the Black Panthers weren’t made to be a hate group but more to protect the community.

When was he involved in that, in the 70s when the Panthers were active in Chicago?

Yeah, the 70s. The thing is it’s not to say that any group was perfect. But think about this. It was just like the Klan almost, because they were made (supposedly) to save the good white folks from the now-freed slaves that were running around. Then they started going to the houses of black people that weren’t doing nothing and began raping, killing and burning them. But originally they were formed as a self-protection group. So everything is started with good intentions.
The Panthers had all their after school programmes.

Yeah, they did a lot of good stuff. What’s so crazy is when crack… I want to know who the person was who knew that black people would love crack? That was a genius. That was a racist genius right there. Because crack not only destroyed the BPP it destroyed the black community. It took the fathers out of the community. Without fathers, families can’t be raised properly. Sons end up in jail with no proper direction.

You father became a photo journalist as well?

Yeah. He was doing that stuff at college too. He was a photographer when he met my mother.

What kind of subjects?

Yeah, journalism. He would also use that to pick up hot females as well. A little head shot in return for a little head shot. I remember my daddy used to have the baaad girls, when I used to go down to visit him. His girlfriends would make my wee-wee tingly. [laughs] When I was ten years old. He went out with girls that really looked like the books under his bed.

Did he live in Chicago as well?

Atlanta. And then he moved to DC.

Did you live between your mom and your dad?

Yeah, well I went to visit him during the summer and on spring breaks. They had joint custody.
There’s a story on the album about your grandfather making your mother sit in the dining hall.

Yeah, she got arrested. That wasn’t something I made up just to rhyme.

When she was 6 years old?

Yeah. My mom said, why would you say that? Do you think people are really going to believe that happened? Well it did happen.

Why did your grandfather do that?

My grandfather was the original hustler. He’d shine shoes and do whatever he had to do to send his kids to college. He went from being a person who shined shoes to a being able to send all his kids to college. If that ain’t a hustle, what do you call that. This is all fact. That was before rap.

When you were talking about your dad wanting to find something to fit it, does that apply to you too?

Yeah, just being an only child, searching for acceptance and blah, blah, blah. My mother was always good at making really good friends and I’m similar.

When you’re an only child you’re kind of like an outsider. Do you feel that?

Um....

That you can fit in and still be apart...

Yeah, I think so. [pause…puts on a voice] Bobby! Bobby, you’re a genius! Yah-dah-da-da-da! Where that from? [asks everyone in the room] Don’t nobody know where that from? Hey, Don, you know where that from? It’s from Zoolander. You remember that part when he’s taking a piss. ‘Ka-pish? I wish I could take a piss. My prostate is this big.’

Did you spend a year in China?

Uh-huh.

Did that open your eyes a lot more about the world?

I think being in China got me ready to be a celeb because, at that time, a lot of Chinese had never seen a black person. They would always come up and also stare at me, fishbowl me and everything. And that’s kind of the way it is for me right now.

What did that feel like at 10 years old?

I used to say something in Chinese that I just knew by instinct meant ‘get away!’. They’d rub your skin. They’d ask you how old your mother is. I went to school there but it was hard because I didn’t speak Chinese that well. They had me in third grade when I was really supposed to be in fifth grade. We were in Nanjing. But let me tell you one thing I learned about school – the whole period of College Dropout when we were in China. My mother had to take me out and home school me because couldn’t speak the language I wasn’t excelling. That can throw a kid off slightly. So then when I went back to school, I had to do some tests. I sent them and they thought my mother did them for me, that I cheated. When I went there, I had to take the test again while they monitored me. Ever since then I was always two grades which means that whole time they weren’t teaching me at the level I needed to be taught at. That’s why I’d always get in trouble. I dropped out of College because I was bored out of mind.

What did you study at College?

I was an English major. But most of the time I’d be in music class or in the lunch room talking to girls.

How many years did you do before you dropped out?

About a year and a half. I went to two schools. I went to art school to start with then I went South State where my mother taught.

Were your parents disappointed?

I already had a deal on the table with Columbia Records when I did drop out.

Did you used to make money by breakdancing in China?

Oh, how did you know that?! ‘Scotland Yard would love to get their hands on that piece of evidence.’ Where that come from? [no answer] Austin Powers.

What do you get out of making videos?

Oh, man, I love making videos. I feel like it’s the trinity – the beat, the song, the video. I love it, man. I love this shit too [designing the logo].

Is just about translating the song into a different format?

Yeah. Yo, Don, look at this one. It ain’t done yet.

Do you spend a lot of time working on the concepts for your song?

Yeah. Definitely concepts and information, what’s being said, all that is so important.

I’ve been making songs since… like seventh grade.

I read that it took you seven months to come up with the second verse on Jesus Walks?

It was 12 months. I got a record right now that I’ve had for a month which I want to use for the first single and I only got the first four lines for that. Sometimes I can go at it and really knock that shit out, other times I got to sit there.

Are you as influenced by film as you are by music?

Yeah. Why do you think I keep doing movie quotes. Ben Stiller. Adam Sandler.

Would you like to make movies at some point?

I guess, yeah. It’s just a matter of making sure I can do it right.

I also read that you had two more albums planned out?

Three more. It’s College Dropout. Late Registration. Graduation. And the final one is what you’re supposed to get after you come out – a Good-Ass Job.

Do you know what they’re going to be about thematically?

I have a basic idea.

Would you make more albums than that?

I hope I can get to the fourth one, shit!

With College Dropout it sounds like you’re having a dialogue with yourself?

What do you mean? Well, you know what it is. I always talk about myself on the records and what I’m going through. I never down other rappers and their lives.

[Jesus Piece]

Costs about $25,000.

Was religion part of your upbringing?

Yeah, definitely. My father had me going to church three times a week. Had me going to church so much that I didn’t want to go no more. I was born into it. And all I did, when it came time to do my album, was just not deny it. The thing is that Jesus Walks is so new in hip hop. It’s not that new. It's just that the beat it’s on this time is a club banger. Usually people don’t make them God songs over beats like that.

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