December 07, 2005
Jay-Z in Rolling Stone
The Jay-Z cover story from this month's Rolling Stone, liberated for your reading pleasure.
via Nah Right
The Book of Jay
President Carter got up this morning around eight, watched SportsCenter and worked out in the gym at his place in New Jersey with a personal trainer, then slid into his Mercedes Maybach and let his longtime driver Romero take him over the George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan to the Universal building at 8th Avenue and 50th street. The Maybach drops him off less than twenty yards from the front door. His L-shaped corner office is on the 29th floor. Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, has been the President of Def Jam since January 3rd, 2005. “Soon as we came back off of vacation I was here, 10 o’clock in the morning,” he says with pride.
Jay usually gets to the office around 10 or 11, but on this particular Friday he arrives at 12.20pm, his BlackBerry to his ear as he zips past security and up the escalator, wearing an iced-out Rocafella chain, a white and red European soccer-inspired polo shirt from his clothing company, Rocawear, baggy Rocawear jeans, and white S. Carters with blood-red tips, all of which make him look about ten years younger than his 36 years. He goes straight into an emergency meeting. A new song from Young Jeezy—the 25-year-old Atlanta rapper—has been leaked to radio and Jeezy’s A&R man is afraid this will screw up their plans for Jeezy’s next single. Jeezy is one of Jay’s first big successes as a record executive. His album, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation, entered the charts in August at Number Two and has moved over a million units making Jeezy the hottest new rapper of the year. Still, Jay fails to see the song leak as an emergency. He’s always been panic-averse. His persona, in life and on record, is cool and in control—the same even, authoritative tone whether the subject is sex, survival, wealth or vengeance. “His thing is just make it simple,” says Beehigh, Jay’s cousin who grew up with him in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. “People make obstacles for theyselves when sh!t ain’t really no obstacle. He’ll just show you the simpler way to do it.”
At the not-so-emergency meeting Jay explains that the leaked song is a club record, not a radio record, meaning most radio stations won’t want to play it. “Manage your heat,” he tells Jeezy’s A&R man. “Get your Joe Torre on, nigga,” which means, become a brilliant manager and navigate the situation, nigga.
In the 80s, when crack was dominating America’s inner cities, he was a teenage street entrepreneur selling crack and other drugs. In his 20s he escaped the street and became a rapper but when no label wanted to sign him he founded Rocafella Records. As hiphop moved into the Get Big Money era and rappers maximized their earning potential by diversifying into clothes, movies, and bottled water, Jay-Z became one of hiphop’s most successful entrepreneurs. According to a close business associate, Jay’s top revenue stream has been his music enterprises, second has been Rocawear, which has grossed over $500 million since it was founded in 1999, and third an endorsement deal with Reebok (but if Jay liquidated his share of Rocawear that would surpass his music earnings). On December 4th Jay turns 36 and there’s no midlife crisis anywhere in sight: he’s worth more than $320 million and he’s the President of the most important label in the history of hiphop, Def Jam. Founded in 1984 by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the label has been home to several generations of major rappers: L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy in the 80s; Jay, Method Man, Redman, and DMX in the 90s; and, more recently, Kanye and Jeezy. But no matter what Def Jam was in the past, many people think Jay being at Def Jam is more important for Def Jam than for Jay. “Def Jam is the number one hiphop label in the world,” said L.A. Reid, the Chairman of the Island Def Jam Music Group. “Having Jay says that the legacy continues. If you’re a 16 year-old rapper in Brooklyn or Atlanta or Houston, and you know that Jay-Z carries on the legacy of hiphop, then Def Jam becomes your preferred destination. Without Jay-Z you start to wonder if it’s become what Motown has become. The past, lost its vision, lost its value. Jay is the foundation that Def Jam continues into the future.”
