Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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JAY-Z: A B&S classic interview December 1998

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With Jay-Zâs highly-anticipated new album âThe Blueprint 3â 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 boroughâs 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 heâs 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 â96 Jay-Z launched his own Roc-A-Fella label via his debut album âReasonable Doubtâ - making it, at the time, the only rap independent in New York.

Meanwhile, within a year of Roc-A-Fellaâs launch, a $5-million deal had been inked with the mighty Def Jam Records⦠To where the now-legendary âKing Of New Yorkâ Jay-Z (or Jigga, or even Jay-Hova!) is today holding court about his latest (and third) album âVol 2⦠Hard Knock Lifeâ. Which - having already spent six weeks atop both US Pop and R&B charts while selling three million along the way - not only marks Jayâs 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 everyoneâs lips was âFrom the crack game to the rap gameâ, today itâs more appropriate to say âFrom Marcy to âTop Of The Popsâ!

But while international stardom has definitely arrived, Jay-Zâs 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-Zâs distinctive flow on the overlooked underground gem âThe Orignatorsâ. Itâs 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 âAnnieâ for your new albumâs title-track?

âWhat happened was I was on tour and Kid Capri played me the track. Mark â45â King had produced it, and at the time it was just beats and the sampled hook. You know, Markâs known for making famous hip hop beats like â900 Numberâ with no rap on them. So, once I heard it, I was like âI gotta have thatâ - and I tracked Mark down. At first he was like âNah man, itâs for my compilation albumâ, but he eventually let me have it. You know, I knew how people in the ghetto would relate to words like âInstead of treated we get trickedâ and âInstead of kisses we get kickedâ⦠Itâs like when we watch movies weâre always rooting for the villain or the underdog because thatâs who we feel we are. Itâs us against society. And, to me, the way the kids in the chorus are singing âItâs a hard-knock lifeâ is more like theyâre REJOICING about it. Like theyâre too strong to let it bring them down. And so thatâs also the reason why I call in the âGhetto Anthemâ.â

Is the hook also indicative of your broad musical tastes?

âRight. The average kid growing up in the ghetto is forced to listen to only R&B âcause thatâs his parentsâ 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 thereâs only two types of music - good and bad. I mean, recently my favourite song was Aerosmithâs âDonât Wanna Miss A Thingâ from the âArmageddonâ 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.â

What did you want to achieve with the âHard Knock Lifeâ LP?

âPrimarily I see myself as so much more than a rapper. I really believe Iâm the voice for a lot of people who donât have that microphone or who canât rap. So I wanted to represent and tell the story of everybody whoâs been through what Iâve 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.â

Your recorded the LP in a month, yet itâs easily your most successful project to date

âWith this album I was really in a zone - Iâve never been so comfortable and content recording. I was like (Michael) Jordan that night when he hit nine threeâs and he walked off the court like âIâm HOT! I canât MISS right now!â⦠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 nothinâ... It didnât 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.â

Compared to your last album âIn My Lifetime Vol. 1â, thereâs more of a straight-up East Coast rap flavour

âRight, though it wasnât a conscious decision. Itâs just that, when Iâm at my recording best, that straight-up East Coast rap flavour is where itâs at. You know, thatâs my game. With this latest joint, every day I was making songs - and they were just HOT! Whereas last time around I just didnât 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 wasnât 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.â

How do you look back on your three albums to date?

âWith my first one, âReasonable Doubtâ, it wasnât even like I was making MUSIC. The studio was more like a psychiatristâs couch for me. All the shit Iâd been through, and all the shit I wanted to say, just came OUT! It was like âPHEW!â⦠With âIn My Lifetimeâ it just felt more like I was recording an album. By now theyâd 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.â

One of the most interesting producers youâve use is Virginiaâs Timabland. How did that come about?

âI feel like Iâm an innovator who creates new things. In the sense that the words I say like âPlatinumâ or âCrystalâ will be phat for the next coupla years. And I think heâs 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 âcause 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, heâs someone that works as fast as ME!â

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

âA lotta them guest spots came from doing a song and then hearing a particular artist on it. On âA Week Agoâ, I could hear Too Short. So I went and got him. I used Foxy again for âPaper Chaseâ âcause 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 heâs seen the same things IâVE seen. While Da Ranjahz are just straight hip hop. They appeal to my rap side because theyâre just amazing, clever writers.â

âNigga What, Nigga Whoâ features your original mentor and fellow Marcy rapper, Big Jaz. It deals with your claims that you originated the spit-fire rap style

âAs you know, Jaz introduced me to this whole business. And, when we first came in the game, we did a duet called âThe Originatorsâ, which had us doing that fast rap before anybody ELSE was doing it. But it didnât 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 â89.â

Youâve been credited with ushering in the âsensitive-gangsta eraâ, dealing with the feelings, not the acts, of your charactersâ¦

âWhile at first that whole gangsta shit was shocking - like âOOH! He said he shot 30 niggas ON RECORD!â - 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 itâs just cold and callous, but you just donât know the whole situation. Like you just donât know how far that person was pushed, or what that person tried to do to avoid committing that act... Say if every day someoneâs 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 youâre gonna defend yourself and you react... You know, I just try to give the whole storyline that PRECEDES somebodyâs act. Although I donât condone those acts, Iâm just saying sometimes things can happen and there is a reason why.â

Much has been made of the conflict between Shawn Carter and your on-record personality Jay-Z. Whatâs the difference?

