Tracks of Tears

A legal dispute over the rights to some of Kanye West’s earliest recordings sounds a sour note on the local hip-hop scene—and offers a glimpse of a young unknown bound for megastardom.

Photo: McArthurphotography.com

“It hurts me to my heart,” Eric Miller (above, with rapper “Pookie") says of his battle with Kanye West

One day in the summer of 1994, a brash young MC named Kanye West and members of his first rap group, State of Mind, showed up for a recording session at Star Trax Recording Studio in south suburban Crestwood. They were invited there by Eric Miller, a disc jockey turned producer known as E-Smoove, who was on the lookout for up-and-comers for his fledgling record company, Focus Music Group.

Miller had already worked with various pop music elites-from Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye to INXS and ‘N Sync-and today, at 38, he says he does not remember much about that particular recording session with West. But he does recall listening in as West’s group played some of its demos. “I just remember being surprised that his stuff was pretty decent,” he says. “But nothing really ever developed from it.”

Several months later, though, according to Miller, West returned to the studio, this time with his mother, Donda, who, Miller says, asked him to hire her teenage son as an artist or producer. “So, I listened to some stuff and said, ‘I can’t give him a job, per se, but I would like to work with him, help develop him, see what comes of it, or whatever.’”

West’s camp adamantly denies such an encounter with Miller ever took place. But however it happened, West ultimately did wind up at Focus, and over the course of a year or so, maybe two (depending on whether Miller or West is to be believed), he recorded nine songs-with titles such as “25 to Life,” “Ho!!!,” and “I Keep MC’s Lookin Out"-for a planned début album.

But before long, West parted ways with Miller-amicably, says Miller-to seek out other shots at landing a major record-label deal. “We left it as: ‘Hey, it’s cool-if you get something goin’ on, make sure you call me so we can handle the business,’” recalls Miller. “I wasn’t like, ‘Man, you’re signed with me for life.’”

To be sure, West did get something goin’ on. Fast-forward a decade or so. West, now 29, has become rap royalty: first as a producer on a string of hits by a who’s who of artists, including Jay-Z, Ludacris, Brandy, and Alicia Keys, and then as an artist, winning six Grammys for his two chart-topping albums, The College Dropout (2004) and Late Registration (2005).

Miller could not have imagined back then that this unknown and as yet unheralded teenager would become a superstar. Still, Miller held on to the master recordings, and now he thinks he’s struck gold-or, perhaps more accurately, platinum. West has other ideas, and last August, he sued Miller to keep him from selling or distributing the music.

To judge from the lawsuit, the star may be implying Miller’s attempts to get rich now off those pre-fame recordings warrant the same epithet that figures in one of West’s biggest hits: “gold digger.” (West could not be reached for comment, and repeated calls to his publicity agent were not returned; others in the West camp who agreed to be interviewed for this article were tightlipped about the court case.) Miller countersued, claiming that he owned the rights to the songs and could do whatever he wanted with them. “I would love to come to a meeting of the minds,” he says. “But I’m prepared to see this through the long haul.”

The conflict between West and Miller is hardly unusual in the feud-prone world of hip-hop-whose 30-plus-year history is fraught with braggadocian rivalries and rap-related shootouts. This dispute, while nonviolent, has cast a cloud over the Chicago hip-hop landscape, coming at a time when the city is basking in hip-hop’s national limelight, thanks largely to West’s success. Beyond the legal maneuvering, the case also offers an illuminating portrait of a future superstar while he was still a hungry unknown-even within the local rap scene.

 

Kanye Omari West was born in Atlanta on June 8, 1977, the only child of Raymond, a former Black Panther and the first African American photojournalist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Donda West (née Williams), an English professor. “We found a book of African names and settled on Kanye,” explains his father, who is now a marriage counselor and a part-time sociology instructor at the College of Southern Maryland. (Kanye means “the only one” in Swahili; it is pronounced ”Khan-yay.")

