Pull out your party hats: Kanye West turns 40 on June 8. And in honour of the big four-oh we’re diving deep into his history, starting with this vintage footage of a baby-faced teenage West holding his own at the Fat Beats record store in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1996.
Some artists are prolific specifically as musicians or producers, but in West's case, it’s easy to add that word before each of his many identities — rapper, songwriter, record producer, fashion designer and entrepreneur. And each of those identities comes with fascinating backstories and anecdotes. So, instead of focusing solely on his musical career, we took a look back at it all.
From the very basics to the obscure, here are 40 things to know about Kanye West.
Editor's note: strong language and content warning in some of the videos below.
1. His middle name is Omari.
2. While he’s known to be from Chicago, West was born in Atlanta and lived there until he was three. When his parents divorced, he moved to Chi-town with his mother.
3. West's mother, Donda West, was an active college professor for 31 years. She began teaching English at Morris Brown College in Atlanta in the early '70s. After moving to Chicago, she was on the faculty of the English Department of Chicago State University for more than two decades. She retired from that position to manage West’s career.
4. Like Kanye, his father, Ray West, had a varied career. In the ’60s and ’70s, Ray was a civil rights advocate and member of the Black Panther Party. He was also a photojournalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He later became a Christian counsellor. West’s song “Father Stretch My Hands” is an ode to his dad.
5. When he was 10 years old and in fifth grade, West lived in China. At the time, his mother was teaching at Nanjing University as part of an exchange program. During that year, West took private art lessons, and learned tai chi.
6. West made his first beat in the Grade 7 at the age of 12. "First beat I did was in seventh grade, on my computer," West recalled in a 2009 interview with Details magazine. I got into doing beats for the video games I used to try to make. My game was very sexual. The main character was, like, a giant penis. It was like Mario Brothers, but the ghosts were, like, vaginas. Mind you, I'm 12 years old, and this is stuff 30-year-olds are programming. You'd have to draw in and program every little step — it literally took me all night to do a step, 'cause the penis, y'know, had little feet and eyes."
7. Around the same time he wrote his first song, “Green Eggs and Ham.” “Kanye would not be satisfied until we could get some place to record that song,” recalled his mother. At the time, most of the studios charged $125 per hour, a quote outside their budget. “But Kanye would find a way. He was always finding a way or making one,” she added. West learned about a studio basement in someone’s house that charged only $25 an hour and his mom took him to record the song. “It was the best 25 dollars ever spent, a precursor, no doubt, to ‘Jesus Walks’ and so many other songs.”
8. After graduating from high school at 17, Kanye attended the American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago on a partial scholarship for the first semester. After one semester, he decided he didn’t want to be an artist and changed universities. He began attending Chicago State University, where his mother taught, and became an English major. That, too, didn’t last very long, and he dropped out in the third semester to pursue music. The chain of events inspired his debut album name, The College Dropout.
9. West’s first job was working as a busboy at a Bob Evans restaurant. He lasted one day.
10. When he dropped out of college, West’s mother wanted him to learn what it was like making a living on music. He had to pay her $200 in rent and took jobs in telemarketing and at the Gap while also selling beats.
11. West sold his first beat to local Chicago rapper Gravity for $8,000.
12. West and Chicago hip-hop producer No I.D.’s mothers were colleagues at Chicago State University. Donda West asked No I.D.’s mother if he would mentor West, and No I.D. said yes. "At first it was just like, 'Alright man take this, learn this, go, git git git.' But eventually he started getting good and then I started managing him," recalled the producer.
13. In 2000, West was arrested for allegedly stealing printers from OfficeMax. It was a case of mistaken identity: the cornrows he wore at the time matched the description of the culprit. "I was racially profiled for having a white T-shirt and braids," West recalled.
15. “Through the Wire,” his single debut, was recorded during his recovery.
16. “Through the Wire” samples Chaka Khan's 1985 single "Through the Fire." At first Khan refused to clear the sample. West brought Khan’s son to a barbecue at video producer Coodie Simmons's house and showed him the video that Simmons had directed. Two weeks later, Khan cleared the sample.
17. According to Simmons, during the making of The College Dropout album, West never wrote any lyrics down. “I’d never seen him write no [lyrics] down," he said. "I used to film him rapping so he could remember the verse because he didn’t write nothing down. So a lot of times I’d film him rapping and then show it back to him."
18. The bear on West's first three album covers is called Dropout, and he was an unplanned addition according to Plain Pat, West’s manager at the time. “The bear just happened to be at the school where Def Jam had booked the photo shoot for the album," said Pat. "I don’t think the bear was [premeditated]. I don’t remember us bringing a bear, I don’t remember him asking for a bear either."
