JAY-Z: A B&S classic interview December 1998
With Jay-Z’s highly-anticipated new album ‘The Blueprint 3’ due this September alongside high-profile UK tour dates, Pete Lewis recalls speaking to the New York rap icon back in December 1998.
Picture it. A typically-cold, grey autumn day in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, the warm atmosphere at the borough’s Marcy housing projects resembles a hot August evening. As, during celebrations for past and present residents, hundreds of people spill out on to the streets from the six-storey brick buildings - many hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the neighbourhood-kid-turned-rap-celebrity.
Indeed, while older members of the community remember Shawn Carter as the skinny shy kid always sitting on park benches jotting rhymes onto his green notepad, to the younger kids he represents a major inspiration. For, within the last three years, not only has the one-time local-drug dealer-turned-rapper seen his first three albums hit both Gold and Platinum status, but he’s also one of the very few hip hop stars to have successfully experienced total financial control over his product. As - alongside business partner Damon Dash - in mid ’96 Jay-Z launched his own Roc-A-Fella label via his debut album ‘Reasonable Doubt’ - making it, at the time, the only rap independent in New York.
Meanwhile, within a year of Roc-A-Fella’s launch, a $5-million deal had been inked with the mighty Def Jam Records… To where the now-legendary ‘King Of New York’ Jay-Z (or Jigga, or even Jay-Hova!) is today holding court about his latest (and third) album ‘Vol 2… Hard Knock Life’. Which - having already spent six weeks atop both US Pop and R&B charts while selling three million along the way - not only marks Jay’s biggest-selling project to date, but also his final graduation from underground East Coast playa to bona fide mainstream star.
Indeed, while a year ago the phrase on everyone’s lips was “From the crack game to the rap game”, today it’s more appropriate to say “From Marcy to ‘Top Of The Pops’!
But while international stardom has definitely arrived, Jay-Z’s in-person demeanour remains polite, mature and business-like. His appearance - despite the champagne-swigging, cash-in-abundance playa image depicted in his vivid tales of ghetto life - is largely low-key (allowing, of course for the usual rap trappings of a platinum Rolex and chunky diamond earrings), in turn bearing testament to the fact that success has been no overnight thing.
In fact, the 29-year-old has been in the business since 1989, when fellow Marcy resident Jaz (then signed to EMI) took him under his wing, featuring Jay-Z’s distinctive flow on the overlooked underground gem ‘The Orignators’. It’s one of the topics Jigga chooses to discuss with Pete Lewis alongside his new album, memories of his friend Biggie Smalls, plus his long-term label plans.
How did you come to sample the chorus from Broadway musical ‘Annie’ for your new album’s title-track?
“What happened was I was on tour and Kid Capri played me the track. Mark ‘45’ King had produced it, and at the time it was just beats and the sampled hook. You know, Mark’s known for making famous hip hop beats like ‘900 Number’ with no rap on them. So, once I heard it, I was like ‘I gotta have that’ - and I tracked Mark down. At first he was like ‘Nah man, it’s for my compilation album’, but he eventually let me have it. You know, I knew how people in the ghetto would relate to words like ‘Instead of treated we get tricked’ and ‘Instead of kisses we get kicked’… It’s like when we watch movies we’re always rooting for the villain or the underdog because that’s who we feel we are. It’s us against society. And, to me, the way the kids in the chorus are singing ‘It’s a hard-knock life’ is more like they’re REJOICING about it. Like they’re too strong to let it bring them down. And so that’s also the reason why I call in the ‘Ghetto Anthem’.”
Is the hook also indicative of your broad musical tastes?
“Right. The average kid growing up in the ghetto is forced to listen to only R&B ‘cause that’s his parents’ taste and the only thing they play all the time. With me, because my moms and pops had such a big record collection with the widest range of music, as I grew older I started experimenting and listening to different styles. So these days I believe there’s only two types of music - good and bad. I mean, recently my favourite song was Aerosmith’s ‘Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing’ from the ‘Armageddon’ soundtrack. You know, I listen to EVERYTHING - from Sarah McLachlan and Alanis Morissette all the way down to rap like Scarface, UGK and Lauryn Hill.”
What did you want to achieve with the ‘Hard Knock Life’ LP?