Jay’s deal with Universal reportedly pays him between $8 and $10 million a year. He’s also the President and part owner of Rocafella Records, the proud owner of a small piece of the soon to be Brooklyn Nets (“I was happy to cut that check!” he says), and, owner of two multimillion dollar Manhattan apartments, one of them a 10,000-square-foot loft in Tribeca worth $7.5 million, and the other a penthouse at the Time Warner Center by Central Park worth more than $10 million, from which he can see a penthouse owned by his girlfriend, Beyonce. He is also, sometimes, an MC. “My life is crazy,” he says, in awe of his own journey. “I’m not jaded. I’m on the board of the Nets. I’m the only black guy and I’m the youngest one there. I’m a fcukin President-CEO of Def Jam. That sh!t still sounds crazy to me even to this day. What the fcuk does that mean?” Then he gets all philosophical. “And I’m outside of it, too, baby. I’m outside of it, like, hot damn. That’s some crazy sh!t. And it’s not stopping. It’s gonna get even crazier.”
But as far as he’s come, he never forgets who he was, still carries old habits. For example, typical of a multimillionaire, his wallet has no money in it. Today there’s just a single, lonely dollar. But, in his other pocket he’s got a two-inch thick knot of big bills, the sort you’d find in the pocket of a hustler. “I don’t feel right without it,” he says.
His office has great views, a large chocolate brown couch, a huge-screen TV bookended by gigantic speakers, and, next to his desk, a large monitor for his emails. There’s peach roses, white calalilies, and a purple orchid scattered around. On the wall there’s a picture of Jay sharing a laugh with Prince Charles at a swanky event in London and behind his desk a picture of Jay with a smiling Mariah Carey, an Island Def Jam artist. On the table there’s a two foot-tall three-dimensional model of architect Frank Gehry’s plan for downtown Brooklyn where the Nets will move to in 2008, with little trees and shrubs planted around the wooden buildings and acrylic skyscrapers shaped in the forms that Gehry will create. (Gehry also sent Jay a stack of James Joyce novels after explaining to Jay that Joyce was the first rapper. Gehry explained by email, “When I listen to the tapes of his voice doing Finnegan's Wake it sounds like rap. He's very fast with the Irish accent, it's all slurred together and it's quite interesting. When I heard it I thought he was a rapper and I sent them to Jay Z because I thought he might like it.” Jay says he only reads non-fiction.) In the corner, on the floor, there’s a street sign that says, Marcy Ave., a remnant from his days growing up in the Marcy Projects. And on his desk, in the center, is the Best Rap Song Grammy he won for “99 Problems,” the 2003 single produced by Rick Rubin from the album that announced his retirement, The Black Album. The Grammy arrived a few days ago and he decided to let it sit on his desk for a moment before bringing it home. In 1999 Jay told the Associated Press, “I am boycotting the Grammy Awards because too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked.” Not anymore. “I didn’t care about Grammys until we won one,” he says. This is his fourth Grammy. Beyonce has eight. He says she teases him about having so few.
Most of the day the door to Jay’s office stays open and people flow in and out as if his were the cool room in the dorm. They come in and plop down on the couch, maybe toss a football around, maybe talk to him, maybe not. Jay sits behind his desk answering emails, looking at radio airplay charts and album sales charts, listening to songs fresh from the studio brought in by his A&R men (Jay says he edits records but tends not to rewrite songs because with 70 artists to watch over he doesn’t have time), approving art for his artist’s ads, meeting with lawyers and managers, and talking to his artists. “Ludacris calls me every so often,” he says. “I just wanna pick your brain, man, what do you think is my next step? Redman just called the other day and said he wants me to pick the single.” Jay was nervous the first time he sat down with L.L. Cool J. L.L.’s 1985 single “I Need A Beat” was Def Jam’s first release and he’s been on the label ever since, a major part of the Def Jam brand. ”I was a little worried about the meeting,” he said. “I didn’t know how he was gonna take it because he’s the pillar. But he was real cool about it. He was so cool it was shocking. He was like, whatever you want to do, man. He was accepting.”
In September Jay won a five-label bidding war and signed the Roots to Def Jam. “If the bidding war was based on money, Sony won,” Ahmir said. “But it wasn’t about money. Jay’s offer was less than Sony’s but I really needed someone that answers phone calls. I exchanged about eight lines with Jimmy Iovine in my year and a half back at Geffen. I don’t think that’s a healthy relationship, especially if you’re dealing with a group that’s as fragile as the Roots. With Jay it’s no thing to get him on the line.”
