“Good dude, bad night, right place, wrong time
Los Angeles: The early hours of October 23, 2002 a young music producer making his way back from another late studio session is seriously injured in a car crash.
I learned how Kanye West recovered from the night he almost killed himself in a Lexus, to find his voice – metaphorically and physically following re-constructive jaw surgery – 18 months later, constantly spinning two thick black vinyl discs at a steady 331/3 revolutions per minute on the turntable my brother had squeezed, with a mixer and a second deck, on the worktop in our tiny kitchen. At times I barely made it past the first five tracks (including the opening skit) as I just dropped the needle back instead of flipping to side B .
Before the crash West was an accomplished producer still trying to break through as a rapper and artist in his own right. The two car collision, in which Kanye is said to have fallen asleep at the wheel , gave the aspiring MC a new perspective and a renewed career focus. It also gave him the confidence to tell his own story, and helped him find that most crucial ingredient in hip hop ‘realness’.
The accident had proved a turning point in West’s career and on February 10, 2004 – two months before I copped my own copy – his debut LP, ‘The College Dropout’ was released. Almost immediately, the Chicago rapper had turned tragedy to triumph. A masterpiece that proved a success both critically and in sales terms – but most crucially it achieved street level credibility. Kanye summed up the secret to achieving success with a subject matter beyond drug slinging and sex: “It was more like spoken word/Except he’s really puttin’ it down.”
The two 12″ slabs of vinyl came with little adornment. No fancy artwork – only a photograph of a dejected looking bear mascot, head down, dressed in jeans and tweed jacket, enclosed in an old fashioned picture frame type design, printed on a standard, otherwise all white sleeve. Already familiar with one or two songs, as I pulled it from the racks at HMV in Cardiff, it was clear this wasn’t a standard hip hop LP.
Kanye’s deeply personal lyrics, touching on his recovery, the fight any young man faces to find his place in the world, in particular his wrestle with whether he should persevere with a college education, and his faith were all framed by a new – post crash, re-assessed consumerist, conscious perspective. Kanye effortlessly blended his experiences with wider, universal themes.
In ‘Spaceship’, the educational underachiever and rap music underdog, alongside regular collaborators GLC and Consequence, perfectly articulated the frustrations born of a simmering resentment with the everyday grind, whether high street retail or street corner slinging. For me the song was five minutes to catch the beat and ‘fly past the sky’ but for its three protagonists the music industry – or at least the ability to make a career from their musical talent – was the spaceship they were waiting for.
The kid, with so many records in his basement – which he plundered and cut to forge a new signature soul sound had cemented his place and reputation in hip hop. On the opening track, ‘We Don’t Care’ Kanye refers to the undoubted rapper of 2003, 50 Cent and on the closing track, ‘Last Call’ Kanye recalls how executive producer Damon Dash calculated that even if he had failed to deliver the lyrical goods the album could be salvaged with guest appearances from Roc-a-Fella label mate Cam’ron. Nobody now mentions either MC alongside the kid called West.
‘The College Dropout’ undoubtedly launched Kanye into the stratosphere, not just of music stars, but celebrity. Ten years on it’s hard not to feel a now missing part of Kanye was left behind on planet real life. While undoubtedly a contradictory character, and we know this as he lays bare his feelings and conflicting ambitions and opinions, it’s hard not to feel Kanye has strayed from that aspiring, hard-working, mama’s boy- who was stepping out into a world of uncertainties but secure in the knowledge that in life he could hardly complain, even about what an accident had did to his left eye, compared to what an accident had done to Left Eye.