Kanye West: in just a few short years, he has emerged as one of music's premiere behind-the-scenes hitmakers. But it took a near-fatal car crash—and one of the year's most inventive songs—for him to take center stage

Kanye West: in just a few short years, he has emerged as one of music's premiere behind-the-scenes hitmakers. But it took a near-fatal car crash—and one of the year's most inventive songs—for him to take center stageSome careers begin with a big bang, but in the case of Kanye West, it was a car crash. Born in Atlanta and bred in Chicago, West first burst onto the scene as a producer, cooking up hits for the likes of Jay-Z and Beyonce ("03 Bonnie & Clyde"), Beanie Siegel ("The Truth"), and Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name"). But two years ago, just months after signing a record deal, West was involved in a near-fatal, head-on collision in Los Angeles. The accident left him battered and bruised, but as he emerged from the wreckage of the experience, so did "Through the Wire," an affecting, ambitious, and almost impossibly catchy song chronicling the ordeal, which West recorded with his broken jaw still wired shut. Upon its release earlier this year, the track, the first single off West's multiplatinum solo debut, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella), proved a runaway hit, vaulting the 27-year-old producer from in-demand, behind-the-scenes beatmaker to bona fide pop star. Here, actor Jamie Foxx, who collaborated with West and rapper Twista on yet another hit, "Slow Jamz," finds out how, in the fickle world of music, West just keeps on winning.

JAMIE FOXX: So, Kanye, you put up a lot of hits behind the scenes for people like Jay-Z, Jermaine Dupri, and Nas, but now that people know you as an artist, how are things different for you?

KANYE WEST: The biggest difference is that when you're in the background, maybe 10 to 20 people know what you're doing, but when you're in front, the whole world does. There's pressure with that too. You have to learn to deal with things like signing autographs, which I didn't have to do when I was a producer. Now I got methods: Like, when I walk into the mall, if I have to get somewhere, I just put my hand on my head and act like I got a headache to hide my face.

JF: There's no more quiet time when people start to recognize you. They get disappointed, like, "Oh, man, I didn't get a chance to talk to Kanye. He was playing like he had a headache." [West laughs] How do you deal with that?

KW: Well, I asked Ludacris that very question the first time I was in the studio with him. I said, "Man, where do you go to the movies?" because I love to watch movies. And he said, "I can't go nowhere." You become a pop star, so even if you go out to the white-people places, there will be people who are going to know you.

JF: [both laugh] So you're a pop star now! Does that worry you? Do you ever think to yourself, Okay, I'm hot now, but am I going to be hot tomorrow?

KW: Man, I'm worried I'm going to fall off any minute, that I'm going to wake up one morning and just be wack--you know, lose my magical styles and shit. [laughs] When I go into the studio, I pray to God before I get in front of the keyboard that everything comes out decent, like with songs like [Twista's] "Overnight Celebrity" or, you know, "Slow Jamz"--well, I killed on "Slow Jamz," by the way.

JF: [laughs] Yeah, you did. What was great about that song is that Twista is from Chicago, just like you. We know all about the West Coast guys like Dr. Dre and everybody on the East Coast, but with what you quys are doing, Chi-town is really making its mark right now.

KW: Well, you know, the biggest thing for me coming out of Chicago was that I didn't have any gang affiliation, and Chicago is such a gangsta city. There's such a protocol, so it's hard to move around and work with different people. I was working under a production company and then I moved on, but I was only able to do that because there wasn't some money guy behind the scenes who was like, "No, man, you stayin' right here." A lot of times, when you have those kinds of connections, it's hard to just break off and bounce around from camp to camp.

JF: Now that I'm being introduced to the music business a little bit, I understand how gangstas are affiliated with hip-hop more than I did before. But for those who don't know, how do gangstas even play into the whole system?

