February 10, 2004 wasn’t supposed to be that much different than the ninth, that much more noteworthy than the 11th.
But then, The College Dropout happened. Kanye West’s breakthrough debut represented a major ethos shift in mainstream rap, opening the door for some of the biggest names in the genre today. Parallels have been drawn between Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap and Dropout, and Chance himself has gone on record to talk about the significance of Kanye’s first album.
He’s hardly alone.
What follows are the stories of four Chicago rappers and how the album changed their lives, with all pointing to the same underlying truth: there hasn’t been a more important rap album to drop since.
Chicago’s youth Hip-Hop scene is booming, and Vic Mensa is a huge part of it. When asked about the influence that Kanye had on himself and his peers, Vic gives Kanye West (and Lupe Fiasco) due credit.
There haven’t been too many albums or artists to come out that have been that impactful in the last ten years, since Kanye and Lupe Fiasco, on a level that transcends. Lots of people have killed on a rap level between now and then, but to make music that transcends… Kanye really was the voice of a generation, that kind of prophetic figure.
When The College Dropout came out, I was in sixth grade. I remember my homie Tyrone came in class, and he was like, “Man, Kanye West is saving hip-hop, man. He’s making his own beats. He’s saying something.” I’ll just remember that forever, the first time I remember hearing about Kanye West, my n***a told me that Kanye West is saving Hip-Hop.
We, as 10-year-old kids, had that to look up to, from our city. People always ask me, “what’s the deal with Save Money and Chicago? What’s in the water over there?” And it can’t be explained, but I do think that we, the select few of us that make the music that we do, speaking with the type of voices that we do, had those specific role models to look up to: Kanye, Lupe and College Dropout.
The language that Kanye was speaking was so universally relatable. It kind of made sense to everybody, you know? It kind of closed the doors on one-sided perspectives in rap. Before that, what was running the radio–what was running the game–was gangster rap. But even gangster n***s can relate to that shit, even they have emotions. Kanye found a way to kind of speak to everybody.
Not that Kanye or Lupe weren’t street. You can’t say that they didn’t know shit about the streets, about the hood. Lupe was name-dropping blocks that my friends lived on. Kanye was talking about streets in my neighborhood and shit. So it touched on the streets, but it went so much deeper than that. And so much higher than that, and so much broader.
It not only choked the lane on straight gangster rap, but it broadened the range for impactful rap. And that’s a lane that we occupy now.
Even when talking to Alex Wiley over the phone, you can hear the intonation in his voice build. He’s excited. And he probably should be, considering his secure footing in the same movement that Vic and Chance are a part of.
When it came out, I was 11 years old. I want to say I was in fifth grade or something.
It just really changed everything. It’s the album that got me into rap. It was the second CD I ever owned, after 50’s Get Rich Or Die Trying, and it was so different. I didn’t know what to expect. And the only reason I bought it was because it was on sale at Coconut Records for $9.99, the day it came out. Some sort of promotion, but it was the cheapest album at the store.
So I bought that album, not knowing anything about Kanye West, but as an 11 year old, growing up in Chicago, it literally changed my life. Even at 11, I knew most of the stuff he was saying. That was one of the CDs, it was in my little orange Walkman CD player for like six months straight.
Sonically, you could tell that there was so much attention being put into every detail. And I had never heard anything like that. I don’t think anybody had heard anything like that. It was a phenomenon.
I don’t know if you can overstate how important it was. We might be being a bit hyperbolic, or maybe it was this monumental. I’m leaning towards that it was this monumental.
This is, after all, the same guy who was such a fan of ‘Dropout’s’ “Spaceship” that he made a fitting tribute song, with the help of Chance and Chicago OG GLC.
I think “Spaceship” is my favorite rap song of all time. That line, “if my manager insults me again, I will be assaulting him,” when I first heard that, it just did something. Literally the most important rap song that I can remember hearing.
When asked about the process of making the tribute song, Wiley laughs about how quickly everything came together.