“Primarily I see myself as so much more than a rapper. I really believe I’m the voice for a lot of people who don’t have that microphone or who can’t rap. So I wanted to represent and tell the story of everybody who’s been through what I’ve been through, or knows somebody that has. I also wanted to speak about our lifestyle to people who - though they may live in, say, the suburbs and not be part of that world - still want to know about it and understand it.”
Your recorded the LP in a month, yet it’s easily your most successful project to date
“With this album I was really in a zone - I’ve never been so comfortable and content recording. I was like (Michael) Jordan that night when he hit nine three’s and he walked off the court like ‘I’m HOT! I can’t MISS right now!’… I honestly think I was in the best recording mode of my life. And creatively, I felt like I put everyone in the right place. With my guests, I felt like a conductor directing a concerto. There was no distraction, no nothin’... It didn’t even feel like RECORDING! Every time I went to the studio, it was one big party - and I think that just translated to the music.”
Compared to your last album ‘In My Lifetime Vol. 1’, there’s more of a straight-up East Coast rap flavour
“Right, though it wasn’t a conscious decision. It’s just that, when I’m at my recording best, that straight-up East Coast rap flavour is where it’s at. You know, that’s my game. With this latest joint, every day I was making songs - and they were just HOT! Whereas last time around I just didn’t deliver the best album. It had its moments and, on any given day, it was better than 85 per-cent of whatever else was around. But it simply wasn’t as solid as my OTHER two albums. Mainly because there was a lotta things going on in my life at that time. In particular B.I.G. had just passed, so it was a real emotional time for me - and it was more a case of me not really having fun making it. You know, when you have a reputation for making not only good songs but great ALBUMS, that in itself creates added artistic pressure. But, at the end of the day, I guess that pressure is something I welcome.”
How do you look back on your three albums to date?
“With my first one, ‘Reasonable Doubt’, it wasn’t even like I was making MUSIC. The studio was more like a psychiatrist’s couch for me. All the shit I’d been through, and all the shit I wanted to say, just came OUT! It was like ‘PHEW!’… With ‘In My Lifetime’ it just felt more like I was recording an album. By now they’d put the lights on and I could see all the trappings and all those alligators over there, so I was walking a little more cautious. I pretty much went through the motions just to get it done… With this latest one I got locked into a zone and started feeling good about the music all over again. It was just like I was at my zenith, at my very best, right there.”
One of the most interesting producers you’ve use is Virginia’s Timabland. How did that come about?
“I feel like I’m an innovator who creates new things. In the sense that the words I say like ‘Platinum’ or ‘Crystal’ will be phat for the next coupla years. And I think he’s the same way with his beats. His sound is so unique, and when two innovators get together they can only create something great. So I just gave him a call, and he was with it. Then, once I got in the studio with him, I had a whole new respect for him ’cause the beat he created for me was just ruff. And, once I did the lyrics, he just kept building on the track right on the spot with basslines and stuff - and within half-an-hour it was DONE! You know, he’s someone that works as fast as ME!”
Alongside famous names like Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown and Too Short, the LP also introduces a slew of newcomers like Memphis Bleek and Da Ranjahz
“A lotta them guest spots came from doing a song and then hearing a particular artist on it. On ‘A Week Ago’, I could hear Too Short. So I went and got him. I used Foxy again for ‘Paper Chase’ ‘cause we always work well together and we got a good chemistry. Then the new guys are people I feel are special and are gonna make an impact on the business right now. Bleek, for example, is a young guy who was very close to me growing up. Like I lived on the fifth floor, he lived on the third. So he’s seen the same things I’VE seen. While Da Ranjahz are just straight hip hop. They appeal to my rap side because they’re just amazing, clever writers.”
‘Nigga What, Nigga Who’ features your original mentor and fellow Marcy rapper, Big Jaz. It deals with your claims that you originated the spit-fire rap style
“As you know, Jaz introduced me to this whole business. And, when we first came in the game, we did a duet called ‘The Originators’, which had us doing that fast rap before anybody ELSE was doing it. But it didn’t really pick up too well back then. I guess it was too new, or too futuristic, for that time. So, when lots of other people started doing it four-to-five years later, I just thought it was appropriate that we came back and reminded people that we was already doing that back in ’89.”