What has Jay told the Roots? Well, he hasn’t said the group must sell truckloads of records. “What’s scarin the sh!t out of me is that his priority with the Game Theory [the Roots’ next album] is us turning in a critically-acclaimed album. When I talk about singles he frowns on that. He says, get that thought out of your head. I’ve never before been presented with a situation where the President is saying I absolutely don’t want you turning in anything you think will fit on Hot 97’s format. He knows, and the one thing that Jimmy [Iovine] didn’t know, is that there’s no fooling your audience.”
In the middle of the day Aztec, a Houston rapper Jay signed in April of ‘05, rolls through the office. “Never make a record with intention of where it’ll play,” he advises Aztec with the calm manner of a good big brother. “That’s the worst thing you can do. Try to make a club record and it’ll sound like that. When you’re in the process you gotta do whatever you feel, not planning things for certain ends.” He seems to speak to all his artists not simply about what will sell, but what will help their artistry. “I’m not lookin to be anybody’s boss,” he says. “I’m just looking to help the process. If they win, I win.”
At 2:45, he rolls over to MTV to do a 3:15 segment on MTV’s TRL with Rocafella’s 17-year-old R&B singer, Teairra Mari. A moment before they go on the air, the stage manager tells him he’s going on alone for the first segment and they’ll bring Teairra out for the second segment. Jay politely, but firmly refuses. He’s not going on without Teairra beside him, not allowing a promotional opportunity for his artist turn into just more fame for him. “I’m not here to look bigger than them,” he says later.
Jay has been generous with his fame, using his celebrity to help promote his artists, doing TV and print interviews with them, rhyming on their records, and appearing in their videos, things he was very reluctant to do back when he was Rocafella’s marquee artist. Damon Dash finds this quite humorous. Dash was once the co-CEO of Rocafella but no longer has a stake in the company. “When he was an artist he moved at his own pace,” Dash says. “When you’re a record company president you have to appease the artists. So seeing him do that cracks me up because I know how painful it was for him to do that sh!t for his own projects. All the things he wouldn’t do before he’s doing now. Never did press. He’s rappin on everybody’s stuff. I could never get him to rap on anybody’s sh!t at Rocafella. Never. Bein in a video? That was a rare thing.”
As Jay walks around the 29th floor he yells out little jokes to his people, making them smile and laugh, trying to make everyone comfortable to have him around. “The employees had to get more accustomed to it than him,” a friend said. “They’re walking into his office saying, Ohmygod that’s Jay-Z! And he’s like, Hey I’m just here to work. There’s one girl, every time she walks in the office she’s so excited.” I saw her jumping up and down like a fan as he signed a mundane form and gave it back to her. He says he doesn’t try to be liked but he’s not a leader who motivates through fear. He wants people to enjoy their jobs and have fun in the workplace. “He feels some people work to get money and some people get money from working,” a friend said. “He’s saying let’s not look at this as a place I go to get money. Let’s treat it like a place I go because I love it and then the money’s gonna come.”
“Managing people is really difficult,” Jay says. “Everyone has their own personality and their own idea of how everything should go. Then you got friends that’s fuedin with each other and you have to be the peacemaker. And the more people you have the tougher it is. But I don’t have a goal to be liked. I want people to relax and just focus on what’s important, the artist. It’s fcukin music. We get paid to listen to music for a fcukin living. C’mon now. Everybody chill out, relax.”
To that end, at Def Jam Fridays are known as Bellini Fridays. Around 4pm Jay’s longtime assistant Carline Balan defrosts the bellini mix and empties a case or two of champagne, then hands out bellinis in champagne glasses to anyone who wants one. When they run out of glasses they use plastic cups. Once people have a little alcohol in them the work slows down, the music gets turned up louder, the football starts flying around the office faster, and the whole floor turns into a bit of a party, which was the whole idea behind Bellini Fridays in the first place. “We got to celebrate every week,” Jay says. “Celebrate the end of the week.” Def Jam brings new meaning to casual Friday.