Raymond met Donda while he was working as a staff photographer at Spelman College, in Atlanta; she worked in the college’s public-relations office. The couple separated when their son was 11 months old and divorced when he was three. Donda moved with Kanye to Chicago, taking a job as an English professor at Chicago State University and settling into a three-flat on Rhodes Avenue but then, a year later, buying a home in South Shore and eventually in Hazel Crest. (She retired as chair of the English department at Chicago State in 2004 to manage her son’s career.)

Donda noticed Kanye’s prodigious knack for wordplay at an early age. “He’s really been rhyming since he’s been talking,” she says. “You know how you play those little rhyme games with your kids where you say ‘Cat’ and they say ‘Bat,’ and so forth, and you see how far you can go? He always liked to do that.”

But West’s first love was the visual arts, and throughout elementary and high school, he won several art contests. (Later he would win a scholarship to the American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago, which he attended for one year before transferring to Chicago State. He dropped out after a semester and a half to pursue his rap career.) Kanye became intrigued with sampling and producing music around the seventh grade, after Donda brought home music-creation software for his computer. “Before I knew it he was just so consumed by music,” says his mother. Then one Christmas, Donda bought him a sampling keyboard, and from then on, she says, “it was always music, music, music.”

“I don’t think there was a single day that I didn’t hear all this ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ beating in the other room,” continues Donda. “Actually, I was glad about it because I never had to wonder, Where’s Kanye? What’s he doing? Is he safe? I knew where he was: he was in his bedroom making music.”

At Polaris High School in Oak Lawn in the early 1990s, the precocious beat-maker honed what would later be his trademark sound: fast-spoken, catchy rhymes mixed over heavy samplings from old soul and R&B records, which he typically speeds up to heighten the tempo. It is a musical style that draws on Chicago’s venerable gospel, blues, and soul traditions-Curtis Mayfield, for example-and on West’s early hip-hop influences, groups like Smif N Wessun and Black Moon.

A South Side producer who goes by the rap alias No I.D. helped West turn his music hobby into a career-working with West in his basement studio to shape his sound and teaching him professional production skills. At the time, No I.D. was producing the South Side rapper Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn), then Chicago’s most successful hip-hop artist.

While still in high school, West had also teamed up with John Monopoly, a hip-hop party promoter from the South Side, and the two quickly became engrossed in the local underground rap scene. Together they formed a production crew called the Numskulls and became fixtures at many of the clubs around the city, like the now-defunct China Club and the Far Side. By the time he got involved with Miller, West was already making and selling instrumental beats for fifty to a couple of hundred bucks per track.

 

Eric Miller says he got his nickname, E-Smoove, for his supposed reputation as a smooth-talking ladies’ man. Under that name, he began his career as a deejay in 1982, right around the peak of the house-music era. A South Side native, Miller discovered the homegrown style of thundering dance music as a student at the now-closed Mendel Catholic High School, then known for its raucous disco parties in the school’s gymnasium.

After graduating, he joined I.D. Productions, the independent record label of Steve “Silk” Hurley, a house-music pioneer and remixer of worldwide renown. (Remixers create alternative versions of songs by other artists-typically by rearranging the recordings into thumping, bumping dance tracks that can be played in clubs.)

Under the tutelage of Hurley, Miller started writing songs for other artists, including Ce Ce Peniston’s top-ten single “We Got a Love Thang,” and remixing for assorted pop superstars. In 1993, after three years at I.D. Productions, he formed his own production company, Focus. A year later, West showed up for the first time.

“I definitely took him under my wing,” Miller says of West. “I spent a lot of time with Kanye, helping him link the right rhymes with the right tracks, helping him fine-tune the tracks-everything that an A&R man and a producer would do with an artist.”

Even back then, West had earned a reputation for his self-assuredness, which, some say, borders on narcissism. “He would be critical of other people’s stuff, you know, like his stuff was far superior,” recalls Miller. “He was very opinionated-everything he is now. The only thing is he’s got the success now to back it up.”

West’s father has heard this all before. “Kanye tends to hold a mirror to himself and other people,” says Raymond West. “I suppose you can call him a bit arrogant-the way he handles himself. But so what? What’s the big deal? He backs up everything he says.”

