It’s hard to imagine the world without Kanye West, and it’s hard to imagine Kanye West without The College Dropout. Fifteen years on, we’re breaking down the sampling on Ye’s triumphant debut and talking about the creation of a classic.
Things were different in 2004: 50 Cent was a musical titan, Jay-Z had retired from the rap game and Donald Trump was endorsing the Eminem/Slim Shady ticket in the election. Not any less confusing, that’s for sure. Just… different.
Different too was Kanye West, then little more than a name gracing the liner notes of the young millennium’s most acclaimed records. Though he had no small number of nicknames and honorifics – Jay himself had shouted out “Kanyeezy,” calling him “a genius,” on The Black Album’s “Lucifer” – West was hardly the titanic force of pop culture with which we’re all familiar. The first 41 days of 2004 were particularly special, then, because the sun was setting on West’s productive obscurity: though he’d long been a purveyor of beats for Roc-A-Fella, the mild spotlight of the A-list producer would soon give way to the fully-fledged gaze of fame.
West, however, was more than ready. In an interview with David Letterman, Jay recalled the famously confident artist interrupting a studio session and declaring himself “the Savior of Chicago.” In order to prove it to the rest of us, however, Ye would have to make an album. Again, West was prepared: A&R John Monopoly remembers that even early on, Ye “was always producing with the intention of being a rapper.” This meant that from the very beginning, West engaged with his beats as a songwriter, allowing him to shelf his favourites for his seemingly inevitable debut. “There’s beats on the album he’s been literally saving for himself for years.”
It’s a fact he alluded to on “Last Call,” The College Dropout’s epic twelve-minute album closer:
They expected that College Dropout to drop and then flop
Then maybe he stop savin’ all the good beats for himself…”
West wasn’t just stockpiling beats, however: he was saving lyrics and lines, bars he’d scrawled on notepads and spat into mics alongside his early outfit, Go-Getters. The album was the culmination of West’s entire pre-release career, one spent crafting “five beats a day for three summers,” learning at the hands of Chicago veteran and personal mentor No I.D. and currying favour within Roc-A-Fella. Things didn’t get any easier after he signed to the Roc as a solo artist in mid-to-late 2002.
The road to The College Dropout was a treacherous one, a fact best illustrated by the car crash that landed West – then a successful but hardly famous producer – in the hospital. In keeping with his headstrong ethos and nigh inhuman work ethic, the same accident that shattered his jaw was the one that inspired his smash-hit debut single.
Elsewhere, West faced similar roadblocks – peer skepticism, contract issues and label disputes – with the same zeal. If you’re still wondering how Kanye West powers through seemingly insurmountable controversies month after month, consider his beginnings: he gets by on the very same combination of talent and tenacity that made him a household name.
The ‘old Kanye’ and ‘new Kanye’ distinction is such a universally observed demarcation that West himself – no stranger to indulging a meme or two – entertained it on The Life of Pablo skit “I Love Kanye.” The College Dropout is perhaps the purest version of the ‘old Kanye’ claimed by West traditionalists. It’s the chipmunk soul, backpack rap, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” West of old, well before the house-infused hits of Graduation and new wave alienation of 808s. It’s the most palatable Ye: the underdog, striving to make his name despite the doubts of others, espousing progressive political ideas and preaching the virtues of self confidence.
Though a lot has changed in 15 years, the appeal of The College Dropout has endured. No longer a refreshing change of pace, the record signifies the ascendance of this generation’s most influential hip hop artist. In honour of the fifteenth anniversary, we’re looking back at the sampling throughout, breaking down West’s well-documented style and looking at the factors that helped shape one of this millennium’s watershed projects.
Art of the Steal: Sampling on The College Dropout
I know, I know: sampling isn’t stealing, but I needed to say it for the joke. Some people (read: those getting sampled, mostly) would argue that sampling without clearance is, in fact, theft, but there is one kind of sampling that’s always permissible: self-sampling. It’s something Kanye does exceptionally well, especially on The College Dropout.
Of the 43 samples on his debut, 11 are interpolations of bars from unreleased Kanye tracks. He delivers 10 of those interpolations, whilst Ludacris flips a Ye lyric on “Breathe In, Breathe Out.”
