Kanye Soul SurvivorFollowing his unexpected improvised performance, Kanye hops offstage and, hustling past admirers, spots a young girl sobbing. This hysterical response is what Kanye West envisioned when he started rapping—back in 3rd grade. But instead of relishing the moment, the voices of skeptics are filling his head, competing with the kids’ cheers.

“When I first heard him, I really didn’t think much of him as a rapper just because I didn’t feel it was anything he should have been pursuing,” say Dame Dash. “I thought he would be better off doing a compilation.”

Kanye didn’t listen to his notoriously demanding boss, and is now on the verge of stardom. As he gets back in the van to head to another school concert, his first words vindicate him. “People said I couldn’t rap and everybody said it’s based on the beats,” he says in an acidic tone. “But I didn’t hear no beats right there.”

Producing hit records for some of the best-selling artists in music is a hell of a moonlighting gig for most folks, but that’s not why Kanye got in the biz. If he was merely a great producer, lovelorn teenage girls wouldn’t be crying over him, security guards at malls wouldn’t be asking for his autograph, and you can bet his “tantrums” at photo shoots wouldn’t wind up in the New York Post’s Page Six. That type of life would be as ill fitting to the self-proclaimed best-dressed rapper as a dashiki worn with a nylon tracksuit. Why? Because Kanye West was born to be a star.

All my songs are about something negative and how God can help you through it. Like how a minister will bring up problems;  I do that lyrically. I have a responsibility to Black men.”

Back In The Day

Kanye West had no rhythm as a child. His mother, Dr. Donda West, an  English professor at Chicago State University, laughs about her son’s uneducated feet but insists her only child was a born performer, always enamored of the spotlight.

“In kindergarten, Kanye was running his mouth so his teacher kicked him out of the Christmas play,” recalls Dr. West. “[Then] I saw this little boy onstage playing Santa Claus and noticed he had the same black boots as Kanye. Lo and behold, the kid who was to be Santa Claus got stage fright when it was time to go on, and Kanye said, ‘I’ll do it.’ So, Kanye got to be the star of the show.”

Raised in a middle-class household, Kanye didn’t exactly live his hard-knock life. He was computer-literate by the age of 5, and got his Air-Jordans the same way most other non-delinquents did—his mom bought them for him. Growing up, Kanye was perceived by his peers as a loner, and often spent hours in his bedroom, which became a makeshift studio after he purchased some computer-music programs he had seen in a classified ad.

“Kanye always went against the grain,” says Shawnna from Disturbing the Peace, who has known him since the 5th grade. “He was never eager to please the cool people. If they didn’t want to hang with him, he was like, ‘So what? I’m doing this over here’”

Marchin to the beat of his own drummer soon led Kanye to a basement apartment on East 82nd and Paxton Street owned by one Rashied Lynn on the South Side. In 1995, Lynn, aka Common Sense, had just released the classic Resurrection and provided a human litmus test to Kanye and his friends, all aspiring MCs.

“Their whole mentality was, ‘If I could rip this cat, I could do records,’” Says Common. “Kanye was really good and you couldn’t half-step when [battling] him. I always felt a certain drive in Kanye that was unnatural.” Before finding his voice, the experimenting rapper cops to sounding like Raekwon, Nas and of course, his favorite rapper of all time, Mase.

“At that point, I hadn’t really found myself,” says Kanye. “I was just a cheap knock-off.” Despite the low marks in MCing—Lord knows how Kool Moe Dee would have graded him back then—and the high marks in college, Kanye dropped out of Chicago State University during his second semester.