Having kicked off our series of Classic Clash Cover Features with Foo Fighters around the time of their ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace’ LP, today we turn the clock back to 2008 for an interview with an artist, at the time promoting his ‘808s & Heartbreak’ LP, who needs no introduction. So, straight into it, then…
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‘Amazing’, from ‘808s & Heartbreak’
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Did ‘808s And Heartbreak’ come together quite quickly?
Yeah, it’s quicker than any of my other albums.
Did you always intend to release something this year?
No. I didn’t even intend to finish Jay Z’s new album, but I did Jay’s and then I just did mine. I just had a bunch of ideas due to the tour. I mean, we went and did the tour and had to very quickly put together all the music from over three albums and make it sound like they went together. We remixed tracks like ‘Touch The Sky’ and ‘Through The Wire’ and made them sound as though they’re part of one story. And in the process of doing that it inspired me to start making new music and try new instruments. Lots of monk choirs, timpani and 808 sounds… I made music with what I thought was the coolest instruments possible. And the coolest melodies possible. And the coolest subject matters!
Auto-Tune features on every track, and I read you used it because it’s such fun…
Yeah, but also because I really like the way it sounds. I mean ‘Jesus Walks’ and ‘Never Let Me Down’ both had Auto-Tune on it. But even if I had never used it before, so what? I like it now. I’m an artist and at the end of the day sounds are like my paint. Basically no one can tell me what to paint with and that’s the medium I chose to make these paintings. I just really want to tell anybody who wants to say anything about me for using Auto-Tune and they don’t like it… F*ck ’em!
So when you go into the studio, where does the record come from? Do you have firm ideas already, or is it an organic process once in there?
Sometimes I think of a song concept as I’m talking to somebody – like, “oh that would be a good song concept”, or “wow, that’s good”. But I usually just freestyle. There are tracks that I freestyle all the way from humming them to doing the drumbeat really quickly to going in the booth and singing. So a lot of stuff is freestyle. I mean ‘Love Lockdown’ was a freestyle. I wrote the original song in one take – I just freestyled it all the way through. And I was like, “I’m not loving you…” and by the end of it I was going, “just keep your love locked down, your love locked down, keep your love locked down…” And then I went back and worked through it.
With the title ‘808s And Heartbreak’, I presume you’re referencing the Roland 808 synthesiser? Growing up in Chicago amongst the house movement must have had an influence on you.
I definitely loved house music. But even back then, I might have liked hip-hop but when you go to a hip-hop club everyone would just stand around and watch somebody breakdancing or flexing in the middle. You might get a chance to breakdance and kick a girl in the head! But go to a house club and you could actually dance up on a girl – so I said, “Man, I’ll listen to hip-hop in the car but when I go to a club I want to go to a house club. At a house club I can feel on girls!”
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‘Love Lockdown’, from ‘808s & Heartbreak’
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Can you remember the first record you bought?
Yeah, it was A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Low End Theory’.
Who did you look up to in terms of artists when growing up?
A Tribe Called Quest, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, George Michael. I’m thinking about when I was a little kid, LL Cool J… People don’t never take it back to when we just kids. Then you get Madonna and Phil Collins.
A lot of that is pop music, which often gets a bad name…
Yeah, but when you’re a little kid you don’t listen to underground music – you listen to what your parents play and shit that’s on the radio. Back then you had a choice of like two big songs. The problem was when people started to process pop music. I mean, there were once real pop artists: Phil Collins, Madonna, Michael Jackson. No underground artist has been able to compete with what they did, and I think people cop out by not wanting to be pop.
Are you happy to be considered pop music?
I am pop music.
So it’s not something that you consider a negative term?
Yeah, it’s a complete negative term. But being black was a negative term in America for a long time.
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I wasn’t put on this earth to make money – I was put on this earth to make magic…
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Will the election of Barack Obama change the world’s view of America? Is that even important?
Well, I’m gonna tell you like this: all questions have been answered. Right when you heard he had won, all questions were answered at that point. It’s a new face – open-minded, new thinking. The very concept that you can go from us being brought over as slaves to us becoming president… It restores all types of hope in the concept of democracy. It’s a new face for America.
Do you think it’s important for artists to speak out in respect to politics?
No. You do whatever you want to do. It’s not important for artists to speak out but I’ll tell you what it’s important for artists to do: make a good f*cking song. It’s not important for artists to go to Africa. It’s not important for artists to give back. It’s not important for artists to sign new acts. If you like it, then do it. If you’re really into clothes then maybe you should do something that takes in that influence. If you’re really into helping people, then maybe you should help people. Whatever you’re into, you do. All this role-model bullshit; you don’t have any extra responsibilities because you made some good songs! Your only responsibility is to make good songs, and there are so few people who can consistently do this for multiple albums it makes me think, “Why don’t you leave the charitable stuff to people who can’t make good songs and you focus on making a good song instead?”
Is the clothing line still looking likely to appear?