Let’s work through some of the most memorable:
“I go to Jacob with 25 thou…,” is lifted from “Wow”
“‘Oh my god, is that a black card?’ I turned around and replied, ‘why yes, but I prefer the term African American Express…’,” is pilfered from “Milkshake Freestyle.”
“We in the streets, playa, get ya mail / It’s only two places you end up, either dead or in jail…,” is interpolated from State Property’s “Got Nowhere.”
“Told them I finished school, and started my own business / They said ‘oh, you graduated?’ No, I decided I was finished…,” is taken from “The Gossip Files”
West’s entire first “Breathe In, Breathe Out” is lifted from “Live at Irving Plaza, New York.”
The second verse is taken from a studio recording of his remix to Jay’s “Girls, Girls, Girls”. It features the “PhD, a pretty huge dick” lyric.
“We don’t wanna hear that weak shit anymore…,” lifted from “Keep The Receipt,” West’s collaboration with the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
“The drug game bulimic, it’s hard to get weight / niggas money is homo, it’s hard to get straight…,” taken from “We Can’t Tell.”
A lot of these repurposed bars – four of the ones lifted above – include punchlines, a clear incentive for their inclusion. They’re funny, or at the very least, witty. You might have noticed that there’s one particularly lauded bar that we’ve left out, but we’ll get to that one later.
West isn’t alone in his pilfering: Jay-Z, simultaneously an idol and a peer, recycled a 2003 verse on “Never Let Me Down.” It makes sense, seeing as the verse in question originated on the Dysfunktional Family OST. Not familiar with it? Precisely. Jay did something similar in 1997, when he included “Who You Wit II” on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1: the original version of “Who You Wit,” which was just one verse shorter than the remix, was included on the Sprung OST. The film was a critical and commercial failure, and can you honestly say you’d have heard “Who You Wit” without Jay’s shrewd business acumen?
Here’s a smaller example from 2000: Jay spits a lyric – “it’s a secret society, all we ask is trust” – on The Dynasty: Roc La Familia cut “Get Your Mind Right, Mami.” Less than two months later, it reappears on Memphis Bleek’s “Do My…,” the third single from The Understanding. Clearly, Jay had a good feeling about the bar and opted to give it a second shot at the limelight. It’s a quietly memorable line, and most recently reappeared on the hook of Kendrick Lamar’s “LOYALTY.”
The art of the quotable, however, isn’t always about revisiting lines that didn’t get their due: it’s about building a singular vocabulary that defines you as an artist. When Jay rapped “I guess I got my swagger back” on “Otis,” the callback to The Blueprint – released a decade earlier – stressed his extraordinary longevity. It’d be ignorant to say that all of Jay’s self-interpolations are about lending limelight to bars, but in cases where he lifts from an obscurity or a b-side, it seems likely that he’s revisiting otherwise maligned quips.
West’s interpolations on The College Dropout, however, are something of a ‘best-of’ exhibition. The tracks he was referencing were unreleased, and even now, almost all of them have trickled out through a procession of unofficially dropped mixtapes and demo-quality leaks. West seemed to know what lines elicited reactions, and knew he’d be amiss to waste them on oddities. Take one of a few hilarious one-liners on “Last Call”:
Mayonnaise colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips…”
As West recounts his meteoric rise over a good eight-or-so minutes, he talks about the first time he ever showed Jay that very line. It seems likely that West was rapping a verse from “Wack Niggaz,” the officially unreleased cut on which that lyric debuted, and whilst the overall verse left Jay a bit cold, he was particularly drawn to that bar. So too was West, as evidenced by the telling of the story: he’s so proud of his pen game here that he raps the line in the song itself before coming back to it in the story. In West’s mind, it’s the best bar he’s ever written. It’s the bar he spat when he wanted to show Jay-Z – arguably the greatest emcee of all time – that he could spit.
