In celebration of its upcoming 10-year anniversary, 26 collaborators share their stories behind the making of Kanye West's debut album.
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."