To celebrate the 10th year anniversary of Kanye West’s classic debut album “College Dropout”, our good friend Erika Ramirez of Billboard recently put together this very detailed retrospective on the making of the album, with the help of some key contributors. Check out an excerpt below and read the full piece over on Billboard.com.
In celebration of its upcoming 10-year anniversary, 26 collaborators share their stories behind the making of Kanye West’s debut album.
“The College Dropout” is the story of and for the underdog, the underachiever. It still is, 10 years after its release (February 10, 2004).
Kanye West fought for recognition when he was 12 years old, and still thirsts for respect today. He survived a car accident that nearly killed him, but instead propelled him, and strengthened the necessity to jump on tables to prove his talents and fight stigmas that come with being a rapper/producer and a brutally honest, emotional backpacker.
Kanye’s first studio album, “The College Dropout,” continues to resonate in pop culture 10 years after its release, not only because of Kanye West but all of those who were a part of the creation. Everyone who contributed was an underdog as well, trying to prove themselves to their hometown, label executives, peers, and most importantly, themselves
Everyone involved – Kanye West, those he grew up with him in Chicago (GLC, Coodie, Chike, Really Doe, Olskool Ice-Gre, JB Marshall), those who he met at the latter end of the album’s development to those who in the thick of it all – were so hungry to achieve something that they became one unit. One family, one machine, with the goal to kick down doors and brighten Kanye West’s future. Even as everyone moved on to fulfill their own ambitions and dreams, “The College Dropout” was in the pit of each of them.
In celebration of Kanye West’s “The College Dropout,” here are the stories of 26 contributors – “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” – who were involved in the making of the album, and more importantly, became instrumental to Kanye West’s career.
88-Keys – Founder of Locksmith Music | Producer | Rapper
Common – Rapper
Coodie & Chike – Directors | Founders of Creative Control
Damon Dash – Executive Producer | Co-Founder of Roc-A-Fella Records
Devo Springsteen – Cousin to Kanye West | Former roomate to John Legend | Producer | Songwriter
Ferris Bueller – Marketing
Freeway – Rapper
Gee Roberson – Co-Executive Producer | Manager | Co-CEO of Hip Hop Since 1978 | Co-CEO of Blueprint Group
JB Marshall – Manager | A&R Executive
J. Ivy – Poet
Joe “3H” Weinberger –Management | Former A&R, Capitol Records
John Legend – Singer | Songwriter
John Monopoly – Manager | Co-Founder of Hustle Period
Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua – Co-Executive Producer | Manager | Co-Co-CEO of Hip Hop Since 1978
Miri Ben-Ari – Violinist
No I.D. – Producer
Olskool Ice-Gre – Former G.O.O.D. Music A&R | Founder of Honest Management
Plain Pat – Producer | Songwriter | Fromer A&R, Island Def Jam
Really Doe – Rapper
Shalik Berry – VP of A&R, Epic Records | Former A&R Coordinator, Island Def Jam
Syleena Johnson – Singer | Songwriter
Talib Kweli – Rapper
Tony Williams – Cousin to Kanye West | Singer | Songwriter
Part I: How I Met Kanye West
Tony Williams: “Kanye and I are first cousins — I’m 14 years older than him. We share the same set of grandparents. His mother and my dad are brother and sister. Our family is a very musical family, starting with our grandmother who was the musical matriarch of the family. Holidays were always spent in Oklahoma City at my grandparents’ house. Every holiday, we would all come back to Oklahoma City. Everyone, at my grandparents, would sing or play instruments. Everyone was a great singer, except Kanye, so he’d just go sit in a corner. It was weird, but he was always a genius kid, so we knew he would do something.
When he was 12 or 13 years old, Kanye got into hip-hop and decided he wanted to be a rapper. My aunt said he wasn’t feeling art and asked me for some recommendations on some equipment. I looked into items: drum machine, sampler. That holiday, I took him over to a friend of mine’s studio, that was producing for Color Me Badd. That was one of his first experiences going into a recording studio. He’d have his keyboard, sampler, and drum machine all spread out on my mom’s dining room table, making beats.”
