Co-Directors Coodie and Chike on Jeen-Yuhs, Kanye, and Divine Intervention
There are few figures more entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist than Kanye West—the brash, uncompromising, oft-criticized, and always enigmatic rapper whose music has shaped a generation of hip-hop fans. But no matter what you or I think of the rapper at any given moment, one thing about him will always remain true: Kanye West doesn’t care about what we think. He only cares about what Kanye West thinks. Twenty years ago, when he was a no-name Chicago producer making beats for rappers (all of whom would beg to be featured on a Kanye album today), few people beyond his doting mother, Donda, believed in the inevitability of West’s success. Even today, with 21 Grammy Awards and 7 platinum albums under his belt, you won’t find anyone who loves Kanye quite like Kanye loves Kanye.
It’s hard to imagine that West was ever anything less than a bonafide star. But this year, thanks to Coodie Simmons’ Canon-GL1, millions of viewers were able to bear witness to the rapper’s determination and perseverance over four hours’ worth of footage from his early years. The result is jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, a three-part docuseries chronicling West’s meteoric to fame and his recent plummet from grace. Coodie, an upstart comedian and host of the iconic Chicago public access show Channel Zero, is a long-time friend of West’s, who recognized the budding rapper’s potential early on and set about documenting the creation of his debut album, The College Dropout. Coodie’s tapes are a major component of the documentary, which he co-directed with his long-time collaborator Chike Ozah. Interview sat down with the director duo to discuss Kanye’s early years, the filmmaking process, and the role of divine intervention in the creation of jeen-yuhs.
JACKSON WALD: Was there anything in the documentary that was left on the cutting room floor that you wish had made it in?
CHIKE OZAH: There was one moment, an altercation between Kanye and this other artist, when Kanye almost got his head bust open. Coodie filmed it—or, he thought he filmed it—but in actuality, he hit the wrong button on the camera, so you can only hear everything that’s going on. It’s so funny, because we tried to edit it into Act One, then we tried to put it in Act Two, and it just wasn’t working. It was a clip that could stand alone, and it would definitely go viral. But it wasn’t working with our storyline. So, we just came to the conclusion that god didn’t want that clip to come out, for whatever reason. I thought it was a strong clip, because it’s not all peachy and clean. There will always be roadblocks.
WALD: Can you describe who was involved in the altercation, or where it went down?
COODIE SIMMONS: It’s when Kanye sold the song “Never Change” to Jay Z. Mind you, Kanye originally sold the track to this dude Payroll, who’s in the movie, while he was in Chicago. Then Kanye played it for Jay, and Jay was like, “I love this. I want this track.” He loved the hook, so he had Kanye rap the rook, but it was really Payroll’s hook. Kanye took care of Payroll, but eventually Payroll realized how big [the song] really was, and he wanted more. In the end, they tried to come at Kanye. Back when we were doing Channel Zero, we filmed Payroll talking about the incident. It’s a whole arc. But as Chike said, I’m happy it didn’t make it in, because so much positivity came out of this film. They got Kanye out safe, but it was a huge fight. It was at a memorial for E2—a tragedy that happened at a Chicago club where 21 people got trampled and died. They had a memorial in Chicago for the families, and Kanye wanted to go out and perform for them. That was before he even blew up, and that’s when Payroll and them tried to get at Kanye. At the memorial.
WALD: I’m curious about Donda’s role in the documentary. Tell me a bit about how you shaped the film around her. Donda’s influence seems to be the biggest factor in what made Kanye Kanye.
CHIKE: It was important for us to share moments to help viewers understand just how far her love extended—past her own son, who she gave everything to. She had such a big impact, not only on Kanye’s life, but also on Coodie’s life. It was important for us to introduce her to the story when we did, and to show how Coodie got to know her, because Kanye had to feel comfortable enough in his relationship with Coodie even to allow him to meet his mother. So, there were levels to it. We felt like her spirit was with us throughout this process—Coodie has some amazing stories that prove how god was working, and how her spirit was working through Coodie directly to Kanye.
COODIE: When I met Donda for the first time, it was what god wanted to happen. In her conversations with Kanye, I never told them “Yo, y’all should talk about this, and y’all should sit over there.” I just captured all their moments together. I did her funeral presentation, which was the hardest thing I ever had to do, because she was a good friend of mine. I had to go through all this footage and put something together. Recently I rewatched the tape, which I’d titled “Donda and Kanye.” the first thing she said when I put it in was, “Kanye, I got something kind of serious I want to talk to you about.” It seemed like the tape was not totally rewound, and was just sitting and waiting at that part. When I saw that, it felt like Donda [saying], “I need you to send this to my son.”
COODIE: So I got Kanye’s email from Common, and in the email subject line I said, “Your mother told me to send this to you.” This was a week before he went to meet with Trump in the White House. He watched it the day before he went there, and he FaceTimed me and was like, “Dude, not in a million years do I remember her saying that. I’m like, “Me neither.” I had this amazing thought: What if she didn’t say it then? What if she’s only saying it now?
WALD: Nowadays, we’re our own documentarians—constantly filming ourselves and uploading our work to social media. Do you guys think a documentary like this could still be made or started today?
COODIE: For sure. I shot the last scene in San Francisco on an iPhone.
CHIKE: Technology is the reason, I feel, that we were even able to put this film out on a platform like Netflix—there’s more content allowed to come through the pipeline. When we started making this, the gatekeepers and barriers to entry were much bigger.
WALD: When did you two realize that the doc’s message was about more than Kanye? It’s really an overall statement on genius and purpose.
CHIKE: I’d say the message evolved. We initially presented this project to Kanye, as an opportunity [for him] to put it out. At that initial stage, it probably didn’t look much like this. It was more specific to Kanye. But as we’ve evolved in our spiritual journeys, we’ve tapped into different things, and our feelings about what’s important in life has changed. That’s when we realized that the work has a bigger purpose—to impact positivity in people’s lives. What’s important is helping people unlock their passion, and having faith to do that.
WALD: When you went back this old footage, what was it like to see yourselves and chart your own growth?
COODIE: Man, I miss my hair. [Laughs] It was great. I didn’t even realize how much I was filming myself.
WALD: If a pre-College Dropout Kanye could watch the full doc right now, how do you think he would react?
CHIKE: Man, I can’t let my imagination get in the way of God’s manifestation. You have no idea. Everything in life has to happen for a reason. Coodie gives a great example—he always equates this to Back To The Future. If you go back and you change one thing, that alters everything. Everything that happens to you, good and bad, puts you in the position you’re in right now. So if Kanye in the past watches this, he might not even become Kanye. Who knows?
COODIE: I second that.
WALD: Why did you guys choose to spell the title this way?
CHIKE: We wanted you to intrigue right out of the gate. But we also wanted it to mean something, so we looked through several dictionaries and found a word that was interesting to us. We just didn’t want to be too on the nose about it, because life isn’t on the nose. Life is full of subtext, and a lot of the meaning is in the subtext.
WALD: My last question for you guys: What, more than anything else, are you hoping that viewers will take away from this documentary?
CHIKE: Just understanding what it takes to achieve your dream, and the type of faith you have to have to overcome the adversities that are going to present themselves on that journey. I think we’re just lucky to have examples of that, in both Kanye and Donda. You know, people often say, “Speak it into existence, and it’s going to happen.” But in this film, we actually show you that. We show you what it means to walk the walk. It’s a blueprint. I think that’s special, but I also think it was ordained that this blueprint would come into existence. We’re merely the vessels to deliver it.