Well every day is a struggle. (Laughs) I’m in the same position I was in with music before I got it together and finally managed to figure out what my style was. I used to have tracks that sounded like Timbaland and the next track would sound like DJ Premier… So, when I’m doing designs, I have one thing that looks like Ralph shit and the next thing is in BAPE area. It’s really about figuring out how to embody all of these things I like but have my own voice. I have that opportunity to put my name on something and people will buy it, but I want to create something that has its own voice and other designers can look to and be inspired. I wasn’t put on this earth to make money – I was put on this earth to make magic.
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I think I use too much of my brain, and need to let some of it rest…
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You do seem to take a real hand in all aspects of your records – from the sound through to the cover art and the way it’s presented. Do you ever wish you could take a step back and let other people shoulder more of the workload?
Well, there’s a lot to be said for picking the right people. I had a really good engineer on this record, who was able to mix the album without me even being there. And you know what? The album sounds good. There were songs produced over the phone where I was changing drums: ‘Let’s stop this here, mute that, put that snare there…’ There are times when I tell my management, ‘You just figure it out. What’s your choice on this, what’s your opinion? I’ll trust you.’ It’s good to have people whose taste and judgement you trust maybe even more than your own. That’s what I want to get to the point with my clothing, where the people I work with I can trust the opinions they will make on it. I like to find people who I can trust to just direct it well so I can use less of my brain sometimes. Because I think I use too much of my brain, and need to let some of it rest.
Looking at your lyrics, do you tend to write from personal experience? Are they intended to be taken as the first person?
My songs are always about me. Except sometimes I write songs about things I’ve put people through from their perspective, but I still sing it in first person.
And when producing, do you find it easier to produce for others as opposed to yourself?
Yeah, because at a certain point you let them make the decision that they are satisfied with how it sounds. For me it often takes a long time until I’m satisfied and I keep on pushing until I think it’s really ready. I’m pretty good at coming up with stuff quickly and tweaking a hit out of something, refining it down. When you work with other people they can often cut that off before you get chance. They’re like, ‘Hey, I like it like this’, and you’re like, ‘That’s cool.’ But songs like ‘Stronger’, ‘Good Life’ and ‘Flashing Lights’ – all these hit records that I’ve had have been really tweaked by me. But you know, I don’t really produce now for anybody but my friends. I’m not now a quote unquote producer. People can’t get a track off me unless I really respect their music, we hang and we’re good friends. It’s really weird, though, because my production style is so different that there are no two Kanye West tracks that sound alike. But if you name any other producer, they have a bunch of shit that sounds exactly alike. And if you’re just putting out stuff that sounds so alike you can make as many beats as you want. But if everything is literally a special painting, it’s a whole other issue.
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‘Heartless’, from 808s & Heartbreak’
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I remember seeing you perform ‘Stronger’ (from 2007’s ‘Graduation’) in Las Vegas quite a while before its release and the crowd loved it. If something fell flat in a situation like that, would you go back and reconsider the track?
Yeah, you’d maybe improve on the song. But I told people when I did ‘Stronger’ that it was my greatest beat to date. I could play just that beat and it got such a reaction out of people – even more than ‘Jesus Walks’. Yet it’s even better now in hindsight! We’d be doing shows in Asia and shit and after the show I’d be like, ‘Man, I am really happy I have that song.’ It embodies everything a Killers song, a U2 song, a N.E.R.D. song has. Everything you want in a song, it has. It’s got crowd participation, it has the build up, it has the longevity, it has the emotional chords, and it has the message.
Where did the Daft Punk connection come from?
Oh, that was A-Trak. He pointed that out. What’s great is that I really look up to Daft Punk. I see shit they’re doing and bow to them. I feel they’ve created music and visuals that surpass what I’d heard up to that point. One day I can be on the level of sophistication that Daft Punk are. But that’s the way the French are, you know? Their art, fashion and style are at the highest point on the globe. I completely believe in stereotypes! Like, the best rap music is from America, mostly from the East Coast, as that’s where hip-hop was born and that’s the best there is. The absolute best animators now are, to me, from Asia. The best clothing and heart of fashion is obviously Paris. And it trickles down from there, so you’re not too far off when you get to London. And you’re not too, too far off once you get to New York. And you’re not too, too, too far off when you hit Chicago… and by the time you get to LA (laughs), it’s gone. Is that bogus? It’s funny though…
Would you play Glastonbury? Did you see the issues surrounding Jay Z’s performance?
Yeah, I mean I appreciate the racism. I experienced racism in a way that I couldn’t overcome at Bonnaroo festival this year (2008). My set was sabotaged and my time slot moved. What was great about Jay Z was that he overcame the racism and broke down more barriers, but we’re fighting every day. When I saw that image of Barack on CNN, stood with his whole family on stage, I felt like I was in some futuristic movie. I was like, ‘Damn, first we have iPods and now we have Barack – we really are in the future!’
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Words: Adam Park
Clash photography (grey T-shirt/jacket): Jay Brooks
This is a slightly edited version of the interview that appeared in issue 33 of Clash magazine. A longer - MUCH longer - version can be found here, published in 2008.