Kanye West made his break as an artist in September 2003, when he released his debut single, "Through the Wire," but as it turns out, a sample clearance battle with Chaka Khan, whose 1984 hit "Through the Fire" is the backbone of the track, nearly prevented the record from ever being released.
In an interview with ItsTheReal on their A Waste of Time podcast, Chicago filmmakers Coodie and Chike, who directed the video for "Through The Wire" before the sample was cleared, shared the backstory behind the sample clearance process for the record—a story that was previously shared only once and completely flew under the radar—which fatefully included the help of Khan's own son.
"Chaka Khan won't clear the sample. We like, 'Huh, Chaka Khan won't clear the sample?' I mean, for weeks, we went to the meeting[s] with the lawyer, and he's like, 'We told her he's from Chicago, he almost died.' And it's probably not even Chaka, it's her people. But they wouldn't clear it. I used to do these barbeques every Sunday at my crib in Harlem when I moved there, and Kanye and John Legend and everybody would just come through, we just hangin' out, and one day, my boy, JB Marshall, brought Chaka Khan's son through, and we like, kickin' it, and we're like, let's show him the video. So we show him the video, and he's like, 'Ahh, man, I gotta show my moms this. Man, can I take this?' We're like, 'Yeah, do it.' He took it and, it might have been a week later, that she cleared. Might have been a month, but I like to say a week [laughs]." - Coodie
The story starts around the 31:20 marker:
When the pair was asked if Khan's son attending the barbeque was a calculated move by West or merely a stroke of good fortune, Coodie and Chike made clear that serendipity, not puppeteering, was the reason.
"Totally uncalculated, all God," said Chike.
After being cleared, "Through The Wire" was selected as the lead single from West's acclaimed 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, eventually peaking at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
West famously recorded the single in 2002, two weeks after a near-death car accident in Los Angeles that forced doctors to wire his jaw shut. "I felt like even if the song didn't blow up, that once other songs did blow up—which I knew they would—people would just look back and say, 'Man, do you remember his first song? He recorded it with his mouth wired shut! He's crazy!" West toldYahoo! Music in 2004.
While West undoubtedly owes his early success as a solo artist to "Through The Wire," there is one person who wasn't happy about the record blowing up and kickstarting West's career: Chaka Khan.
During a 2015 interview with Britain's Daily Mail, Khan said, "I didn't like at all what he did with my song because he made me sound like a chipmunk... I didn't know that he was going to take my vocal and speed it up. I didn't give him permission to do that and yet the song kickstarted his entire career."