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'Jeen-yuhs' directors talk the making of the Kanye West documentary

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Kanye West, now legally known as Ye, is in the news a lot these days, often because of his erratic behavior. Recently, much of that behavior has been directed at Kim Kardashian, who has talked about her emotional distress over his actions and legal documents related to their divorce. There was a time, though, when Kanye West was known more for his music than his public outbursts. A new Netflix documentary called "Jeen-Yuhs" looks back at that time when Kanye West was a young producer making music for artists like Jay-Z and striving to be accepted as a rapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JEEN-YUHS")

CLARENCE SIMMONS JR: You might say you miss the old Kanye. Well, I first put the camera on him back in 1998, when he was just and up-and-coming producer.

RASCOE: That's director Clarence Simmons Jr., better known as Coodie. We're joined now by both Coodie and Chike Ozah, the directors of "Jeen-Yuhs" who have basically been working on the film for 20 years. Hi to you both.

CHIKE OZAH: Hey. How's it going?

SIMMONS: Peace. Peace.

RASCOE: So the documentary is about Kanye West, but is also kind of like an autobiography about both of y'all's career or all of y'all's career. And at the center of that is this music video for "Through The Wire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THROUGH THE WIRE")

KANYE WEST: I spit it through the wire, man. It's too much stuff on my heart right now, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JEEN-YUHS")

K WEST: And we were expecting like 30 people, and over 200 people end up coming out. So, man, that's love out here. I want everybody to give it up...

RASCOE: That was like from the video release party. I have to say, like, watching the documentary, it brought back memories for me of college. You know, without an arm, I spit, without an arm, I spit. Like, seeing that come together, like, tell me about like why this song was so special for all of your careers.

SIMMONS: I mean, definitely the first, you know, music video that me and Chike worked on together, and all of us really, and visually told Kanye's story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Hip-hop producer Kanye West was injured when his car crashed in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, early Wednesday morning.

SIMMONS: We were scared, you know, at first, like, to just think about it, he just finished doing a song with Jay-Z and (unintelligible). We're about to blow up, and all of a sudden, he break his jaw in three places. But nevertheless, had a car accident. And it was serious.

And we were able to tell Kanye's story visually. Then I think people got and understood him. And he could have went another direction with that accident. But that accident was the fuel that kind of led him to who he is.

RASCOE: Now it's like Kanye is known for his massive ego. But, you know, and we see that confidence in the documentary. But back then, like, he also seemed, like, shy. You know, there was some self-doubt. Coodie, do you think that people found him endearing as the underdog?

SIMMONS: All underdogs, people, you know, root for. And it was good for Kanye. But he definitely was, you know, self-conscious, he said in the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL FALLS DOWN")

K WEST: Come on. Come on. And when it all falls down. (Rapping) Man, I promise, I'm so self-conscious. That's why you always see me with at least one of my watches.

SIMMONS: But he had a lot of confidence. You know, a lot of that confidence came from his mom, Donda West, who - rest in peace. But, you know, she'd been with us throughout this whole journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JEEN-YUHS")

SIMMONS: Kanye bringing us to his mom's house. That felt like the real reason we came to Chicago. She had this special way of lifting the spirit, of giving him the love and guidance he needed.

RASCOE: You mentioned Donda West. Kanye West's mother died suddenly in 2007. Like, her relationship with her son was so close. And there is footage of her with her son. I mean, it's really like the heart of the film.

Chike, like, when you guys were putting this together, like, did you feel like her death was like a turning point in this story? Like, almost like there was a before Donda and after Donda?

OZAH: Oh, man, 100%. It's clear as day. It's clear as day. I believe when you see the documentary, he had a very special connection and relationship. His mother played a very major important role. It was above normal.

I had the same relationship with my mother. My mother's encouragement in me and her belief in me and her support for me is - she goes above and beyond. So - and I'm inserting my relationship with my mother only to say that I can only imagine if I had lost a mother now, so how can I imagine losing her in like my late 20s, early 30s, what that would do to me psychologically? You know what I mean? That is just - she's such an anchor in my life. And I know how much of an anchor Ms. West was in Kanye's life that I couldn't even imagine what that would do to me.

RASCOE: In the first episode of the documentary, she said, you know, something so profound to Kanye.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JEEN-YUHS")

DONDA WEST: The giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing. You know what I mean?

K WEST: So do you think I come off too arrogant?

D WEST: No, come out just right because it's what's inside. Because you can't be a star and not be a star. You've got to have some oomph about you. But at the same time, that you remember, like, to stay on the ground. And you can be in the air all at the same time. That's what I think it means.

RASCOE: And it seemed like what she was saying was stay grounded. Like, yeah, aspire to the biggest things, but stay grounded. Do you feel like Kanye, I mean, he's - he was searching for fame. Do you feel like fame was what he thought it would be?

OZAH: I know when I first met Kanye, he wasn't occupied so much with famous. He was just occupied with getting out his message and his words and what he felt was so powerful. And I feel like he already knew the impact of what potentially his words in his raps could make. You know, fame is a hell of a drug, like they say. I don't know if that became an obsession at some point. But I know initially, it definitely felt like he was motivated by the world hearing his message.

RASCOE: There is such a dichotomy between seeing Kanye's current social media posts, you know, harassing the mother of his children, her boyfriend, during this divorce, and those early videos of Kanye, when he does seem to be just more humble, more low key. I mean, have either of you talked to Kanye about his recent behavior?

OZAH: No. But just speaking on your point, what I think our film does a really good job of showing is such a big reason why we put Coodie's character in the film to show this juxtaposition of two people sort of going after their goals and achieving success, right? Where Kanye's sort of - his success and his fame has a lot to do with jumping sort of into this machine. You know what I mean? It's something like, he's an icon, so he's in a different world. You know I'm saying? And Coodie kind of like is able to find success within a world of normalcy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JEEN-YUHS")

SIMMONS: My daughter was supposed to be born in November, but she decided to come 2 1/2 months early. When I met Ivy for the first time, in that moment, I swear, my entire perspective on life changed.

OZAH: You know, this isn't a definitive doc about Kanye. It's not a doc that's trying to like either protect Kanye or come at Kanye crazy. It's just a doc to, like, really look at moments in two people's lives, two people's lives that had a dream and really moved on passion and moved on faith. If you have faith in something, you believe in, and then everybody has a genius.

Like, the film is not called "Jeen-Yuhs" because we're saying Kanye's a genius, saying that everybody has a genius inside. Some are buried a little bit deeper than others. That genius to us is connected to your passion.

RASCOE: Chike Ozah and Coodie Simmons, directors of "Jeen-Yuhs," a three-part documentary out now on Netflix. Thank you both.

OZAH: Appreciate you.

SIMMONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.