Pusha T shot by Fabien Montique & Common shot by Marc Baptiste

On a drizzly mid-August night, Kanye West hosted a private party at an exclusive nightclub on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Box’s unmarked entrance, sumptuous decor and frequently risqué performances have an elicit, Prohibition-era appeal that works nicely with his mature “Rosewood” aesthetic—attendees were instructed to wear suits or dresses, put on hard-bottom shoes or heels, and dial a number at midnight to receive event details. This was a high-profile affair to be sure, with British soccer star David Beckham lurking in a balcony booth, model Selita Ebanks dancing in a banquette and a foursquare founder waving his business card at any bouncer who would listen to his pleas to be permitted inside.

Bathed in red lighting and flanked by John Legend on a grand piano, Kanye took the stage at well after midnight in a crisp black suit and Oliver Peoples sunglasses. He exuberantly crashed through a medley of hits, occasionally racing over to a sampler to freak drums and slices of vocals. Between songs, he bantered with the crowd. “One of my friends said, ‘I’m sorry for not dressing up,’” Kanye explained while laughing. “I said, ‘I’m sorry for you!’” When the set was finished, rose petals were left on the stage, making the floor look like a honeymoon suite. Members of Yeezy’s label, G.O.O.D. Music—Mos Def, Pusha T, Mr. Hudson, Big Sean, CyHi Da Prynce—all decked out in fresh black suits, stood to applaud the man of the hour.

It’s not enough to be a Grammy-winning, platinum-selling, model-dating music star. You need a crew. Most often, this takes the form of a label: Jay-Z with Roc-A-Fella Records, Eminem with Shady Records, 50 Cent with G-Unit Records, Lil Wayne with Young Money Entertainment, etc. These collectives are not only a financial benefit, they’re also an emblem of stature and their leaders’ star-making magnetism. Kanye, once a black sheep within the pack of hard-edged Roc-A-Fella wolves, has appeared more interested in working with artists he seems a fan of than building such a stronghold around himself. “G.O.O.D. Music has always, always been the underdog,” says Kanye. “It never quite had what Roc-A-Fella had or G-Unit had. But we never try to force-feed a lot of products to you just off of the name. That was the thing. It was about the music just being really, really, really good. And then the fans chose and decided who they like.”

Now with his celebrity peaking, Kanye has an opportunity to wield substantial, yes, power. But it’s a fascinating situation that he’s created. While most musical unions focus on one style of music, Kanye’s crew is arguably the most wildly divergent group of hip-hop artists ever assembled. G.O.O.D. Music, which includes an acronym for “Getting Out Our Dreams,” includes long-term collaborators John Legend and Consequence, veteran ethicists Common and Mos Def, young Midwesterners Kid Cudi and Big Sean, British crooner Mr. Hudson, cocaine-dealing wordsmith Pusha T, and new Atlanta import CyHi. The thread that ties them? Well, it just seems to be Kanye West.

Before the MTV VMA interruption, before the controversial comments about George W. Bush, and way before the tweets about his “credenza game,” Kanye was an anonymous studio rat. In the late 1990s, the Chicago native managed to earn production credits in the liner notes of artists such as Foxy Brown, Jermaine Dupri and dead prez but was still two years away from his break. Nevertheless, he bubbled with grand designs. He had a local production collective called Kon-Man Productions that housed artists such as Rhymefest, Shayla G. and a group called The Go Getters (himself, GLC, Timmy G and Arrowstar). The company was tied to a promotions agency, Hustle Period, whose brain trust included Don Crowley and John “Monopoly” Johnson, two men who would become fixtures in Kanye’s management team. Everything changed in 2001, when Kanye handled four beats on Jay-Z’s revered LP The Blueprint—“Takeover,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” “Never Change”—and established a signature sound, with chirping vocal snippets, orchestral strings and moody pianos. He soon became an A-list producer whose work extended from the Roc-A-Fella camp to Ludacris, Scarface and Alicia Keys.

Kom-Man eventually transitioned into Very Good Beats, ’Ye’s new production company, and in 2004, his record label G.O.O.D. Music was born with an assorted roster including G.L.C., Consequence, Really Doe and soon added Common and R&B crooner John Legend. (It is unclear at press time if the first three are still down with the label.) G.O.O.D. soon landed a deal with Sony and released Legend’s 2004 album Get Lifted, the company’s first major release, and after selling over two million copies, it was a highly successful one. Soon G.O.O.D. Music had offices in the Sony building and a full-time staff. “I needed his name, in a lot of ways, to establish credibility in the business,” says Legend. “But once that credibility was attained, I didn’t need to piggyback off his fame to do well. We didn’t have to use it as much in marketing and press, so I didn’t have to keep name-dropping that affiliation.”