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Seclusion in Hawaii, Elton John, and Musical ‘Survivor’: Inside the Making of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’

On the inaugural episode of ‘The Ringer Music Show,’ Charles Holmes speaks to the people involved in crafting Kanye West’s classic album, 10 years later

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Ringer Music Show, the most notorious new podcast in the industry. Each week, The Ringer’s Charles Holmes and cohost Grace Spelman will bring you the latest news, hottest takes, and deepest reporting about the wild world of music and the chaotic industry that creates it. Below is an excerpt from Episode 1, “Inside the Making of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Kanye West’s classic album, released 10 years ago this week.

Unbeknownst to many, Pete Wentz, Tracy Morgan, and Joe Jackson are all part of a brotherhood. On September 13, 2009, they were all accosted at Radio City Music Hall by a man on a mission. Most people know that someone dressed in a black shirt and matching Timbs carrying a bottle of Hennessy is up to no good. But then again, Kanye West isn’t your average person, and the MTV Video Music Awards isn’t your average night. Traditionally, the VMAs are a nonsense award show where MTV hands out little moon people to anyone who agrees to show up, but nevertheless Mr. West was undeterred.

We’ll never know whether Wentz, Morgan, or the father of the Jackson 5 shared a shot with West, but we do know what happened next. Hours later, with a massive chip on his shoulder and the peoples’ brandy swirling in his bloodstream, West stormed the VMA stage while a video of a tranquil city skyline played in the background.

The reason for Kanye’s anger? Taylor Swift was accepting an award for Best Video by a Female Artist, which West thought Beyoncé should’ve won for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Backstage, Taylor cried—and so did Beyoncé. Kanye was asked to leave the building. What was unknown to him then, but was clear to everyone at home was a simple truth: We had just watched a man torch his career in real time.

Late 2009 was a time of little compassion. Kanye wasn’t even two years removed from the unexpected death of his mother, Donda West. His 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak might’ve been a creative reckoning with that loss, but it was far from a fix-all. A day after the VMAs, Kanye appeared on The Jay Leno Show, where the late night host decided to take a cheap shot in what many saw as a bid for ratings.

Kanye had become the most hated man in America, and his downfall coincided with the rise of social media. Celebrity culture was now a collective experience buoyed by Facebook and Twitter. Public perception was no longer this amorphous concept. Now there were multiple platforms where sentiment about anything or anyone could be condensed into a trending topic. It’s something Kanye’s collaborator and G.O.O.D. Music artist, Consequence, saw firsthand.

“That situation with Taylor Swift, he was going through a lot of shit, social media was brand new at that time,” Consequence says today. “So he was getting death threats on Twitter, and Lady Gaga had pulled out of doing a tour with him at the time.”

In retrospect, it’s hard not to see Kanye West’s VMA moment as a preview of what was about to unfold over the next decade. The country’s first Black president was sworn in nine months prior to the 2009 VMAs. If Barack Obama was a symbol of racial progress then someone needed to be an easy vehicle and target for a growing disdain. When the Kanye incident occurred, Malik Yusef wasn’t thrilled at the message it sent to the world.

“I didn’t want to harp too much on how wrong he was for the optic that he provided a country like America, who is racist,” says Yusef, a Chicago poet and musician who has worked on every Kanye album. “And at the time he still was understanding racism … I was like, ‘Yo you can’t provide these optics for America, no matter what was in your heart. And also, you didn’t need to protect Beyoncé. Beyoncé has a momma, a daddy, a powerful husband who’s probably the king of America, a label, management. She’s fine.’”

By the end of the year, Kanye would flee. No matter how much he apologized on his blog or late night TV, it didn’t matter. So he heeds the words of Mos Def and decides to leave America and settles for the life of an intern in Milan. Yes, one of the most commercially successful artists of his generation decided to become a coffee runner at Fendi for $500 a month. But if there’s one thing Kanye West is terrible at, it’s retreating from the spotlight. Eventually, if he was truly considering the idea of making a comeback, he’d need to return to the site of 808s & Heartbreak: AVEX Studios in Honolulu.