19. “Golddigger” was originally created for Shawnna's 2004 debut album, Worth Tha Weight, but she passed on it. Kanye rewrote the hook from a woman's perspective to a man's.
20. West is a big fan of Scottish rock group Franz Ferdinand. “It’s the type of music that you make when you have good taste in everything,” he said in an interview.
21. Michel Gondry, the French director noted for films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind, played live drums for West’s song “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” on West's second album, Late Registration.
23. West loves Fiona Apple’s music — so much so that he worked with Jon Brion, Apple's producer and a respected soundtrack composer, to co-produce Late Registration. “Now, when I listen to your shit, I hear similarities. I actually wanted to work with him [Jon Brion] so I could be like the rap version of you. That was one of my main goals. The albums that inspired me for Late Registration were your first one, Tidal, and Portishead’s Dummy, but especially your lyrics and how you sing. How is your vocabulary so ill? Were you tight in vocabulary in your school?” West asked Apple in an interview.
24. West spent $600,000 out of pocket on Late Registration.
25. About a decade ago, West maintained a blog called KanyeUniverseCity.com. For three years and in more than 6,500 posts, this blog would be the place where he shared his thoughts on fashion, art, architecture, movies and anything else that grabbed his fancy.
26. 808s & Heartbreak was recorded in Hawaii, which has the area code 808. But that’s just coincidence. “I've called the album 808s & Heartbreak because all the drum sounds are made by the Roland TR-808 drum machine, which was really big in the 1980s,” West explained in an interview. “Most drum machines use samples of real human drumming but the Roland doesn't so you've got that MTV-in-the-1980s feel throughout the whole album."
27. 808s & Heartbreak was a departure from rap and written after a time of great upheaval in West's life. His mother had died the year before, and his six-year relationship with Alexis Phifer, to whom he had once been engaged, came to an end.
28. 808s & Heartbreak did not receive rave reviews. In an interview a few years later, West recalled how people asked him to change his name after the album came out. In fact, he was asked to do it under a different name before the album was released.
29. A 2009 episode of South Park depicted West as an egomaniac, and his reaction was not what people had come to expect. He posted a link to the episode on KanyeUniverseCity.com and wrote, “'South Park' murdered me last night, and it's pretty funny. It hurts my feelings, but what can you expect from 'South Park? I actually have been working on my ego...”
31. For West, designing clothes isn’t just a vanity project. “I need to be able to give people more of what they want that currently is behind a glass,” he said in an interview. “I don’t believe that it’s luxury to go into a store and not be able to afford something. I believe luxury is to be able to go into a store and be able to afford something."
32. After the 2009 VMAs debacle, Kanye left America to travel and eventually ended up in Hawaii. There he created a “Rap Camp,” and invited his favourite producers and artists to come work on — and inspire — his recording. Out of it came My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his fifth album.
33. While the song didn’t make it into My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in 2010 a leaked video showed West sampling “Popular,” as sung by Kristin Chenoweth from the Broadway hit musical Wicked.
35. From Missy Elliott to Maroon 5, West has produced more than 100 songs that don’t feature himself.
36. In 2013, Seth Rogen and James Franco created a spoof version of West’s “Bound 2” video. The following year they got a call from West about recreating the video live at his wedding to Kim Kardashian. “I have this idea … I don’t know, but maybe you could come out and do the 'Bound' thing. I have the motorcycle and you guys can do it live,” he said. But after a few seconds of consideration, he said, “I hear that coming out of my mouth and maybe that’s not the best idea.”
37. In 2015, West received an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for producing work that is “imaginative and aesthetically rich, and sometimes also provocative and controversial, shifting the cultural landscape in significant ways.” It was almost as if he knew this would happen a decade ago when he wrote, “My momma told me go to school, get your doctorate” in the song “Hey Mama.”
38. A week after his mother died, West broke down at a concert in Paris as he tried to sing the verses of “Hey Mama.” He had written it earlier on in his career in dedication to her.
39. According to Kim Kardashian, West is not keen on displaying his awards. "Kanye's not big on putting his Grammys up and stuff like that, they're literally in the laundry room, like just randomly. Or a sock drawer and all around," Kardashian said during an interview on BBC Radio 1. "So I've gathered them all, and maybe I can talk him into putting them in one of our offices. He's not into awards being all around the house — he's not a show-off person."
40. As of the 59th Grammy Awards in 2017, West and Jay Z have tied with 21 Grammy wins. But some years West has competed against himself. For instance, in 2012, he had two nominations (and a win), each for best rap performance and best rap song.
Follow Tahiat Mahboob on Twitter: @TahiatMahboob
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