Kanye West: Beats from the heart

He has been described as the only reason why anyone should care about hip hop. Nosheen Iqbal meets Kanye West
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As rap shows at the Brixton Academy go, screaming, swaying teenage girls shuffling alongside relaxed, head-nodding hip-hop heavies and chin-stroking postgraduates is pretty far from the norm. But then Kanye West - bounding onstage in chinos and a preppy-chic argyle sweater, accessorised with a gem-studded, gold and ridiculously gaudy medallion of Jesus - is pretty far from your average hip-hop story.

With a background more Cosby Show than straight outta Compton, West Jr, an only child, was born 27 years ago to an activist-academic mother and a Black Panther father. Both would have expected their son to complete his university education. Kanye dropped out: "When I was in college, I got three different scholarships to three different schools to do art. It was similar to how it is now - [I was] undoubtedly the best and far ahead of the competition - but the teachers were always putting up someone else's work saying, 'We don't have to hang up Kanye's work cos he knows it's good' and I felt I didn't get the credit I deserved."

Bitter about feeling under-appreciated in school, West swapped art studios for music studios. Initially, he channelled his artistic intensity into producing sneaker-stomping beats and shaken, stirred and speeded-up soul sampling tracks for the likes of Ludacris, Alicia Keys and, most notably, Jay-Z. But given Puff Daddy's and Pharrell Williams' spells as successful - albeit questionable - MCs, it was perhaps inevitable that Kanye would aim to hog the spotlight upfront and trash his producer's seat for the rapper's mic.

Hip hop being what it is, Kanye's buzz was interjected and upped by high drama when he landed himself in hospital. In a well-documented, near-fatal car crash, Kanye maintains he was "saved by God" or, as he points out in his lyrics, because he "wasn't too cool to wear the seatbelt". The accident left his jaw shattered and wired up for weeks in late 2002. Yet, with his mouth still partly snapped shut, and through painfully gritted teeth, he "turned tragedy to triumph/to make music that's fire and spit my soul through the wire" and recorded his debut single. "Through the Wire" dropped in at number two in the US charts. The rest, they say, is filed under hip-hop history.

Kanye travels with an entourage of one - his mother-cum-newly appointed manager, Donda West. The artist, garishly clashing with the décor in a fantastically bright, rainbow striped sweater and jeans (plus obligatory medallion), has opted for a distraction-free stay to work on his second album. Chomping his way through chicken and chips, and steak and mash, Kanye explains that he missed his flight from Amsterdam this morning - where he'd played to more than five thousand enraptured Dutch fans - not because he'd been exploring the city's seedy side but because "I was working till gone four in the morning trying to work out this beat and lay down my rap. Which is the truth if my mom were listening in or not."

With the deserved party-harder reputation of the Netherlands capital, it's a fairly impressive - or nerdy - work ethic to maintain. West typically skips straight to the point: "I worry about the second [album], I worry everyday. That's why I'm so good: I work. On the new album, Late For Registration, I got some concepts I haven't fully developed yet, but it'll take people offguard and blow them away. I'm gonna ask Dre to mix it cos I'm still raising the standard. Right now, there isn't anything like me out there."

Kanye grew up surrounded by the gold soul sounds of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Maze et al. He spent his teens gorging obsessively on rap in record stores and in secret at home, citing Eazy-E and The Pharcyde as major influences. Donda West was less than impressed, admitting: "I did not approve of rap, I did not like it. I did not think it would last." Her son swiftly reminds her that "they said the same thing about rock and roll".

Like Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins before him, Kanye West is a prolific hip-hop magpie - blessed with an instinctive ear for the obscure but contagious - collecting and recycling sweeping soul strings and chopping them up through complex drum patterns. But, unlike the former two, he's greedily grabbed the solo spotlight and become a bona fide rap star because he "wanted to bring out my own album to show that it isn't a set formula". With an emphasised pause, he reasons that "when I'm working with other artists, I don't have the opportunity to really release my style. But if you listen to me and listen to what I do with sound, you'll know it's amazing. It works."

