Kanye West has become possibly the world’s most famous and revered rap star, dominating headlines with his music and his personal life. But there was a time – hard as it is to imagine – when he was pegged as “just” a great record producer, and not a performer in his own right.
The Netflix docuseries Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy dials back to that time when Ye (as he calls himself now) struggled to be taken seriously as a solo artist. The series is directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, who made some of West’s most important music videos. Simmons grew up in Chicago, as did Kanye, and began shooting video of West back in the late 1990s, well before the rapper released his first solo album.
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“To actually start documenting him, what inspired me was Hoop Dreams, the documentary that Steve James did the about Arthur Agee and William Gates,” Simmons said as he and Ozah appeared at Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted event. “I kept running into Kanye [in Chicago]. And then… Hoop Dreams, I seen that. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I should do a Hoop Dreams on Kanye’ and that was the start. And then God led me to New York to start really documenting him day to day.”
There are scenes in the trilogy that make clear Roc-A-Fella Records, where West was a hitmaking producer, didn’t originally support his solo career dreams. But he held tight to a vision of his ultimate success.
“Kanye is very, very strategic and very smart. I think he had a plan for the way he saw himself making it. Before we all know what that plan is, it’s probably in his head,” Ozah said. “You have to kind of read into almost everything he does sometimes because you’re not sure if it’s part of a bigger plan. Maybe 10 years from now something else will come out and you’ll see ‘Oh, wait, this [was] this all the time.’ You just never know with him.”
Shortly before the series premiered on Netflix, West made noises about wanting to gain final edit over it, even though he wasn’t part of the production.
“I think he was just around a bunch of people that influenced him to think that way,” Coodie said. “They probably were like, ‘You don’t have creative control over your doc?,’ not knowing it was not that. And I told Kanye, ‘This doc is not your doc. This doc is not my doc, Chike, [co-writer] J. Ivy’s doc. This doc is for the dreamers…’ And I said, ‘You have to trust me.’ ”
Eventually, West abandoned his effort to assert control over Jeen-yuhs.
“We got through it,” Simmons said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Trust God.’ I’m like, ‘I’ll trust God. God, you got us to this point. I know everything is going to keep moving.’ And it did. And then when [Kanye] seen it he couldn’t help but love it.”
Check out the panel video above.
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