Though less common, Ye continued to interpolate elements from his unofficially released cuts well into the second half of the decade: perhaps the clearest example of this is the significant “Home” flip in “Homecoming,” a single from West’s Graduation. There’s even a ‘recycled lyric’ on Late Registration album cut “Bring Me Down,” where Kanye adapts elements of his verse on Talib Kweli’s “Wack Niggaz” remix:
The pastor say we goin’ to mass today
We have to pray, these niggas is wack ‘n’ eh
I have to say, since Pac passed away
Most these niggas don’t even deserve a track from me…”
Throughout his career, he’s also indulged in some of those world-building callbacks: “can I talk my shit again?” appears in both 2005’s “We Major” and 2007’s “The Glory,” whilst “wake up, Mr. West” – a line almost exclusively associated with Dropout trilogy cuts “Wake Up Mr. West” and “Good Morning” – makes a fleeting appearance on 2016’s “Famous.”
Remember how I said Yeezy doesn’t mind indulging the meme? In 2018, he linked his public persona and artistic output – something he’s been doing since at least 2009 – by quoting his infamous “how, Sway?!” rant on Ye cut “Wouldn’t Leave.”
Dissecting Every Sample from The College Dropout
Only five tracks from the The College Droupout lacked a sample, and they’re all either skits or intros. As a result, you won’t find “Lil Jimmy Skit“, “School Spirit Skit 2“, “School Spirit Skit 1“, “Workout Plan“, or “Intro” in the breakdown below.
“We Don’t Care” Samples
The giddy anti-establishment creed of “We Don’t Care” is underpinned by a number of samples from The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “I Just Wanna Stop.” Ye lifts both the instrumental introduction and a vocal passage at 3:15, juxtaposing them against his bars. That track was included the outfit’s 1979 self-titled LP, which came a whole seven years after It’s Just Begun, the title track from which is both a prolific sample and early disco hit.
As is common on Kanye’s early albums, the emcee incorporates elements from tracks included on the once-common unlicensed mixtapes. “We Can’t Tell” was included on 2002’s Akademiks (Jeanius Level Musik). Ye’s only ever officially released a single mixtape: 2007’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing.
The lyric in question is: “the drug game bulimic, it’s hard to get weight / niggas money is homo, it’s hard to get straight.”
“Graduation Day” Samples
“We Don’t Care” is bookened by skits. The former opens the album with the teacher’s musical request, and the latter details just how offended he is by Ye’s choice. It’s backed by a very familiar interpolation: Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1 in D.” You might know it better as “Land of Hope and Glory,” the lyrics for which were composed for Edward VII’s 1902 coronation, just one year after Elgar’s original debuted.
“All Falls Down” Samples
The titular refrain on “All Falls Down” is an interpolation of Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity,” a live cut included on her 2002 live album MTV Unplugged 2.0. The original version of West’s track, which leaked along with the rest of the album in late 2003, used a direct sample of that performance, but the final version utilised vocals performed by Syleena Johnson. Her father is Syl Johnson, an oft-sampled blues artist who sued West in 2011.
At 1:59, Kanye pays his respects to Biggie by way of an impressively obscure interpolation. Ye flips a lyric from “Real Niggaz”: “… the road to riches and diamond rings.”
Bad Boy Entertainment put out the West Side Story Sampler, a promo release, soon after Ready to Die. It included two new tracks: “Radio Check” and “Real Niggaz,” the latter of which was split into three verses across the tape. Though it’s an obscure Biggie release, it’s been sampled in a handful of high-profile cuts: Jay-Z interpolated the titular phrase on 1997’s “Real Niggaz,” whilst Jadakiss lifted some bars on 1998’s “All For The Love.” It was more recently flipped – albeit briefly – on A$AP Rocky’s “Long Live A$AP.”
“I go to Jacob with 25 thou-” is an interpolation of another officially unreleased cut, “Wow.”
“Wow” is a particularly storied pre-College Dropout cut: West also references elements of the track on album closer “Last Call,” a 13-minute cut that recalls how he signed with Roc-A-Fella. These elements were later incorporated into Injury Reserve’s “Wow,” even though Kanye specifically said “don’t bite that chorus, I might still use it.”
“I’ll Fly Away” Samples
“I’ll Fly Away” is a cover of the classic blues hymn of the same name. Composed in 1929 and debuted three years later, the track has become a staple of many church services as well as a mainstay in popular culture. WhoSampled lists 33 recorded covers of the track, and Wikipedia notes a number of high-profile features in films such as Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
“Distant Lover” was included on Marvin Gaye’s classic 1973 record, Let’s Get It On. That album – his most commercially successful – found Gaye channeling his newfound creative control into sexually charged ballads, a departure from the socially conscious bent of ‘71’s What’s Going On. West juxtaposes three distinct samples to create the underlying beat: one at 0:11, another at 0:22 and a third from 0:32.
