TIME Cover: Hip-Hop’s Class Act -- Kanye West

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New York – “No joke—I’d leave meetings crying all the time,” Kayne West tells TIME magazine, about his early struggle for a record deal. “It was a strike against me that I didn’t wear baggy jeans and jerseys and that I never hustled, never sold drugs,” he tells TIME music writer Josh Tyrangiel in this week’s cover story (on newsstands Monday). “But for me to have the opportunity to stand in front of a bunch of executives and present myself, I had to hustle in my own way. I can’t tell you how frustrating it was that they didn’t get that,” West tells TIME.

“Kanye wore a pink shirt with the collar sticking up and Gucci loafers,” recalls then Roc-a-Fella CEO Damon Dash. “It was obvious we were not from the same place or cut from the same cloth.”

Executives at record companies large and small failed to reconcile West’s appearance and demeanor with their expectations of what a rapper should be. They had no idea how to market him. West’s 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, went nearly triple platinum, topped all the major critics’ polls, earned 10 Grammy nominations and made rap accessible to audiences that hadn’t paid attention in years, reports TIME. “That record restored my faith in hip hop,” says Jamie Foxx, who lent vocals to West’s No. 1 hit Slow Jamz.

West’s follow-up, Late Registration, arrives August 30, and it is widely expected to be the biggest-selling record of the year. “I didn’t want to play it boring and safe. I also didn’t want to innovate too much. Second albums, man, they’re even scarier than first ones,” West tells TIME.

“I’m pretty calculating,” he says, “I take stuff that I know appeals to people’s bad sides and match it up with stuff that appeals to their good sides.” West tells TIME, “My mom’s a teacher, and I’m kind of a teacher too. But the hood, the suburbs, MTV and BET are my classrooms, and I know how to talk to my class.”

Regarding race and class, West says: “Black people can be the most conservative, the most discriminating. Especially among ourselves. It wasn’t white people who said all black men have to wear baggy jeans.”

Growing up, like many suburban kids, West developed a passion for hip-hop that was only enhanced by his awareness that the genre often romanticized bad behavior. His mother did not exactly approve; when West went to concerts, even in his late teens, she often followed. “He maybe doesn’t know this,” says Donda West, “but I was at a lot of those shows, watching him,” she tells TIME.

In October 2002, West, exhausted from hours spent in a recording studio, fell asleep behind the wheel of his Lexus and nearly died. “Death,” says West, “is the best thing that can ever happen to a rapper. Almost dying isn’t bad either.”

Damon Dash says Kanye “called me from his hospital bed with his jaw wired shut and asked for a drum machine. That impressed me.”

Jay-Z tells TIME: “We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there’s Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn’t see how it could work.”

Darryl McDaniels, the D.M.C. in Run D.M.C. tells TIME, “I stopped listening to hip-hop 10 years ago…This past decade it seems like hip-hop has mostly been about parties and guns and women. That’s fine if you’re in a club, but from 9 a.m. till I went to bed at night, the music had nothing to say to me. So I listened to classic rock.” What brought McDaniels back from his diet of John Mellencamp and Bob Seger was West’s Jesus Walks, reports TIME. “When I heard it, I just stopped in my tracks,” says McDaniels. “I thought, ‘This song is about everything! This feels alive!’”

TIME’s cover package includes a two-page “Roots of Rap” chart detailing Rap’s history starting in the 1970’s with Grand Master Flash.

Story is on TIME.com at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1096429,00.html

Media Contact: Kimberly Noel, 212-522-3651 Ty Trippet, 212-522-3640