[Image via Mikkey Halsted]
“Now let's go, take 'em back to the plan / Me and my momma hopped in that U-Haul van” - Kanye West "Touch The Sky"
Every self-respecting Kanye fan knows the story all too well, it sounds like a movie. A young, talented, yet struggling producer who is destined for greatness packs up everything he has and heads to New York to pursue rap greatness. That infamous U-Haul may be the first chapter story of Kanye West, but did you know there’s a prologue?
I’ve been researching the early days of Cash Money a lot lately, especially in light of the Lil Wayne and Birdman feud, and I’ve learned that Cash Money has been a hip-hop soap opera since literally the first days of its creation. What I didn’t know though is that Kanye was almost a part of the empire. That’s right, Kanye Omari West almost signed to Cash Money.
Imagine a world where Kanye doesn’t meet Jay. Imagine a world where instead of “Go DJ” Weezy is rapping over “Go”? Imagine a world where Kanye and Birdman end up fighting and it leads to something like the Lil Wayne tour bus incident? It’s impossible to guess how history would have played out if Kanye had signed to Birdman and Slim, but it’s actually not that far of a reach, you just have to talk to the people who were there. So I did.
In my effort to track down Official, Cash Money’s lost R&B group, I got connected with Janina Gavankar. Janina is primarily an actress now, but over a decade ago she too was signed to Cash Money as part of the group, Endera. In our conversation about all things Cash Money she mentioned, almost in passing, that Kanye may or may not have been signed to the label at one point. Though she couldn't remember exactly how it had happened, Janina did mention someone who may know more - Mikkey Halsted. My head was spinning, so I followed the story.
I know Mikkey Halsted, the Chicago emcee is certainly accomplished and we’ve been featuring his work for years, but what I didn’t know is that he played a crucial role in the development of Kanye West and was once signed to Cash Money. Without exaggeration, Mikkey's story revolves around some of hip-hop's most pivotal moments ever, so this is the story of how Kanye West was almost a part of Cash Money. This is Mikkey’s story.
“One of my homies that was one of my artists, he got signed. But it was supposed to really go through my production company, but he ended up going straight with the company. So, like I'm just straight holdin' the phone, gettin' the bad news that dude was tryin' to leave my company” - Kanye West “Last Call”
That homie Kanye was referring to? Mikkey Halsted. Kanye mentions it on “Last Call,” but the story itself needs its own album. It’s remarkable and it’s best told in Mikkey’s words, so what follows is an abbreviated transcript of our phone call. Get your popcorn ready.
“I’m still in school at the time so it has to be…’98ish. I signed to Kanye. I was actually the first artist he ever officially signed. Back then it was called Kanman Productions. At that time, everyone who became someone from Chicago kinda came through his mamma’s house. So, we were the group that was under No ID and Common and they were also the guys we looked up to, like the big homies, but we were considered the shorty crew under them.
It was me, it was GLC, a kid by the name of Timmy G, another kid by the name of Arrow. Those three and Kanye formed a group called the Go Getters. That was Kanye’s first group, first rap group basically. After that you also had Rhymefest, you had Shawnna who ended up with DTP but before she was with the group called Infamous Syndicate. Who else? Cap 1, who is with 2 Chainz now, used to be signed with Motown back then. The list goes on and on.
"I was stayin in Chicago, I had my own apartment, I be doin like, just beats for local acts just to try to keep the lights on." - Kanye West, "Last Call"
My sister had a deal when she was like 14-years-old to this Jazz great Ramsey Louis’ label called Ivy Pyramid. She kinda met Kanye at the mall, she rapped, he rapped, they started talking back and forth and the next thing you know they were doing music. My sister gets a deal and Kanye is producing the whole album. So I used to go over to his mom’s house just to check on them and see them recording.
At that time…they were just hittin’ that freestyle and I end up freestyling and babbling and Kanye was like, ‘Man, you really are a dope’ but I didn’t take rapping seriously at that time. I was in school on a basketball scholarship, so that’s what my focus was really on. He gave me a beat tape and said, ‘Man see if you can write like the type of shit you be freestyling.’ I came home and wrote three songs and one of them was called ‘Foolish Game’ which blew up around Chicago, and it was really Kanye’s first soul sampling. It was like the blueprint for The Blueprint. It was a sped up soul sample I rapped on, and the next thing I know it was on the biggest radio station and all of a sudden my demo gets bootlegged in the street and became like the biggest thing in the city at that time.