“We had been there previously many times,” says Anthony Kilhoffer, an engineer and producer who had been working with Kanye since The College Dropout. “We did 808s and Heartbreak there. Even before 808s and Heartbreak, Common had found that studio and he liked it just to be away and excluded. Because it’s hard when you’re in L.A. or New York. People, they’ll pop in the studio, say hello. And they’re not uninvited guests, but it’ll break the whole workflow. So that’s the whole deal with Hawaii. It wasn’t about being fancy, exclusiveness. It was about isolation, really.”

Kilhoffer and the assembled crew would work in 12-hour shifts from noon to midnight. The daily routine began with Kanye waking up at 6 or 7 in the morning and Kilhoffer playing any new verses, beats, or hooks recorded the previous night. On any given day, it could be something new from RZA or Kid Cudi.

But at the center of this creative storm was Kanye. For years, critics and fans forgave Kanye’s weaknesses as a rapper, because his gifts as a producer were so immaculate. But My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would need him to elevate both. For example, take his first verse on “Gorgeous.”

Traditionally, Kanye verses are laden with punch lines that age like avocados in the sun. But on “Gorgeous,” he’s dipping in and out of internal rhyme and forgoing similes and easy pop culture references for something that’s more poetic. Kanye’s ghostwriters, from Rhymefest to Malik Yusef, are massaging ideas about race into a song that fuses a blog-era star like Cudi with the legendary Raekwon. And according to Chicago rapper and Kanye confidant Consequence, this was all by design.

“That’s the one project where he just was very meticulous about everything,” Consequence says today. “I remember he was even saying to me, ‘I don’t even want to put half any something and something.’ He was just very meticulous about the rap approach and the use of punch lines and the rewrites of verses.”

Musicians from any era and genre were clocking into their shifts like coal miners. Everyone from RZA to Rick Ross, Pete Rock to Pusha T, would arrive at the compound, be briefed on the situation, and get to work. Even Elton John showed up. But according to Malik, adding him to the proceedings was a fraught topic of conversation.

“People laughed at me when I brought Elton John in,” Yusef recalls. “They’re like, ‘Elton John ain’t hip-hop, Malik.’ I’m like, ‘Y’all, this is music, motherfuckers.’”

As the story goes, Elton John’s partner wasn’t thrilled to be watching his husband slave over a Kanye album while they were in the midst of trying to celebrate a birthday. As Malik recalls him saying: “Yeah, that’s what I want to do on my husband’s birthday. Spend it with the rappers.” The moment put even more pressure on him and Elton to get the job done.

“I said, ‘Your husband was saying that birthday celebrations are in order and he wants to get out of here, I guess,’” Yusef recalls. “He’s like, ‘Did he say that?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Lock the door.’ So I locked the door and he just went at it.”

Kanye and the assembled group had to re-ingratiate themselves to two distinct demographics. From 2007 to 2008, Kanye had become an arena-touring pop star. Early singles like “Jesus Walks” and “Gold Digger” had introduced West to pop culture. Then “Stronger,” “Good Life,” and “Heartless” catapulted him to pop radio. So by 2010, West’s white audience was just as sizable as the die-hard hip-hop fans who knew him as the soul-sampling backpacker who supplied late-stage Roc-A-Fella with a slew of hits.

In Hawaii, there was a sense that Kanye collected some of the best minds in pop culture for this specific moment. At the end of the day, the only thing that was important were the ideas. It would take more than one person to bridge the gap between who Kanye was and who he’d need to become.

“It was musical Survivor,” Kilhoffer says. “You come out with some stupid-ass ideas, you get that plane ticket home the next morning. Trust me.”

But the collaborators who stuck around helped shape the direction of the project in many ways.

“This is when RZA was kind of like an elder statesman, right?” Kilhoffer says. “He had more knowledge than he would have had to help advise this direction if it would’ve been 2004 or 2006. I think it was just a great coincidence of circumstances that led to this greatness. And then also at the same time the Taylor incident and having to achieve and make sure this is a super, beyond-unimpeachable, successful product.”

So how do you make something that’s unimpeachable? For that, Kanye would need a young, undiscovered producer from Dallas.

To hear the full episode of The Ringer Music Show, click here. Subscribe and follow here for new episodes out every Tuesday. This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.