It’s hard to imagine a world where Kanye West wasn’t a name that even your grandmother who listens to nothing but the “Jersey Boys” soundtrack recognized, but at the time of Kanye’s life shaping accident in 2002, that’s the world people were living in.
15 years ago, Kanye was a name recognized by hip hop heads far and wide, mostly for his work on Jay Z’s The Blueprint, but not at all as the mogul we know today. This fact that he was so unknown is why the world didn’t stop turning at the moment that, retrospectively, defined his career.
On October 23, 2002, a mere two weeks after signing to Roc-A-Fella Records, Ye was involved in a car crash leaving a studio in LA with several hot names in music, including the Black Eyed Peas of all people. According to some witness accounts, Kanye had left incredibly furious due to the fact that he had tried to present a beat to Ludacris, one of the biggest rappers in the game at this point, and Luda showed no interest in getting to know Kanye and chose a Red Spyda beat over Mr. West’s. A series of sobriety tests at the scene did prove that alcohol played no part in the accident. It is still unknown if West was driving frantically or recklessly, but regardless on his drive home, he was cut-off in traffic by another car, causing him to swerve into oncoming traffic and collide with another vehicle. This all happened just blocks away from his final destination at the hotel he was staying at while he was in town. The damage left Kanye in a state that they weren’t sure he would survive and the other driver, Miguel Villasana, with a broken pelvis, two broken legs, two broken knees, and a shattered ankle that kept him from working for over a year.
By his own accounts, Kanye claims that police and EMS workers rough-handled him prior to getting him medical help. He said to MTV in 2002 that he was gagging on blood while begging to go to the hospital while they continued to ask him questions about what happened. Eventually he was placed in a neck brace, strapped to a stretcher, dropped on his head, and finally rushed to Cedars-Sinai Hospital which is located in LA. Ironically, this is the same hospital where rap legend Biggie Smalls had died after a drive-by shooting just five years earlier. According to the track that commemorates the event, Kanye’s mother Donda West received a phone call telling her that her son was on life support and was justifiably concerned; it is unclear if Donda came to LA at the time of the accident. Kanye’s girlfriend at the time, a college aged Sumeke Rainey, was on a plane to LA wondering if her man was going to “look like Emmett Till”.
The accident resulted in a reconstructive facial surgery, having his jaw wired shut twice because they did it so wrong the first time, teeth replacement, and a two week hospital stay. These things would change the trajectory of his career.
While in the hospital, Ye says he was visited by so many rappers who put up a facade that he could see right though. He claims that they would cry and say shit like “you can’t die before we get to work together”. This is what made Kanye make the decision that we’re so blessed he decided to make: he wanted to step out from behind the board and showcase his talents as an MC instead of a producer.
He didn’t even take an extra second to relax and recover, but rather hit the studio to record “Through the Wire”: the autobiographical track that recounts the accident and all of the events that happened as a result of it. The original version of the track was recorded with Kanye’s jaw wired shut: truly a “history in the making” moment. The joint was released in early 2003 on his mixtape Get Well Soon, which was actually a 36 song collection of songs that Kanye produced with a few solo records sprinkled in (most notably the original version of “Jesus Walks” appeared on this tape). The imagery of the album featured an unrecognizable Kanye West in the hospital. These photos are the first time we see that Kanye’s face was swollen to epic proportions that cause him to be completely unrecognizable. “Through the Wire” was introduced to those who weren’t so deeply invested in hip hop as the first single on Kanye’s 2004 debut release College Dropout.
And from there… you know the rest of the story…
This accident that occurred 15 years ago today is the reason that we were blessed to have the last 13 years of Kanye content. In that same 2002 MTV interview referenced before, Kanye says that coming so close to death made him realize that he needed to step forward, use his full range of talents, and come into the studio as if it were his last time, every time. It’s hard to believe that the moment that catapulted Kanye’s career and made him one of the most ambitions rappers in the game happened 15 years ago, but here’s to 15 more years of revolutionary rap from the visionary who once rapped about drinking Ensure through his wired shut jaw. We are so blessed to be alive at the same time as Mr. West.