Kanye has a habit of being terrifically polite and mild-mannered when he's boasting about his own talents and success. It's a handy quirk that stops short his frequent bouts of enthusiastic, unerring self belief from being translated solely as grating arrogance or disillusioned braggadocio. Sure enough, for the half a million plus who've latched on to West's debut album in Britain, there's an identifiable sweetness found in his truths on everyday people, everyman politics and everyone's life. Chattering in neat soundbites, he eagerly makes clear that "the way I act, rap and curse on my record, it's how I am with my friends. There's a mistake with hip hop that the albums are either all one way or the other, either too political and preachin', or just all about girls, gangs, guns. My album isn't an intentional middle ground, it's just the perfect representation of who I am."

Self-consciously straddling the politicised stream of consciousness hip hop, as popularised by Mos Def, Common and Talib Kweli, with the bitches'n'bling swagger of his Roc-A-Fella labelmates, Kanye's songs have led the NME to gush predictably that he's "the only reason why anyone should give a shit about hip hop right now".

On record, Kanye snipes about black kids in education over-achieving while being undervalued. He even takes a Marxist-edged pop at capitalism, criticising the conspicuously consuming ways of his peers. Somewhere in between, he turns a gym session into a metaphor for sex; hypes himself up; brings himself down and, guilelessly rather than guiltily, admits the irresistible allure of buying Jakob the Jeweller's chunkiest bling candy and the temptation to boast about "getting freaky" with the ladies.

The College Dropout has outsold a generation's worth of hip-hop heroes in the UK, including Jay-Z and Nas. With frequent highlights such as the lush, soul-slurping sonic tweaks of "All Falls Down" and the eerie, bluesy gospel loop of "Jesus Walks" - it becomes all too easy to believe the hype. By his own standards, West reckons "The College Dropout is successful because it's a classic. The world was ready for my style when I came out. There was a long wait for something different.

"To some extent [Jay-Z's] Blueprint album was our prequel to The College Dropout: it's the College Dropout sound with Jay-Z rapping on it." Keenly doling out credit where it's due, he points out that "Jay-Z is a salesperson. He's a trend setter. He's respected enough to be telling people that 'hey, it's okay to be listening to this style of beats, we can do it this way now.'" Thinking his theory through, he adds: "Everybody then tried to rap on it Jay-Z's style, but with me, it's all my own thing. You can listen to my beats without me talking on them, and my spoken word can hold it's own without the melodies. Add one to the other and you equal what is The College Dropout.'

Bearing in mind his vision and belief in his sound, I tell him it's a shame that his first - and completely sold-out - UK tour is backed up with a "keeping it real" minimalist set-up comprising a DJ, turntable and speakers. There's no value-for-money visuals, light shows or even a simple backdrop, no signs of backing singers or musicians, leaving the stark expanse of bare stage to look like the mock-up of a school play. On the flipside, it's apt, if not intentional, for the college dropout. Kanye isn't amused but wants to discuss whether he went wrong: "We've done those styles of shows before in the States when there's around 20,000 people. I wasn't totally knowledgeable on the venues here and was told it was all pretty small-level. Though, I guess some of the set-ups were begging for visuals. It's a fuck-up on part of my advisers. We'd definitely rethink next time and my production staff. They might end up getting fired because of this, seriously."

Relaxing a little, he wonders if "the kids who paid £25 a ticket for my show would rather have seen impressive visuals than me giving it my all? I don't know. When I'm on stage, I give all my energy to connect with the crowd and make it real hip hop." He stops and laughs. "With this question, don't you think that, if you'd asked the average rapper, they would have just given you a bullshit answer like 'well yeah? That's how I wanted it to be'? I'll tell the truth though, I don't care."

Kanye deliberately uses this blithe attitude to try to justify his casual use of words like "nigger" or "bitch". He insists: "I love to take a word that has negative connotations and desensitise it. College Dropout is corporate; it's pop; it's white trash; it's the Mexican dude kicking it on the corner; and yeah, it's niggerish." Frustrated, I argue that "nigger" seems just too nasty, potently offensive and historically loaded a word to be thrown about carelessly. His mother, an African-American literature expert, keeps quiet. Kanye remains adamant that "with language, the connotations that are there shouldn't be set in stone. I am comfortable with the word 'nigger' to mean brother, to mean me and my culture. Sure, I'm not gonna handle a white guy saying it but it's all about who it's from, which is what gives us what it means." Kanye could do with a lesson in the Chuck D School of Black Power.

