Friday, November 16, 2007
Chicago Tribune Article
His mother, his muse: When Donda West died, Kanye West also lost his closest friend and adviser. What will he do now?
When Kanye West received the call last weekend that his mother, Donda West, had died in what is believed to be the aftermath of plastic surgery, the 30-year-old West — now at the top of the music world — had lost not just his mother, but his role model, closest friend and most trusted adviser.
"She was the main force behind who he is today," said the rapper Lupe Fiasco, who like West grew up in Chicago, and the two have collaborated several times, including a side-by-side appearance at the 2006 Lollapalooza in Grant Park.
Like West and Common, another Chicagoan who has risen to the top of the hip-hop world, Fiasco was guided by a strong family matriarch.
"When people ask me is there something in the water in Chicago that turns out these MCs with the same flavor, I always respond that it’s our upbringing," said Lupe, a.k.a. Wasalu Muhammed Jaco, who grew up on the West Side. His mother traveled the world and is a gourmet chef. "I always bring up our mothers — Kanye’s mother, Common’s mother, my mother — that intellectual background, a very powerful intellectual role with a massive impact on the community. My mother was like the mother of the neighborhood, she cooked for the neighborhood, she was the epicenter and when she [and the family] moved away, the neighborhood disappeared. For the three of us in particular, I know we are who we are because of the influences of our parents."
"See you’re, unbreakable, unmistakable Highly capable, lady that’s makin loot A livin legend too, just look at what heaven do Send us an angel, and I thank you (Hey Mama)" — "Hey Mama," Kanye West
Donda West’s influence is far more pervasive than even that 2005 lyrical valentine could convey, and the results are clear: Kanye West is the most celebrated rapper-songwriter-producer in pop.
He has accumulated six Grammy Awards and more than 8 million in sales. His latest album, "Graduation," sold more than 900,000 copies in its first week — the year’s fastest-selling release. His first two albums finished atop the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll of the nation’s critics. While also producing hits for artists such as Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson and John Legend, he has changed the way mainstream hip-hop looks and sounds with a smart and smart-aleck persona that runs counter to gangster cliches.
Born in 1977 in Atlanta, West was only 3 when his parents — Donda and Ray West, a photographer and later a ministerial counselor — divorced. Donda moved to Chicago with Kanye, and he grew up on the South Side and the southern suburbs while his mother continued her career in higher education. She eventually became chairwoman of the English department at Chicago State University.
Her devotion to her only child was total. She would drive her teenage son to music stores so he could try out instruments and to the home studio of locally renowned producer No I.D. (a.k.a. Dion Wilson), where he learned his craft and met Common, the first major rap star out of Chicago. The connection was made by Donda, who used to play cards with No I.D.’s parents.
"His whole life has been his keyboards, and his records and putting together money for more records or gear," Donda West told the Tribune in the weeks before her son’s first album, "The College Dropout," was released in 2004. "I never had to worry about him wanting to go to some party or hang out in the streets. He was totally obsessed by music."
Kanye West acknowledged his mother’s influence, both direct and indirect, in a separate interview with the Tribune before the album’s release.
"My mother had all kinds of records — Stevie Wonder, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Earth Wind and Fire," West said. "The song ‘Slow Jamz’ is all about me as a little kid listening to my mom’s records. Those records are part of me still."
West came to prominence with his production on Jay-Z’s 2001 album, "The Blueprint," which was steeped in 1970s soul, and his solo albums had a similar feel.
"I loved hip-hop — I’ve been rapping since 3rd grade — but rapping was just one way for me to get my music across," he said. "The main thing is message and melody, even more so than rapping. That comes from those records my mom had."
Common, a.k.a. Lonnie Rashid Lynn, was himself raised by an educator, Mahalia Ann Hines. "The families we had were similar," Common said when he began collaborating with West in 2005. "We were raised by good, churchgoing, straightforward, educated people. I grew up in a house where I had to make my bed in the morning, go to school, go to church, make sure the door was locked when I left. It was old-school, traditional parenting, and that rubbed off."
West’s outspoken personality was also shaped by his mother, who was 58 when she died Nov. 10 in Los Angeles, where she moved to manage Kayne’s career. She came from a household where "I wasn’t raised to be shy and hide behind Mother’s skirt." When her son was 10, Donda West took him to China, where she taught English for a year at Nanchang University.
"They had meat on skewers there, and they’d cook them on the streets," she recalled. "I saw him eating some one day, but I hadn’t given him any money. I said, ‘Where’d you get the money to pay for that?’ And it turned out he had been break dancing for the kids on the streets. And I thought it was just such a stereotype—the only black kid in town spinning on his head for money. But he turned that into a positive. Those people didn’t have much money, but they were giving it to him. He was an entrepreneur even then."
Donda West’s only disappointment with her son was that he dropped out of college after briefly attending Chicago State University. "He became an English major, but while going there, he was getting calls from record companies to do production work," she said.
"It was drummed into my head by my parents that college was the ticket to a good life. I don’t know what I’d do without my degrees. It allowed me to see the world. I had no doubts about Kanye, but I wanted him to have the safety net of a college education. Then I thought about a conversation I had with my father when he was taking me from Oklahoma City to Virginia Union University [in Richmond, Va.] for college. We were talking about what I would study, and he said, ‘Maybe you need something to fall back on.’ And I said, ‘Daddy, I’m not going to fall back.’ I think Kanye feels the same way. There is only going ahead in his viewpoint."
West went on to enjoy tremendous success, first as a producer, then with a string of multimillion-selling albums: "The College Dropout" (2004), "Late Registration" (2005) and "Graduation" (2007). His mother left education to become his manager, and then to oversee his business and charitable work. With each success, his mother was always at his side. A few months ago, her memoir, "Raising Kanye," was published, and mother and son promoted the book together.
"We established a bond that could not and cannot be broken," Donda West wrote.
What will that mean for her only son now that she’s gone? Kanye West is a ferociously driven artist; his work ethic borders on the obsessive, with multiple projects juggled all the time. Now is no exception, with a still-fresh album to promote worldwide, tour dates looming in London and worldwide, and outside production work — including a collaboration with Michael Jackson — to oversee.
"I haven’t spoken to Kanye, but I know what he’s going through," said Fiasco, whose father died last January. "One of the reasons I am speedily pulling myself out of the music business is that it didn’t fit into my schedule to mourn my father’s death properly. It was like you got to get on a plane next week. Or the day after the funeral you have to leave and go. Promoters would get salty because you have to miss a show to bury your father. You can deal with it by putting it in proper perspective, with a firm understanding of the cycle of life and the hereafter. That can console you. But there are still periods where you can’t believe that person’s gone, and it will color everything in your world."