The Life And Times Of Jay-Z: An Interview

REMIND SHAWN CARTER, aka Jay-Z, that his last long player, Vol.2…Hard Knock Life, which spawned the Annie-sampling single of the same name, sold 5 million copies (250,000 of those in four days) and his only reply is a broad smile and one word, “Yeah”.

The one-time Brooklyn drug dealer, who is now a captain of industry with his own Roc-A-Fella Records, may pull your regular “Pissed-Off-Rapper” pose for album sleeves and posters, but right now, as he sits in his palatial London hotel, slumped on a sofa, feet on an ornate coffee table, thumbing through the sports pages of a stack of American newspapers, he’s the face of contentment. Ask about his new album, Vol.3…The Life And Time Of Thomas Shawn Carterand how he intends to top his previous success and continue his so far unbroken trend of each album selling double that of the last and he calmly announces… “I’m doing something different.” His face dons a serious look as he justifies his last remark. “I’m just tryin’ to make every album different, with new beats that people never heard before. I like to take chances. I like to keep it interesting for people and for me.”

He speaks softly of struggles in life, in music and in business, with a calm, self assured voice that says ‘trust me, I’m right’, even when outlining why 5 million sales don’t equate to 5 million damn good reasons to milk his proven style. “The easy and safe thing to do would be to recreate the last album. I don’t want to have a safe career. Sometimes you’re not gonna agree with the stuff that I do, but I’m gonna take the challenges, I’m gonna bring people new and exciting stuff so that I can grow as an artist. And then hip-hop can grow.”

As confident of success as he sounds, he admits he’s “missed sometimes”, but now he’s convinced that his fans are with him. “People know that I’m gonna change it up, that I’m true to my music, true to myself, and as long as I do that people are gonna feel it. They can feel it when you tryin’ to do something and it’s all contrived or they can just feel when somethin’ comin’ from your soul and it’s right.”

The night before, at a play through of his new album at London’s hyper trendy Met Bar, the ecstatic response from journalists and record company executives confirmed, as if he didn’t know, that he’s got it right again. The six tracks that got everyone so excited were raw and unmixed, but the bass and beat heavy tunes were also seriously fresh. “I just got all new work from Timbaland, like work that you’ve never heard him do before. I worked with Swiss and just a bunch of new producers, all new because I like the new, new, new stuff. I just listen for the music more so than just a name producer.” But does he have another hit like ‘Hard Knock Life’ up his sleeve? “There are songs where I think, ‘Yeah’, but I find that a lot of times I like the songs that aren’t hits, I really don’t know what the f*** I’m doin’. All the songs they (the excited executives) pick, I wouldn’t have picked, except for ‘Hard Knock’, I knew that one, as soon as I finished it I was like ‘Wooow, this is gonna be CRAZY.'”

His affection for Annie goes way beyond her having a hand in his success, “Everybody likes a story like that, when the underdog wins, the orphan gets to live with a rich family, I wanna live with a rich family too, anybody from a poverty area does, you know that’s a story you can relate to.” Although she never ended up as a drug dealer, or selling 5 million albums, there are marked similarities between the life of the ginger haired orphan and the hard knock life Jay-Z constantly relays through his music. But with his success, isn’t it about time that he abandoned his tales of struggle and life on the streets to write about living with HIS rich family in big palatial hotels. “I tell people all the time, I been famous four years, I been alive way more than that, it (the struggle) doesn’t just go away like that, it’s still in me.”

Four years of fame haven’t let him forget his ten years of hustling or the poverty that went before it, and for him never forgetting is the key to his future. “I rap about my life, and the lives of people around me. Where I grew up there’s a lot of people that had very similar life as me, millions and millions of people, they’re the people that pick up your music, for the most part, people who’ve been through it, people who can relate to it. There are people who pick the music because they like the beats, but for the most part, fans that’s always gonna be there, that’s always gonna go out and get your record, they’re the ones who live like you, understand what you’re sayin’.” And he sees himself as an inspiration living the life he once knew. “I’m just one of the few zillion people who made it through the cracks, there’s still a whole bunch of people who’s life this is. It’s aspirational, it’s motivational for people in the game that think that they can’t get out will be like, ‘Hey, look at homes, look at Jay-Z, he used to live right next door to me, used to live upstairs, it could happen to me…'”

Annie may have been taken in by a rich man, but Jay-Z’s success is purely self made. Now he’s the boss of Roc-A-Fella, he has his own line of clothing, Roc-A-Wear, and runs a spots management agency- hence his obsessive scrutiny of the Sports pages. Now along with the cars, the jewelry and the girls, every rapper needs their own label, why? “First of all you got to figure, being on the street, being a hustler, that’s already havin’ an entrepreneurial mind. This is already your own business, and it’s hard going into a structure, you don’t work that well because your not used to being told what to do. The other thing is that when we first starting doing demos, my story was the same and it was being told from a hustlers point of view, so the companies and A&Rs couldn’t understand it, but I knew that the people would relate to it, so we just started moving stuff ourselves.”

Was it always his idea to have an empire? “It was more a thing of havin’ a job. You know black people don’t really inherit businesses that our fathers left for us, so it was to do something like that, something for my sons. That was the big picture right there, for us to build a company that could be passed down to our kids and their kids.” Would he like to retire from rap one day and become chairman of the board? “In the grand scheme, the bigger picture, that’s what I’d like to do, take more of a back seat, we got a lot of big artists, we don’t have to live off my records alone anymore.” And if it all ended tomorrow… “I think I have the drive, determination and belief in myself that I could definitely do it again.”

© Dan Gennoe, 1999

Rock’s Backpages Rock’s Backpages

Article Courtesy of Rock’s Backpages, the Online Library of Music Journalism. For schools interested in subscribing to Rock's Backpages, please click here.

To browse all of the material provided by Rock's Backpages, browse our Rock’s Backpages partner page.