While many die-hard Kanye West fans probably think that his earliest recorded material comes from mixtapes like ‘Get Well Soon..’ and ‘I’m Good,’ his first appearance on a record actually came 7 years prior. In our latest #HSTBT, we explore the origins of the album ‘Down to Earth’ by Grav.

For most people, Kanye West’s name entered popular culture when his debut album, The College Dropout, was released in February of 2004 – setting in motion the career for one of the most polarizing people in music history. Before his major label release, West had several mixtapes floating around in Chicago like Get Well Soon.. and I’m Good which featured earlier versions of “Jesus Walks”- as well as lines which would later appear on “New Workout Plan.” However, these weren’t even the earliest recordings in West’s Career. His appearance on Grav’s 1996 album, Down to Earth, holds that distinction.

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In 1996, Kanye West was 19 years old and already hard at work trying to become the next big thing in hip-hop. He notably performed at Fat Beats in August of that year in front of established emcees like ILL BILL, Arsonists, Lord Finesse, Adagio, Breeze Brewin, A.L. Skills, Percee P, J-Live, Mr. Live, Chino XL and Al Tariq.

At that same time, hip-hop music was evolving into a genre that was embraced by the masses. The success of songs like LL Cool J’s “Hey Lover,” Bone Thugs -N-Harmony’s “Crossroads,” OutKast’s “Elevators,” Nas’ “Street Dreams,” and Do or Die’s “Po Pimp” proved that there was ample room for different styles and interpretations for what was the “right way” to craft a rap song.

In addition to Do or Die, other Chicago acts were starting to make noise outside of the city as well. Crucial Conflict had released “Hay” from their album, The Final Tic, and Common had already released Can I Borrow a Dollar? and Resurrection. However, there was another rapper starting to make noise as well.

Gravity, or Grav, spent the first 18 years of his life in Harlem – attending high school with G-Dep of Bad Boy notoriety – before spending the next 18 years of his life  in Chicago. “I’ve been musical my entire life,” he told RedefineHipHop. “I remember the first rhyme I wrote. I didn’t take rhyming seriously until Chicago. After I was in Chicago, is when I realized I would deal with it from a professional level. Chicago put me in a position to be like, ‘I’m going to hone this.'”

While attending the Art Institute for school, Grav lived in a dormitory off campus where other college students from nearby schools like Columbia College also stayed. His tenure in the dorms was a short one. He soon moved into an apartment with two other people – one of whom had already formed a hip-hop collective called “Kinetic Order” that was signed to Chameleon Records. “Before they even got the deal, living with Rob Free, I was like ‘damn I done fucked around and lucked up and got in the house with some motherfuckers who make music. What are the chances of that?!’ We were surrounded by music everyday.”

Soon after, Grav and another producer formed a group, Indigenous Theory. “It was like, ‘Here we go. We’re going to do this.'” The duo notably performed on the same bill as Biggie and OutKast at a show in New York City.

As Indigenous Theory began making a name of themselves as a group, Kanye West was also attempting to stand out in the Windy City. West talked to Details about his earlier years, saying, “People ask me a lot about my drive. I think it comes from, like, having a sexual addiction at a really young age,” he says. “Look at the drive that people have to get sex—to dress like this and get a haircut and be in the club in the freezing cold at 3 A.M., the places they go to pick up a girl. If you can focus the energy into something valuable, put that into work ethic . . . ”

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By 1996, Grav went to work on his solo album, Down to Earth, on Correct Records. Spanning 15 songs, it notably featured production from the likes of No I.D. and Dug-Inf. It also included eight songs that were produced by a then unknown Kanye West – two of which he rapped on.

“Gravity recalled his earliest interaction with West, saying, “I was either going to, or coming out of a Fugees concert, and this young kid, runs up to me and is like, ‘yo, I heard you got a record deal. You should let me get some beats on your album. I’m nice. I got skills.’ He’s like ‘my name is Kanye. You should just come to the car and let me play some beats for you.’ I go to the car. He pops in the cassette. Fire! Off the bat. I’m telling cats. The boy was a childhood prodigy way back then.”

It’s clear that Grav’s only solo album has received the “Kanye-boost.” There are only four copies available for purchase on Amazon – ranging in price from $99-$198 USD. While Grav has faded into a quiet, Chicago lifestyle and Kanye West has become “the greatest living rock star on the planet,” the former insists that he still makes music and does extensive voice over work in the advertising industry.

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Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.