You’ve been credited with ushering in the ‘sensitive-gangsta era’, dealing with the feelings, not the acts, of your characters…
“While at first that whole gangsta shit was shocking - like ‘OOH! He said he shot 30 niggas ON RECORD!’ - in time the shock value wore off. So it just became time for a change and for something realer. Which is why I try to show the REASONING behind some of the things these guys can do. When people commit some of these acts, a lotta people think it’s just cold and callous, but you just don’t know the whole situation. Like you just don’t know how far that person was pushed, or what that person tried to do to avoid committing that act... Say if every day someone’s messing with you or robbing you or taking your stuff, and one day you just snap... Or one day, when someone tries to take your life, you just decide you’re gonna defend yourself and you react... You know, I just try to give the whole storyline that PRECEDES somebody’s act. Although I don’t condone those acts, I’m just saying sometimes things can happen and there is a reason why.”
Much has been made of the conflict between Shawn Carter and your on-record personality Jay-Z. What’s the difference?
“It’s just that, when you record, you get to vent all of the things you might normally choose to bite your tongue about, or might not say to people every day. That’s really all it is. It’s like my therapy - when you’re on wax you get to let it all out. But, having said that, at the same time I am a very, very confident person. Which, of course, will be viewed as arrogance in the eyes of some people.”
The death of your close friend Biggie Smalls had a big impact on you. Were there any other repercussions?
“You have to hand it to B.I.G. Because he single-handedly brought rap back to the East Coast at a time when all attention was being focused on the West. And any time someone can come out like that and just change the whole game, that has to be a special, powerful person. I mean, the fact that both B.I.G.’s and 2Pac’s words - God bless both of them - didn’t just make the club bounce but changed attitudes toward whole coasts, shows just how powerful they were as people. And though, at first, my close relationship with B.I.G. meant the LAPD wouldn’t allow me to play California because of death threats, that’s all calmed down now. I’ve been there like maybe seven or eight times, and it’s all good. Like I said, that whole coastal war was something that happened on wax and got outta hand simply because of the power of the two people involved. People were willing to do ANYTHING for them, even when they didn’t fully understand the situation.”
Is it true that, like Biggie, you never actually write your rhymes down?
“Yeah, I’ll sit there in the studio or in my car and listen to the track, formulate the song, and then memorise it. Sometimes I’ll have like three or four songs in my head before I get to actually put ‘em down. And I actually attribute it to when I was younger and I’d be constantly writing every day. So that, even when I started running around and didn’t have time to sit in the house all day, I still had a buncha thoughts coming to me! Sometimes I’d run in the store, write’em on a paper bag, put ’em in my pocket and write it down in a book when I got home… Other days I’d memorise like the lines for eight hours!.. You know, sometimes I wasn’t getting in till five in the morning, so I’d have to hold those rhymes for hours and hours and hours! And I just kept doing it until it started coming like second nature! So that, after a while, I’d be holding like four songs in my head without even transferring it to the books! I’d be like ‘I don’t even NEED to write it down! I’ll just memorise it till I can RECORD it!’!”
You’ve been quoted as saying lyrically you represent all the street legends you idolised growing up in Marcy…
“Writing-wise I’m influenced by my environment, period. It’s as simple as that. It’s just that now is my time to stand up there and represent what, God bless, Danny Dan, Spanish Jose and all the street legends I looked up to was about. They passed away, so I don’t really wanna expand on or talk about their lives publicly. But yeah, ‘cause we don’t have any doctors or lawyers in the neighbourhood, the kids in Marcy grow up idolising the only people that look like they’re having success - which are the hustlers. And what the kids look up to is eventually what they soon become.”
How do you now look back on your own drug-dealing days?
“When I first started I remember asking myself ‘Do I really wanna do this?’... And then, when another local dealer was found murdered, it scared the HELL out of me! But, if you do it long enough, although you get over most of the initial fear, there’s still a lot about the whole game that’s pretty scary. It’s like ‘Damn, what am I gonna DO? I can’t get a car on my own, can’t get a house except in someone else’s name... So what do I do with this money under the mattress?’…You know, it’s definitely a dangerous lifestyle - and I’m sure a lot guys feel the same way.”
So, coming from that background, how do you feel you represent the playa lifestyle with an underlying message?
