‘The College Dropout’ Turns 13: An Oral History Of Kanye West’s Classic From An Engineer’s Perspective

Before the Adidas Yeezy 350s and The Life of Pablo merchandise, before Kim Kardashian, North and Saint came along, a kid from Chicago changed hip-hop forever with his 2004 debut album, causing the masses to fall in love with the self-crowned creative genius that is Kanye West. This all didn’t happen overnight, though. Kanye Omari West was the same perfectionist he is now, and locked himself in a room to master a sound that incorporated unorthodox string instruments euphoniously mixed with drums over soulful samples. He committed to crafting five beats a day for three summers, just to have the chance to get his art out for the world to hear; to achieve the dream of being a rapper that so many denied him of for so long. As ‘Ye put it back in 2014, “a long road, a constant struggle, and a true labor of love.”

READ: Opinion: Kanye West’s “College Dropout” Is His Best (And Most Important) Album

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CREDIT: Record Plant

Anthony Kilhoffer (second from the left above), producer/engineer at The Record Plant in Hollywood, Calif., collaborated with young ‘Ye and produced on various projects prior to his 2002 record deal with Roc-A-Fella. After developing a healthy working relationship with the Chi-town native, he received a life-changing phone call in January 2004. West’s budget was finally together, and it was time to get to work on his debut record.

Fast forward to 2017, and Kilhoffer is a four-time Grammy Award winner and has worked diligently as an engineer on all of West’s projects including the culture-altering, The College Dropout. VIBE caught up with Kilhoffer to commemorate the 13th anniversary of Kanye’s rebellious debut LP. From reminiscing on his fondest memories of The Record Plant, where the project was recorded and a place “you would run into everybody, Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, Mos Def,” to Kanye executing a vision “that he already had in his head two years prior,” Kilhoffer reflects on the classic album’s impact on hip-hop sound more than a decade later.

As of today (Feb. 10), The College Dropout is officially a teenager. Make sure to keep it heavy in rotation for its birthday and take you back to the essence of why we ride for Mr. West all these years later, as he continues to break down barriers and open up our minds to depths the average human brain could never achieve.

 

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CREDIT: Getty Images

Act I: Cheers To The Roc, Memories At The Record Plant

Anthony Killhoffer: I was busy with my career and I didn’t understand the gravity of the album until “Through The Wire” was on TRL. And the “Overnight Celebrity” video? That’s when I saw Kanye West the superstar, not just like the 30 other producers I worked with that year. Kanye recorded the whole album on a Roland VS 880, which is old digital 8-tracks or 16-tracks. He brought it on his MPC, then we re-recorded it. That’s when John Legend showed up and Kanye had him sing on stuff, then the musicians came and played on it. That’s what eventually expanded into the 76-minute LP.

READ: Kanye’s Blueprint: 10 Albums Directly Influenced By ‘College Dropout’

“Jesus Walks” was the one where I really thought Kanye was a whole step above. When John Legend did the “Jesus Walks” and Kanye put the auto-tune ad lib on, that was the defining moment. The first time auto-tune was used in hip-hop, I think that was big. We spent three hours perfecting the snare roll before “Jesus Walks.” That was the first time I noticed his perfectionism. It was something we spent three hours on this one snare roll before the first drop. That’s unheard of, three hours on one snare roll.

As far as the sonics, it was all Kanye West. It was more of me receiving ideas and putting down the tracks. It was a bit different in that day than it is now. “Get Em High” was a super quick beat, it was really fast. For “Never Let Me Down,” we were sitting down all day listening to samples then we would just suddenly craft the beat, you know. I just watched some video on YouTube of the making of “Never Let Me Down” and I was like, that was not the making of “Never Let Me Down.” That was a planned beat for Pharrell, but he got Jay Z.

 

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CREDIT: Getty Images

Act II: “If I Talk About God My Record Won’t Get Played”

I think the main thing is it was different than what was charting at that time. The culture was big into Dre, Snoop and Tupac and it was a whole different gangster level of swag. It was the height of the spinning rims and XXL t-shirts. To go against that, like, ‘What were you thinking? That’s not how this works.’ But he did it his way, and ended up changing the culture.

I’m sure the album existed in his brain two years prior to putting it together. He was 100% the visionary, creative director, and nobody was telling him what to do. This is the man you couldn’t tell nothing to at that time. But that’s what it takes to believe in yourself and get it to that level. I was just taking orders, there were no other collaborators. Young people with their first opportunity, they know what this first project is. Especially with him, because that’s how he got there. You can’t tell him nothing.

This was the one album that no one wanted to buy a hard drive. It was the album that kind’ve made itself in a way. Now, he’s made seven solo albums start to finish, and that was the first start to finish project of Kanye West.

Kanye West
CREDIT: Getty Images

Act III: The Cultural Impact Of A Hip-Hop Classic, 13 Years Later

It was prolific to be a part of something like that, at the time I didn’t know it was going to be so impactful. It was such a different album in comparison to the other jersey wearing, street hustle at the time. In the lyrical content, the inspirational content, it was a lot different than other albums out.

Kanye is always in pursuit of perfection. From day one you know, even to now. Every move is thought of and thought about. More of, ‘Why is that snare there? Why is the string there in that octave? Why is it a cello and not a violin?’ These are things that are all thought of and obsessed over.

The funny thing is, you listen to this record and he talks about his 4-track recorder, kids don’t even know what that is or what it takes, five beats a day for three summers. Now, with the technology kids make five beats in twenty minutes and think they’re a genius.

Even though popular culture makes things disposable or it just get run through the mill, The College Dropout definitely contains a long term legacy. When you look back on hip-hop, it will have its place as one of the masterpieces.