It's almost hard to imagine a time when Kanye West wasn't famous. The rapper, producer and designer has been consistently in the public eye for over a decade now, yet his dedication to his craft hasn't waned.
As these vintage Def Poetry Jam videos show, Kanye West was always going to be a star. His flow, his attitude and his confidence didn't even really need to be developed — they were already there.
His true dedication to fashion was also easy to see, from announcing that he wanted to be the "best-dressed rapper out in the game," to referencing (and low-key dissing) Ralph Lauren during his infamous preppy phase.
Even at the earliest stage of his career, Kanye had his sights set on fashion, as this bizarre 2003 interview shows. On a show called Celebrity Closet, released before "Through The Wire" came out, an extremely young West wondered, “is Marc Jacobs a real person? Is he like living and shit? Yeah, I want to see in Marc Jacobs' closet.”
If Def Poetry Jam was before your time, the show ran on HBO from 2002 to 2007 and introduced slam poetry to the masses. Hosted by Mos Def, the show featured a mix of now-legendary rappers and poets including Jamie Foxx, Erykah Badu, Common and Lauryn Hill.
West graced the show three times, in 2004, 2005 and 2006, and on each episode we got a sneak peek of an as-yet-unreleased song. Read on to see what the "old Kanye" can teach us about West's artistic progression.
Self Conscious, 2004
Kanye West’s first very first appearance on Def Poetry Jam shows how far he’s come. It’s clear that most of the audience haven’t heard of him before — even as Mos Def introduces him as “the future of hip-hop.”
Launching straight into a spoken-word performance "Self Conscious,” Kanye set the scene by fake stuttering his way through his opening lines.
“This morning I spent a lot of time, like, trying to like pick out my outfit because I’m really into clothes,” The rapper revealed while gesturing toward his pair of adidas Superstars with the tag still on. “Imma be the best-dressed rapper out in the game.”
Fans of West’s discography will recognize most of “Self Conscious,” which forms part of his song “All Falls Down” that dropped the same year. But hearing the lyrics in spoken word format is a different experience entirely. The jokey bravado of “All Falls Down” is replaced by equally hilarious self-deprecating humor, but there's also a sincere element as the verse touches upon racial inequality.
18 Years, 2005
Walking out to huge cheers, just one year later you can see that Kanye West was on the cusp of becoming a huge star. The short clip also shows off West’s style evolution. Upgrading from his average-looking outfit from the year before, West is wearing his (for better or worse) iconic combination of a pink polo shirt and backpack.
But West’s burgeoning fame didn’t mean he wasn’t still humble. After thanking the show for having him, the rapper called the Poetry Jam “one of the most important days in the year to me, after Christmas, my mother’s birthday and my birthday.”
“Gold Digger” dropped the same year, and West’s “18 Years” spoken word formed the genesis of the popular track, albeit with a slightly darker ending. Before he launched into the performance, West explained how a warning his mom gave him was the inspiration behind the song. “Baby, I want you to put on three rubbers because I don’t want no girl out there fucking up our money,” she told him.
If anyone doubted Kanye West’s attention to detail before, this video will set you straight. For his final appearance on the show, West entered the stage like a model walking the runway. The rapper posed with an array of luxury luggage, that he then admitted “had nothing to do with the poem, whatsoever. I just thought it’d look good on TV.”
West’s final performance on the show brought not one, but two spoken word versions of tracks. The first was his verse on Rhymefest’s “Brand New” that included the line, “Ralph Lauren was boring before I wore him” — with that attitude it would have been almost impossible for West to not have become a style icon.
Then, West jumps into a spoken word preview of “Bittersweet Poetry,” a full year before the finished song was released.
So what does this tell us?
While it's always fun to look back at your favorite artists when they're starting out, these old videos of Kanye West are more than nostalgia. West isn't just a regular artist, he's succeeded simultaneously in both the fashion and music worlds in an unprecedented way, and looking at these early videos, it's not surprising.
West's passion for both fashion and music, his attention to detail and his commitment to his art is clear in these clips. Although there's a big difference between bringing luggage on stage to set the scene or wearing sneakers with the tags still on, and his current feats — which include getting kids to line up outside theaters across the world to watch a fashion show/listening party, revitalizing the tour merch format with his Pablo pop-ups, and even redefining what it means to finish an album with his constant editing of The Life of Pablo — these videos prove that Kanye West’s unparalleled creative vision was there from the beginning.
Next up, here are 10 songs that prove Lil’ Kim is still the real queen bee.