Like any record company President, Jay spends a lot of time coming up with ways to motivate his large staff. “I seen this Bruce Lee documentary this weekend and he was talking about be water,” he said one day. “I’m gonna write that up and send it to people. Be water. If you pour water in a cup it takes the shape of a cup. If you pour it in a teapot it takes the shape of a teapot. Be fluid. Treat each project differently. Be water, man. The best style is no style. Because styles can be figured out. And when you have no style they can’t figure you out.”
Jay strolls around the corner to check out Kanye’s then-unreleased video for “Gold Digger,” on someone’s laptop. He’s impressed by Kanye’s performance in the video, but toward the end there’s a shot of an angry woman holding a dagger. That’s a problem. When Jay talks to the video department about it they know MTV won’t play a video that prominently features a knife, but they’ve had no luck convincing Kanye to edit out the knife because, he argues, Shakira has a knife in her video for “La Tortura,” so why can’t he. But her knife is in a kitchen scene while she’s cutting onions. The shot must be changed and delivered to MTV by 8am Monday or they’ll miss the chance to get onto MTV’s rotation for a whole week. So Jay has to figure out the proper way to get one of his most stubborn and most successful artists to acquiesce. (Kanye later agreed to obscure the knife with sparks of light.) The video promotions woman, who worked with Jay when he was an artist, laughs at his predicament. “You used to do this to me,” she sneers, enjoying the turnabout. “And I used to say I can’t wait till you’re on the other side.”
Next summer Jay will unveil an entirely new way of marketing himself: a color called Jay-Z Blue. “Jay-Z Blue is a license for corporations to get Jay-Z in the building,” said Steve Stoute, the head of Translation Consultation and Brand Imaging, who’s working with Jay on the project. “Cars, laptops, lots of different things. I got deals lined up like you don’t understand. But the bottom line is would a company pay to get Jay-Z involved in their product line? Yes, because of who he is and what he’s become as an icon. Consumers know that bullsh!t don’t leave his mouth. So when Jay-Z says x is cool he can singlehandedly change things. When Jay-Z says you shouldn’t have a [Range Rover] 4.0 but a 4.6, that changes Range Rover’s numbers. On ‘What More Can I Say,’ there’s a line: ‘I don’t wear jerseys, I'm thirty-plus/ Give me a crisp pair of jeans, nigga, button-up.’ That put Reebok’s NFL jersey business back to fans, removed it from fashion. He can move the cultural needle because they believe his honesty.”
He’s been building the brand called Jay-Z since the beginning of his hiphop career. Jay stepped into the hiphop limelight in 1996 with the perfect backstory: he grew up in Brooklyn, a drug dealer who was never jailed, but was able to walk into the hiphop game with big money. There was no need to exaggerate. But more than that, he came into the game with big talent. “He’s a figure hiphop purists can respect,” said Ahmir of the Roots. “If you bring his name up with KRS-One, Rakim, Nas, and Biggie, most people would agree with you.” The same way that KRS, Rakim, Nas, and Big introduced themselves with classic albums, Jay’s Reasonable Doubt was overlooked by many when it came out, but is now considered a classic by the vast majority of hiphop fans. From that first album he understood what flow was really about. “I try to become an instrument within the track,” he says. Part of why Jay can flow so well is because he’s learned to write without writing. When he was out in the streets hustling he found himself coming up with great rhymes and no easy way to write them down so he learned to memorize his songs, then developed the capacity to store six or more songs in his head. When he became a recording artist he’d listen to a track ten or twenty times, then start mumbling to himself—on Fade To Black, the film detailing his 2003 retirement concert, he called it “my rainman,”—and in his mind the song comes into shape. Within as little as twenty minutes he’ll get in the booth and spit an intricately-written rhyme. He says the penless writing allowed him to have a truer relationship to the music. He isn’t setting words to music, he’s adding his voice as a layer of sound within the song while becoming one with the song.
