My co-worker…and co-friend Mark Campos asked me to make him a Hip-Hop 101 list. Mark, besides being incredibly smart, went to art school. So he likes bands that probably don’t exist yet. Making this list could be difficult. On one hand, I’m ecstatic that Mark thinks I’m a cuddly, more personable version of Pandora. But on the other hand, what if I crack under pressure and can’t make him a good playlist? I’ll never be accepted by the art community!
Mark is my homie, so I took this request VERY seriously.
You wouldn’t pick and choose chapters from a book and then mish-mash them together to make a book playlist would you? So why do it with music?
So that idea was out. Next I thought, what if I just send him a list of my favorite albums?! Well that won’t be good either. A list has no context, it has no depth. I know Mark’s body, a list won’t resonate with him.
Then I had an idea so great that if I began to articulate it my head would explode. Six Degrees of Wikipedia. Have you ever looked up an article on Wikipedia only to black out for six hours and awaken to an article on the 1997 ECAC Hockey Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament? Wikipedia is like a bunny hole. You never know where an innocent article will take you.
That’s how I’ll introduce Mark, aka Lil Marco, to Hip Hop! Using that same principle. Only instead of Wikipedia, I’ll use…Kanye West and his 2004 debut The College Dropout.
Why Yeezy? Easy. It was through the Louis Vuitton Don that I got deep into the rap game. My rap education can be roughly split into two time periods: Pre College Dropout (P.C.D) and Post College Dropout (P.C.D…wait…what?). Up until 2004 I had a very specific taste in rap music, West Coast. I listened to 2pac, Dr. Dre. Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and all the other West Coast greats. While these are all great rappers with many classic albums between them, I was ignoring a large part of the genre. I mean, I heard of Jay Z, Nas and the like. But I didn’t listen to them because A) 2pac said fuck em and B) I was from the West Coast so I had to listen to West Coast music (WESTSIIIIIIIIIDE).
But all that changed when I heard The College Dropout. I fell in love with Kanye’s honest, funny lyrics and the album’s soulful production. It’s still my favorite Kanye record and one of my all time favorite albums. Kanye had a wide array of guests, ranging from Jay Z to Ludacris to Freeway to Talib Kweli.
Falling in love with this album made me want to listen to everything associated in the album. And off I went into the bunny hole (Kanye hole?).
The album had a heavy New York influence and this led me to listen to all the East Coast classics like Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, Ready To Die and Enter The Wu-Tang. I was binge listening to anything I could get my hands on. It felt like I was in Hip-Hop 101 and I was cramming for a final, like “shit why did I put off the East Coast chapters for so long? Fuck, shit, fuck, shit, ah!”
Two of the guests on The College Dropout were Mos Def and Talib Kweli. At first, listening to them made me feel cool because it was something different than 50 Cent, G-Unit and whatever else was on the radio in early and mid 2004. But these guys were good. Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides and Talib Kweli’s Quality were on constant spin in my 1993 Chevy Cavalier.
Kweli killed it on “Get Em High” (I can’t believe this n… used my name for picking up dimes). But Common’s verse wasn’t bad either. Because I loved Ice Cube, I knew about Common from their days beefing in the mid 1990’s. The more I played back “Get Em High”, the more I liked Common’s verse. I revisited his old catalog like Electric Circus, but I wouldn’t become a full fledged Common fan until 2005’s Be. And a few years later Finding Forever would become the soundtrack to my 2007 summer ( an interesting one as it would be the summer between Junior College and SDSU).
If The College Dropout introduced me to established artists, then Kanye’s subsequent work connected me with several up and coming rappers. One thing Kanye doesn’t get enough credit for is putting on artists and giving them an opportunity on the main stage. I remember listening to Late Registration and “Touch The Sky” and immediately looking up Lupe Fiasco’s mixtapes(Sean, Tyler, you guys were there!). Other new artists I discovered through Kanye West were John Legend, Big Sean and Travi$ Scott. Since I started listening to these guys at the nascence of their careers, I felt like a grew up with them. Is it a weird thing to say? Yes. Do I care. No.
In addition to introducing new artists Kanye’s later albums ushered in new eras into hip hop. Look, 808s & Heartbreak, when it was released, was a weird album. It was Kanye singing and talking about feelings and well, it was awkward. But as Grantland’s Rembert Browne says
You’re forced to acknowledge how wrong you were about not liking the album when it came out, mainly because you, too, were in a weird place in your life in 2008.
It’s a good album and one that was ahead of it’s time. Kanye popularized the sing-song style that would soon become the staple of the genre with rappers like Drake (Nothing Was The Same is a must-hear) and KiD CuDi (Man on The Moon, anyone?).
Kanye may get a lot of shit for being arrogant (I don’t think he is) but one can’t deny that he’s helped the careers of numerous artists by either giving them a big opportunity (Lupe Fiasco, Big Sean, Travi$ Scott, John Legend, King L) or breathing new life into their careers (Common, Consequence, Pusha T). Diving into Kanye’s work is like diving into a bunny-hole that leads to the many roads and sub genres of hip-hop. And thanks to The College Dropout, I’ve been able to find the artists and producers that resonate with me. This wasn’t quite the playlist Mark was looking for. But I hope he finds the context and recommendations useful. And cool. Or that he at-least thinks they’re “alright.”