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Ten Years Ago, Kanye West Was At War With MTV

NEW YORK - AUGUST 7: (U.S. TABS OUT) Rapper Kanye West poses backstage during a special Video Music Awards nominee taping of MTV's Total Request Live August 7, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

A lot about the music industry has changed since 2007—iTunes has given way to streaming, iPods are museum artifacts, people are fascinated with T-Pain for not singing with Autotune, etc. One way to measure the differences between then and now is to read SPIN’s interview with Kanye West from 2007, which was the cover of our end of year issue, along with a story about Daft Punk. The conversation with writer John McAlley focuses a lot on Graduation, the album Kanye released ten years ago today; specifically, the two talk about Kanye’s perception of black music vs. white music, and how he aimed to use “white music” to make himself bigger than ever while still forever staying true to black people.

But a good portion of the interview is also devoted to the ways in which Kanye was navigating the music industry and its apparatuses at the time. In particular, they chat about a war between Kanye and MTV, which started with his… second most famous award show interruption of all time, when, in 2006, he (jokingly, he insists) stormed the stage at the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards after his “Touch the Sky” lost Video of the Year to Justice Vs. Simian’s “We Are Your Friends.” (The infamous incident with Taylor Swift didn’t happen until 2009.) That EMA snub on MTV’s behalf then fed into the 2007 VMAs, which was held at the Palms in Las Vegas, where some performances were staged in “fantasy suites” instead of on the traditional main stage. Kanye performed a medley of old and new songs not on the main stage but in one of those suites, which he found insulting once he saw that Justin Timberlake was given a slot on the former. At those VMAs, Kanye had also been caught on camera backstage, um, forcefully giving instructions for how he wanted his set to look. Here is the part of the conversation with McAlley and Kanye talking about the VMAs:

In the YouTube clip of the incident, you do look like you’re having fun with it.

Duh. MSN had clips that made it look like I was bitin’ this baby’s head off. But backstage at the VMAs, I was upset. Not just because of the ridiculous [snubs year after year]; it was more because they made me perform in that suite and told me I didn’t want to perform on the main stage. They told me Justin [Timberlake] wasn’t performing on the main stage, either.

Which turned out not to be the truth.

The thing is, the people at MTV know where I’m trying to go. And I feel like, “Why do you not want me to reach my full potential?” If I’ve got a record like “Stronger,” which is blowing up all across the world, call an audible! It’s like, “Yo, let’s let him take over the fuckin’ world the way we helped Justin take over the world.” Because, at the end of the day, if Justin can charge, like, two million for a private event, I think, partially, it’s because MTV helped make him the No. 1 artist. Okay, now I work my fuckin’ ass off — first to fight back from all the award-show backlashes, then to have the No. 1 song in the world. And a [hard-rocking] song like that as a black man? That is next to impossible. Yet you’re gonna open the show with Britney and close with Justin?! To me, you’re saying, “We don’t want another Michael Jackson, we want Elvis!”

Later, Kanye tells McAlley that MTV execs attempted to smooth all this over with a face-to-face meeting, in which, per Kanye the network promised to promote his new video for “Good Life” as its Video of the Week. But this, apparently, did not go as planned:

Have you talked to MTV?

I tried. I had a meeting with them and we were supposed to squash it, but they never played “Good Life.” I had “Good Life” as Video of the Week, and halfway into the week, they took it off and put up 50 Cent and Robin Thicke. How credible is that? I apologized to them for my spazzes. But I think it’s fucked-up that I had a meeting with them and they stilldidn’t play my video. My thing is, you gotta let me know, “Yo, by the way, Justin is performing on the main stage.” And this is the thing: I love Justin. To me, he is the pinnacle. Black people like him, white people like him, girls like him, gay people like him. Do you know how hard it would be as a black artist to get to that point? [Sanguinely] I know that the right thing to do would have been to not say anything to MTV, because that’s just made it harder for me. And I honestly think they felt that they were giving me a [quality] moment. But it’s just so — my biggest thing is impatience. Maybe God is saying, “It’s not your time yet.”

It’s funny reading this back now, considering where Kanye and MTV are currently. Kanye is, now, an almost untouchable celebrity, appearing on Keeping Up With the Kardashians and in paparazzi photos on TMZ, and that’s really about it. Instead, he seals himself away while he works, making clothes as well as music that is as unconcerned with pop music as he has ever been. The idea of him showing up in a boardroom in 2017 to try and get people to play his music seems very foreign. So, too, is the sort of importance Kanye ascribes to MTV in these passages—the sort of importance that made “Video of the Week” meaningful in any way. Kanye West taking a meeting with MTV over video play… it all feels so painfully 2007. (At the 2015 VMAs, MTV would hand Kanye a block of air time to just say whatever he wanted.)

But, of course, the underlying issues Kanye is really talking about here—being a black man fighting through the historically white power structures at the very top of capitalism—still animate his work to this day, making the interview a fascinating mile marker in the life of a generation’s most fascinating and important pop stars. You can read the whole interview here.