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Spotlights

Produced By: Kanye West

by Mosi Reeves

Produced By: Kanye West

About this playlist

Our new series on hip-hop producers begins with one of the most famous of them all.

Kanye West established his career in the early ‘00s with “chipmunk soul,” a phrase that listeners coined to describe his beats on Jay Z’s “This Can’t Be Life” and Twista’s “Slow Jamz”. He had spent years paying dues before that breakthrough. In the mid-’90s, he landed his first production credits on Chicago indie rap records, and then he moved to New York to crack the mainstream rap industry. By the time Jay Z brought him to Roc-A-Fella, West had worked with Foxy Brown, Goodie Mob and Jermaine Dupri, the latter who nearly signed him to his first deal.

One of the most difficult challenges in rap production is to create a sound signature, a stylistic formula that is clearly your own. West wasn’t the first to make a beat by sampling a track at a faster tempo than it was made for. The RZA had done it in 1996 for GZA’s “Shadowboxing,” and so had M.O.P.’s Lil Fame (under his Fizzy Womack alias) on “Cold as Ice.” Yet West established himself as the chief innovator of that technique, if not necessarily its originator. Set aside familiar hits like his “Through the Wire,” where he loops the chorus from Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire,” one of his finest moments from his College Dropout and Late Registration period is Mos Def’s “Sunshine.” His chop of Melba Moore’s “Let the Sun Shine In” makes you can feel the graininess of a needle scratching against dusty vinyl.

By the 2007 release of Graduation, West began expanding beyond the soul, funk and classic rock samples typical of vintage hip-hop production. Memorably, he culled from Daft Punk’s house classic “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” for “Stronger.” Graduation also marked a moment when he focused on creating concept albums inspired by his increasingly star-crossed life, while outsourcing some of the musical details to others. He followed in the wake of other brand name producers like Dr. Dre and Timbaland, and their evolution from primary beat makers to CEOs who direct sundry assistants, and mix and engineer the results into their distinctive trademark.

What’s notable about West’s post- Graduation work is that he allows his collaborators to stamp their identities on his music. Hit-Boy’s wobbling bass beat for “Niggas in Paris” doesn’t resemble classic Kanye, and neither does Lifted’s ominous, trap-like rhythm on the G.O.O.D. Music showcase “Mercy.” Meanwhile, West gives himself sole credit for beats that hearken to his earlier stuff. “Otis” is an old-school flip of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” while Beyoncé’s “Party” is the kind of R&B keyboard arrangement he occasionally makes and which adorned Brandy’s “Talk About Our Love” in the past.

Of course, there’s more to production than just a dope instrumental. West’s greatest asset is designing albums that engage the listener from the first track to the last. His formidable talents as a beat maker are just part of that equation.

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