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So Cash Money is having a tour. They come through Chicago. A friend of one of my cousins, some street guy, used to hang with Baby [Birdman], shoot dice, all of that stuff. I guess he [Birdman] asked them, ‘Who’s the hottest in Chicago?’ and they said me. A couple of weeks later, I got this guy on my phone saying, ‘Man, Baby and some of them called. They want to sign you. Baby took the CD on the tour bus, Wayne knows your lyrics word for word, he feels like you the best rapper, you can compete with Jay-Z.’
I’m signed to Kanye at the time, so we’re working on our project, building up the demo. I’m helping him work on his stuff, he’s working on my stuff. At that time it was more like I was the main rapper, he was the producer. So all of a sudden they calling me and I’m like, man, this shit is just happening overnight. I don’t really even understand what to do.
I said, ‘Kanye, man, they wanna fly me out and I told them they got to fly you out too.’ So Kanye went to New Orleans, brought all of the music from all the artists, and calls me and says, “Man, they offering me a deal for everybody on Kanman Productions. Everybody. Me, your sister, myself, Go Getters, the whole nine. They just wanna make it like Cash Money Midwest.’
I wasn’t actually a big Cash Money fan, Kanye was starting to get real placements, he would get like Beanie Sigel and was talking about working with Jay-Z on the album and so his career as a producer was really taking off. So I asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ He’s like, ‘Man, I’m not going to sign with Cash Money because it’s a little too street, the vibe is a little too much and they really want you anyway Mik. It’s like they just taking everybody because of you.'
I’m like, “Man, why don’t we just do it together?”
He like, ‘Nah, I really want to get to New York and go fuck with Roc-A-Fella.’ So he left the ball in my court. First they offered me a deal, and it was some good numbers, but I wanted to stay with Kanye. But they gave my sister the same deal and I ended up signing.
I felt I was going to win for the whole team because they were like, ‘Man, we just love your project. This is going to be your album. Maybe we put one [beat] from Mannie Fresh on it and we going to put this out.’ So I decided to make that move and as soon as I was in New Orleans, the next day I come up there asking about when Kanye was gonna get started on my album. They were like, “Man, we found out he samples, we don’t wanna use no Kanye beats because we don’t fuck with sampling.’
He [Birdman] didn’t want to pay for clearing samples and he felt like that was going to affect the publishing and that was part of the racket that he was running. He made me sign over my publishing, everybody that he signed he took their publishing, took everything, so it was affecting his bottom-line.
At that point I was like, ‘Man, fuck this, you tricked me! If Kanye can’t get no money out the deal, that was part of the agreement. That’s why Kanye was cool with it, because they were going to pay him half upfront for all his beats. And so I quit, Baby was taking off his shirt off, yelling, acting like he gonna kill me in the studio…
I’m like, ‘Fuck it man, if you gonna do it, all my family know where I’m at, so do whatever you gon’ do. I already cashed the check, and if Kanye can’t get no money off it, then fuck it. I quit. So me and Kanye were still talking through the whole process, Baby finally backs down. I stood my ground, drew the line in the sand, he was like, ‘Fuck it man, we’ll pay for the first five or whatever. Get him down here right now to track those up.’ And so he came down, tracked them out and the rest is history you know, he got the money from that and he moved to New Jersey.”
"So I went down and tracked the beats from him, I took that money, came back, packed all my shit up in a U-Haul, maybe about ten days before I had to actually get out so I ain't have to deal with the landlord cause he's a jerk. Me and my mother drove to..." - Kanye West, "Last Call"
I'll admit that can use the term mindblowing pretty loosely, but this is mindblowing. It's impossible to say for sure how things would have worked out, but it seems obvious that Kanye singing to Cash Money would have been a disaster. Baby didn’t like sampling and he also didn’t like to be questioned. Kanye is so passionate about his art and I honestly think he would not have backed down from Baby. Had Kanye signed to Cash Money, we wouldn’t have the same Lil Wayne, the same Kanye, or the same Jay Z. Hip-hop would look dramatically different.
It’s also incredible how much fate, chance, and just pure luck play into the shifts of history. In the moment things don’t seem that big, like Mikkey’s sister meeting Kanye in a mall, but in the long run these small decisions and events, like going to a mall, literally lead to Mikkey and Kanye parting ways. "Last Call" has always been the go-to for my Kanye history lesson, but I don’t even think I fully appreciated how incredible the story is until I heard it from Mikkey.
Oh, and the next chapter? What happened during the rest of Mikkey’s time at Cash Money? That’s another story for another time...
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]