I took the beat off of my friend’s computer without him knowing, and I was experimenting and stuff, and I just kind of kept kicking that GLC flow from “Spaceship.” It sounded cool to do that. And then when I wrote my verse at the end, I just started writing my hook. And I wasn’t very good at hooks at the time. I just kept repeating that “Spaceship” line. And I just thought, I’m gonna do a tribute to my favorite rap song of all time. I made a verse and a hook, and I played it for Chance, and he just really loved it, got on it the next night.
Then I sent it to GLC just for him to listen to it and hear his thoughts, because he was on the original and it meant so much to me to see what he thought. And he really liked it, he kind of blessed the song and sent it back, like we really didn’t expect for him to get on the song. But he did, and it was just super amazing.
Kanye West is a full 16 years older than Chance, Vic and Wiley. While his words will forever impact them, the age gap made it impossible for him to physically guide their development.
That’s where Mic Terror comes in. An up-and-comer when ‘Dropout’ first came out, Mic, amongst other career highlights, had the chance to open for Kanye a handful of times. Mic calls West his “big homie,” a title that guys like Chance and Vic call Mic.
When asked about ‘Dropout’s’ impact, Mic is to-the-point.
Man, that was my life anthem at one point. I was getting off work every day, playing “Spaceship” on the way home. That was senior year of high school. On every level, it was like empowering us to do something that we didn’t know we could do. It made everything more attainable, especially for a normal person like me who wasn’t so much a thug. He really made the backpacker mainstream.
I can agree with it being the most important rap album recently, yeah. Drake and Kendrick Lamar wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for The College Dropout. All of those guys were like little baby Kanyes, you know? Like a lot of those mainstream artists that are out right now are like little baby Kanyes, but they’re different forms of his transformation.
Without it, I think everybody would still have on baggy clothes. Drake would not be out. J. Cole would not be out. Wale would not be out. A lot of artists wouldn’t even be out. Jay-Z’s career would have went completely different. I don’t even know what Jay would have looked like without that.
He changed everything about the genre, really. Everything.
Sir Michael Rocks
Sir Michael Rocks is another ‘Dropout’ disciple. One half of The Cool Kids and a successful solo rapper in his own right, the Chicago-born emcee also grew up saluting the Kanye flag.
I felt like I was a part of it. It was really influential on me, my style, and on the way I look at music, the way I look at being an artist.
I think my career would be different if I had never heard that album. It gave me the confidence to be me, to be honest, to, you know, be proud of where I’m from, of what I do. You don’t have to be a certain way, and you don’t have to be super-gangster to rap.
And as most movements go, Kanye’s transcended music. It’s one thing to release a good album, but something completely different to drop a project over which people revolve their life around. When asked about what life was like when Dropout released, Rocks paints a vivid picture.
I was a freshman in high school… I was driving my dad’s car at the time, riding around, blasting it, picking up my friends, and that was the soundtrack of the time. We just tried to copy, man. We just tried to be like him. We tried to make beats like that, chop up samples and all that.
We just thought that that was our best model to follow. Everybody put a backpack on, just straight backpacking. Just put towels in it, so it was full, you know what I mean? Like some kind of douchebag, but that was really the style back then.
Rocks notes the close-to-home impact that “All Falls Down” – his favorite song on the album, next to “Two Words” – had on him:
“All Falls Down” was a really good one. He really nailed it when he’s talking about the girl: “Cut her hair off, now she look like Eve,” single black female, going to school, trying to make it, doing her hair, having the kid, doing all the stuff that I saw growing up with my family, my sister, my cousin. This was all shit that I had seen before.
And then he’s talking about himself, and about how he’s trying to fit in and that just really hit home for me.
When asked about where hip-hop would be without The College Dropout, Rocks is to-the-point:
Same as ’05, ’04, probably … a lot of people wouldn’t have been able to come out, man. He really kicked the door in. No Lupe, no Drake, no us, no Chance. Man. It wouldn’t have been a lot of people.
Without it, a lot of people wouldn’t have come out, man. Hip-hop was gangster. And Kanye created this style that wasn’t really available at the time. And if he didn’t kick that door down, who knows where we’d be now?