That One Night When Kanye Forced Me To Listen To ‘The College Dropout’
Kanye West’s brashness wasn’t born overnight. Former VIBE Editorial Director Datwon Thomas remembers the night he was held captive by Mr. West for an early listen at a soon-to-be classic album
It’s late summer 2003 and a who’s who of the music industry is huddled up in the swanky, membership-only Manhattan meatpacking district haunt Soho House for an early listen of producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo’s The Neptunes Presents…Clones LP. The Library Room, where the session is being housed, is outlined in dark wood, vintage bookcases and rugs from the Civil War era.
As I’m bobbing to Pharrell’s “Frontin’” and later, “Hot Damn” by The Clipse, I notice a man decked out in all-white everything—straight Star Wars Stormtrooper style—who seems to be heading my way. As he gets closer, with his darting eyes and Chicago swagger, I recognize him as producer Kanye West, dude who laced Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and Talib Kweli’s “Get By.” By now, Pharrell is bringing the festivities to a close, making his rounds and greeting attendees. He intercepts the eager West, who is now introducing himself to me, by grabbing his shoulders from behind, sticking his head around and telling me, “Don’t let this guy get you. He’ll have to you here all night. Watch.”
Damn, Pharrell was right. The budding Roc-a-Fella rapper/producer recognized that I was the then Editor-In-Chief of KING Magazine. The publication was a super hot men’s lifestyle guide and West was angling for inclusion. And by angling, I mean demanding.
“I got the hottest album coming out next year!” he insists, wide-eyed and wired. “Hear it now. Come downstairs. I’m telling you. It’s killing everything that comes out when it drops. I’m someone you need in your magazine.”
The crowd is filing out but West is still going. “It’s different, nothing is like this record. I’m going to really step everyone’s game up…” In the packed elevator bay, people are turning to see who’s talking this talk. A well-known publicist jokingly suggests to me and then KING Magazine Executive Editor (now VIBE Editor-In-Chief), “You are going to need to take the stairs to escape this.”
We dash for the steps and West follows, still going. All. The. Way. Down. The. Stairs. When we finally hit the street, his Mercedes-Benz G500 just happens to be parked out front. “Listen to my album right now. Right now! You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
The Benz doors swing open for me and Hall to hear the unreleased, unmixed versions of what would be a game-changing hip-hop album. J. Hall sensed the epicness of the impromptu session and started recording tracks on the sly with one of the first Nokia smartphones. It was the size of a small VCR, but damn it caught those tracks well! Like the song “All Falls Down,” which blew us away when we heard the epic voice sampled on the chorus.
“This joint with Lauryn Hill on it, whewww! Listen to her, this gonna be the one!” West insists, bouncing, body rocking and rapping along. He was right and wrong. The song was the one, a bonafide hit with a video equally as groundbreaking. Yet, Ms. Hill didn’t allow her vocals sampled from her own hit, “Mystery of Iniquity,” on it so the pinch hitter, R&B songbird Syleena Johnson added her soulful range.
In all, West played a great majority of tracks from the unfinished College Dropout that night. Each song sounded iller than the last. We stood out there nodding to blaring bass and loud, witty lyrics ’til someone called the cops. But no one cared. We were too enamored by the greatness that West bragged and boasted about earlier that night.
And yeah, we ended up putting West in KING Magazine: A two-page spread announcing that he’d be a huge force in the hip-hop world. We were right and wrong as well. Kanye West became something bigger, a music icon who’d inspire a whole generation of artists 10 years later. —Datwon Thomas