“Jesus Walks” Samples
Would there even be a “Jesus Walks” without The Arc Choir’s “Walk With Me”? It seems unlikely. The 1997 spiritual provides both the central hook and the wordless vocal percussion throughout West’s religious single, an indispensable base from which he built a classic. The Harlem-based Addicts Rehabilitation Choir released just one album, 1997’s Walk With Me, the title track from which has since been sampled three times.
Here’s a novel sample: West pulls the drill sergeant’s fleeting, commanding call from “Manual Of Arms,” a cut included on 1987’s Authentic Sound Effects Vol. 3. It’s the first track on the 93-track LP, helmed by Keith Holzman, a producer whose brother, Jac Holzman, founded Elektra Records. Despite the fact that the sound effects have existed for a solid three decades, this marks the only time the series has been sampled in hip hop.
The drums that enter at 0:35, in the midst of West’s refrain, are lifted from Lou Donaldson’s 1967 song, “Ode to Billie Joe.” That jazz tune, included on Donaldson’s Blue Note-released Mr. Shing-A-Ling, has since been sampled almost 200 different times. You’re likely to recognise it from songs by A$AP Rocky, Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill and Deltron 3030.
Whilst it may not even qualify as a sample, West incorporates an element into his first verse that’s reminiscent of a classic Curtis Mayfield jam: the “niggas!” exclamation at 0:52. Even in 2003, this sample already had a storied history, gracing cuts by Biggie, N.W.A, 2Pac and Del.
“(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” was included on Mayfield’s seminal Curtis, the same 1970 record from which Just Blaze would sample “Move On Up” for West’s sophomore season opener, “Touch The Sky.”
In a truly Ye move, West interpolates Psalm 23:4, his reinterpretation of the famed verse shining a light on the struggles of his hometown. “I walk through the valley of the Chi where death is” both enhances the religious overtones of “Jesus Walks,” a uniquely liturgical single, and steeps West’s own narrative in the hardships of his embattled city. It also helps that Chi and shadow are, when delivered correctly, homophones.
“Yeah yeah, now check the method” is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Keep It Rollin’,” a song included on 1993’s Midnight Marauders. The phrase was previously sampled on “In My Own World (Check the Method),” a 1994 track from Chicago emcee and West associate Common. That song was produced by West’s mentor, No I.D., who sampled the Tribe track on his own “Jump On It.”
Finally, West lifts a quip from a slightly less religious source, Adam Sandler’s 1996 comedy Happy Gilmore. It’s one of the more memorable exchanges from the film: Shooter McGavin gloats about “eating pieces of shit like [Gilmore] for breakfast,” unaware that it’s not a great diss. West characterises his interactions with police the same way: “Sayin’ ‘We eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast’ / Huh? Y’all eat pieces of shit?”
“Never Let Me Down” Samples
The eerie hook is an interpolation of Blackjack’s 1980 cut, “Maybe It’s The Power of Love.” West’s knowledge of the band is itself impressive: they were active for two years, releasing two unsuccessful albums before breaking up. Lead singer Michael Bolton would go on to further success, whilst Blackjack guitarist Bruce Kulick also played on Billy Squier’s 1980 single “The Big Beat,” a track frequently sampled for the huge drum hits within.
This one’s crazy: Jay lifted his verse, almost verbatim, from a track he laid down a year earlier. “Hovi Baby (Remix)” was included on the soundtrack to Eddie Griffin’s Dysfunktional Family, a documentary/stand up film. It’s understandable that Jay would want to give the verse more shine, especially seeing as it first appeared on such an obscure cut. Hov has been criticised in the past for his rampant interpolations, specifically by Cam’ron.