âItâs 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. Thatâs really all it is. Itâs like my therapy - when youâre 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.â

The death of your close friend Biggie Smalls had a big impact on you. Were there any other repercussions?

âYou 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.âs and 2Pacâs words - God bless both of them - didnât 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 wouldnât allow me to play California because of death threats, thatâs all calmed down now. Iâve been there like maybe seven or eight times, and itâs 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 didnât fully understand the situation.â

Is it true that, like Biggie, you never actually write your rhymes down?

âYeah, Iâll sit there in the studio or in my car and listen to the track, formulate the song, and then memorise it. Sometimes Iâll have like three or four songs in my head before I get to actually put âem down. And I actually attribute it to when I was younger and Iâd be constantly writing every day. So that, even when I started running around and didnât have time to sit in the house all day, I still had a buncha thoughts coming to me! Sometimes Iâd run in the store, writeâem on a paper bag, put âem in my pocket and write it down in a book when I got home⦠Other days Iâd memorise like the lines for eight hours!.. You know, sometimes I wasnât getting in till five in the morning, so Iâd 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, Iâd be holding like four songs in my head without even transferring it to the books! Iâd be like âI donât even NEED to write it down! Iâll just memorise it till I can RECORD it!â!â

Youâve been quoted as saying lyrically you represent all the street legends you idolised growing up in Marcyâ¦

âWriting-wise Iâm influenced by my environment, period. Itâs as simple as that. Itâs 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 donât really wanna expand on or talk about their lives publicly. But yeah, âcause we donât have any doctors or lawyers in the neighbourhood, the kids in Marcy grow up idolising the only people that look like theyâre having success - which are the hustlers. And what the kids look up to is eventually what they soon become.â

How do you now look back on your own drug-dealing days?

âWhen I first started I remember asking myself âDo I really wanna do this?â... 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, thereâs still a lot about the whole game thatâs pretty scary. Itâs like âDamn, what am I gonna DO? I canât get a car on my own, canât get a house except in someone elseâs name... So what do I do with this money under the mattress?ââ¦You know, itâs definitely a dangerous lifestyle - and Iâm sure a lot guys feel the same way.â

So, coming from that background, how do you feel you represent the playa lifestyle with an underlying message?

âI never wanted to just glamorise the playa lifestyle and not touch on the down side. l wanted everyone whoâs in a desperate situation to know that, if they wanna choose that kinda lifestyle, they gotta be aware of everything that comes WITH it! Itâs not just about the cars, the ladies and the money. Instead Iâm saying âOK, Iâve been down that street and thereâs nothing sweet about it. While there may be some jewellery behind the second door, behind the third door thereâs someone waiting with a bat to bang you on the head! Now, thereâs a car behind the fourth door⦠But, to get to it, youâve 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!â... You know, Iâm just letting you know both ways.â

Youâve also been quoted as saying you feel youâre the best emcee out there right nowâ¦

âYeah, while thereâs a lot people who are strong in one area but weak in a lotta others, across the board I feel Iâm strong in every aspect. I donât 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 nothinâ⦠Plus Iâve done a lotta writing for other people too. And, since my work encompasses everything that Iâve seen and been around, writing for others actually gives me much more chance to be really creative. I just donât think nobody else today is going across the board like that.â

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 itâs important to set out via the independent route?

âDefinitely! Because what hip hop is essentially about is an emcee putting down his own thoughts on record. Itâs not like youâre making something for the people at the record company, youâre 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, itâs a lot more effective. Thereâs nothing better than having creative control over your own art.â

Is it true that, after signing your $5 million deal with Def Jam, you felt a lack of support from them over the âIn My Lifetimeâ LP?

âNah, it wasnât that. I was just that, any time you get with somebody new and yâall donât know each other, thereâs gonna be problems. Itâs like you move in with somebody and you donât like the way they leave the toothpaste cap off, or the way they squeeze the tube! Yâall gotta get used to each other and adjust. And, once youâve adjusted, you can work from there. Now everythingâs cool between us!â

Ever since your debut LP, youâve announced your intention to retire from rapping. What exactly is the situation?

âWith 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 didnât wanna keep Roc-A-Fella over at Priority, we had to move. So, when we went to Def Jam, they were like âOK, weâll do this deal with yâall, but we do need two albums from Jay-Z as an artistâ⦠So they turned out to be the âVol. 1â and âVol. 2â - 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 donât KNOW! Right now Iâm gonna concentrate on putting out the other artists Iâve signed to Roc-A-Fella first, and weâll see what happens from there.â

So what are the current plans for Roc-A-Fella?

âMusically, the first project we have coming out is DJ Clueâs album, and there should be a Memphis Bleek LP in March. Weâre gonna try to get Beanie Siegel out in Jun, with Amil (of Major Coins) due in September. Weâre 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, weâre 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 weâll be dealing in stuff thatâs a little baggier than average, but itâll still be that shit that people LIKE, you know what I mean?â

Jayâs 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 âD.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune)â is out now. The single âRun This Town Featuring Rihanna and Kanye Westâ is released August 31; while the album âThe Blueprint 3â follows September 14, all through Roc Nation

For more on Jay-Z go to

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