KW: Well, I'll only speak about it as lightly as possible, but the gangstas are a strong element in hip-hop that controls a lot of it. I definitely feel like I avoid a lot of problems because I am with Roc-A-Fella Records. But what's so crazy about the gangstas is they got star power and 'hood power at the same time. When you see them, you do a double take. You're like, "Damn! That guy is famous as hell, but he also might smack some shit up!" [laughs]

JF: So that brings me to my next question: Now that you're successful, are all the haters coming out? Are there people saying, "Look at Kanye. He's got way too much, man"? I mean, how many songs do you have in heavy rotation on MTV right now?

KW: I think I got five.

JF: Does having that kind of success bring out all the cynics, then?

KW: Well, you have to overcompensate. When I started doing this all, I just came out confident to combat all the people who told me I couldn't make it. Then when I got on TV, people still saw that confidence, but they also saw this mild-mannered rapper dressed like Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, rhyming about social issues and joking around. People knew I had a fire, and they were all ready to hang that Tupac gangsta sound on me. But when they heard my music, they were like, "Oh, what's wrong with him? This is not what we expected."

JF: One of the biggest things you've done is really put into perspective the separation between real life and what you rap about in your songs. It's important that you're doing that for the young black kids out there who look at all the gangsta stuff in hip-hop and take it to heart, like [in child's voice], "They really gangstas! They really selling drugs!" But you're showing those kids that there is a difference between what they see and the reality.

KW: Well, I really felt like those kids were not being spoken for. We got candidates right now, Democrats and Republicans, who try to speak for those who have not been heard; at the same time, these politicians are also trying to sell their message to the masses, so they have to back off sometimes. People ask me a lot, "Do you feel like more brothers in music are being positive now?" And the politically correct answer would be yes. But I think music itself is a form of entertainment, and as entertainers we have choices. You can choose to be a Spike Lee and do something for the community with your art, or you can choose to make Bad Boys-type movies. But I feel like we need all of that. Too much of anything is overdoing it. For example, someone like D'Angelo was out for the old soldiers; he was the first of his kind, the official one. But there are always leaders and there are always followers, so maybe I'm at the head of a new wave.

JF: So, girls are a]ways coming up to me and saying things like, "Kanye West is so fine. Do you know Kanye West, Jamie? Can you call him? I just wanna talk to him." [laughs] Now that you're sexy, are you going to bit us with an LL Cool J-type thing? What's going on with the women, Kanye?

KW: I have a young lady I'm with right now who helps to keep me grounded and makes sure that I'm the man that I should be. If it wasn't for her, you might have heard so many more Kanye West stories. [laughs]

JF: There have got to be some girls trying to get into the dressing room.

KW: Actually, one of the most interesting things happened while I was performing in Buffalo [New York]. I started doing "Jesus Walks," and these girls start flashing their breasts!

JF: God made everything, man. God made those breasts.

KW: Man, God didn't make the ones I saw that night. [both laugh]

JF: So you're doing all this stuff with the music, but are there any other areas you want to move into? What does the future hold for Kanye West?

KW: I went to art school, so I'm getting heavy into design--you know, shoes and clothes. I'd go to Polo, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, or whatever and say to myself, "Man, if they dial the color like this, I would like it better." You probably saw the new Jesus piece that I just did with Jacob [the Jeweler]. We did about two or three before we settled on the design--I wanted it to be perfect before we started mass-producing them. I'm just looking for opportunities to really apply my art to stuff I love.

JF: The black leaders right now are all over the idea that black people in the entertainment business are not showing the right images to black kids--you know, that we're making movies like Soul Plane or wearing too much bling or putting Turkish links [chain jewelry] on layaway instead of doing things for our community. What do you say to those leaders?

Affiliation Link
Subcultures, pop music and politics: skinheads and "Nazi rock" in England and Germany
Kanye West: in just a few short years, he has emerged as one of music's premiere behind-the-scenes hitmakers.
MTNA: Music Teachers National Association
MTNA Bylaws - Music Teachers National Association
The Music Lesson, by Katharine Weber, New York, Crown Publishers, 1998; 178 pages, $21 hardcover