Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" Turns 10: A Conversation With Anthony Kilhoffer
It’s officially been 10 years since Kanye West released, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. An album that was snubbed for Album Of The Year at the Grammys yet had a longer-lasting impact than anything else nominated in that category that year.
Following four back-to-back critically acclaimed albums that shifted the culture, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy captured the essence of hip-hop at a time when artists like Soulja Boy and Future were emerging and shifting the game.
“Dark Twisted Fantasy was like the last of the great — let’s put the coffin in, let’s put this to rest, this is what boom bap music is, or should have been. That was my take on it, to make the best of that era, and close it out,” Anthony Kilhoffer, Kanye’s engineer from College Dropout to Ye, told HNHH over the phone.
On a personal level, it was Kanye’s triumphant return after a brush with cancel culture. The VMA incident with Taylor Swift put a stain on his legacy, one that’s continued to drag on 10-years later.
“He’s a legendary producer,” Kilhoffer explained of the album’s legacy. “Kanye could produce a hit, you know, like a no. 1 hit, but he oftentimes chose to make more avant-garde art pieces. So this, in the wake of the Taylor Swift thing, he’s like, ‘Man, I’m gonna show everyone that I can hit it from the three-point line all day long, so that’s what I’m gonna do.’ You know, that’s kind of what it was.”
For the 10-year anniversary of Kanye’s magnum opus, we chopped it up with Anthony Kilhoffer about the album’s legacy, the Hawaii sessions, and so much more.
HNHH: Hey Anthony. It’s Aron from HotNewHipHop.
Anthony Kilhoffer: How are you, Aron?
I’m good, I’m good. How are you doing?
Dope, dope, I’m glad to hear that. Thank you so much for your time on a Sunday, just to chop it up with me about this album. I’m sure you’ve heard it so many times before, but the project does mean a lot to me and a lot of people my age, and your contributions to Kanye’s career over the years and the music you’ve created has left a long-lasting impact on me and my generation, so I’m really appreciative for taking the time to speak with me.
No worries, I appreciate the kind words and, you know, I’m still trying to put more music out there for the world.
And you know what, we’re always waiting on it, man. Before we start, tell me about what your role was exactly on the project.
My role was the engineer. I produced a couple songs that didn’t make the final record. I did some additional production, but mostly I just recorded. I mixed all the singles except “Power,” but, you know, I mixed “Runaway,” “All of The Lights,” a bunch of other ones. I can’t remember exactly, it’s been, like you said, 10 years. But I was there pretty much from January 1st, 2010 to the end. From Hawaii to New York. And at the time, you know, touring with Kanye, finishing the songs since he was doing some promo and we were doing, you know, just regular tour sh*t from the last album.
And that would be 808s, correct?
Okay, word. Let’s just start with the beginning of this project; can you take me back to what the first initial steps with this project were? What were those first initial conversations among Kanye, among you guys and the entire team, in putting this album together? Was there already a vision laid out for it, or was that something you guys had to work towards throughout the process?
I mean, Kanye had his vision from the beginning. He was very precise and concise on everything. He had his, you know, like you saw, there’s pictures on the wall of the different parameters of things that were acceptable and not acceptable as part of the instrumentation. Kind of where your head’s at musically, where his head was at musically. They tried to show whoever was involved what was an acceptable contribution and what was not an acceptable contribution. I mean, he had an idea, it had started a little bit prior in Los Angeles. But then January 1st of 2010, he had hardly — soon after December, he had gotten a place out there in Hawaii, and then he had a party, and they called me New Years Eve and they were like, “You want to come out now?” and I was like, “Let’s just wait ‘till the 1st.” ‘Cause they’re really gonna start on the 2nd. You know, so I think I flew out there New Year’s Day of 2010, you know, we stayed in Hawaii until June, really. Straight.
Sh*t, so that was a real six-month…’cause the stories I’ve heard, in the past 10 years of people revisiting this album, is that it was very much like a — I don’t want to say a boot camp, but it was pretty rigid scheduling in terms of waking up in the morning and then recording.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it was serious. There was no days off — no days off. No days going to the beach, no days…you know, once in a while we’d go home. I had a child in the middle of the whole thing, so I went home for three weeks and had a baby and then brought her back. Like, 10 days old, to Hawaii, and then continued working on the record.
Damn. Just like, on a personal note, I assume your kid’s obviously 10 years old, I don’t know if they would even acknowledge how impactful this album was, but to them, do they at such a young age, do they recognize being in that sort of environment?
They have no idea, bro. She has no idea.
Is that something you ever talk to them about, at least?
