Written by Hattie Collins
The Dorchester Hotel, London, 2003
As press conferences go, it was certainly memorable. For many of the assembled British press, it was their first introduction to Kanye Omari West.
Invited to attend with hip-hop mega star Damon Dash, most of the hacks were on hand to ask Dash about working with Victoria Beckham on her ill-fated solo album. They paid little attention to the puffy-cheeked man next to Dash, dressed in a peach Polo and brown aviator.
Finally, a question was put to West: would he be producing for Dash's UK signed group, SAS, who had failed to turn up for the press call?
"I was thinking, y'all weren't taking this opportunity to speak to me? I'm like the number one producer in America right now. How many people actually listen to music? Okay. Now if anybody listens to music and you hear the name 'Kanye West' there's no way you'd let him sit here this long without asking a question. Right now, in America, I own half of the Top 10 - Slow Jam (Twista Ft. Jamie Foxx and Kanye), (Alicia Keys) You Don't Know My Name, Encore (Jay-Z) and Through The Wire. I am what music will be for the next four years. At least," he said.
And, just like that, Damon was promptly forgotten. West spoke for over 10 minutes to the increasingly bemused faces of the Daily Mail et al. We might not have realised then, but West was setting a precedent; from the Mike Myers side-eye-giving "George Bush hates black people" to the stage invasion of "Yo Taylor, I'm really happy for you and I'm a let you finish…", West has never been one to hold his tongue.
Initially, he concentrated on composing. As well as his own six solo albums, he's created for the likes of his 'big brother' Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Drake, Rick Ross T.I., Ludacris and Lil Wayne. "I call it spirit music," Kanye told me in an interview for i-D magazine back then, and the same could be said of the sounds he creates today. He started with the sped-up soul samples, flirted with Shirley Bassey then 808's, lost his mother, found and discarded the Vocoder and is now known, most simply, for massive, huge, hits.
Not only has he challenged the musical status quo, West also ushered in a new look for hip-hop. Sure, Pharrell had been bathed in BAPE long before, but Kanye took pastel polo shirts and skinny jeans to the masses. "I won't be pigeonholed," West insisted when I interviewed him shortly after the press conference. "I like tennis shoes and dress shoes – you telling me I gotta wear one for the rest of my life?"
He may have initially been mocked as looking 'gay' but he couldn't care less. An early supporter of gay rights, no mean feat in the homophobic arena of rap, it wasn't long before boys from Essex to Edinburgh could be seen in tight jeans and slatted sunglasses. When he released the Air Yeezy, a trainer collaboration with Nike, there were overnight queues as fanboys patiently waited to get their pair. Pretty incredible when you consider that when he was first written about, his name was always followed with a '(Pronounced Khan-Yay)'.
"I feel like I'll be a major influence but God is the saviour; I'm the ambassador of hip hop," were his last words to me that day. "I will be to producer-stroke-rappers what Eminem was to white rappers. Even if I wasn't me I'd be so happy to have a 'me'. Sometimes I wish I wasn't me just so I could enjoy myself more," he grinned, reveling in his own audacity. "I actually like to see my most asshole statements in black and white. But it's not arrogant whatsoever - it's straight confidence."
His audacious statements have polarised popular opinion, yet most have to agree that Kanye West is one of the most creative figures working in contemporary culture. Whether writing about his favourite architect, giving away free music every Friday via Twitter, popping to Prague to direct his debut film or cleaning out Kim's closet on camera, the 35 year-old rapper, producer, writer, fashion designer and budding director is always – ALWAYS – interesting, innovative and inventive. Pushing the boundaries of pop music, tearing apart the Hip Hop rulebook, aggravating authority but always – ALWAYS - fighting the cause of culture.