“I never wanted to just glamorise the playa lifestyle and not touch on the down side. l wanted everyone who’s in a desperate situation to know that, if they wanna choose that kinda lifestyle, they gotta be aware of everything that comes WITH it! It’s not just about the cars, the ladies and the money. Instead I’m saying ‘OK, I’ve been down that street and there’s nothing sweet about it. While there may be some jewellery behind the second door, behind the third door there’s someone waiting with a bat to bang you on the head! Now, there’s a car behind the fourth door… But, to get to it, you’ve got to walk - with your jewellery - past the guy with the bat… And if you want to do that - if you want to risk your life for the material stuff - then I told you so!’... You know, I’m just letting you know both ways.”
You’ve also been quoted as saying you feel you’re the best emcee out there right now…
“Yeah, while there’s a lot people who are strong in one area but weak in a lotta others, across the board I feel I’m strong in every aspect. I don’t think anyone else out there right now CAPTURES so many different things and EMBODIES so many different things. I just feel I have the style, the lyrical content, the delivery, the flow... I can just do it ALL! I can tell a story, freestyle, rap about nothin’… Plus I’ve done a lotta writing for other people too. And, since my work encompasses everything that I’ve seen and been around, writing for others actually gives me much more chance to be really creative. I just don’t think nobody else today is going across the board like that.”
When you first emerged on Roc-A-Fella, you were the only rap independent in New York. Since then independents have risen to dominate the underground scene again. Do you think it’s important to set out via the independent route?
“Definitely! Because what hip hop is essentially about is an emcee putting down his own thoughts on record. It’s not like you’re making something for the people at the record company, you’re making something for YOURSELF! And the people working at the record company have gotta try to understand what you MEAN, and what you ARE - and then MARKET that! So, if you can cut out the middleman and just put your own thoughts down and market the music yourself, it’s a lot more effective. There’s nothing better than having creative control over your own art.”
Is it true that, after signing your $5 million deal with Def Jam, you felt a lack of support from them over the ‘In My Lifetime’ LP?
“Nah, it wasn’t that. I was just that, any time you get with somebody new and y’all don’t know each other, there’s gonna be problems. It’s like you move in with somebody and you don’t like the way they leave the toothpaste cap off, or the way they squeeze the tube! Y’all gotta get used to each other and adjust. And, once you’ve adjusted, you can work from there. Now everything’s cool between us!”
Ever since your debut LP, you’ve announced your intention to retire from rapping. What exactly is the situation?
“With the first album, because nobody in the game has ever made just one classic album and then not made another, my intention was to do just that. But that was at a time when we were getting distributed by Priority. And, because I didn’t wanna keep Roc-A-Fella over at Priority, we had to move. So, when we went to Def Jam, they were like ‘OK, we’ll do this deal with y’all, but we do need two albums from Jay-Z as an artist’… So they turned out to be the ‘Vol. 1’ and ‘Vol. 2’ - they were both completed as part of that deal. So, as far as me releasing any more albums in my own right, the truth is I just don’t KNOW! Right now I’m gonna concentrate on putting out the other artists I’ve signed to Roc-A-Fella first, and we’ll see what happens from there.”
So what are the current plans for Roc-A-Fella?
“Musically, the first project we have coming out is DJ Clue’s album, and there should be a Memphis Bleek LP in March. We’re gonna try to get Beanie Siegel out in Jun, with Amil (of Major Coins) due in September. We’re also setting up deals in other places for some of our other artists. Like Rell, for example, may released as part of a co-venture between Roc-A-Fella and, say, Sony; while Diamonds In Da Rough may well come out via Tommy Boy Records. Then movie-wise, we’re working on a script about these three Harlem hustlers that we just started casting on. You know, that should be finished soon - and then we also plan on starting up our own Roc-A-Fella clothing line. And with that we’ll be dealing in stuff that’s a little baggier than average, but it’ll still be that shit that people LIKE, you know what I mean?”
Jay’s UK live dates (with Coldplay) are - Manchester, LCC Club (September 12); Glasgow, Hampden Park (September 16); and London, Wembley Stadium (September 19)
The digital single ‘D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune)’ is out now. The single ‘Run This Town Featuring Rihanna and Kanye West’ is released August 31; while the album ‘The Blueprint 3’ follows September 14, all through Roc Nation
For more on Jay-Z go to www.jay-z.com
Words PETE LEWIS