You may not know him yet, but hip-hop producers don't come much hotter or hard-working than Kanye West. During the past six years, the 26-year-old has racked up triumphs with such big-money movers as Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, Nas, Alicia Keys and Eminem. How does he do it? Not with any Digidesign Pro Tools or Emagic Logic rig, that's for sure. “I don't use a computer or a lot of equipment in my studio,” West declares. “What do I need all that stuff for?”
West uses four primary pieces for sampling, sequencing and recording duties: An Ensoniq ASR-10 keyboard, an Akai MPC2000 MIDI Production Center, a Roland VS-1880 24-bit Digital Studio Workstation and a Gemini PT-1000 II turntable.
“I recorded College Dropout with just that,” West says. “I got a record player with no top on it. It's a Gemini, just like me. Like most Geminis, I am two people: I'm a rapper and a producer. Hell, yeah.”
West's minimalism doesn't affect his output. His debut, The College Dropout (Roc-a-fella/Def Jam, 2004), boasts cameos from the Harlem Boy's Choir and a few of hip-hop's elite — Mos Def, Ludacris, Dirt McGirt (formerly Ol' Dirty Bastard) and Freeway — as well as some outstanding vocal samples. West doesn't stress over his skills; he is more concerned with sound and style.
“I don't give a fuck about equipment or technique,” West says. “It is just about how it sounds at the end of the day. My claim to fame is to get the most out of the least: simplify. I go through my closet every month and give away all the clothes that I don't really love. I have a better chance of putting on something good every morning if I just have all hot shit.”
One of West's trademarks, besides classic '70s soul loops, is ample use of speed. Almost every other track on The College Dropout features a sped-up vocal sample, be it Dinah Washington on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” or Chaka Khan on “Through the Wire.”
“I sample them at regular speed, then speed them up inside the ASR-10,” he explains. “I just put the pitch up on the sampler, and it will go faster. The ASR-10 is like my left hand. I can chop samples into 61 pieces without wasting any memory. A lot of old songs are too slow to rap on. So I got to speed them up to a rappable tempo.”
The album's multiple treats include a searing Lauryn Hill sample (on “Falls Down”) and gorgeous choral vocals from the Harlem Boy's Choir (on “2 Words”). The Choir might be from Harlem, but that is the last place West could find it. “I wanted that track to be more than just another hip-hop song,” West recalls. “I wanted the Harlem Boy's Choir on it, but nobody wanted to pay the $10,000. We wasted $3,500 on Hezekiah Walker, but it wasn't my vision. I finally said, ‘We have to have the Harlem Boy's Choir.’ I drove all the way to west bubba — wherever — Crystal Lake, where they were at boy's camp. It was like a place where they would shoot a scary movie. I went through hell to get to heaven on that song.”
With “Jesus Walks” and “Drug Dealin',” The College Dropout may be the most socially responsible hip-hop album since Public Enemy's heyday, but will the average fans get it? West knows they will. “Good music isn't always about being in the shower with a bunch of chicks,” he says. “When DeNiro was working on Meet the Parents, he didn't wonder if his fans from Goodfellas would like it. Human beings have many different dimensions. Nelly can fill that part of their life; it is for me to fulfill other parts. A lot of people are copying each other, but I don't have nothing to do with those people.”