Devo Springsteen: “We’re cousins, but we didn’t grow up together. I first met Kanye in 1995, when we were both graduating high school. He was already in the studio, and he took me to the studio. It was my first time being in the studio. His name was Kanye the Influence, at that time. He was always rapping, making beats and art. This was right before he went to art school. When he lived in Newark, I went out there. I started out as being his assistant. I would talk him out of things. I would go out to Newark every other day, and whether it was finding a sample, recording things or cleaning up the apartment, I’d help him.”
Coodie: “We used to go to this barber shop called Mellowswing. At first it was No I.D. and Doug Infinite’s music studio. Kanye would come up there to get those guys to teach him how to do beats. My guy Dave and Brendan had a group called Mellowswing, so No I.D. sold the shop to him. That’s how it became a barber shop. Kanye would get his haircut cause Ibn, who is with Kanye still, would work in there. He’d come in with his beats, like ‘Izzo,’ and I thought, ‘This dude is out of here, and I’m about to start filming him and do a “Hoop Dreams” on Kanye.'”
John Monopoly: “In 1991, he was in a group called State of Mind. Our mutual friends, Lucien and Gene, who were members of the group, introduced us. I was a producer and promoter, and we liked each others beats, became friends and created a production group called the Numbskulls in 1992.”
No I.D.: “It was during Common’s first album, ’93 or ’94… My mother came home one day and told me that she had a friend… Moms are always like: ‘Here’s someone that you should help.” I understood, checked it out and it was him. He was just learning how to make music, but he was the most persistent person who I’ve ever met.
“The first song he played me called ‘Green Eggs & Ham.’ It was real super-early, 90s-sounding, yelling type of hip-hop record with a computer keyboard beat that was really quite funny. He was in his group [State of Mind] for that song.
“Eventually I built a studio in my home, and he’d come over. He was always trying to prove himself, and he kept getting better and better. At one point, me and a guy, Peter Kang – who was an A&R for Relativity where Common and I had our record deals back in the day – shopped his music once it got to a certain level. After a few meetings, I realized that I couldn’t control his personality, and [I] didn’t have the time and patience to be that role.”
Common: “I met Kanye through No I.D. He was in Dion’s basement, bringing beats and wanting to battle me. I was that rapper out from Chicago. Of course, along with that, MCs wanted to challenge me. Kanye would always have dope rhymes, but he didn’t have his style down at that time. He had good samples, but it wasn’t polished.”
Really Doe: “I met Kanye when I was 15 years old [in 1995]. I met him through our friend, who we called Birdman. (Edit: Not the same Birdman from Cash Money.) Him and Bird went to the same high school together. When I met ‘Ye, as a kid, we clicked and linked up. We’d go to Taste of Chicago to mack girls down, party and enjoy ourselves. I was into music because I grew up across the street from some DJs. I built a relationship with them.
“As kids, his room was full of crates of records. It pulled a lot out of me that I was holding in musically. We linked and started making mixtapes, ‘World Record Holders,’ and started our movement as the Go-Getters.
“We’d be down at radio stations, at performances, floated through out the city, and sleeping in No I.D.’s parking lot trying to hear our music heard. (Laughs) I mean, not really, but we would be in his parking lot, 7-8 hours trying to present our music. Trying to get him to open his doors for us and he finally did.”
JB Marshall: “I was a party promoter by night, but by day I worked at the stock exchange. While there, I met new friends and one of my new friends was Don C. He introduced me to his friend, John Monopoly. One day they came by my place and Don said he had to stop by one of his producers’ spot. This guy with braces comes to the door, ‘Aye, my name is Kanye.’ I walked into his house on 95th and he had three three-foot-high stacks of ‘GQ’ magazines. I was like, ‘Okay, this is weird.’ He’s playing his music. Sooner than later, he’d come to parties I’d promote, and we started our own relationship and talking about music.”
Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua: “It might have been ’96 [when] we got introduced through No I.D. I had just got my job at Roc-A-Fella and I went to Chicago. Wendy Day of Rap Coalition had a convention in Chicago [or] a panel that she sent me to be on. No I.D. was on the panel. No I.D. didn’t really have any music but he told me, ‘I have this kid that I’m working on.’ I met a kid the next day — the kid was Kanye. He started sending me beats for a long time, but I started managing him after we built a relationship. He wanted to be more of a rapper than a producer, and being an A&R at the time led to me managing him”
No I.D.: “Hip Hop hit me and said, ‘I want to work with him. I like him.’ Me and Hip Hop were good friends at this point, even beyond business. I was talking them up to the both of them to really make it happen.”
Gee Roberson: “At the tail end of 1998/the beginning of 1999, we – my partner Hip Hop and me – were brainstorming on starting a company [Hip Hop Since 1978]. He said, ‘There’s this guy who’s not getting any production credit.’ He let me know this [same] guy was ghost producing for Deric A (‘D-Dot’) and working with a group of post-producers for Bad Boy. We were blessed to come upon this young man named Kanye West. He would give us a batch of beats on a daily basis. I thought we should sign this guy and he can be the first person we bring on board. The only stipulation was he rapped and we would need to work with him as an artist. We obliged and we planned on pushing his beats, feeding his sound and creating an opportunity for him as an artist.”
John Monopoly: “In ’98, Me and Don C – who is a distant cousin but who I didn’t meet until ’93, through mutual friends – managed the Go-Getters, a group that we formed around Kanye. Me and my crew [Hustle Period] were always pushing his initiative. We had Kanye open Jay Z’s first show in Chicago in ’97. We weren’t managing ‘Ye at the time, but trying to help him make it in the game.”
Shalik Berry: “I was A&R at Roc-A-Fella at the time. I initially met him though Hip Hop, who was managing him at the time. I was just amazed by him. The first song I heard from him was ‘Hey Mama.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ The way he arranged the song was amazing. I instantly knew that this was something I had to be a part of.”
Syleena Johnson: “I met him a long, long time ago. I used to date his girlfriend’s brother. I met him once then, very briefly. Later, I found out he was a producer, but I didn’t know I had met him when I first did. I just knew him from around Chicago. I really loved his production and respected him. We were formally introduced via telephone for him to work on ‘Chapter Three,’ my third album.”
88-Keys: “In 1999, we met at Baseline Studios where Roc-A-Fella recorded all the time. One evening, I met Kanye. I told him who I was, and he was shocked. He knew my stuff through Mos Def’s albums. When he introduced himself I thought his name was pronounced Cayenne not Kanye. I was familiar with him as an artist, but not the name of songs he’d done. Within eight minutes of our conversation he told me was going to be a star. His Midwest accent was so thick I didn’t know what he was saying. He spit a rap at that time, and we went back and forth rapping. His raps were really good, but I didn’t really think ‘star’ from those raps or that moment. At that time, we both lived in Newark. We’d go to each other’s apartments, going to the studio together for almost four years.”
Olskool Ice-Gre: “In 2000, I cut him a check for a beat [“Paid”] that he produced for my band, Abstract Mindstate. We were the hottest local group at the time, Chicago’s finest. We thought we couldn’t afford him. The Go-Getters used to open up for Abstract Mindstate.
“He didn’t know his way around the studio — this was when he stayed in Jersey. He didn’t know how to communicate to people what was in his head. He didn’t know how to verbalize what he wanted them to do. I stepped in and gave the technical terms because I lived in the studio growing up. The song he recorded that night that happened was ‘Two Words.’ He was working with the Hezekiah Walker choir that night, but he ended up using the Boys Choir of Harlem. I got him through that session.
“He was like, ‘How much do you get paid doing this promotion [with Coodie]? I like how you move in the studio. I’ll pay you to stay with me and help me out while I do all this stuff… I know you’re a star yourself but I’m about to be the biggest star in hip-hop and I need your help.’
“The ego MC in me was like, ‘Are you serious — you want me to be your personal assistant? And I’m a bigger artist than you in my city.’ This was in my head. But then I thought about it, and I was close to everyone I dreamed of being close to. I said I would be his personal assistant but only if I ran his production company, Konman Productions. ‘Deal.’ We shook on it.”