His street stories told us he was tough and courageous, his sarcasm, witticisms and double-entendres told us he was smart and funny, his conversation-chill flows told you he was cool, and his massive, unwavering self-confidence, his swagger, his “I will not lose ever” stance resonated with fans everywhere. Also, despite years of superfame, Jay’s been able to keep much of his life private—sure, we’ve seen pictures of he and Beyonce but he never talks about the relationship, he’ll never do “Cribs” or let the general public see his home, and he says he’ll never do a movie detailing his life. His autobiography, The Black Book, co-written by dream hampton, is written but after years of work, Jay says he probably won’t let it be published. “I know that people really want to know about me,” he says, “and I thought I was ok with it but as it got closer and closer I said, what am I doing? What am I doing? And then when I really got [hampton’s manuscript] I was like, [pantomimes fainting]. Just someone just having your life in their hands made me like, I ain’t doin this sh!t.” He paused. “I can’t read it, by the way. She was sending me chapters but I haven’t read it all together like one thing because I can’t.
The privacy allows Jay to maintain a certain mystique. “You wanna know more about him,” Ahmir said. “There’s still areas of his life that you don’t know about. He’s a black Fonzie figure. Those mythical rebellious cool characters are the ones that everyone’s interested in the most because everyone wants to peel the layers off them to see what makes them tick. Is there a small Wizard of Oz behind the curtain or is this person the almighty powerful Oz you’ve read about? That curiosity factor is always there.”
Even novelist Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth and On Beauty, is a Jay-Z fan. “Jay-Z is a rap all-rounder,” she wrote in an email. “Like Biggie he can produce ecstatic hiphop, the kind of urban lifestyle fantasies that are so joyful they feel like gospel. “Mo Money, Mo Problems” was that kind of tune, and Jay-Z does it on “Change Clothes” or “Girls, Girls, Girls,” or “Izzo.” But the greater part of him, for me, is his strong streak of Tupac-like truth telling, raps that aren’t about the dream life of urban African-Americans but concern their real lived experiences. He’s the manufacturer of black dreams but with all the real-world consequences attached. He’s performed the essential trick you need to be a first class rapper: he’s on top of the globe but he retains his authenticity, he’s still, somehow, of the streets. He’s a survivor like Dre, a joker like Snoop, an angry young man like 50, and a CEO like Diddy. And he has a lovely, instantly recognisable flow—brash, boastful, but also humane, witty and wonderful at telling tales, one of rap’s best narrators.”
Shawn Corey Carter was born in the Marcy projects of Brooklyn, the child of Gloria Carter and Adnes Reeves. He is his mother’s fourth child, her baby, and she’s one of his best friends. “I’m a good friend to her, a very good friend.” He has one brother, Eric, who lives in upstate New York, and two sisters, Michelle, known as Mickey, who works at Rocawear, and Andrea, known as Annie, who’s a corrections officer at Riker’s Island Prison. “She’s tough,” he says, almost in awe.
When Jay was four years old he got his first taste of fame. “I rode this ten-speed, it was really high, but I put my foot through the top bar, so I’m ridin the bike sideways and the whole block is like oh God, they couldn’t believe this little boy ridin that bike like that. That was my first feelin of bein famous right there.” He laughed. “And I liked it. Felt good.”
In the sixth grade Jay discovered he was smart. “I knew I was witty around the sixth grade,” he said. “I just had that feeling of being smart. We did some tests in the sixth grade and I was on a twelth grade level. I was crazy happy about that. When the test scores came back that was the first moment I realized I was smart.”
DJ Clark Kent met Jay when they were teenagers. “When he was 15 he wanted to be the best rapper,” said Kent. “He was ambitious and he wanted to get better every day. And it’s funny how effortlessly it came to him. He’s just gifted. It wasn’t really a development process with him. He became a rapper and he was just extra good.” Jay’s rise seemed easy, but he was practicing every day. “For years every morning he’d wake up and be in the mirror rhyming to hisself,” says Beehigh. “To hear himself and see how he’s pronouncing words and checkin his flow. Every morning. You know how some people get up and do they calisthenics every morning? That was his thing.” “Yeah,” Jay says with a laugh. “I used to do that [rhyme to the mirror]. Weirdo sh!t. I haven’t done that in years.”
