21 years ago a pair of south side Chicago videographers who moonlighted as public access TV hosts, Coodie Simmons, and Chike Ozah dropped everything in their lives to follow a no-named upstart by the name of Kanye West.
Their decision found them following him on his move from Chicago to New York City in hopes of securing a record deal.
The three part trilogy, more than 20 years in the making, is comprised of exclusive, all-access footage Kanye authorized the duo to shoot and gives us a peek into the struggling to make it version of Kanye that seems like such an afterthought today.
So who are Coodie and Chike? And why were they allowed to get so close to Kanye West and earn his trust?
For starters, they were staples in not just the Chicago hip-hop scene, but the entertainment scene in general in the 1990s. They had a public access show called "Channel Zero" where they somehow managed to gain access to pretty much any and every big name show that came through Chicago (music and comedy) and get a few minutes on camera with the headliner. Coodie was also a local stand up comedian who had a natural knack being in front of the camera.
But the duo were also superbly talented behind it- as you'll see in "jeen yuhs" and you've probably already seen in some of their other acclaimed works.
Like ESPN's "30 for 30", Benji. A documentary about the tragic shooting death of Chicago icon Ben Wilson, a promising high-school basketball player, and its impact on his Chicago community.
Or the 2019 Netflix documentary about Stephon Marbury, A Kid From Coney Island
Just to name a few.
The original seven and a half hours this documentary was originally intended to be, has been edited down to a little over four.
The buyer, Netflix, purchased the doc for $30 million back in April, (I blogged about it here) after Coodie and Chike had been shopping it around for a couple years.
Netflix had it shortened, and broken down to be released in three parts over these next three weeks, with the first act, “Vision,” released this past Wednesday.
Kanye West was in the loop during the production process, and as you'll see, heavily involved in the first two parts.
Episode one marks Kanye's struggle to be recognized for the talent that he is. Culminating in an endlessly hard fought for record deal.
Episode 2 shows West recovering from his 2002 car crash which almost took his life. Even while going through several dental procedures, the camera shows Kanye's restless, stuborn mind hard at work, When he is finally able to get back to work, he produces the classic “Through the Wire,” his debut single, which finally launches his solo career.
The rest seems like history…
But after his fame began to take him up beyond the stratosphere and continued to rise higher and higher, he shrugged off his friends and documentarians. Episode 3 deals with this fallout, and his friends watching him devolve into a media pariah. All they can do is watch from afar as the glaring signs of mental illness scream out at them.
But there is nothing they can do.
Until Coodie gets a call from West in 2017 asking him to come join him in Asia while he's promoting his clothing line and working on new music.
Not to give it all away, but when Coodie reconnects with his old friend, you can feel the awkwardness through the screen. He recognizes this man, but he has no clue who he is. He's surrounded by a posse of hangers on and "yes men", all nameless and faceless. He has plenty of people around him at all times, but he's never been more alone.
Nowhere are his wife (Kardashian) or children to be seen. Or heard from.
There is one unsettling scene that will be talked about for days, which shows West speaking with big shot potential real estate partners. A bunch of old stuffy white guys. He bluntly informs them, “I took bipolar medication last night to have a normal conversation with you guys so that I can turn alien to English.”
They laugh, but he is dead serious. He means it.
It's literally just his work and only his work that he's focused on, or talks about.
Except for one heartbreaking scene which finds West and Coodie sharing a moment only old friends can relate to. West opens up about his addiction to percocets and his bouts with bipolar disorder. It's honest, raw, touching, and just flat-out sad.
Word is that this "final cut" is not Ye-approved. He obviously had a hand in the origin of it, and the first two-thirds of the film, and though he didn't go to any lengths to have it blocked, he never did sign off on it or co-sign it which means it's technically not authorized.
The film is shot like a home movie and is a mind-blowing eye-opener as to the evolution of West’s music virtuosity.
Simmons started filming West when he was a "rapper" turned beatmaker around the age of 20 because he saw his potential and hoped to make a “Hoop Dreams”-style documentary.
Like I said, he literally dropped everything to follow Kanye on his quest.
Today, we know what a no-brainer decision that was. And the $30 million dollar payoff for the final product just confirms it.
But back in the day, as the documentary shows numerous times, Coodie is looked at like a crazy person.
Countless executives, high-level music heads, and celebrity musicians repeatedly ask him, "you're filming him?"