Consequence: “When we first met, through 88-Keys, I came to his crib in Newark. He opened the door and basically had a whole spiel. He said, ‘Yo! I’m about to get a record deal. I’m about to be the next Michael Jackson. I always loved you as a child. Let me produce your next record. Come be on my team.’ I was like, Man, I just met this mother fucker and he already had 18 months of my life planned out.
My situation with Tribe [Called Quest] didn’t go exactly how I planned it. I had another deal with a producer and I got signed to Relativity when Fat Joe and Common were there. I was essentially doing it on my own, but then 88-Keys introduced me to Kanye. He wanted me on the records they were doing, and it eventually spawned into us working together. I would spend the nights at his crib and cook. I would make grape/lemonade Kool-Aid. He never lived in New York, so some of the things I was familiar with, I introduced him to. It became more than music.”
Miri Ben-Ari: “He saw me perform with Jay Z [in 2001]. When Kanye saw me playing in the studio, he was in awe. Kanye is a very musical person. I was his introduction to strings in the classical approach. He used to sit in the studio and watch me arrange for hours. He was thirsty; he wanted to learn.”
J. Ivy: “Early ’02, I had a show in Philly. One of my guys, Coodie, had moved to New York. We used to do a lot of shows together. He used to do comedy. When I had my show in Philly, I hit him up. He was like, ‘I’m at Kanye’s crib, come through.’ I was with Tarrey Torae, my girlfriend and stage-mate at the time, my wife now. We did the show then drove up. When we walked in the door, Coodie, Olskool Ice-Gre, Consequence, and a couple people of other were there. You walk in the door and you hear, ‘It’s J. Ivy. He’s on Def Poetry. Tarrey Torae, vocalist, she got one of them strong voices.’ He heard that and said, ‘You sing? Get in the booth.’ He put her right to work. She ended up three songs that night. She was the first one to sing ‘All Falls Down.’“
Plain Pat: “First time I met ‘Ye was when I was with Ferris [Bueller]. ‘Ye was out with Consequence. But the first official time I met him was when I was working at Def Jam doing A&R Administration and I got assigned his project. Gee had me meet Kanye to go over his budget.”
Joe “3H” Weinberger: “I met Kanye in New York City, in January 2001. We met at Right Track Studios in Midtown, because I bought one of his beats for one my earlier artists that was signed to Interscope. We were in the studio. I was super young, and he didn’t really know anybody. We got kicked out the studio, so we went to the waiting room, because DJ Clue was working. He was like, ‘I’m a rapper.’ I was like, ‘Really? I’m an A&R guy.’ He played me two songs: ‘I Want to Know,’ and he played me a second one called ‘Hey Mama.’ I lost my shit. He said, ‘I’m only doing beats to get in the game.’ I saw in him what he saw, but not many others did, so we became fast friends. I said, ‘I want to bring you to Capitol, if you don’t mind?’ He was like, ‘Lets do it.’ We had a similar goal.”
Ferris Bueller: “I remember dragging [Plain] Pat with me to Mos Def’s birthday party at what is now Greenhouse, but it was hosted by Howie McDuffy. I remember seeing Kanye outside, standing with Consequence and Rhymefest. I went to give him a mixtape that me and Pat had done, and he was like, ‘I already got that. It’s in the truck.’ Our relationship with Kanye really spawned. I was doing these mixtapes with Pat (‘Behind the Beats’). I got real bored chasing ni—as for exclusives. I told Pat, ‘I want to do something more [as] an experience. There’s a story behind all these records. Let’s profile a producer and tell the story behind all these records.’ I thought about doing it with 88-Keys and a bunch of other producers. Pat was like, ‘Kanye?’ [Kanye] was all for it. We went to get the songs and record the soundbites [for ‘Behind The Beats With Kanye West’] at his spot in Hoboken. He talked about different records, and the most notable [story] is how the ‘Get By’ record came about. He was going to sell the beat to Mariah Carey, but Talib Kweli fucked with it.”