“Get Em High” Samples
One of the most braggadocious bars on “Get ‘Em High” – “we don’t wanna hear that weak shit anymore” – is taken from “Keep The Receipt,” a collaboration once slated for inclusion on TCD. Even though West managed to secure some A-list features for his debut, he was reluctant to feature them too heavily. “I didn’t want them to rap on it,” said West to Rolling Stone in 2003. “I’m not really trying to hide behind anybody else.” This might help explain why “Keep The Receipt,” West’s collaboration with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, wasn’t included on the final tracklist. It was the only time the two legends collaborated: ODB died in November 2004, just nine months after The College Dropout was released.
Despite his choice to leave the cut unreleased, a subsequent line in “Keep the Receipt” – “do anybody else make hits anymore?” – bears a striking resemblance to a lyric from West’s 2007 hit single, “Stronger.”
“Get Em High” features a more immediately recognisable tribute to Biggie: West switches up a “Warning” lyric at 1:38, rapping: “… now who the hell is this, e-mailing me at 11:26?” It’s no surprise that West has such an affinity for Notorious B.I.G.: the late emcee featured on Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt cut “Brooklyn’s Finest,” and Hov has interpolated many a Biggie lyric in his memory.
The sole sample on the irreverent, chaotic “New Workout Plan” is another case of West taking bars from his unreleased trove of pre-debut tracks and turning them into altogether improved one-liners. In interpolating one of the song’s more memorable lines – “what’s scary to me, is Henny makes girls look like Halle Berry to me” – West opts against using the word “hoe,” as he did on “I Need To Know,” and makes his point slightly more succinct.
“Slow Jamz” Samples
Jamie Foxx knows that his love interest wants “some Luther Vandross,” and so Ye comes through with a bona fide slow jam as the underlying sample on “Slow Jamz.” Check out 6:13 and 5:55. West pitches up elements of Vandross’ “A House Is Not A Home,” originally included on 1981’s Never Too Much, in a great display of what came to be known as ‘chipmunk soul.’ “Slow Jamz” was also included on Twista’s 2003 record, Kamikaze.
“Breathe In, Breathe Out” Samples
Jackie Moore hails from Jacksonville, Florida. Throughout the ‘70s, she released four LPs, with singles stretching from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Though released as a single in 1970, “Precious, Precious” was included on Moore’s 1973 debut album, Sweet Charlie Babe. As a single, the track hit #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified Gold by the RIAA.
This time around, it’s Luda who interpolates some early Ye bars. West was a member of the shortlived rap group Go-Getters, a four-man outfit which also featured Ye associate GLC. Whilst their debut album went unreleased, it’s since leaked onto the internet, contextualising Luda’s bar. It’s hardly the first punchline Ye’s revisited on this record. In his hook, Luda raps: “When I pull the piece out, niggas like “peace out!’.”
West debuted his first “Breathe In, Breathe Out” verse at a live performance in Irving Plaza alongside Talib Kweli and Mos Def. He starts the verse apologising to those two emcees – known collectively as Black Star – for his hyper-capitalist rhymes, a concept they pushed against on their 1998 debut. The Irving Plaza recording, whilst poor quality, was included on a 2002 mixtape, Get Well Soon.
Just like the first verse, the second made an appearance long before “Breathe In, Breathe Out” was ever released. Whilst the Irving Plaza recording could easily be Ye taking the already-penned verse for a spin, the second verse is taken from a studio recording of his remix to Jay’s “Girls, Girls, Girls.” It includes some classic Ye-isms: most notably, the “PhD, pretty huge dick” lyric.
Regional allegiances have always been a key facet of hip hop: before it was the East, West and the South, it was the Bronx, Queensbridge and Brooklyn. On Crash Crew’s “High Power Rap,” released in 1980, the group shout out New York City in a familiar way: “and you say New York City…” At the time that track was released, NYC housed the only major hip hop scene in the world.
“School Spirit” Samples
Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” is possibly the most famous flip on The College Dropout, thanks to a popular and enduring story surrounding the sample. Franklin granted clearance to West on the condition that his song was profanity free, and so he censored his curses throughout.
“Spirit in the Dark” was originally included as the title track to Franklin’s seventeenth album, released in 1970, and has since been sampled just this once. It is, to this day, the only time Franklin has appeared on any of West’s solo albums.
Given how prolific West was in the lead up to The College Dropout – an album itself delayed by months after a high-profile leak prompted aggressive revision – it’s no surprise that he interpolates yet another of his own bars. The lyric at 0:36 is lifted from “The Gossip Files.”