No, I totally downplay it a little bit because I don’t want my daughter to be involved in the music business, you know, at all. Even though she wants to be a rapper, I just don’t think — it’s not a great business in the first place. And secondly, for women it’s even more difficult, so I try to act like it’s not a great thing.
I remember hearing an interview where you started working with Kanye on College Dropout and he pretty much had the album ready, and you came in and then that’s when pieces of the puzzle were starting to kind of come together, in terms of, I think it was Tony Williams’ vocals and John Legend’s piano, so I wanted to know — from working with Kanye on College Dropout, how did you see that artistic development up until My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?
I mean, that’s a broad question, because there’s a lot of development throughout. That’s seven years of somebody’s life, you know? From 2004 — I probably met him in 2003 — so yeah, it’d been seven years. That’s massive development of what they’ve experienced in life, and at the speed that culture has changed, you know. In 2004, there was no Twitter, right? There was no iPhones. It was a CD game. By the time it was 2010, Twitter was alive. Mostly Kanye communicated through the Kanyeuniversecity website, which he kind of used as Twitter before Twitter existed. I mean, it’s just like, it’s different. It’s hard to say, you know…it’s a broad question, so I really don’t know how to answer that except of what I said.
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Fair enough, let me try and narrow that down. 808s was obviously a left-field album that went on to influence what we’re hearing today. During that time, what was piquing his interests sonically and artistically that influenced My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?
Well, I mean, maybe My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was more of a go-back-to-the-origin of his hip-hop influence with, you know, Mobb Deep and RZA and The Wu-Tang Clan kind of style. That was more of where his head was at. Was it 16 Chambers?
36 Chambers, yeah. Those were big influential things in Kanye’s life. Instead of chasing what pop culture was, instead of being innovative, perhaps going back to the original things that inspired him to make true hip-hop. It was all about true hip-hop. 808s was more of an avant-garde record. And this was a back-to-true-hip-hop, true ‘90s, early ‘90s. I think this was really rounding out ‘90s-era hip-hop. Dark Twisted Fantasy was like the last of the great — let’s put the coffin in, let’s put this to rest, this is what boom bap music is, or should have been. That was my take on it, to make the best of that era, and close it out.
As someone who’s worked with him closely over the years, do you think that was the pinnacle of Kanye West as an orchestrator? ‘Cause I feel like a lot of critics, a lot of people, a lot of fans, in general, as much as they love Yeezus and everything he’s put out since then, it’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that kind of stands on top of all of those projects.
I think that it’s just, this is more of an easy, palatable. Dark Twisted is more easily palatable to the masses. You know what I mean? It’s like a McDonald’s of hip-hop. Where I think Yeezus and Life of Pablo are more refined tastes, so it doesn’t reach the massive scale that Dark Twisted Fantasy could. ‘Cause Dark Twisted Fantasy could reach everyone — it had a larger demographic, right? From like, you know, 30-year old men in Queens, to hipsters in Los Angeles — it spoke to more people. If you liked the Wu-Tang Clan in 2010, you were probably 30 years old at least, because that album came out almost 20 years ago, so you’re drawing on that audience. At the same time, you’re drawing on the Bon Iver audience, which is 19 to 20-year-old young, super trainspotting tastemaker kids, so you’re grabbing more people. Then, with the Rick Ross feature and the Nicki feature, you’re getting young, rap hypebeast kids, right? So you’re drawing on a larger array of music culture, above popular culture. So that’s why everybody thinks it’s so great and so impactful, in my opinion. Because then, when you get more Yeezus and Life of Pablo, you know, you’re alienating yourself from a larger audience. You’re making more of an art piece and less of, just, something you could sell at Walmart. Not saying that it’s a sellable-at-Walmart kind of record, but it’s just, more people can access it.
“Where I think Yeezus and Life of Pablo are more refined tastes, so it doesn’t reach the massive scale that Dark Twisted Fantasy could. ‘Cause Dark Twisted Fantasy could reach everyone — it had a larger demographic, right? From like, you know, 30-year old men in Queens, to hipsters in Los Angeles — it spoke to more people. If you liked the Wu-Tang Clan in 2010, you were probably 30 years old at least, because that album came out almost 20 years ago, so you’re drawing on that audience. At the same time, you’re drawing on the Bon Iver audience, which is 19 to 20-year-old young, super trainspotting tastemaker kids, so you’re grabbing more people. Then, with the Rick Ross feature and the Nicki feature, you’re getting young, rap hypebeast kids, right? So you’re drawing on a larger array of music culture, above popular culture. So that’s why everybody thinks it’s so great and so impactful, in my opinion.”
