Kanye West is one of the most influential rappers/producers of all time, there’s no doubt about that. Where he ranks among the all time greats will always be up for discussion, but the impressive combination of his own music along with the songs and beats he’s produced for others (not to mention his longstanding cultural impact) puts him on a level few could touch.
Of course, hip-hop has always been a genre of battles and comparisons more than any other style of music. Rock will always have its debates (see: Beatles vs. Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols vs. Ramones, Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam), but they’ll never be as plentiful as hip-hop’s. For every rapper, there’s another rapper to compare against, and even the producers and record execs get in on the game.
Yeezy might be in the upper echelon of the genre’s history, but it doesn’t mean he’s free from comparisons. Instead of looking to his contemporaries, let’s take a trip to the recent past to find an appropriate counterpart. It would have to be someone with a near-flawless track record in the studio, an enormous impact outside of the music industry, and just enough controversy to make suburban parents hate them while the country’s youth flock to them. Sounds like someone might have just the prescription for that.
Before there was Kanye, before there was Jay Z, Wu-Tang Clan, 2Pac or Notorious B.I.G., there was N.W.A. As anyone with $10 and three hours to kill in a movie theater these days could tell you, N.W.A. was kind of a big deal. Eazy-E and Ice Cube were critical pieces, but it was Dr. Dre’s unique production and musical direction that led to the Compton-based group’s sound.
Given his accomplishments as an artist, as a producer for other rappers, and as a businessman, Dre’s success is about as close of a comparison to Kanye as you’ll find, even if the two are almost entirely different musicians. Let’s start by looking at the two for their own work, which would be enough to consider them legendary rap figures on both accounts.
Kanye’s first two records (2003’s The College Dropout and 2005’s Late Registration) are both considered to be among the best hip-hop albums of the 2000s (and possibly of all time). The College Dropout brought West into the public’s eyes and ears, and his use of previously underutilized sounds from gospel music and strings to altered soul vocals blew the minds of critics and fans alike. Kanye elevated hip-hop to a new level by spitting top-notch lyrics over beats the likes of which no one had ever heard before, but everyone would imitate in the future.
The College Dropout wouldn’t be Kanye’s last time breaking down boundaries with his beats, as nearly every one of his subsequent albums pushed the limits of what hip-hop music could sound like. While we have 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak to thank for everyone and their mother abusing auto-tune for a few years, most current producers and rappers are just now figuring out exactly what to do with the groundbreaking sound of 2013’s Yeezus.
In a similar manner to how each of West’s albums has changed the hip-hop world, Dre shaped the sound of much of the ‘90s rap scene and into the 2000s with his work ranging from N.W.A. in the late ‘80s to some of the biggest hits of the ‘90s and that fellow named Marshall Mathers toward the end of the decade and into the next century.
Dating all the way back to 1987’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” Dre has always had a signature sound. The moment you hear a song produced by Dre, you know you’re listening to a song produced by Dre. Throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s, almost all of Dre’s tracks (particularly his work on his solo debut, 1992’s The Chronic) featured a stabilizing heavy bass line with the iconic sound of his famous synth over it. Dre’s use of samples (both recorded and re-created live) also helped to bring the sound of everyday hip hop from that classic ‘80s hip hop sound to what we hear today.
But that’s not where Dre’s influence ends, or even really where it hits its stride. From ‘90s classics like 2Pac’s “California Love” to Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Dre’s impact on the last few decades of hip-hop is undeniable. To this day, Dre remains one of the most sought-after producers (and record execs, see: Aftermath Entertainment) in the industry, helping to launch the careers of generations of rappers, from Eminem to 50 Cent to the Game.
Much like how Dre spawned Slim Shady, which led to 50 Cent and the Game, Kanye knows a thing or two about jumpstarting careers himself. After West’s career was given a boost by the magical entity known as Jay Z, the Chicago-based rapper helped Common reach a bigger audience with 2005’s Be (before he became a well-known actor/political statement). Since then, West has helped kick off the careers of rappers like Pusha T, Travis Scott, Big Sean, and a whole lot more, particularly on his record label, GOOD Music.
Running a record label, creating their own music, and producing hits for other artists would be enough work for most rappers/producers, but that’s only where Dre and Kanye begin.
If you’ve paid any attention at all to music or tech business over the last few years, you know that Dre created (kind of) and sold off his Beats By Dre headphone line to Apple for an ungodly amount of money ($3.2 billion). Other than being one of the richest men in hip-hop, Dre’s cultural influence expands to everything from films (including Straight Outta Compton, obviously) to sinking enough money into USC for them to name their new art/technology/business hybrid school after him.
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While Kanye might not (yet) have a college named after him, Yeezy’s arguably the most influential musical figure of the 21st century. Aside from music, West’s name can bring an insane price tag (and amount of hype) to nearly any item of clothing or other piece of merchandise. Regardless of how unwearable or bland his clothes are sometimes, men (and some women) under the age of 35 will shell out hundreds for almost anything with West’s name on it.
Politically, neither Dre nor Kanye have ever had a problem speaking their mind. Whether it’s N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” or Kanye’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” rant, they’ve both been voices of political unrest for their respective eras. Neither is flawless, with Dre’s well-documented past of domestic violence and Kanye’s various scuffles with photographers and off-the-wall narcissistic comments and lifestyle (plus, the whole Kardashian thing), but between the two of them, they’ve left an impact on the world that’ll likely never be forgotten.
Historically speaking, there are an awful lot of parallels that can be drawn between two of hip hop's best rapper/producer combos, but they're ultimately almost impossible to judge against one another. Of course, that’s not even mentioning the eternally delayed Detox and SWISH albums that may or may not ever see the light of day.