An integral part of the film, and the one I was most looking forward to seeing, was the look into just how close West and his mother, Donda, really were.
The footage provided did not disappoint.
She’s often shown by his side, building her son up while keeping him grounded.
She is clearly his biggest fan. Not only continually telling her boy how much she believes in him, but that he needs to believe in himself because he is the greatest.
A scene that sticks out and is bound to strike a chord with anybody watching is when the two of them are in her apartment when West’s career is just beginning to off.
She is congratulating him, and lauding him. But when he begins to pat himself on the back she advises him: “You’ve got a lot of confidence and you come off a little arrogant even though you’re humble.”
Kanye, rarely diminutive, drops his head and goes silent, taking in every word. A side of him we have NEVER seen before.
“But it’d be important to remember to stand on the ground,” she continues. “That way you can be in the air at the same time. That’s what I think it means when they say a giant may look in the mirror and see nothing, but everyone else sees the giant.”
The documentary also highlights some incredible run-ins and introductions for Kanye. It features and showcases everybody from 2000s hip hop, Jay-Z, Common, Rhymefest, Jermaine Dupri, Mase, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Damon Dash, Memphis Bleek.
One of the funniest scenes is when a shy and nervous Kanye approaches Pharrell backstage at a show to introduce himself. You can see the fear in his eyes, as well as the relief when Pharrell knows who he is and looks into the camera telling us how great Kanye is at making beats.
Almost every scene depicting Kanye interacting with somebody plays out the same. The people see Kanye, they see the camera, and there's a split-second hesitation where you can see the gears in their brain moving as they think to themselves, "what exactly is happening here?".
The camera lends Kanye some not-just-yet deserved credibility.
You've got to remember, this is the early 2000's. We still had cell phones with green screens and no text capabilities. Nevermind cameras that could capture HD video.
The fact that Kanye, and Coodie and Chike, each had the foresight to document this entire part of the journey is astounding. And more than anything, it speaks to Kanye's drive and inner-beliefs. (More on this at the end).
The highlight of the first part, for me at least, was a scene that shows a glimpse of the future and potential of Kanye bursting out through the young, humbled, and yet to be famous Kanye.
He's sitting backstage with the legendary Mos Def and the two break into their collaborative song "Two Words".
Mos raps his verse casually. As one would normally for a home video camera, acapella.
When it gets to Kanye's turn, his energy begins building into this crescendo where he's eventually out of his seat, shouting and enunciating perfectly each syllable at play (the thesis of the song), creating so much electricity you can see it on the faces of the people in the room with him and you can feel it through the television screen.
The part everybody seems to be talking about, and the part we laughed our asses off about on our podcast "On The Guest List" featuring White Sox Dave, myself, Kenny Carkeet (AWOL Nation), and Colin Budny (Foxtrot and The Getdown), was the scene where Kanye hasn't heard from anybody regarding his record deal he is constantly pestering them about. So he decides to bum rush Roc-a-Fella Records offices with his demo tape and hijack several office's boomboxes.
He plays the original version of “All Falls Down” featuring Lauryn Hill (it was then wasn’t, then was then wasn’t cleared right before its official release, resulting in Kanye having to ask Syleena Johnson to step in at the last minute) for them all. And they just look at him with blank stares on their face that tells us the viewer this isn’t the first time Kanye has pulled these hijinks.
When Kanye does finally start to see real money roll in, no longer selling platinum charting beats for $500 a pop, he's seen pushing a Mercedes E-class around New York City. In one scene he has a reporter from Rolling Stone in the back seat while they drive around and Kanye goes on one of his now-famous mouth diarrhea rants, telling him at one point how unsatisfied he is with his meager "success", “I might be living your American dream but I’m nowhere near where my dream is, dog. I got aspirations.”
Another great scene shows an in-his-prime Scarface, paying Kanye a visit (clearly returning a favor for gifting him and Jay-Z "This Can't Be Life") and agreeing to listen to a few of his demo recordings.
Kanye first plays him "Jesus Walks", and Scarface is visibly unimpressed. (yet another industry person shown passing on what is arguably the biggest Christian hip-hop song of all time). Kanye was hoping and praying that Scarface would agree to do the hook on the song, but Scarface asked him to skip to the next track.
But not before reprimanding West for leaving his retainers out on the amp rack, an occurrence we see throughout the film, that depicts just how young and unpolished this version of West truly was, compared to the celebrity today.