I felt like the lead-up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was, in a sense, just as much of a focal point in his career as the music was. From your point of view, why this album is as highly regarded today as it was 10 years ago?
He’s a legendary producer. Kanye could produce a hit, you know, like a no. 1 hit, but he oftentimes chose to make more avant-garde art pieces. So this, in the wake of the Taylor Swift thing, he’s like, ‘Man, I’m gonna show everyone that I can hit it from the three-point line all day long, so that’s what I’m gonna do.” You know, that’s kind of what it was. That’s why I think he was gonna, just like, “I made 808s and everybody was like, ‘oh, this is weird, but cool,’” but at the same time, it wasn’t just certifiable, undeniable smashes, which kind of was what he was shooting for in Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Word. You mentioned all the features, so I wanted to dive in those a little bit. Were you in the room when Ross wrote his verse for “Devil in a New Dress?”
I think so. He wrote it in the back room, honestly. ‘Cause we had this back room — No, I think Justin, Bon Iver, actually recorded that verse in the back room. We had all different mini studios set up for people to just write raps to.. So you could sit in the room and have a Pro Tools rig and write while the other main studio was just working. You know what I mean?
‘Cause I remember him talking about, in his book, he was talking about how Kanye — he wrote a verse and then Kanye came back and was like, ‘I know you can do better than this,’ like, ‘Rewrite the verse,’ and then he came out with the iconic verse that is on the record today. So I guess, as an engineer, could you just talk to me about putting that song together, even the inclusion of Bon Iver?
Honestly, I don’t remember that much. That was more of a Mike Dean song. Everybody kind of has — you would gravitate towards one song — or not one song, but you would take on songs, and then take them down that road. I did more of contribution to “All of The Lights,” “Lost in the World.” So I don’t know, I really can’t speak on “Devil in a New Dress.” I just don’t remember. A lot goes on in 10 years.
“808s was more of an avant-garde record. And this was a back-to-true-hip-hop, true ‘90s, early ‘90s. I think this was really rounding out ‘90s-era hip-hop. Dark Twisted Fantasy was like the last of the great — let’s put the coffin in, let’s put this to rest, this is what boom bap music is, or should have been. That was my take on it, to make the best of that era, and close it out.”
How about Nicki’s verse on “Monster?” ‘Cause I remember her saying that she had to convince Kanye to keep it on the album. I’m just wondering if you recall hearing that verse in the studio for the first time.
I think I did remember hearing it. But I mean, she would just come in super early, she was very private, she’d come in super early. She liked Andrew Dawson, so she’d work with him at like, 10 in the morning while we were at breakfast. And yeah, that’s how that got done. You know, she was very quiet, sat on the couch and just listened to the beat over and over, wrote the verse, got up, spit it, and flew away. I don’t know what their conversations were, post-that experience. So i can’t say what that was about, but you know.
For sure. Another one I wanted to talk to you about was “All of The Lights.” I remember once the album came out, people were talking about how Drake was supposed to be on that record — I’m just wondering, for one, how many people do you remember contributing to the song, at least with full verses to it?
I can’t remember. I don’t think Drake had a full verse. I think everyone was just, like, contributing little ideas. He’s on the final version, I know that for sure. It’s so difficult, ‘cause at the time, there’s so much going on and I can’t remember everyone’s specific contribution. You know, at the same time Kanye’s doing Saturday Night Live and preparing for promotional tours, and getting ready for the Macy’s Day Parade, I can’t specifically remember every bit.
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Is there a particular memory from working on this album that sticks out to you the most?
Driving to the studio at night. you know. There’s not very many people driving through the Honolulu streets at 11 pm. ‘Cause that’s usually when I would get to the studio, about 11 pm. A lot of time. A lot of critiquing of mixes. A lot of time discussing. You know, the vision of the record — each sound being used, each kick, each snare, changing tempos of songs. ‘Cause this was also kind of at the birth of trap music, where trap music was becoming super popular. Analyzing tempos of boom bap songs compared to trap music. And trying different versions of songs and different tempos, but with the same melodies, same sample, just with different approaches to those sounds.
No, for sure. It’s actually interesting you mention it because that’s around the time when you have artists like Future and some of the more influential trap artists of our generation starting to plant the seed for the next decade. And as you mentioned, this album was approached as if it were the nail in the coffin to boom bap.
