Irrespective of his controversial views and occasional stints of belligerence, Kanye West has become one of the most renowned creatives in hip-hop. The Chicago producer and entrepreneur is among the few who have advanced the culture and impacted the sonic landscape of hip-hop. As such, he is a culturally significant figure and is highly respected. Before he was flung into the limelight in 2004, West was a producer for Kyambo Joshua, the former A&R of Roc-A-Fella. However, before the release of College Dropout, Ye was known in the industry as a potent beatmaker.
Ye operated in the background at Roc-A-Fella for around three years. However, his ingenuity and talent were irrefutable and in 2002 Jay-Z officially signed West to Roc-A-Fella. Following this, the Chicago native immediately began working on his landmark debut album, College Dropout.
College Dropout is widely considered one of the most outstanding contemporary hip-hop projects of all time. Released in 2004, the body of work bridged the gap between the soulful instrumentals of the 1990s and the hard-hitting beats of the 2000s. From ‘Through The Wire’ to ‘Slow Jamz’, it was a cohesive project that had a cross-generational appeal. One of the album’s most memorable tracks is ‘Jesus Walks’, and in this article, we will explore how it was cleverly crafted.
‘Jesus Walks’, akin to the entirety of College Dropout, was recorded at Sony Music Studios in Manhattan. The legendary set of recording studios was located on New York’s West 54th Street and had a rich history. Artists such as Elton John, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey frequented the facility. However, it was closed in 2007 after being acquired by property developers. West both produced and recorded ‘Jesus Walks’ in this studio.
Ye is known for his proclivity to sample obscure pieces of music for his songs, and this is precisely what he did for ‘Jesus Walks.’ The single samples an acapella gospel performance of ‘Walk With Me’ performed by the ARC Choir in 1997. Slightly editing the original piece of music West also layered it with military sonics acquired from a 1987 album entitled Authentic Sound Effects.
In an interview with HipHopDX, Chicago rapper and songwriter, Rhymefest, who co-wrote the track with West, explained that upon making it, both he and Ye knew the track was special. Speaking with the online magazine, the rapper elaborated, “When you do great things, you know it. Whenever you make a song, you know when it’s special and after ‘Jesus Walks’ was made, we knew it was special!” However, the writer (real name Che Smith) also believes it changed people’s perceptions of Kanye stating, “Looking back on it, we would not view Kanye the same way without it. Kanye would not have as many chances with the public as he has had without that critical piece of the puzzle. It touched people in a place where Rap music rarely touches people these days, and that’s the heart.”
Kanye, being a genius, managed to incorporate more samples into the track that often go undetected. The catchy militant drumroll heard in the beat is a drum solo from the 1967 blues track ‘Ode To Billy Joe’ by Lou Donaldson. The song got nominated for several Stellar Awards, an award ceremony dedicated solely to the gospel genre. However, this polarised fans. ‘Jesus Walks’ was received incredibly well by critics debuting at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. The 2004 single was certified triple-platinum by the RIAA and West dedicated three music videos to the track, two of which he paid for.
The final video rendition was filmed on location in Chicago and was co-directed by Coodie & Chike alongside West. ‘Jesus Walks’ earned West a Grammy award for ‘Best Rap Song’ and has since become a fan-favourite. You can watch the second music video recorded in the video below.