The Inside Story Behind the Kanye Docuseries Two Decades in the Making

Whenever you have a look at Kanye West, what do you see? An egomaniac? A hip-hop legend? A god? Is he “very cool,” to cite Donald Trump, or “a jackass,” to cite Barack Obama?

When Coodie Simmons appears at Kanye West, he sees a brother. The filmmaker, a fellow Chicagoan, met West—who just lately modified his authorized identify to Ye—at a South Aspect barbershop in 1995. Intrigued by his flamable expertise and charisma, Simmons started filming him for a documentary he hoped to launch as soon as West gained his first Grammy. Simmons racked up a whole bunch of hours of footage wherein West chased down trade executives, feuded with former collaborators, and winced by means of jaw surgical procedure following a life-changing automobile accident. However after West gained a number of Grammys in 2005 and grew more and more well-known and erratic, he and Simmons fell out, seemingly quashing any hopes Simmons had of telling his story.
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Till now. On Feb. 16, Simmons and his artistic associate Chike Ozah will launch their three-part West documentary, Jeen-Yuhs, on Netflix. (Jeen-Yuhs is produced by TIME Studios, the movie and tv division of TIME.) Jeen-Yuhs is much from a standard biodoc: there aren’t any speaking heads or dutiful timelines, and Simmons’ camerawork is usually lo-fi and shaky.

West performing in New York City in 2003.
Mark Mainz—Getty PicturesWest performing in New York Metropolis in 2003.

However the documentary’s lack of polish is purposeful, serving as a uncommon window into West’s psyche. Simmons put his personal tumultuous relationship with West on the heart of the story to disentangle the person, born Kanye Omari West, from the sprawling mythos that at the moment engulfs him. In doing so, he and Ozah construct a riveting narrative concerning the significance of religion, in a number of senses of the phrase. “This isn’t the definitive Kanye West documentary,” Ozah says. “We needed to make use of our footage as a instrument, particularly for different Black folks that come from the communities we come from, to really feel snug to have the next perception in God; to get previous their fears and unlock their very own genius.”

Early Profession Struggles

There was a time when Simmons and West kind of existed upon the identical degree of fame. Within the late ’90s, Simmons had made a reputation for himself internet hosting the Chicago public-access TV present Channel Zero, which lovingly captured hip-hop tradition. In the identical metropolis, the teenage West was producing and making music with native artists. “He would come as much as the barbershop and be taking part in his beats for all of us,” Simmons recollects. “He all the time beloved me placing the digital camera on him; he was actually in your face.”

When West moved to Newark, N.J., in 2000 to be nearer to hip-hop’s energy heart, Simmons started pursuing a documentary about Michael Jordan’s rumored return to the NBA. However at some point after coming back from Miami—the place he filmed Magic Johnson, Puffy, and Jennifer Lopez speaking about their love for Jordan—Simmons was robbed at gunpoint in Chicago, shedding his automobile and photographs.

Surprised and unmoored, Simmons determined to make use of the insurance coverage cash to comply with West to New York. “That carjacking was an angel for me: taking that adversity and making it work.”

Over the following couple of years, Simmons stood facet by facet with West because the pugnacious rapper struggled in a hip-hop ecosystem dominated by gangster rap. Simmons captured West storming the places of work of Roc-a-Fella Information, blasting now traditional data like “All Falls Down” as staff there ignored him; ready for Burger King dinners; getting roasted by different rappers for his saliva–soaked retainer. West’s momentum had slowed to an agonizing crawl.

Kanye West with his mother Donda (left) in 2005 in New York.
Johnny Nunez—WireImage/Getty PicturesKanye West along with his mom Donda (left) in 2005 in New York.

One of many few individuals who believed wholeheartedly in West’s potential in these early days was his mom Donda. She options prominently in Jeen-Yuhs, serving as a spark plug and guardian who affords sage recommendation and limitless encouragement. Much more so than West’s newest album Donda, the documentary reveals the outsize influence she had, and nonetheless has, on her son’s creativity, ferocity, and hustler’s method to the world. “You’ve got to have the ability to see your self … to see it when nobody else can see it,” she wrote in her 2007 memoir, Elevating Kanye. “It’s a must to communicate issues into creation.”