Told them I finished school, and started my own business /
They said ‘oh, you graduated?’ No, I decided I was finished…”
West actually interpolated another lyric off “The Gossip Files” nearly ten years later on Yeezus standout “New Slaves”:
‘Cause we the leaders and they the followers /
And we the nut busters and they the swallowers…”
The outro to the song is similarly interpolated, though Ye reaches further into the past, pulling from a 1995 R&B single. Monica’s “Like This and Like That,” which featured emcee Mr. Malik of Illegal, hit #1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart on January 20th, 1996. The interpolated section is itself a catchy refrain: “I feel a woo coming on, cuz / I feel a woo coming on, cuz (WOO!) / There it was!”
The epic, cinematic instrumentation that underpins “Two Words” – we’re talking vocals, drums, bass and electric guitar – are lifted from Mandrill’s “Peace and Love (Amani Na Mapenzi) Movement IV (Encounter),” included on their self-titled 1971 debut. Though a relatively obscure NYC-based band, Mandrill are an oft-sampled group in hip hop. They released 12 albums between ‘70 and ‘80, their most prolific period, transcending genre and style.
The drums throughout “Two Words” are taken from The Fifth Dimension’s “The Rainmaker,” an elated 1971 soul track far removed from the despondency of West’s vision. The sampled track is actually itself a cover of Harry Nilsson’s 1969 track, “Rainmaker.”
The drums from “The Rainmaker” have featured on more than 35 songs, most notably punctuating classic tracks from Biggie, Public Enemy, Del and Fat Joe. West actually sampled the very same drums on Jay-Z’s “A Dream,” included on 2002’s The Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse. That same song also featured a Blackjack flip, a move that foreshadowed West’s prominent use of “Maybe It’s The Power of Love” on “Never Let Me Down.”
“Got Nowhere” was the only track Ye produced for State Property’s self-titled debut, an effort which doubled as the soundtrack to the like-titled film. It’s no surprise that he opens “Two Words” with an interpolation of the two bars he contributes to that 2001 cut: “we in the streets, playa, get ya mail / It’s only two places you end up, either dead or in jail.” The subsequent lyric, “still nowhere to go,” also references the original song.
West chases the interpolated intro with an interpolated chorus, this time pulling from Jay Z’s “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up),” a track included on 1999’s Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter. West didn’t have a hand in this one: he’d first collaborate with Jay on 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. The choruses are notably different in a few key ways: Jay repeats his command where West names the “hustlers, busters, boosters, hoes.”
Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” was already a hit when Ye flipped it: it peaked at #60 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985. It was included on 1984’s I Feel For You, which featured a verse from rap legend Melle Mel on the Prince-penned title track. A direct sample, West uses the powers of suggestibility to render the word “fire” as “wire.” It’s similar to what The Avalanches did on “Since I Left You,” in which the sample is “since I met you.”
The drums in “Through The Wire” are lifted from a classic ‘90s hip hop hit. Sampling instrumental elements from hip hop songs is a departure for West, who’s largely interpolated lyrics from the genre whilst leaning into soul, funk and rock flips. “Players Ball” was the first (and most popular) single from OutKast’s first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, released a decade prior to West’s own solo debut. It is an essential Christmas song even today.
Finally, West bases one of the song’s most memorable lyrics on a 1980 jingle for toy store chain Toys ‘R’ Us. The original tune opens as follows: “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys-R-Us Kid / There’s a million toys at Toys-R-Us for me to play with!” West’s interpolation is a set up and a pay off: “Toys ‘R’ Us where I used to spend that Christmas cash / And I still won’t grow up, I’m a grown-ass kid…”
“Family Business” Samples
The spoken word sample that opens West’s melancholy reflection on family dynamics and unconditional love is courtesy of The Dells, an enduring R&B act from Illinois, West’s home state. “Fonky Thang, Diamon’ Rang” was included on 1972’s Sweet As Funk Can Be, a record released during the tail end of the outfit’s most successful years. Though they would peak in the late ‘60s, the band continued to perform until 2012.