Well, you gotta think, Soulja Boy had already came out. Soulja Boy is, in my opinion, that is the defining change in trap/boom bap/popular culture/hip-hop music. Like, that moment is where the whole game changed, in my opinion. No one gives Soulja Boy credit, but after that, everybody changed the tempo of the song, the boom bap-ness of the song. The mega-producer kind of fell off a little bit, more kids in their bedrooms. ‘Cause then soon after that comes Young Chop and, who’s his buddy? Sosa?
Oh, Chief Keef.
Yeah, Chief Keef, so that was soon on the heels of that, which was soon on the heels of Dark Twisted and after that, no looking back. ‘Cause Future’s Pluto came right before that, and then it all changed, in my opinion. Mike WiLL changed the face of what popular hip-hop is.
This has less to do with Kanye and more to do with yourself as a producer. But as someone who’s been in the game for decades at this point, how was it seeing that evolution in the game happen? Especially sitting in front of the boards, watching hip-hop go from this purist idea to artists like Future.
You just kind of have to always be listening to the kids and what the new influx is. Before the boom bap to trap, I survived the rock-and-roll to hip-hop world, right? And it was the same thing. The rock guys kept saying that this hip-hop sh*t is just like disco. “It’s gonna come and go and nobody cares, trust me, rock-and-roll is here to stay.” Well, they didn’t last very long, those people. So you always just have to, wherever kids are into, and see what’s bubbling in youth culture. That’s what you need to chase, basically. That’s what you need to adapt to.
“Those are calculated choices. It’s kind of like, then he’s trying to win, trying to stay focused on a Grammys Album of the Year. Kanye has always been snubbed with the Album of the Year award at the Grammys. He’s never won that, and that’s what we were trying to do during Dark Twisted, is make something that would win. So I’m not saying this exactly, but you know, if you bring in other people from other genres, you’re gonna get more looks in your reviews, in your Grammy pitches and all that. Because you’re gonna have people that have never listened to Kanye, might listen to Kanye because Justin Vernon’s [Bon Iver] on it.”
For sure. As collaborators, you two have often recruited new artists and helped them break out. Yeezus was Travis Scott and 808s was Kid Cudi. Can you talk to me about Bon Iver’s involvement on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? I felt that was among the first times he was truly embraced by the hip hop community on a mainstream level.
Well, Kanye had noticed his use of auto-tune, right — Justin was very early in imitating the T-Pain style and using harmonies, using the harmony engine. He was one of the first persons to use that in a different genre. So, he was just interested in that and felt like it would be good to collaborate with Justin. But it’s also, those are calculated choices. It’s kind of like, then he’s trying to win, trying to stay focused on a Grammys Album of the Year. Kanye has always been snubbed with the Album of the Year award at the Grammys. He’s never won that, and that’s what we were trying to do during Dark Twisted, is make something that would win. So I’m not saying this exactly, but you know, if you bring in other people from other genres, you’re gonna get more looks in your reviews, in your Grammy pitches and all that. Because you’re gonna have people that have never listened to Kanye, might listen to Kanye because Justin Vernon’s on it, you know what I mean?
Even though it’s probably one of the few albums in 2010 that we can acknowledge as a bonafide classic, did it kind of feel like, not necessarily a snub, but after doing all that work and obviously with Kanye being as meticulous and as much of a visionary as he is, were you hurt by not winning the Album Of The Year that year?
Yeah, one hundred percent. I mean, I was pissed, you know? It’s like, you spend all that time, dedication over every detail. I just think the Grammys just don’t like Kanye. It’s just like the Grammy board, its old group of people, old Hollywood, you know? The mindset of the voting population is not innovative, trust me.
In terms of some of these records and the many people who contribute to it, how often does the name actually play a factor in whether they’re brought on board?
Well, they’re always brought on board because Kanye has heard something they’ve done, and he likes it. You know what I mean? It’s like, no matter who is involved in the project, at one point in their career outside of working with him, they had made something that he likes. Something that he would personally listen to. So whoever was there, was there because he was a fan of theirs and wanted to get them involved and collaborate with them to get their energy on his final product.
I know you keep your ear to the streets and what’s happening with youth culture, but how often has he been the one to kind of put you onto new sounds, and vice versa?
I mean, a lot. Because he was, at the time, this is pre-streaming. This is pre-Instagram. The world was a smaller place. So he was way more peripheral in international travel, right, and since Kanye was a massive star in America, all these other artists around the world would try to buy a verse from him. So then, we would meet new and different artists from different parts of the world that wanted to collaborate with him, that then would put him on new music, and then I would learn via that. Everybody that came into the room was trying to impress Kanye with their knowledge of something, basically. So, it was great to be around that and to at all times get that energy from these people, you know what I mean?