Kent financed and produced some of Jay’s initial recordings, but it was difficult to get Jay to focus on hiphop because he was spending most of time hustling and that career was going well. “Jay was enterprising [dealing drugs] and it was so hard for me to get Jay to rap,” Kent said. “After he started to enterprise he was extremely comfortable. He never really stopped enterprising while we were in the beginnings of making the Jay-Z that you know.” But Jay knew he had to move on. “My years was goin more and more in that life,” Jay said. “The longer you go, the higher your odds are that something’s gonna happen to you. I knew the first day I stood on the block the clock was goin backwards. It was a countdown.” But after years of developing his MC skills, when Jay decided to go after a record deal, like Michael Jordan getting cut from the high school varsity basketball team, young Jay-Z couldn’t get record deal. “One thing that frustrated Jay is the fact that he was way better than everyone who was getting signed,” Kent said. “He was like, why am I so good and these other niggas is getting deals? They’re clowns.”
In the early 90s Kent introduced Jay to a young manager from Harlem named Damon Dash. Together with a friend named Kareem Burke they formed Rocafella Records and in ‘96 released Reasonable Doubt. “I wish we could take credit for thinkin of that on our own,” Jay said, “but it was moreso out of, damn, we can’t get no deal? After a year of shoppin I was like, man let’s put it out ourself.” Running a label and being his own boss had an impact on his bank account—he got paid as an artist and as an owner of the label—and on his fan base—many felt that proved his intelligence, savvy, and independence—and also impressed the highest levels of the industry. Sure he’s a great rapper with great taste, but without the entrepreneurial background Jay wouldn’t have been able to ascend to the executive ranks.
The early months of Jay’s first year as President were a bit rocky. “When I first started it was stale,” Jay says. “I wanted to quit right away.” He wondered if he could resign without public embarrassment. “There was nothing fresh, there was no excitement, it was just doin the same sh!t over again. I said where’s the passion? Where’s the ideas? Where’s the new sh!t? I’m used to bein around entrepreneurs and we was passionate about everything. But [in a corporation] whether this artist comes out and does 400 million or 40,000 the first week, their check is the same. So you’re doin everything routine, routine, routine, and you lose the passion for it. You stop comin up with new ideas and you start erasing the name off the marketing plan and fill it in with another name and it’s the same sh!t.” Then he realized that as the President it was his responsibility to inject the energy and passion. So he planned a company retreat.
At a two-day company-wide retreat at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in Manhattan, Jay gave an opening address, then played the 1984 Def Jam sales presentation tape to remind them of the passion that’d pulsed through the company when it was small, independent, and revolutionary. Then, because most of the staff knew little about their co-workers, Jay had everyone talk a little about themselves and why they got into the record business in the first place, to remind them of their early passion for the business. “We got people to go back to that inner kid and the joy of being in the record business,” he said. “I wanted them to be alive again.” (When it came Jay’s turn to talk about why he got into the business he said, “For me it was security.” He knew that by remaining on the street death or jail were inevitable.) The retreat reinvigorated the troops. “There were employees that came back and said, wow, I feel proud to work at Def Jam,” said Tracy Waples, the label’s Senior VP of Marketing. “I think within the company people just found it hard to believe a guy who’s that successful and wealthy is gonna really work.”
Jay has most definitely been working. He’s started two labels: Roc La Familia, focusing on reggae, reggaeton, calypso, tribal, and West Indian music as well as hiphop, and Def Jam Left, a label offering low-advance record deals, meaning artists won’t be pressured to sell as much in their first weeks to keep themselves employed. That’s part of his desire to make Def Jam an artist-friendly label. He says they won’t force artists to complete albums by a certain date so the profits can contribute to the bottom line of a particular fiscal quarter. “If your sh!t ain’t ready,” he said, “we might push your release date back and tell the corporation, Look man, it ain’t ready.” But, he’s learning that making a corporate commitment to artistry isn’t easy. “You have to be artistically and financially responsible,” he said. “That’s not a juggling act, that’s damn near an oxymoron. You want to spend as much money as possible to get the right artist, but you don’t wanna spend too much money where you’re lookin crazy to the corporation. That’s a constant juggling act. And there comes a point where you have to make a decision like, damn, I know it’s not really artistic, but the quarter comin to an end. I need this [album] for the books.”
