College Dropouts: The Extras On Kanye's Debut

Crediting the supporting cast...

February 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of Kanye West’s debut album, ‘The College Dropout’. Where would Yeezy be today without this 21st century rap classic, a double Grammy-winner and shifter of no fewer than four million copies worldwide?

It’s hard to say: its next-year successor, ‘Late Registration’, was equally well received by critics and has sold to multiple-commas extents. So maybe a first-time-around flop wouldn’t have damaged Kanye’s chances of going stratospheric, as evidenced by Everything He’s Done Since. West’s enviable reputation wasn’t fully founded, within the music industry at least, by ‘The College Dropout’ – it was the man’s production credits for others, ahead of his embarking on a solo career, which properly piqued attentions beside a 2002 mixtape, ‘Get Well Soon’.

Pre-album collaborations with Jay Z (then with hyphen) and Ludacris saw the already commercially successful rap pair reciprocate West’s effort by guesting on ‘The College Dropout’, a set almost entirely self-produced. But although the record’s credits seem slight on first glance, with West handling much of the heavy lifting in both the vocal booth and at the mixing desk, closer analysis reveals an ensemble of essential contributors.

Some of who have smashed into spotlights of their own, and some who have drifted away from the stage entirely…

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The Boys Choir of Harlem

Obviously, this was a boys choir based in Harlem – was because it gave its final performance just three years after the release of ‘The College Dropout’. The choir was founded by Walter Turnbull in the late 1960s, and an associated school swelled to some 500 students at its peak. A number of appearances at hugely significant events, such as a Central Park-hosted memorial service for those who died in the 9/11 attacks, preceded the choir’s appearance on ‘Two Words’, track 18 of Kanye’s debut. But increasing scrutiny on the working practices and financial irregularities of Turnbull, not to mention accusations of sexual molestation at the school, was the beginning of the end. Turnbull died in 2007, and the choir was officially declared closed in 2009 – although something of a revival might be underway, as the BBC reported (link!) on Christmas Day 2013. 

Kanye West feat. Mos Def, Freeway and The Boys Choir Of Harlem, 'Two Words' (2004)

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Evidence

Credited with adding to the production of ‘The College Dropout’, Evidence – real name Michael Perratta – was yet to release his own solo debut at the time of Kanye’s. That’d come a year later, with 2005’s ‘Another Sound Mission Vol. 1’. But he’d been active since 1992 as a member of LA’s Dilated Peoples, whose 2000 LP ‘The Platform’ took conscious rap into the 21st century with no little class. Having issued a couple more well-received solo records, Evidence today comprises 50% of Step Brothers alongside producer The Alchemist, and the pair’s debut collection ‘Lord Steppington’ is released very soon indeed (January 20th in the UK) through Rhymesayers.

Evidence, ‘You’ (2011)

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The World Famous Tony Williams

Listed as a vocalist and co-writer on ‘The College Dropout’, appearing on ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Spaceship’, Tony Williams’ relationship with West goes much deeper than a simple working one – he’s the rapper/producer’s first cousin. And Kanye’s kept him close, with Williams featuring on every one of his albums since, right up to 2013’s ‘Yeezus’, on which Williams can be heard during ‘Blood On The Leaves’. His own solo career isn’t much to write home about – a debut album, ‘King Or The Fool’, was released in 2012 to little fanfare – but when you’re a regular on records by one of the biggest in the game, and have also appeared on tracks by Jay Z and Rick Ross, what does that matter?

The World Famous Tony Williams, ‘Everything About You’ (2010)

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J. Ivy

The spoken-word presence on ‘Never Let Me Down’, J. Ivy is a Chicago-born artist whose work fuses the world of rap with that of poetry. He made his name on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, and it was through mutual friends that Ivy connected with West for ‘The College Dropout’. Cue a flood of future opportunities, with collaborations scored with everyone from RZA to Mos Def via The Last Poets and Jill Scott, not to mention performance associations with Stevie Wonder and The Roots. Ivy’s own solo LP of 2010, ‘HERE I AM’, spawned several videos, one of which, ‘Promise’, can be seen below.

J. Ivy, ‘Promise’ (2010)

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Manny Marroquin

Mix engineer Marroquin’s credits are impressive indeed, even with ‘The College Dropout’ removed from the equation. Work for Maroon 5, Rihanna, John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Usher and Linkin Park has positioned him as one of the go-to guys in the industry for his line of work. And although his career won’t be defined by his work with Kanye – he only mixed the single album of his – the Grammy Award-winning success of ‘The College Dropout’ did provide a timely boost for the man’s reputation, coming four years after his first Grammy win, for Mary Mary’s ‘Thankful’ LP. Manny’s most recent work includes Miguel’s ‘Kaleidoscope Dream’ and Imagine Dragons’ ‘Night Visions’.

Miguel, ‘Adorn’ (2012)

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Brian ‘All Day’ Miller

Co-producer on the track ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’, Miller would work with Kanye again on the rapper’s ‘Graduation’ LP of 2007, specifically the Steely Dan-sampling ‘Champion’. The man’s mid-’00s credits extend beyond Yeezy’s catalogue, taking in contributions to material by Cam’ron, Shyne and Shawnna. But Discogs’ page on Miller paints a very small picture of his talents, with productivity seemingly ceasing around 2007 – he didn’t make an appearance on 2008’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ – so where the guy’s gone exactly, who knows. A 2009 piece on XXL (link!) refers to Miller as West’s “protégé”. Perhaps they had a falling out. Answers on a digital postcard (Twitter).

Kanye West, ‘Champion’ (2007)

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Syleena Johnson

Responsible for the memorable vocal hook on Kanye’s ‘All Falls Down’, the third single taken from ‘The College Dropout’, Johnson’s career was already rolling well before her hook-up with West. The Chicago singer’s second studio LP, the R Kelly-assisted ‘Chapter 2: The Voice’, had come out in late 2002 and attracted critical acclaim. The album spawned a top-40 single in the UK, the Flipmode Squad-remixed ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Let Go’. Following her Kanye collaboration, Johnson’s third LP, 2005’s ‘Chapter 3: The Flesh’, proved her highest-charting collection, peaking at 75 stateside. Since then she’s dipped from the limelight rather, but continues to make music:  her self-released fifth studio set, ‘Chapter 5: Underrated’, came out in 2011.

Syleena Johnson, ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Let Go’ (Flipmode Squad Remix) (2002)

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Tracie Spencer

Credited as a backing vocalist on ‘The College Dropout’ – on the tracks ‘Never Let Me Down’ and ‘Slow Jamz’ – Iowa-born artist Spencer made her name, musically, long before the emergence of West as a mainstream force. Her third and final studio album, simply titled ‘Tracie’, came out in 1999 on Capitol – and joining the dots somewhat, it was mixed by Manny Marroquin. Calling time on her own solo recordings, Spencer – who’s also been a model for Chanel and appeared in US sitcom Family Matters – began to work in a more supporting role. As well as her appearances on ‘The College Dropout’, she recorded backing vocals for material by 50 Cent and Eve, before bowing out of the music industry in 2007.

Tracie Spencer, ‘Tender Kisses’ (1990)

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‘The College Dropout’ also featured a wealth of performers well known to mainstream audiences: as well as Ludacris and Jay Z, guesting rappers and singers included Mos Def, Jamie Foxx, John Legend, Twista, Common, Freeway and Talib Kweli. Friends in high places are never ones to overlook.

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