Long-standing NZ journo Duncan Greive has been lucky enough to meet Kanye West twice. Once during a 2006 meet and greet and the other three years later for a proper interview. It’s that interview we’re particularly curious about; so we chatted to Duncan to find out exactly what Mr. West is like, how wild it’s been watching him evolve, and what the favourite interview snack for the superstar is.
First off, I just wanna start with how the hell does one get the chance to chat with Kanye West?
The first time he was here he did a show at St. James Theatre in Auckland (2006) and he wasn’t doing any interviews, so I didn’t get to actually interview him, but they sort of snuck me into a meet and greet. And I’m obsessed with this book ‘The Fight’ by Norman Mailer (about Muhammed Ali and George Foreman’s 1974 fight aka The Rumble in the Jungle) and I just thought it was a weird thing to get Kanye West to sign and I thought it would prompt him into a conversation. He told me he’d done a video, which he scrapped and never released, but apparently it was a recreation of The Rumble in the Jungle. So that was really interesting to me because I’ve always felt like Kanye was sort of like a 21st Century version of Ali in a lot of ways. This polarising figure; sort of has his core form, which is his music, but he transcends that. He says these uncomfortable truths that society doesn’t wanna hear. So that was like a tiny encounter but all it did was make me more obsessed with the idea of interviewing this guy.
Talk me through what the interview experience was like.
I think it was the 808s & Heartbreak era (2009). He’d been around for a while then. I think it was his fourth album, but it was kind of the first of that second era where he became such a singular artist and was just completely detached from what the main currents of hip hop were doing. So, he did a little round of interviews at that time and we got ushered in to meet him. He was wearing sunglasses the whole way through, and he was sort of sitting at a 90-degree angle to me. And as I recall he didn’t really look at me the whole time. Then about halfway through he got brought one of those really massive, sloppy hamburgers and just ate that during the interview. It was all quite surreal, but he was an incredible subject. Because I was so obsessed with him, I really plotted it and I think I opened by saying that I thought, and again another ridiculous comparison to the Ali thing, that 808s & Heartbreak reminded me of Queen. It had this really pure sound. It had that sort of singular vision that was very much apart from the rest of music and was just very emotionally raw. And I was like this is a bit of a gamble because he just might not be into Queen, but he really liked it and played with the idea. It was just a really heady interview. But thinking about him as he was then, as I encountered him, it’s still one of the most memorable interviews of my life. Not just because I think he’s the most significant music artist of the 21st Century, but because I didn’t know at the time that there’d only be a few more years of that Kanye around, and who knows if it’ll ever come back.
If you had the opportunity to repeat your interview with him tomorrow, how different do you think his answers would be?
Very different. I think in terms of his music, every time he releases something there’s still flashes in there you can’t imagine anyone else would come out with, but it used to be that whole songs and whole albums would be entirely composed of that and now it’s just glimpses. Or maybe I’m just getting old and just not connected to it in the same way. But I do wonder about it. Because of the texture of it all and the scale of his life, he’s still one of the most interesting people on the planet as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t know if you would get nearly so much from him now as I did back then.
Did anything funny or unexpected happen in the interview? Was Kanye who you expected him to be?
Yeah, I mean, the sunglasses and the burger … I thought there would be something different about him versus any other interview. Like, you’ve gotta eat, but it was just something about the way it just disintegrated in his hand. And the lack of eye contact and the craziest sunglasses. You’re in the most antiseptic environment, a hotel conference room, and you’ve just got this megawatt star both being that star but also just being a normal person trying to get some food in while he does everything else. It was both surreal and mundane because of the surroundings. But he was a great, generous, fascinating subject. I just can’t emphasise that enough.
How nervous were you going into the interview?
I used to always get super nervous interviewing artists I loved, especially face to face. I think it took me years before I realised I was asking these really long-winded questions that were just a desperate attempt to show that I was different to the other interviewers and I was really into their music or something. Which they don’t care about. You know, just ask a succinct and interesting question, don’t try to ask about the producer of some obscure album track that’s really not that interesting to anybody else. So, I was nervous, but I was mainly just excited because I’d had interviews scheduled for ages cancelled, rescheduled, cancelled and then just disappear. And I thought I was gonna go through my career as a music writer and never get to speak to my favourite artists. So the fact the interview was actually happening was just awesome.
How wild has it been watching him evolve? Especially when you met him so early in his career.
Really wild. I think it’s relatively normal for musicians to have an arc to their career or for your attachment to or engagement with their work to sort of wax and wane. You know, Kanye spent 12 years just at this constant peak. And during that time, he always said some quite extravagant stuff to provoke and to maybe troll a bit. It’s only post-Trump that he’s started to properly cause a stir. I think it’s the hardest thing to do, being a star and then not necessarily having that same hold over the public. No one could watch it and not be saddened and affected by it.
What would you say is the most compelling thing about him?
The number of times he’ll just shock you with new music, every time it’s like he’s starting from complete scratch. He’s obviously so uninterested in doing what’s popular or easy or routine, which is just so rare in a massive artist. It’s so rare in any artist. It’s exhausting to just start from scratch every time and it’s exhausting to be that exposed and that far from what’s comfortable all the time. And maybe that’s had an impact on him, but I think about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus and College Dropout and they were all, in their own way, just totally trailblazing and ground-breaking records. Just so frequently he’s got the absolute best out of artists, like Nicki Minaj’s verse on ‘Monster’ is still probably the best thing she’s ever done. There’s just some kind of alchemy and generosity, and the way he can just put so many different people and personalities in a room and get the absolute best work of their careers out of them is just very rare and special.
I just have some quickfire questions. First, what’s your favourite Kanye album?
Honestly, and this is such a cop-out, but it’s probably College Dropout. It’s certainly the one I’ve listened to the most and I just love the honesty and the humour and the format, I mean there’s like 12-minute songs on it … ‘Never Let Me Down’ still knocks me dead. But I still think MBDTF is probably the bravest and most sprawling. To do that that late in your career, it’s like a mind-blowingly complex album that melodically is still brilliant. Those two. I would probably argue with myself all day over those two.
Top 5 songs?
Top 5 songs?! Oh man. Let me just look at my phone quickly. Okay. ‘Never Let Me Down’ is definitely one, ‘Dark Fantasy,’ ‘Runaway,’ ‘Ultralight Beam,’ and ‘Waves’ … that’ll do.
And lastly, if you could just say one thing to him now, what would it be?
Just be content with your life and achievements. Kind of detach from the cycle of public life and focus on getting yourself the right people and help around you.