He’s signed some experienced artists—the Roots and Foxy Brown—and a horde of new artists from a broad spectrum of genres—hardcore Southern rapper Young Jeezy, New York rapper Tru Life, R&B singer Teairra Mari, pop-reggae singer Rihanna, and British grime star Lady Sovereign. “I would love to find a hot ass rock & roll act,” he says. “We gotta have a Kurt Cobain on the label. A rock band that rocks in the hood.” Jay’s success at getting deals done has earned him a new nickname, The Closer. “If I really want you I’ll close it like Mariano [Rivera, the Yankees’ legendary relief pitcher].”
Of course, being an artist/businessman is a double-edged sword. Jay still retains the too-cool posture he had as an artist. “I’m not gonna chase anyone,” he says. “I’ll convince you that this is the best place for you. I’ll give you a million reasons why you should be here, but I’m not chasing. I’m not gonna call a hundred times. I’ll make two phone calls and feel a way, like, sh!t, I’m playin myself.” He laughs. “I’m not messin up my best suit.” In a world where many others with recording contracts to give are more than willing to ruin their best suit in pursuit of new talent, surely this will be a liability at some point. Jay knows that. “It hasn’t hurt me yet,” he says. “I’m sure it will. I’m sure I’ll lose somebody real important and major in music but it hasn’t hurt me yet.”
This year two of Jay’s artists had tremendous success—Kanye has sold over two million copies of Late Registration and Jeezy has sold over one million of Let’s Get It and they’ve become two of the most talked-about, most culturally significant artists of the year—but several others did not fare so well. “It’s been a little rough with the first three releases,” Dash sneered. “What did Memphis Bleek sell? [534 sold less than 200,000.] What did the Young Gunz sell? [Brothers From Another sold just over 100,000.] What did Teairra sell? [Rocafella Presents Teairra Mari sold less than 200,000.] At Rocafella, those are not great numbers. So, know that it’s not as easy as it appears to be. I think he’ll be able to turn it around. Eventually. But I think he just has to learn the game a little more.” Rihanna had a hit single, “Pon De Replay,” but her album Music of the Sun sold just over 200,000 and Beanie Sigel’s The B. Coming moved less than 400,000.
Others stressed that it’s impossible to judge a record executive over a short period of time. “For him to make the impact that he wants to make it’s definitely going to take two years,” Ahmir said. “This is not an overnight thing. I know a lot of people are saying what happened with Young Gunz and Beanie and Freeway and Memphis and Teairra. But in order to really build a movement you’re gonna have to start from the ground up, so this is gonna take two years. Right now he’s dusting off the chess board and putting his chess pieces into position and then we’ll have the results of said positioning.”
Among the older Def Jam artists there’s been a little grumbling about having Jay as a boss. “I think there’s an element of, now you’re telling me how to do my gig?” Reid says. “More often than not they’ve conformed. But there’s absolutely a couple of people who don’t wanna hear it. They can leave. I won’t allow anyone to undermine him by being able to go around him. No one.” Reid said there’s one artist who’s unwilling to work with Jay who will be dropped. He wouldn’t say who but two high-placed industry insiders whispered that it’s DMX. DMX did not respond to numerous calls placed before he was incarcerated.
On this Friday Jay leaves the office around 6:30pm. As the Maybach flows back into New Jersey the phone rings. It’s Beyonce. He immediately starts teasing her. “Houston ain’t ghetto!” he says. “You told me Houston was ghetto. You ain’t tell me they got surfin down there in Houston. I saw SportsCenter.” This morning there was a report on people who surf waves made by oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. “The water’s green. They got grass and white people. That ain’t ghetto. Let me find out you lyin, homie,” he adds, throwing in a little Southern twang to tease her even more. You can hear her laughing on the other end.
