Kanye West's 'The College Dropout': An Oral History

Kanye West poses for a portrait during the 2004 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 8, 2004 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Frank Micelotta/Fox via Getty Images

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' Sessions

"We Don’t Care"

Consequence: "He was working on 'We Don't Care' for a while. For me, I could appreciate the perspective of the rhymes of him rapping from the standpoint of an observing drug dealer. I was still dabbling in the streets. I had gotten locked up, but nothing super heavy. He found out and had a mentor talk with me, like, ‘Yo man, you’re throwing it all away.’ (Laughs) ‘We Don’t Care’ definitely set the tone to what the album is, and of where a majority of his friends were. All of us was were kind of fucking around with some shit, and here we were with this opportunity to be a part of something great and extract greatness from ourselves."

"All Falls Down"

88-Keys: "Lauryn Hill was supposedly working on a follow-up album [to 1998's 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill']. My manager, who is also one of my best friends, Daniel Glogower, caught wind of it, and was trying to make things happen. From what we were told, we couldn't just submit tracks. The label wanted to hear what people would sound like working with her without actually working with her. They didn't have acapella stems to give to us, but they suggested the Lauryn Hill ‘Unplugged’ album. Daniel gave the CD to me and I skimmed through it. There were only some I can program, and use the drums. As I'm working on it, Kanye and I had been best friends going on two-years. Any work that came my way, he was one of two people I always tried to put on. Him and the great J. Dilla -- they were the ones I tried telling everybody about. I hit him up, told him about it, drove to his crib, and dropped the CD. I told him what needed to be done. I said, 'Give it to me or Daniel and we'll submit it.' He ended up making this crazy beat with the drum programming and all this other things he did to it. I'm like, 'Yo, are you going to give it to Lauryn?' And he's like, 'Nah, I'm going to keep it for myself.'"

JB Marshall: "We walked into Baseline [Studios], mid-day, and it smelled like incense, and the ambiance was chill.  He said it was 'the time before the madness,' because Jay or State Property wouldn't come in 'til night. I looked at the console and there were two CDs: an Anita Baker CD and Lauryn Hill's MTV Unplugged CD. That album ['MTV Unplugged No. 2.0'] was like the Bible. Before we went to the studio that day, we were working on a song called 'Self-Conscious.' The lyrics were so on point. It had the ability to truly be a single but they wanted the production to marry the lyrics. I took him to take the Lauryn album. We went back to Newark, and told Westside (it's what I call him) to 'The Mystery of Iniquity.' He had his 'Aha' expression. He's like, 'I can die right now.' I'm playing pool, and he comes around and he starts singing: 'When it all falls down.' I told him to go to the end of the record and hear the clapping at the end, and he gave me that look again. That day or the next day, Coodie and J. Ivy and he played them 'All Falls Down.'"

Devo Springsteen: "'All Falls Down' was made on a fairly cheap Roland 18-track digital recorder and it wasn’t re-done in the studio. It was just put on the album. Things would be made in his apartment, and it’d sound amazing. A lot of times when then we’d do it in the studio it didn’t sound 'good.' So that first time would end up on the album."

John Monopoly: "We were trying to get the sample cleared by Lauryn Hill, so Kanye and I flew to Miami and literally looked for Lauryn. We drove around Miami looking for Lauryn. I don't know what we thought. That's the kind of stuff that we were doing, we were so 'by any means necessary.' 'Oh, she lives in Miami? We'll just go find her.' I don't know who we thought we were or what we were doing. We bumped into Rohan [Marley], and ended up getting an email address but… (Sigh)."

Shalik Berry: "We went as far as sending her a check to entice her to do it, but she didn’t do it. She didn’t actually write the record, so we were able to clear the words but not her. Syleena [Johnson] came in in the ninth inning and nailed it."

Plain Pat: "She (Lauryn Hill) cleared it but then didn't clear it. She pulled the clearance at the last minute. We were scrambling. We had all these replays and Syleena Johnson was at the Record Plant at the studio across. We were up all night [recording], up ’til 7am cutting it."

Kyambo "Hip Hop" Joshua: "I think that Lauryn was more mad at her version of that record, that the real one never came out. All that stuff that she did at the show, she'd say they were real records. By him putting it out like that, she felt like it was his [version] would come out before hers. And… it never came out."

John Monopoly: "We all kind of knew that was the record that was really going to break through. That's why we went so hard to get the sample cleared."

Devo Springsteen: "They experimented with John Legend at one point [in place of Lauryn Hill]."

Consequence: "I remember when it was called ‘Self-Conscious’ and it was to a different beat. The rhymes were so societal and unisex, just like ‘Spaceship.’ Women could relate to it. He was talking about a girl but the shit he was saying was so relevant, you couldn’t even front."

Syleena Johnson: "I was in the studio, in LA, recording for 'Chapter 3.' I was recording a song called 'Bull’s-Eye' which featured Common and was produced by Kanye. We were in the studio, and he said, 'Syleena, I have this record that Lauryn Hill won’t give me the clearance for the sample.' He needed someone to re-sing it. 'Can you try this for me?' he asked. It was right after we recorded 'Bull's-Eye.' I went in and re-sang 'The Mystery of Iniquity.' I sang over it. And, he was like 'do what you would do,' because I kept singing it exactly like she did, because obviously you’d want that same vibe. That’s how that little switch of the run came in. After that, they looked at each and smiled. The very next morning they called me and said, 'This is the single. It’s going to radio. We’re shooting the video in a week.' I was like, 'Oh, okay! That’s awesome.’ I didn’t hear the entire thing ’til it hit the radio."

