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Before Kanye West became the Kanye West—the one and only larger-than-life, awards-show-destroying, collar-popping, slatted-sunglass-wearing, sick-rhyme-dropping male diva of the hip-hop universe—he was just an average middle-class kid who liked to make beats.
Building his own unique distinct sound atop dusty samples of vintage soul, West produced a bunch of rap hits for other artists in the early 2000s. But he had a hard time getting anyone to give him a chance to rock the mic himself; he didn't have the kind of hardcore "street" image that record execs thought a rapper needed to succeed.
So, what did it take for Kanye West to get his chance? It took a brush with death, a smashed face, and a legendary single recorded—with his jaw still wired shut and his voice still badly slurred—just weeks after major reconstructive surgery.
That single was "Through the Wire." Kanye West's rise to the stop started right here.
|Label||Roc-A-Fella Records, Island Def Jam|
|Writer(s)||Kanye West, David Foster, Tom Keane, Cynthia Well|
|Musician(s)||Kanye West (production), Chaka Khan (vocal sample)|
|Learn to play|
|Album||The College Dropout|
Kanye West's signature sound is a kind of multilayered sonic collage, assembled from scraps of diverse musical elements: reinterpretations of vintage soul records; recycled and original drumbeats; all forms of live instrumentation, from crunching electric guitars to classical string arrangements; vocals ranging from laid-back raps to robotic Auto-Tuned crooning to guest appearances from the Harlem Boys Choir.
Kanye West music is, in short, made up of a little bit of everything.
Thus it's no surprise at all that West's musical influences have been wide-ranging.
The first and probably most important influence on what became Kanye West's trademark sound was probably his parents' record collection. The rapper has a musicologist's appreciation for classic R&B and soul records, and a finely tuned ear for picking out just the right snippets from them for use in creating fresh new songs. West also gives the impression that he envisions his musical peers to be not only his peers in modern hip-hop, but also the legendary acts of the past. The bar against which he measures himself is set by Prince and Stevie Wonder, as much as by 50 Cent or Timbaland.
Of course, Kanye West is not the first hip-hop artist to engage in extensive adaptive reuse of old records. Sampling and remixing old beats goes all the way back to the origins of hip-hop; the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the first song that really brought hip-hop to a mainstream American audience back in 1979, borrowed its instrumentation almost entirely from the disco band Chic's hit "Good Times." And sampling has remained central to the rap genre ever since.
Not all sampling is the same, though, and Kanye West's sound was influenced, especially, by a few artists that were popular when he was a teenager. Kanye's productions—warm, soulful, a bit nostalgic, often irresistibly catchy—strongly echo the work of mid-1990s hip-hop legends like A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, and the Fugees. (West has named Tribe as his favorite rap group ever, and Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde as his all-time favorite rap album.) Just as influential were the beats laid down for the Wu-Tang Clan by producer RZA. RZA's sound also incorporated ample sampling from classic records, but typically deconstructed those snippets much more comprehensively than did, say, the Fugees, re-working them into sparse, grimy, and cinematic new arrangements. As West has, in recent years, added more and more theatrical elements to his songs—especially orchestral string arrangements—his sound has shown more and more of a Wu-Tang influence.
Kanye West's musical inspirations also come from far beyond the realm of hip-hop, or even hip-hop's ancestry in R&B and soul music. When asked to name what artists are getting major rotation on his own stereo, West is more likely to name an indie rocker than another rapper. He loves Radiohead and has called that band's mastermind, Thom Yorke, one of the greatest geniuses in music. He's a huge fan of the Killers and Portishead and Modest Mouse, and has even expressed admiration for the decidedly un-hip-hop crooner John Mayer.
Kanye's eclectic taste in music has made more and more of an impact on his own productions. In 2007, he brought in Coldplay frontman Chris Martin to sing the chorus on his song "Homecoming"; the same year, he transformed a song by French techno outfit Daft Punk into his hit single "Stronger," the biggest rap song of the year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, West likes to describe himself as a rock star, not a rap star.
If Kanye West drew from a wide variety of musical influences in crafting his signature sound, his own influence on other artists—especially within hip-hop—has been just as profound. For the past several years, it has been simply impossible to listen to "urban-format" radio without soon hearing either an actual Kanye production or another producer's imitation of the Kanye West sound.
Are you a fan of Jay-Z? Or Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Beyoncé, Common, Lupe Fiasco, John Legend, Nas, Scarface, T.I., Lil Wayne, The Game, Cam'Ron, Ludacris, Twista, Janet Jackson, or Alicia Keys? If so, then you're probably also a fan of Kanye West, because Kanye produced many of those artists' biggest hits of this decade. Kanye West's fingerprints can be found all over contemporary hip-hop.
Donda West, Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar (2007)
If you ever wanted to know about Kanye West's childhood—or about the odd experience of parenting a child who grew into a celebrity—this is the book for you. Donda West was an English professor at Chicago State University; this is surely the most literary hip-hop parenting memoir you'll ever find.
Chaka Khan, Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan, vol. 1 (1996)
Chaka Khan was one of the most powerful R&B divas ever, dropping a string of soulful hits that spanned from the 1970s through the 1990s. This greatest hits collection gives a good taste of her range, and includes "Through The Fire," the 1984 slow jam that provided the bones for Kanye West's "Through The Wire."
Jay-Z, The Blueprint (2001)
Kanye West's big break in the music industry came from his successful production efforts on Jay-Z's acclaimed Blueprint album from 2001. Kanye produced "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)", the album's lead single and one of Jay-Z's most successful songs ever. Other West compositions on the album include the soul-drenched "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)" and the battle track "Takeover."
Kanye West, Late Registration (2005)
Kanye's sophomore album rocketed the rapper from stardom to superstardom; the single "Gold Digger," featuring Jamie Foxx singing an interpolation of an old Ray Charles tune while Kanye raps about the dangers of acquisitive baby mamas, became the ubiquitous radio hit of 2005 and hit #1 on the pop charts.
Kanye West, Graduation (2007)
The final installment in Kanye's college-themed trilogy, Graduation saw the rapper and producer broadening his range beyond his trademark neo-soul sound. The album's most successful single, "Stronger," is actually built upon a sample from the French techno band Daft Punk. The album won four Grammy Awards.
Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)
Kanye's landmark debut album; "Through The Wire" was the record's first single.
Kanye West performs.
Kanye makes a statement.
Looking dapper in a suit.
The Education of Kanye West (2007)
Just after Kanye West released the Graduation album, BET television produced this program, which mixed performances before a live audience with Kanye's interesting onstage explanations of the stories behind his songs.
Kanye's Official Site
This is the official Kanye West website - find out what he's up to now.
Kanye on Roc-A-Fella
Kanye West's official home on the website of his label, Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records, is mainly valuable for its non-pirated links to various video performances.
Kanye West on Rolling Stone
Rolling Stone's Kanye West homepage includes an archive of all the magazine's reviews of the rapper's albums, plus several feature articles—including the one that accompanied Kanye's controversial 2006 appearance on the magazine's cover posed as Jesus wearing a crown of thorns.
The Making of the "Through The Wire" Video
A behind-the-scenes look at the crafting of Kanye West's first MTV video.
"Through The Wire" Music Video
Kanye West produced his own video for "Through The Wire", telling the story of his car accident and recovery through a collage of clips framed as Polaroids on a bulletin board. The 2004 Source Hip Hop Awards named "Through The Wire" Video of the Year.