“I won’t deny, I’m a straight ridah” has to be one of hip hop’s most iconic introductions. So begins 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az A Ridah,” the opening track from 1996’s All Eyez On Me. It would be the last album the emcee released in his lifetime. Though West interpolates the lyric, he immediately undercuts the sincerity of the bravado by admitting to “electric sliding” with family. West’s embrace of the vulnerable was a subversion of gangsta tenets.
The most easily identifiable of West’s interpolations comes at 2:13, when a chorus of backing vocals and a couple of kids sing a singular rendition of “Rain Rain, Go Away.” Amazingly, rhyming couplets expressing the same sentiment can be found in cultures as antiquated as Ancient Greece. The first English version of the proverb appeared in the 17th Century: “Raine raine goe to Spain: faire weather come againe.”
“Last Call” Samples
“Last Call” interpolates various elements of Bette Midler’s “Mr. Rockefeller,” a tune included on 1976’s Songs for the New Depression. It was the first track partially composed by Midler. Ken Lewis provides the pitched-up vocals on West’s closing track. The beat was originally produced by Evidence of Dilated Peoples. When Jay passed on the track for The Blueprint, West refined the “raw” beat and turned it into the extended “Last Call” instrumental.
Next up are the drums, which first appeared on wax way back in 1969. Love’s “Doggone” was included on Out Here, an album recorded soon after much of the original group had been replaced with new musicians. Despite their relative obscurity, Love have been called one of the greatest Americans bands of all time. Notably, their 1967 record Forever Changes has been called one of the best albums of all time.
In a 2003 freestyle atop Kelis’ Neptunes-produced “Milkshake” beat, West quietly debuted one of his most memorable one liners: “‘Oh my god, is that a black card?’ I turned around and replied, ‘why yes, but I prefer the term African American Express.’” The freestyle was included on Kon, the Louis Vuitton Don. Another interpolation references this title: “I’m Kon, the Louis Vuitton Don / Bought my mom a purse, now she Louis Vuitton Mom.”
You might remember elements of Kanye’s “Wow” making a brief appearance on “All Falls Down.” On “Last Call,” West recalls playing the cut for Cam, Young Guru and Dame Dash in an attempt to prove himself as an emcee as well as a producer. The “not even wack” track went like this: “I go to Jacob with 25 thou, you go with 25 hundred, wow / I got eleven plaques on my walls right now / You got your first gold single, damn, nigga, wow.”
Kanye Saves All the Good Beats – Debunking the Myth
Whilst Kanye West raps the line himself on “Last Call,” collaborators remember many of the most recognisable beats on the record bouncing from artist to artist before landing back with Ye.
In an interview with MTV, GLC – who appeared on the final track – recalled West intending to give him “Spaceship,” whilst cuts like “School Spirit” and “Get ‘Em High” were initially meant for other artists. “Last Call,” the only co-produced beat on the album, was shopped to Roc signees Jay, Bleek and Beanie before West, unable to offload it, took it on himself.
As I said earlier, 11 of the 43 samples on The College Dropout are interpolations of West himself. Jay also accrued a single self-interpolation on the album, bringing the self-interpolation total (including Luda’s Ye bar) to 12. That’s only a fraction of the 29 interpolations scattered throughout West’s debut. Of all these details, it’s most surprising that, given the albums reputation for sample-heavy chipmunk soul, it contains a mere 14 direct samples.
That tally would likely be 15 if West had been able to clear the Lauryn Hill-penned hook on “All Falls Down,” which was originally envisioned as a direct flip. In the leaked version of the record, which surfaced in mid-2003, a loop of Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity” underpinned the entire track. Unable to attain clearance – it seems as though Hill didn’t clear any high-profile flips in the early-to-mid 2000s – he invited Syleena Johnson to sing the hook.
So, that one didn’t make the cut, but which did? There’s one on “We Don’t Care,” and another “Spaceship.” West uses three in the particularly sample-rich “Jesus Walks,” but compensates by waiting another five tracks before sampling Luther Vandross on “Slow Jamz.” There’s another on the subsequent track, “Breathe In, Breathe Out,” and yet another on the particularly family-friendly “School Spirit.” Combine those with the two on “Two Words,” the two on “Through the Wire” and the one apiece on “Family Business” and “Last Call” and you’ve got… 14.