The next track he played was what turned out to be "Family Business". It was just the instrumental so Kanye rapped, off-beat at the beginning, over it and Scarface, unconvincingly, said he loved it.
He asked Kanye for more tracks but the underprepared West said those were the only two he had on the CD (lol, remember CD-roms?). So it seemed all for naught.
Given Kanye's treatment of his friends, the producers of the documentary, you couldn't blame them for shifting the focus of the film and casting Kanye in a more controversial, or critical light. But they did just the opposite.
They're compassionate in their portrayal of the character that is Kanye Omari West. But they don't stretch the story or jump through hoops to do it. Kanye's genuineness, determination, and underdog attitude naturally make you feel for him.
It's like taking a time machine back to The College Dropout days. When Kanye burst onto the scene. This first part of the documentary plays like an hour and a half long extended cut music video for the famous "Last Call" record off that album. Complete with the end scene of Jay-Z placing the Roc-A-Fella chain around Kanye's neck in Chicago.
The major impression I think the biggest Kanye fanatic, as well as his biggest hater, can take away from this documentary, is Kanye’s drive.
It is not of this world.
All the times he was shot down and told no would deter and dent even the most self-confident of us’s armor. Not Kanye.
It was gasoline on the fire. It was fuel for the engine. He took all the naysayers and put them on a bulletin board in his head. And he’s never taken them down. He’s only added to the wall over time. Like a hunter collecting Buck Heads.
His outsized sense of self, his perpetual need to achieve more, all comes from the giant chip on his shoulder all of the "no's" chiseled there.
I truly and honestly believe that had it not been so hard for him to "breakthrough" in the beginning, he would be nowhere near as successful as he is today.
And I feel successful isn't even the appropriate word to describe him.
The film also provides a great view into just how much, and how quickly, Kanye was and continues to be constantly evolving. As a person and as an artist.
He's obviously a visionary, but he's so, so, sooooo far ahead of his time that I think it's frustrated him to the point of craziness while exacerbating the parts of him that truly are crazy.
He is never content with simple success.
He's not only always looking for the "next thing", but he peaks and plateaus so quickly, because of how talented, brilliant, and hard working he is, that he becomes bored and his hunger immediately causes him to move on to the next thing.
Look at his rush to release Donda 2 as a perfect recent example.
Fashion, business, sneakers, music, religion, even the future of housing strategy are all constantly on this man's mind.
He never slows down, and has lost his footing. Much in part, due to the loss of his North Star, his mother Donda.
I always surmised that losing his mom in 2007 is what sent him over the edge.
Losing her at a young age, coupled with the fact he paid for the plastic surgery procedure she died under the knife from, was a guilt he couldn't bear.
He's never been the same since. And who could blame him?
She was the first person to believe in him, his biggest cheerleader throughout, his moral compass, and his rock.
Another big takeaway from the film, albeit a more underlying one, is something I think most people can relate to in terms of workplace culture and their profession.
Kanye was without a doubt exceptional at what he did from the age of 19. Everybody knew him, loved his work, and wanted to use his material for their own personal benefit.
They enjoyed Kanye’s success, just not in sake of their own.
Nowhere was this more evident than with Dame Dash, Jay-Z, and Roc-A-Fella.
They tried for years to keep Kanye under their thumb because they knew, as long as he was just producing, all his beats were theirs and their artists for the taking.
If he was given a record deal, not only do those beats dry up because why would he give his best work to somebody else? But his focus would no longer be 100% on producing.
A smart business strategy if you’re Dame or Jay, but a very selfish one.
Essentially, why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?
I think, and know, so many people can relate to this. How many times throughout the course of your career have you been stifled by your superiors because they know, if you get promoted, not only will you outshine them, but their workhorse (you) is gone?
Seeing Kanye’s frustration having to deal with this, in one of the hardest industries ever to break into, the record industry pre-internet, and his refusal to give up, and just continuing to work harder, and speak up more and more is so relatable. And admirable.
In “jeen yuhs” it's incredible to see how much Kanye has changed, yet how much he is still the same.
He's become the person he always was if that makes sense. He was always the biggest believer in himself, but he'll be on a warpath, refusing to stop until he’s convinced all the rest of us, too.
Listen to our entire breakdown and recap of episode 1 "On The Guest List"