"Spaceship"

GLC: "That was originally my record. I recorded that in Kanye West's Hoboken apartment. He had the second bedroom turned into a studio. I told him, 'I need a beat so I can be on the radio in Chicago.' All I knew was Chicago. I wasn't thinking about Hot 97, New York City. We were going through samples and came across 'Distant Lover.' He made the beat then and there. I smoked me a blunt and he headed to a meeting. I had just got off the phone, after having a heated conversation with my ex-girlfriend. 'If all these people jocking you and if they're really fucking with you, why you ain't signed? Why aren't they signing you?’ she said. I had just quit my job. Kanye told me to not be doing nothing that can get me in jail. From listening to him, I ended up coming to New York, ended up touring with Talib Kweli and ended up on 'Spaceship.'

"When I wrote that verse, in December 2003, that was the month in which my mom died. I miss her every day, but I especially missed her that day.
 
"Kanye would always play 'Spaceship' to people, and at that time it would only have my verse on it. The reaction from it [made him] say: 'Shit, this is going on my album.'

"Off that verse I got so many record offers, but I trusted Kanye and went with him. I went to where I felt the familiarity. I signed to Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music and worked with the team he worked with and within a year, the label folded at Sony. I was only really signed to G.O.O.D Music for a year, from '05 to '06."

Consequence: "When I did the verse to ‘Spaceship,’ I remember we were somewhere doing a promo show. We stopped and grabbed something to eat. I spit it to them (Kanye West and GLC) and they said it was dope."

Tony Williams: "I didn’t come into the studio ’til two weeks before the album was released. Every Christmas I’d drive to Oklahoma City on Christmas Eve or two days before. My tradition, every year, was always when my aunt and Kanye would come to the airport, I’d drive and pick them. We were in the car, on the way to my grandparents, and we would play music of whatever we were working on. We would go back and forth and play each other’s music. A year or two before ‘College Dropout,’ I played him some original stuff from my new band, contemporary Christian group, Souljah, and he was in awe of them. Kanye said, ‘Man, I really want to produce this music.’ Before that time, he’d been chopping up soul samples. He heard something that he wanted to have his hands in, and bring my world into his world. He invited me to fly out to L.A., the next week, to produce music in his hotel suite. Everyone at the label were all on one floor [of the W Hotel], and they all had studios in the room. We re-produced music that I had created. That was the first creative experience Kanye and I had, around ’02.  He was in the studio working on his album, week after week. I asked to sing just a line on the record. His exact words, in a sarcastic way were: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everyone wants to sing on this record. But in actuality I have this guy that I signed to my production company [Konman Productions] and I’m going to feature him on the album. His name is John Legend.' I didn't know John Legend. I just knew he was the guy that kept me from singing on the album. I can’t believe he just told me 'no.'

"Fast forward to Christmas time again, when I picked him up from the airport. We were playing CDs back and forth, except this time he’s playing music from 'College Dropout.' He put 'Spaceship’ on, and I start riffing on top of the track. I remember him saying, 'Stop. Rewind. Do that again.' I riffed on top of the track again, and that’s when he said: 'That's what I need. That’s the feel that I’ve been wanting for the album that I haven’t been able to get.' It was a very p-funk-inspired, loose, unrefined and raw feeling. He wanted free soul -- an unrestricted kind of vibe. The following week, I was in L.A. and I sang on ‘Spaceship.’ He kept going, ‘Let me try you again,’ and by the time the week was over I was on five songs."

Plain Pat: "'Spaceship' was a late addition to the album. He was trying to use it for one of the mixtapes we were doing. We used to do these Akademiks mixtapes and that was for one of those. I told him, 'Yo, you can't put this on the mixtape, this shit is hot.'"

"Jesus Walks"

John Monopoly: "I was still working at Violator, but mostly on the music side, and Jive Records. I remember one day being at Jive when 'Jesus Walks' was exploding on the radio and he, Chris Lighty, wanted to put 50 Cent on the remix. I remember Chris coming into my office, and we were laughing about 'Jesus Walks.’ He was like, 'I'm putting 50 on this record.' I was excited, because 50 was so big. In New York he was everything."

88-Keys: "For 'Jesus Walks,' I had given him the drum sample for that song. We had a real deep conversation on the drums that he heard on there, that he imagined using, and I told him I had that record [Curtis Mayfield's '(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go']. To date, he's the only person who chopped that. Everyone who has used that record has looped it. He chopped it, which I always give him props for. A lot of ‘College Dropout’ was really him sitting down in his apartment with crates of record all around him, him just picking out a record, listening to it, finding a part, chopping it up and adding drums on it."

Miri Ben-Ari: "I remember trying to capture the spirit of the song. I went off the production because it set the tone. It was powerful and spiritual. I remember him watching me recording 'Jesus Walks.' I find it ironic that I won a GRAMMY for 'Jesus Walks,' and I'm Jewish.”

Gee Roberson: “I can count the discussions we had about holding ‘Jesus Walks’ because it was so strong it’d possibly get lost. Here we have a song about Jesus that we wanted on regular rotation. We needed to establish Kanye as an artist first. When it came to ‘Jesus Walks,’ we [first] needed to have him established to where he was in autopilot mode. 'Jesus Walks' couldn’t go out with him being established. He agreed.”