Head of the class


May 3, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

South Side rapper Kanye West is famous for his charming but cocky personality. In fact, some would say his self-confidence borders on arrogance.

But the 26-year-old artist isn't content with just being the most in-demand producer in hip-hop today, as well as a red-hot solo artist who's about to go platinum with his debut album, "The College Dropout." He intends to direct movies as well.

"There's just no stopping me," West declares.

The artist's self-assurance can be traced to the way he was raised. His mother, Donda, is an English professor at Chicago State University. His father, Ray, was a Black Panther who became a celebrated photographer. His parents divorced when he was young, but both remained influential in his life, instilling in him the belief that he could succeed at anything.


When: Tonight 6:30 p.m.; Tuesday 9 p.m.; Wednesday 9 p.m.

Where: House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $33.50

Call: (312) 923-2000

West turned his attention from writing poetry to crafting rap tracks when he was attending Polaris High School; producer No I.D. (who was working with Common at the time) became his mentor and inspiration. Jermaine Dupri gave him his first break when he produced a track for the 1998 album "Life in 1472," but his career really took off when he linked up with Jay-Z.

In the last year and a half, he has brought his trademark production -- sampling old soul hits and speeding them up -- to tracks by Britney Spears, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Alicia Keys and fellow Chicagoan Twista, whose single "Slow Jamz" became a major hit. West followed that accomplishment when his own album debuted on the pop charts at No. 2, propelled by the single "Through the Wire," a moving account of the October 2002 car crash that left him with a broken jaw and a new outlook on life.

Since then, life has been a whirlwind for the young star -- it took six weeks just to schedule this brief interview with the Sun-Times, and when it finally happened, West could spare only 15 minutes as he stood in line to see "Kill Bill Vol. 2" for the third time. But it was more than enough time to get an update on the biggest rap star Chicago has produced.

Q. Congratula-tions on all of your success. I saw you perform at the House of Blues in February, the night after your album was released, and that had to be one of the best nights of your life.

A. I guess it was, but I've got to tell you, it seems that way every night!

Q. Is your head swimming right about now?

A. I guess it was a breakout year. But I just work. I hustle and work.

Q. The question that everyone in the Chicago rap scene is asking is, "Why has it taken Chicago so long to get this sort of national attention?"

A. I can't explain it. I had the right mentality and was in the right place at the right time. And I knew I was in a position to help people because I could not only rap, I could produce, so I could help people in more ways than just rapping on people's songs. I can give them the backdrop to have a radio hit on their own, and a hit is what makes the radio industry go 'round.

Q. You had to leave Chicago and move to New York in order to do this. Do you think other artists will have to do the same?

A. No, they won't have to leave. Chicago is finally getting its due.

Q. What's your main focus now -- touring or recording?

A. I have to do studio, tour, studio, tour, because I love both things so much. Plus videos. They never bring up my passion for videos in interviews and never realize how into video I am. It takes a long time to do an "All Falls Down" or "Through the Wire." "Through the Wire" took six months. I'm doing "Jesus Walks Pt. 2" right now. I already did "Pt. 1."

Q. So you write the videos yourself?

A. To say the very least. I direct. I sat down there in post [-production] for six months for "Through the Wire." I just did this video for "Two Words" that is so groundbreaking. And the concept for "Jesus Walks" -- I don't even want to give it out because I don't want anyone to steal it. And I hang out with acclaimed video directors like Michel Gondry [the Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack].

Q. Do you see yourself making a feature film down the line?

A. That's definitely what I'm going to be doing; I've just got to get a script. My own story is pretty interesting, but I don't want to just tell that. I want to do groundbreaking stuff.

Q. Have more offers been pouring in for production work?

A. Yeah, but we're cutting back to do our own artists now. You make more money with that, and it's more satisfying. I'm working on Common's new one.

Q. What was the most surprising call you got?

A. Jadakiss; he asked me to rap on his album. In November he got a copy of the bootleg and asked me to rap on a track.

Q. One of the most encouraging things about your success is that you reject the gangsta pose that has dominated hip-hop for so long. You rap about real life.

A. Real life does involve bitches and hos, but there is an overload of that. I really relate to the fans, and the fans relate to me. It feels good to be able to do that.

No, wait -- that is such a wack answer! So cliche. Why would you even print that? I hate to give you one of those.

Q. But you're right. You're rapping about working at the Gap and not making enough money to get to work at the Gap. More people live like that than live out the whole violent gangsta trip.

A. It's true. I worked at the Gap. That was my story for real, verbatim, nothing added. It's funny, even now I go back to that. [Rapping:] "Let's go back, back to the Gap / Look at my check, wasn't no scratch."

Q. If you had one piece of advice to give to that kid who's working at the Gap now and hoping to break out of Chicago, what would it be?

A. Perseverance and responsibility. You have to take care of your responsibilities. You have to have a job to pay for studio time. You can't just say, "I'm going to drop out of school and stop working. I'm just going to be a rapper." It doesn't work like that. Use school as a backup plan until it really starts popping for you. And if it does, you will always have that.

Q. Sounds like your mom talking.

A. Yeah, she instilled that in me. And I did stay in school until I had a record deal on the table. And I was still able to make money doing tracks for other people, so it wasn't like an all or nothing thing.