Miller claims that he shopped West’s music around, but no one was interested. “You gotta remember,” he says. “Kanye was absolutely nobody.” The record executives and A&R representatives, he continues, “were not feelin’ it.”

Miller says he did manage to get West his first major-label exposure, using one of West’s beats for a remix project he was working on for Geffen Records. But it was not enough for the restless and stubborn West, who wanted immediate success, says Miller. “When you think about your level of patience at 18 years old, and then you take it with his ego-turn that up by, like, a thousand,” he says, “-of course it’s not fucking happening fast enough.”

Hungry as he was for fame, West toiled for years in relative anonymity in Chicago’s hip-hop scene. Meanwhile, he worked unglamorous odd jobs to support himself, including stints as a clerk at the Gap and as a telemarketer peddling insurance.

West’s career plan was nearly derailed after he loaned money to a family friend who did not pay him back. “I remember feeling like he was destroying my life,” West told Rolling Stone. “So I went up to his room and I got his revolver. I went downstairs while he was sleeping, and I put the gun in his mouth. I was like, ‘You fucking up my career!’ I came to find out he was a crack user.”

West hustled his beats on the streets and also joined forces with some inner-city rappers to form a group called the Go-Getters. They scored a citywide hit, “Oh, Oh, Oh,” but West’s first big break outside of Chicago came when he sold a beat to Jermaine Dupri, the acclaimed Atlanta-based producer-rapper, for his 1998 album Life in 1472.

Still, his career didn’t really take off until 2001, when he moved to the New York area and began making beats for Roc-a-Fella Records, the major hip-hop label started by luminary rapper Jay-Z and hip-hop impresario Damon Dash. In no time, West was producing top Billboard hits for other artists. But no one wanted to hear him sing his raps; he was told repeatedly that he should stay behind the mixing board, not a mike. West ignored that advice and kept pressing Dash and Jay-Z to make his own records. Fearing that West might defect to a rival label, Roc-a-Fella gave in and signed him.

Even a near-fatal car accident in October 2002 couldn’t stop West. He had reportedly fallen asleep at the wheel of his Lexus sedan while driving to his Los Angeles hotel after a marathon recording session and collided head-on with another car, shattering his jaw. He recorded part of one of his first big hits, “Through the Wire,” rapping even with his mouth wired shut. The song was nominated for a Grammy for best rap solo performance. “That song made all the difference,” West told the Chicago Tribune in a 2004 interview. “It opened up people to hearing what else this guy could do.”

 

At the heart of the conflict between West and Miller is the legitimacy of Miller’s claim to the rights to West’s early recordings. While a court may ultimately settle the issue, two music distributors that looked into the matter have already reached their own conclusion.

According to interviews and court records, last February Miller approached Jeffrey Pringle, the owner of John Galt Entertainment, a small music publisher and distributor in Nashville, offering him a deal: for $450,000-all upfront-Pringle could buy from Focus the North American distribution rights to the nine unreleased recordings by West, as well as some tracks by various lesser-known Chicago rap artists associated with Miller.

Miller’s outfit had also reached out to Pickwick’s Camp Group, a London-based music and video entertainment company, to distribute the recordings in Europe. But despite its strong initial interest, Pickwick cut off its negotiations with Miller after talking with West’s lawyers. “When you’ve got a megastar like Kanye West, there are no gray areas,” says Dom Rampello, Pickwick’s label manager. “Everything has to be 100 percent. [Miller] was 100 percent confident that he owned these tracks; we were never 100 percent sure.”

At John Galt Entertainment, Pringle wasn’t so certain either. “It got kind of squirrelly with them,” he says of Miller and Steve Hulme, a friend of Miller’s who was purportedly acting on his behalf in the negotiations. When Pringle asked to see proof of the recording contract, “they kept telling me the paperwork was coming,” Pringle says.