It's the same thing with "bitch". People assume that with black people using the word "bitch" in hip hop, it's automatically in a negative way." Fired up again, Kanye rationalised that "to be a true bitch, a real bitch, you gotta be bad. Bad in the good way. See how we confuse the words there?" He stops to check I'm keeping up with him. "For me, my best girlfriend I ever had I'd call a bitch. It's better than just being a regular girl." Knowing I'm not convinced he switches tactics: "Take 'Jesus Walks'. Some people have a problem with me using profanity all over that record but God looks at what your intentions are. Context and intentions. I'm always telling the truth from my heart. That's why I am where I am. I can't do the phoney shit."

Cutting to a snappy conclusion, he says: "I manipulate the words I have around me. Changing the meaning from negative to a positive and vice-versa. My whole album - The College Dropout - is loaded with negative connotations but it's a label for my physical success. I dropped out of school and made it anyway." That, I can't argue with. Kanye admits he held back some of his best material for himself but says he's "honest to a fault" and doesn't mind revealing that "some of the stuff on the album is leftovers. People did turn down some of it, for example 'Never Let Me Down' and 'Last Call'. I never played 'Soul Jamz', 'Jesus Walks', and 'Spaceships' for anybody though. I'm sure somebody would have bought those beats. They're incredible."

To his credit, West doesn't just rate his own material but excitedly heaps praise on the likes of Franz Ferdinand for "their look as well as their sound". It turns out he saw the Matinee video on his last visit to the UK, met the band and sung the single back to them, recalling: "I think they thought it was kinda surreal but they were cool guys."

Considering the bizarre affinity held by badass rappers with plain bad rock music (see 2Pac, ODB, DMX and Kelis spreading the love for Phil Collins; Nas professing a musical crush on Pink Floyd; and Jay-Z's awful car crash messy mash-up album with Linkin Park), it's a relief to hear Kanye's inner love for indie manifest itself in the addictive, angular riffs of Franz Ferdinand rather than the pompous, bloated ballads of, say, Keane.

Perhaps more surprisingly, he really loves The Streets and is "trying to figure out some way to work with [Mike Skinner] cos his accent is so strong, he speaks the truest shit and I love the videos. The 'Fit But You Know It' video - yeah, they told me 'fit' meant 'hot' - reminds me of 'Through The Wire' but it was better done. More professionally done. I haven't approached him yet." Maybe some record company types will pick up on this and put the two in touch? "Maybe. That'd be cool. You know I got a hard-on for England anyhow. Look at the way I dress."

Apart from the weather - or more specifically "the fog" - Kanye says he genuinely loves Britain, and styles himself as a hip-hop Anglophile. "I like the shopping and I like the architecture a lot. The interior design is really incredible - it's killer." It's a topic he can talk on for hours and he tells me his suitcases are always heavily loaded with interior design magazines. "I really appreciate nice things, good design and style." Which is all well and good, but perhaps slightly contradictory when you've commissioned a $350,000-plus recreation of the Sistine Chapel for your dining-room ceiling. Kanye is nonplussed. "I wouldn't say recreating the Sistine Chapel, but Ernie Barnes, who is a black historian painter, I'd like his take on it."

Kanye claims that the best thing about being him is "being able to create and get a response from those creations". He's genuinely excited by playing live. "I like seeing my crowd; I like seeing the expression on their faces, singing the lyrics. That feeling is priceless. No amount of money can buy that."

Despite being visibly annoyed by not racking up full marks for his album from American critics (a déjà vu experience, no doubt), he believes he's "in a position in that what I create will be held high and reach the audience I know it deserves. I know what matters is that it's remembered and picked up in 20 years' time."

Ever conscious of his self importance, Kanye ponders carefully when asked who he thinks his fans are. "I always think about who my audience is, cos it's like being a public speaker. When you write a speech, you've got to know who it's for and I always consider my audience to be the world. There is nobody in particular I aim to reach out to." Aware of the immense crossover appeal of his sound, he adds: "I want to, and I do, communicate with everybody who really loves music." Judging by the age, gender, race and class cross-section of his fiercely loyal (and loud) fans, he's probably spot on.

'The College Dropout' is on Roc-A-Fella