Is that something that fulfills you, in a sense, just as a creative?
Well, I don’t know. It’s interesting because as a creative, what I was doing for Kanye was really not that creative, you know? It was way more technical. The early years — later on, I made more contributions, creatively, post-Dark Twisted Fantasy, much more. Up until then, most of the things I always did was technical. I was there to time the raps, I was there to time stretched songs, I was there to make the MPC work, I was there to find sounds to put in the MPC upon his request. It wasn’t very creatively satisfying, but it was enjoyable because we were making great stuff, but it’s different. Now, I’m more producing and playing chords and making suggestions on arrangements. Where before it was like, you know, ‘Take the third verse, put it in the first verse, take the first verse, cut it in half, make it the bridge, play it back.’
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For sure. I actually kind of wanted to dive into that with you, ’cause I know, before, you mentioned pretty much a set of guidelines as to what was able to contribute, what you’re not supposed to contribute, and then I also heard you reference Kanye sessions as ‘Musical Survivor,’ but just to start off, do you remember what some of those guidelines were, while working on Dark Twisted Fantasy?
I mean, I’m sure I can just Google them and they’ll come up. “No high strings, only low strings” was one. No EDM sounds was another one. No hipster hats. Shut the f*ck up sometimes. Keep your laptops on mute. So if you’re in the studio and you’re surfing the internet and some audio comes on, you don’t have shit playing out loud. And don’t wreck focus, that was another one. ‘Cause oftentimes, you come into a studio and there’s people working, a lot of people want to come in and say how smart they are, and share some late news that they just found out about, you know, some gossip bullsh*t, you know? That’s the ‘shut the f*ck up sometimes.’ ‘Cause somebody comes into the room and starts talking, and you’re in the middle of, for instance, adding strings on the B section of “Runaway.” Somebody comes in and starts talking, well then you just blew that whole hour is gone because now, you can’t be rude to these people, you gotta be kind, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ and respond back. But at the same time, you just disrupted this whole search through the mellotron to find the proper cello patch, you know? It’s like, just because you walk in this room doesn’t mean the whole work on the project needs to stop. That was why the ‘shut the f*ck up sometimes.’ And then there’s different things. So if you come in the room and then you have and idea, you want to put a string part on a song. Well, no high strings. So don’t waste your afternoon putting high strings on a song and bringing it back in thinking you just did the greatest thing in the world, adding this EDM sound, knowing that this is not… Now, with production and computers — it’s limitless, what you can put into a song. But the thing is, ‘cause he was very adamant about this. You can have a box of 200 crayons, but you could draw a great picture with six, alright? So just find the best six f*cking crayons and use those.
So it sounds like that ‘shut the f*ck up’ rule was probably the most pivotal rule in the studio at the time. You mentioned Musical Survivor, and I think you said something along the lines of, you have to be sure of what you’re contributing before you open your mouth. So I was just wondering, aside from that rule, what is the key to survival in these sessions with Kanye?
Just do your best work. Listen when he is critiquing this. And then, you know, give back what he’s asking. That’s the whole thing. ‘Cause some people just run their mouth without really thinking. Or you go in another room and you produce a song and then it’s not your best work. You just try to do it quickly. Almost everyone played their contributions to the song in front of other people, right? So, you know, unless you felt like getting sh*t rejected in front of all these people, you gotta come with some good sh*t.
Okay, so the other rules are: no blogging, no Twitter, no negative-blog-viewing, don’t tell anyone anything about what we’re doing, total focus on this project in all studios, so you couldn’t go in another studio and start working on your own project. No lacking focus while music is being played or being made, no acoustic guitar in the studio, no pictures, no hipster hats.
What’s defined as a ‘hipster hat’ around those times?
No, like, the sh*t that Bruno Mars wears. You know, like the small brims. Like a pimp hat.
That’s hilarious. That’s a crazy set of rules. Especially having so many collaborators in a room, was it hard to maintain that rule of, ‘don’t tell anybody what we’re doing over here?’
No, I mean.
Not for yourself. I mean, was it difficult in terms of other people coming into the studio and then leaving afterward?
I mean, most people respected it. There were a few people that, you know, told what was going on, but it was just, he wanted to be secretive. That’s a whole another reason to be in Hawaii. ‘Cause if you’re in other studios, with multiple rooms, other people can hear your vibe from standing outside your room and steal your vibe. That used to be a thing. It’s not so much anymore, now everybody works at home studios. It was a real pain before.
Quick question for you as an engineer: I heard that Kanye was recording vocals for this project with an open door with a beach in front of him. I just want to know if…