Eventually, according to court papers, Miller sent him a copy of a recording agreement dated May 19, 1995, and signed by Miller and, so it seemed, by West. But Pringle was still unsure. He contacted Allison Finley, one of West’s lawyers, to confirm that the contract was valid. Finley sent Pringle a letter calling the contract “bogus,” and the West signature a “forgery,” according to court records. Wary of becoming tangled up in a potential legal spat, Pringle passed.

Miller next tried to pitch West on a deal directly, according to the suit. (Miller denies that allegation.) The unreleased songs, he wrote in an e-mail to West, would be part of a bigger compilation album that also featured a lineup of largely unheralded local rappers. “I would like to release this with your blessing,” Miller beseeched West in the e-mail, according to court documents.

But blessings weren’t to be had. Instead, West demanded, through his lawyer, that Miller immediately stop his efforts to sell, copy, or distribute the unreleased recordings. Adding insult to injury, he ordered Miller to destroy the master tape.

After a few weeks and several equivocating responses from Miller, West filed his lawsuit in late August of last year, seeking $1.3 million in damages. Two months later, Miller countersued, claiming that he had coauthored and produced (not to mention paid for) the master recordings and that West had agreed to let Focus own the rights to the unreleased tracks when he left the company years ago. Miller is asking for more than $10 million from West and wants to be allowed to profit from the recordings.

West’s lawyers flatly deny Miller’s claims of ownership, and Miller declines to get into details about the dispute. “In time all of that will come to light,” he says. “My position is that I did not forge any documents.” The bottom line, he says: “There definitely was an agreement in place-[West] knew the deal.”

Lon Sobel, a leading entertainment law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, says that if it turns out there was never a written contract between Miller and West, Miller’s case becomes extremely weak in a court of law. “In the absence of an agreement between an artist and anyone who records the artist’s performances, the artist owns the copyright of his performances,” says Sobel, who is not familiar with the specific details of the case and has no ties to either of the parties involved. “The fact that [Miller] paid for it does not mean that he owns the copyright to these recordings.”

What if Miller claims that they had an oral contract? “If West denies the language of the oral agreement,” explains Sobel, “the judge or jury is going to have to decide who remembers the conversation best or maybe even who’s telling the truth.”

Pringle, who has 17 years of experience in the music business, is particularly pessimistic. “Ultimately, this record will never come out and nobody will ever hear these masters because litigation is attached to this,” he says. “That’s the sad part.”

 

Given their past association, Miller is befuddled by West’s refusal to give his imprimatur for the album project. “It hurts me to my heart,” he says. “It’s like being in a fucking lawsuit with my little brother.” He adds: “I hate that he’s forgotten all the things that I did for him.”

Though he has gained only a sliver of West’s fame, Miller continues to develop aspiring local rappers. He is currently producing an album for Pook Illa, a.k.a. “Pookie,” and Phenom. And in 2002 he was even nominated for a Grammy for best remixed recording.

Still, he is worried that his dispute with West might have damaged his reputation in the cliquish and dog-eat-dog music industry. “At this point, obviously, my credibility has been challenged,” he says. “When you have an artist as big as Kanye is right now, people automatically want to side with him.”

Meanwhile, to West the dispute is apparently more of a minor headache than anything else. Donda says her son “doesn’t have time to be bothered” with the legal jockeying-"he’s focusing his energy on so many other things,” such as making his next album and continuing to produce tracks for other artists, including several Chicago hip-hop acts like Rhymefest (who co-wrote West’s hit “Jesus Walks"), Lupe Fiasco, Mikkey, GLC, Twista, and Common.

Donda says the situation with Miller has not soured West’s attitude about Chicago. “Kanye is loyal, I believe, in every sense of the word,” she says. “He knows what a struggle it was for him as a Chicago artist, so he certainly wants to give back as much as he can.” Regarding the brickbats coming from Miller, she quotes one of West’s songs, “Bring Me Down": “There’ll always be haters, that’s the way it is.”

Miller insists he has nothing against West personally. “Let it go on the record-I’m a Kanye fan,” he says, sounding sincere. “To this day I have nothing but love and congratulations and all that stuff for him. But on the business side, it’s business.”

 

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