There’s a scene in the first volume of the soon-to-be-released trilogy of films documenting the rise of Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, where we find a young ‘Ye in a studio session with Memphis Bleek. Ye poses a question to Memphis Bleek: what rapper do you know to have gone platinum out of Chicago to which Bleek comically responds “R Kelly” before being reminded that R Kelly’s no rapper. That scene encapsulates the depth of the task ahead of Kanye as he sets his sights on making a dent in the mainstream as a Producer and rapper from the Chi feted more for his beats than his rhymes.
The greatest reflection of Mr. West’s success lies not just in the milestones that grace his career but the quality of the talent to have passed within his inner caucus. From the late Virgil Abloh to Don C to Hitboy, it’s a constellation. For Clarence “Coodie”’ Simmons Jr. and Chike Ozah, two understated members of that brain trust, the culmination of 20 years of work is reflected in jeen-yhus. Coodie, a fellow Chicago native met West in their hometown and set himself the goal of recreating Hoop Dreams- the classic documentary which follows two promising basketballers on their ultimately futile journey to make it to the big time – with a music subject. Kanye’s eventual greatness makes the film a richer experience and also helps to contextualize the dichotomy between the fabled old Kanye and the new Kanye. The old Kanye told the world of his genius and came across as deluded while the new Kanye has been jaded as a result of the battle scars that come on the tortuous path to superstar status. Over the course of the twenty years, a lot has happened but one thing stands out: both directors have nothing but the best interests of their friend at heart and in that sense, jeen-yhus debuting in Black History Month and a day after Valentine’s Day is a reflection of that love. From capturing his first Chicago rap beef to some wholesome footage with his mother, Dr. Donda West, it captures the essence of the come-up of the multi-hyphenate.
Our conversation conducted over Zoom starts with Chike and me reflecting on our obvious common characteristic: being of Nigerian heritage. He greets me in Igbo screaming “Kedu” while Coodie sips from his mug in preparation for what will be a busy afternoon of press rounds.
Our conversation is documented below and has been slightly edited for clarity.
Could you talk about how and where you first met Kanye and how that evolved into this moment?
Coodie: I first met Kanye at a barbershop in Chicago called Mellow Swing. He’d come up there with tracks and I noticed how talented he was. I had a TV show, Channel Zero, which I was the host of so I would interview other artists like No I.D, Common and Gravity. They all were mentioning Kanye because they were getting beats from him and then I kept on running into Kanye after that and I felt that I could kinda mentor him. I used to drive the source truck which had speakers on the outside and Kanye had this mixtape he did with Mikky Halsted. I would go and pick him up and we’d ride around listening to the mixtape and we’d go to an Abstract Mindstate party or wherever we’d go. When I saw the movie Hoop Dreams, that’s when I decided I’d do one on him. I’d seen him perform with his rap group, the Go-Getters and he was so charismatic on stage. He commanded the stage, produced the music and his words were so powerful to me that I’m like “He’s going to win Grammys and I’m going to document him till he wins those Grammys.” I couldn’t believe people didn’t see what I saw and I thank God he gave me the vision to see that.
One of the things that stands out from the first film and is really resonant in Ye’s career is that people took him for granted and wanted to take advantage of him for his Production. As people who witnessed this happen in real-time, what lessons do you think young artists and creatives should take away?
Coodie: The power of manifestation. If you can conceive and believe, you can achieve. Don’t stop no matter what. If you believe in yourself and you’re moving with Christ- he had Jesus Walks then- all things are possible no matter what. That’s the way you have to move. You have to have that faith and that’s what this film represents. It represents that all of us have genius inside of us and you gotta discover it and move on it. What’s your destination and where are you trying to go in life? You have to know that. I think Kanye is a great representation of that. Not only Kanye but myself. Starting to document him and building my whole career about creating something. Then meeting Chike and the mastermind alliance that was created to this point with all our editors and J. Ivy and you know, the things that we did. Everything we did up to this point, was a rehearsal.
With the amount of footage you have, what was the process for filtering and narrowing down your focus to using the footage you did?
Chike: We are students of film, that’s our medium but we really have been studying story for the past five, six years ‘cos we’ve been embarking more on screenplay writing. That journey really prepared us for this moment and picking the right story we wanted to tell. We really wanted to tell a story that would align us for a narrative film. Since we were doing a scripted narrative, we wanted to apply that format of storytelling to this documentary. We planted that seed with our editors. It really helped solidify what footage was important to be in this film because the footage needed to align with our protagonist and what their desire and goals were. It helped us make that three hundred and thirty-some hours lighter and a little less daunting.
And when we brought in J Ivy to write it too, the first thing we told him to do was what Nina Bon Jovi told us to do: read Story by Robert McKee. We don’t even feel like it’s a documentary. I remember watching Ray and thinking “all these scenes we got in our movie”. We didn’t talk much about relationships ‘cos that was not the goal for this movie. It was just to show the kids how to luck that inner genius. It flows like a movie and not a documentary.
Another thing that stands out from the documentary is how much ‘Ye is centered by his mum, Donda. What story were you trying to tell about their relationship and her role in his career?
Coodie: The footage really speaks for itself. It’s not like I was like “Donda, do this. Say this”. She was so supportive of Kanye and I was just the vessel to capture that. When it comes to Donda, she took us in as her kids and we all responded to the knowledge she was putting on Kanye. You know, most parents want you to go to school and get a good job and when you have a dream, they tell you how it ain’t work for somebody else. Donda was like “Imma make this work. Oh you got a dream? I’ll buy you an mp3. Oh you have a dream? I’ll introduce you to No I.D and Doug Infinite.” She was so supportive and they were really like best of friends, not just mum-son.
There’s a clear gap in your access to Kanye. What did you guys do to try to fill that gap and how do you think it affects the final product?
Coodie: We used my daughter also as a vessel to show you how you have to have faith. My daughter was 2 pounds when she was born prematurely. The same way I see her is the same way I see Kanye. And when I say that, what I mean is that I’ve seen them both when they were in their premature stage and seen their evolution into full beings.