In the late 90s and early aughts, before the world ever really knew who he was, Kanye West was merely just a record producer. He cut his teeth ghost-producing tracks for Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, a member of Diddy's Hitmen production team, and turned his uncredited work into a staff producer position at Roc-A-Fella Records, where he sped up the classic soul samples that would come to define the fledgling label's characteristic sound. He produced hits for Jay-Z ("I.Z.Z.O." and "03 Bonnie and Clyde") and others like Talib Kweli ("Get By") and Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name").
But Kanye wasn't content with being stuck behind the scenes. He rapped too, and saw producing for other artists merely as his entry point into the music business. It was all just an elaborate ruse for him to do his own thing. Still, industry reaction to his rapping was tepid, and this was the height of the street rap era; nobody wanted to hear a middle class art school dropout rap about his feelings. After struggling to land a deal, Roc-A-Fella chief Damon Dash reluctantly signed him in 2002 with the idea that he'd produce a compilation album for the label's roster of talent, which at the time included acts like Cam'ron, Beanie Sigel and the Young Gunz, among others.