Imagine Kanye West’s College Dropout LP with a different version of “Jesus Walks” and without “Last Call,” “Get Em High” and “Spaceship.” It just wouldn’t feel like the same classic that earned its author 10 Grammy nominations in 2005.
” ’Last Call,’ he tried to give [the beat] to Jay-Z for The Black Album, he tried to give it to Beanie [Sigel] and I think he tried to give it to [Memphis] Bleek. Nobody wanted it,” said GLC, Kanye’s friend since they were both 15, who is also signed to West’s G.O.O.D. Music label. ” ’Spaceships’ was almost my song. I think ’School Spirit,’ he was cooking that up for somebody else.”
“I was working A&R at Jive at the time and one of the beats he was gonna sell me for one of my projects [turned out to be] ’Get Em High,’ which is one of the most acclaimed joints on the album,” said John Monopoly, Kanye’s friend, manager and business partner. “It was one of them things where I was like ’N—a, you not gonna use this? Let me buy this right now.’ We was so excited about [the beat].”
Luckily, Kanye — as he did many times before Dropout hit stores — changed his mind about what should and shouldn’t be included on his debut (see “Kanye Scores 10 Grammy Nominations; Usher And Alicia Keys Land Eight” ).
“He’d been working on his debut album forever,” Monopoly said. “It [didn’t have] a particular start date. He’s been gathering beats for years. He was always producing with the intention of being a rapper. There’s beats on the album he’s been literally saving for himself for years.”
If you ask most people in the music industry, they’ve been hearing dribs and drabs of Kanye’s material since 2001. One of the most notable joints that cats heard early versions of was “Jesus Walks.”
“One verse of that song now, he’s rapping through another n—a’s eyes,” GLC says. “He tried to do the whole song like that and it wasn’t really happening. Some people was like, ’You need to put Scarface or somebody else on there.’ He knew he could make it happen, so he did it. But he wanted to switch it up where it can get across to everybody. He put so much into that
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sh–, like, ’I have to get it perfect.’ ”
GLC, who was living in Chicago while Kanye was seeking a record deal in New York, remembers his friend playing songs for him over the phone.
“He had a song called ’Dream Killers’ about where you try to come up and do something with your life but they don’t want you to prosper. He had another joint called ’Arguing'; he had a Martin Lawrence excerpt where he was like, ’I don’t want to get rid of this girl but we constantly arguing.’ He had this joint called ’Wack N—as’ — like if you got offended by that song, you must be a wack n—a. Down the line, he did that joint over with Talib Kweli, Common and Consequence on the Take ’Em to the Cleaners mixtape.
Despite Kanye’s underground buzz and acclaim for his production on albums like Jay-Z’s timeless Blueprint, West still couldn’t get himself a recording contract.
“Kanye is a real driven person,” Monopoly said, describing how his friend didn’t give up hope. “Plus, during the times he was getting shot down as a artist, he was gaining momentum as producer: He wasn’t getting completely shut out of the industry. We always believed. We always thought he was incredibly talented as a producer and MC. We was like, ’What’s wrong with y’all? This kid is crazy!’ ”
Undeterred, ’Ye continued making beats in the studio and in his house in New Jersey.
“What’s ill about The College Dropout is that most of it was recorded in his crib,” Consequence said. “It was either in his crib or in L.A., when he was recovering from the [car accident], but he demoed a lot of it in his crib. It was a two-bedroom apartment, he had the studio and his bedroom. It was cool because he would get up sometimes at like three in the morning and spit a verse or re-spit a verse. I remember when he first made ’School Spirit.’ We was all running the house [singing], ’Can you feeeeeeel it!’ ”
“He would come to the studio and have all his disks,” GLC said. “I don’t know how many, but it would be a big Louis Vuitton book bag filled with disks. He would load in a disk, listen to it and be like ’nah’ or he’d be like ’I might f— with this.’ He goes into a zone. He can go and cook up a beat in like 15 minutes. Sometimes he goes to a record store and buys a CD that looks cool and old and he’s somewhat familiar with, then he’ll chop that sh– up. It’s amazing.
“I remember when he made ’We Don’t Dare,’ ” GLC added. “He was thinking to hit muthaf—ers from a different angle. People look at him as a backpack, positive rapper. He got the ’hood involved. Nobody ever would have thought Kanye West’s first song on his album would be ’Drug dealing just to get by.’ For a lot of us, this is our only way out that we know. He was thinking how he could put that into writing, into music and still be Kanye. If you listen to the song, it’s still conscious, though. It was a celebration of the ghetto.”
“The version you hear of ’We Don’t Dare,’ he had a bunch of different rhymes to that sh–,” Consequence weighed in, “because he wasn’t content initially of how it was sounding. For the most part, he critiques himself pretty well, but he’ll ask, ’What you think about this?’ I think every good rapper has an idea of what they like and don’t like, but they will ask if they’re a man.”
It was a celebration of a dream realized when Dame Dash signed Kanye to Roc-A-Fella records in 2002, but Kanye didn’t have much time to celebrate because a car accident almost took his life. Barely able to talk, West recorded what would be his breakthrough single, “Through the Wire,” while laid up in bed after his release from the hospital.
Yet once it seemed that he’d cleared one obstacle, another would pop up.
“It was a big letdown that the Lauryn Hill sample didn’t get cleared,” Monopoly said about the mishap surrounding Kanye’s single “All Falls Down.” West had originally sampled Hill’s voice for the song, but ended up having Syleena Johnson re-sing the lyric “all falls down.”
“We flew down to Miami and talked to the Marley brothers [one of whom is Hill’s husband],” continues Monop. “I was even in communication with Mrs. Hill. I thought we came to terms, but because of what some other people that were in the mix did, it didn’t happen.”
Once Kanye finally had an album that fit his perfectionist sensibilities, it was leaked, months before its release.
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“When it got leaked, everybody was like, ’Who the f— is responsible for this?’ but all the greats get leaked,” GLC said. “If Jay-Z gets leaked, what makes you think you gonna be exempt? Kanye was like, ’OK, I’m just going to make the album better. I’mma put strings on some sh–, have choirs come in. I’mma switch up verses. I’mma make the drums sound stronger.’ He went in and refined his whole album. At that point a person usually panics. Kanye just redid sh–.”
“He remixed and remastered the album several times,” Monop said. “He’s so meticulous. His ears work like he’s on some daredevil super sh–. He remixed his album like two or three times. He’s really into his craft. He would [pay] out of his pocket for certain things, like orchestras. He paid for his first video out-of-pocket to start the buzz. It was a long road.”
As this year’s Grammys approach, you can get all the latest news on the show, the scene and the nominees in our Grammy news archive. On the big night, February 8, be sure to tune in to MTV at 7 p.m. for our “All up in the Grammys” preshow. Plus check out videos of the nominees and more right here on mtv.com.