Simmons, too, performed a key function in West’s profession because the wheels began to show. The filmmaker used his connections to assist West clear traditional R&B samples—an indicator of the rapper’s early hits—and co-directed, with Ozah, his first music video, “Via the Wire.” As a substitute of recording, West would rap early concepts immediately into Simmons’ digital camera, utilizing the uncooked footage to construct songs. “I hated that,” Simmons recollects. “I used to suppose, ‘Jay-Z and them are on the studio. Why are we sitting right here and also you rapping to me?’”

West, center, with filmmakers Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah in 2004.
Johnny Nunez—WireImage/Getty PicturesWest, heart, with filmmakers Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah in 2004.

The Fall and the Redemption

West’s persistence paid off, and he quickly ascended to the highest. However in doing so, he deserted his partnership with Simmons in favor of extra established filmmakers like Hype Williams. In an agonizing sequence within the docuseries, a drunken West mistakenly calls Simmons “Chike” at a Grammys afterparty. “There’s been instances I by no means wish to present that footage of him dissing me,” Simmons says. “It was sickening.”

Regardless of the gap, Donda West took Simmons underneath her wing, giving him jobs and alluring him over for Christmas. However in 2007, she died from problems postsurgery, sending Kanye and Simmons into tailspins. Simmons edited an in-memoriam video for her funeral by means of tears.

After Donda’s dying, Simmons misplaced contact with West for six years. He was caught: he had hours of unbelievable footage however no leverage to do something with it. “Why struggle a no-win struggle figuring out I’m not within the mixture of Ye and his group?” he says. However in 2016, when West was making headlines for more and more incoherent monologues and his assist of Donald Trump, the pair reconnected, with West asking Simmons to accompany him on a visit to China. Simmons says he was much less centered on getting the footage to complete his movie than in supporting his pal. “My digital camera was like a disguise, as a result of he is aware of me having a digital camera all this time,” he says. “Individuals can be like, ‘He only a cameraman.’ In the meantime, me and Kanye had been having actual critical, deep conversations about meditation and Jesus.”

Throughout this second interval of filming, West’s temper swung unpredictably, as he ranted about his hospitalization (for what was described by dispatchers as a “psychiatric emergency”) and his assist for Tucker Carlson. Simmons was uncomfortable, even shutting his digital camera off when he felt West was going off the rails.

However Simmons additionally understood how West’s most excessive shows of hot-headed aggression had been extensions of the ethos that had fueled his earliest successes. West’s complete modus operandi had been to smash limitations; his energy arose exactly from the truth that he did issues individuals stated he shouldn’t.

20 years after their first assembly, Simmons lastly persuaded West to let him and Ozah inform their story, which is now about friendship and the turbulent forces of fame, grief, and God. “Our work is about influence: to assist individuals really feel snug following their goals and passions,” Ozah says. “That will not have been the objective when Coodie began capturing it. However this movie took by itself journey.”

West initially agreed to the imaginative and prescient. However true to kind, he proved unpredictable, and in January demanded “last edit and approval” of the collection in an Insta-gram submit. Simmons and Ozah had been dissatisfied, and declined to provide him that authority. They didn’t make this movie for West, in spite of everything. “I’m not a videographer and I by no means was: I used to be all the time directing a documentary,” Simmons says. However he is aware of, higher than virtually anybody, that the contradictions that may make West irritating are additionally those that may make him singularly nice. “The previous Kanye is simply Kanye,” Simmons says. “He nonetheless has that starvation.”

jeen-yuhs premieres on Netflix starting Feb. 16. Twenty-four years within the making, this documentary about Kanye West was directed by Coodie & Chike, from TIME Studios and Inventive Management.


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