If we compare this to Late Registration, West’s sophomore effort, we find a large difference in both direct samples and interpolations: whilst interpolations dominate TCD, there’s just 15 of them on Late Registration. That’s even less than the number of direct samples on the album, which comes in at 19. The standard editions of both albums boast 21 tracks, but the elements used within are wildly disparate.
It’s easy to imagine that the commercial success of The College Dropout emboldened West, who now had the finances to clear even more samples. He had, however, burned through the bars he’d been saving: there’s just one self-interpolation on Late Registration, the slightly-less successful “I Need To Know” lyric, “like old folks pissin’, I guess it all depends,” pops up on album closer “Late.”
I Said Toast, Motherfucker!
Though West would continue to pull from his pre-debut recordings well into the next decade, the lyrics would hit different as his celebrity continued to evolve. When Kanye calls for a toast on the celebratory “Last Call,” he’s a giddy perfectionist with his first full-length LP on shelves. When he calls for another toast more than six years later, it’s notably less jovial. A good part of the Kanye story can be told through these two toasts: the hustle, the grind, the ascension, the prominence, the fall and the return.
Let’s have a toast for the douche bags /
Let’s have a toast for the assholes /
Let’s have a toast for the scumbags /
Every one of them that I know /
Let’s have a toast for the jerk offs /
That’ll never take work off /
Baby, I got a plan /
Run away fast as you can…”
On “Runaway,” West delivers one of his most poignant verses, exploring alienation, emotional abuse and self-loathing amongst a cavernous soundscape of dull beats and heaving bass. The smash-hit single is arguably the crown jewel of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West’s maximalist masterpiece, a record steeped in the heartless and nightmarish world of fame. It features a verse from Pusha T, a veteran emcee eventually appointed as the head of West’s GOOD Music imprint. The derision of the central refrain, which shouts out the “assholes,” “jerk offs” and “douchebags,” is a reflection on West’s own place in popular culture. The one-time wunderkid has turned a cultural villain, a man so outright despised that even the President called him a “jackass.”
All these facts tell us important things about his evolution as an artist: by 2010, West is famous enough to write reflexively about fame itself, and he’s built an empire of his own alongside collaborators such as Push. Musically, he’s evolved beyond recognition: the simple soul samples of yesteryear are largely discarded, and where they’re not, such as on “Devil in a New Dress,” they’re plugged into new song structures, brimming with new-age production and fuzzy distortion. Then there’s the toll of six years in the limelight, a factor only compounded by his well-documented outspokenness and seeming inability to let issues – namely, Taylor Swift beating out Beyonce for the Music Video VMA – slide.
If “Last Call” is West at his most triumphant, which it may well be, then “Runaway” is West at his most defeated. Given that West’s evolution is such an important part of his artistry, what is it that’s so special about The College Dropout?
The College Dropout’s Place in History
The spectre of fame has become more and more of an artistic force as West’s career has progressed. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the peak of his reflection on his status, then Yeezus was his most reactionary tack yet, shifting with such extreme force that he managed to garner both outright acclaim and intense derision.
The College Dropout was a project free of such pretenses. It’s the people’s Ye record: street corner drug dealing, nine-to-five hustling, Chi-town music. It’s a story of making do in an inherently broken system, struggling against prejudice and hardship in order to fully realise potential. That’s not to say it’s better or worse than what followed: it’s just different. It’s a remarkably inspired statement from a young artist with nothing to lose; a singular project that’s incompatible with the fame it generated. It seems silly, but would The College Dropout be just as good if we’d collectively anticipated it as a masterpiece?
Of course not: the surprising ascension of a hot producer to a hot artist was a key part of the fervor surrounding the record. Whilst West would continue to dominate the decade with innovative crossover hits, The College Dropout was perhaps the boldest of all his projects: it found a relative unknown waging his success on an unorthodox style.
Fifteen years on, and you’re still likely to find at least one College Dropout adherent in any group conversation. Whilst the man’s released a lot of exceptional music since – much of which I hold in higher esteem – I can’t blame anyone for taking West’s debut as his definitive statement. Hell, having spent a good few weeks with the record, I feel like it might be time to pull the pink polo back out of the wardrobe…