The Maybach stops in Teterboro, New Jersey, at the tiny Teterboro Airport where he boards a luxurious 13-seat G4 (he has an account with a popular time share jet company where the cost for 25 hours of flight time is around $300,000). Teairra Mari and a few friends join him for the 30 minute flight to Philadelphia. Al Green wafts from the speakers and the stewardesses smile while serving chicken wings and popcorn shrimp from the Cheesecake Factory. One stewardess calls Jay, “Mr. Combs,” but who cares. He’s going to see his girl perform. This’ll be his third time seeing Destiny’s Child on this tour.
When the stewardess offers Jay a glass of wine he’s like a character from Sideways. He examines the cork, but doesn’t smell it, then holds the glass by the stem, not the bowl because, he explains, if you hold it by the bowl then the heat from your fingers changes how the wine tastes. He swirls it, looks to see if it has legs, then takes a sip, careful to wash it on his tongue. He swallows. Everyone awaits his judgement. He looks at the stewardess and says, “fcukin disgusting.” Then he winks. “Nah, I’m just playin.”
He arrives at the Philadelphia Spectrum ten minutes before the show starts, dips backstage to say hi to B before she goes on, then, when the house lights go down, he slips into the crowd and takes a place by the sound board to watch the show. As artists the two could hardly be more different. Beyonce’s dramatic onstage, wearing billowing colored fabrics that glitter and shine for the back row. Jay’s understated onstage, dancing little if at all, kindof just standing there, alpha male style, too cool to dance. She stalks the stage, throws her hair, moves with abandon. His onstage manner seems like he’s barely performing at all. But don’t dare suggest that he’s not an entertainer. Another night, at the 40/40 Club, the Manhattan sports bar he owns, Jay sat with a roomfull of friends, including Usher, arguing about who are the top five MCs of the 80s and the 90s. (From the 80s Jay said #1 Rakim, #2 KRS-One, #3 Big Daddy Kane, #4 Kool G Rap, and #5 LL Cool J, and from the 90s #1 Biggie, #2 Tupac, #3 Nas, #4 Ice Cube, and #5 Scarface.) Then Usher suggested everyone in the group rank their top five entertainers, meaning R&B acts. When some people walked into the room in the middle of the conversation they were confused by the purview encompassed by “entertainers.” I explained, “by entertainers we mean non-rappers,” and Jay exploded with indignant laughter, all but offended by this. “Rappers aren’t entertainers?” he said. “I destroyed the Garden!” He’s so understated onstage you wouldn’t think he considers himself an entertainer, but he does.
Back in Philly, Beyonce, Kelly, and Michelle perform for over two hours and when they reach the final number, Jay and his crew camp out in the group’s dressing room. As everyone waits for the girls, Jay makes a beat by hitting his hands against the couch, then tells Teairra Mari she’s got to sing to his beat. She refuses, claiming to be shy, so he says she’s got to add something to the beat. She adds a little beatbox with her mouth, then he turns to the next person, telling each member of the crew they’ve got to add to the beat, add something, making sure each person gets involved like the beat conductor, or the party coordinator. Once everyone’s adding something he guides the impromptu instrumental to a big ending and then blam, it’s over. A moment later, in walks Beyonce. The girls end each show under a waterfall, so she shlumps in wearing a thick black robe and big fuzzy slippers, her hair flat like she’s just gotten out of the shower. Her shoulders are sagging and her feet are dragging but there’s a big proud-of-herself smile on her face. Jay leads the gang to applaud her. She quickly changes into jeans, a t-shirt, and a black baseball hat, braids her hair, then comes out and gives Jay a light, brief hug, her head burrowing into his chest for a quick second. She leaves the Spectrum with Jay and his crew and flies back to New York with them, her feet up on the seat like a girl, but her voice low from a long night of singing. They’re careful to not be demonstrative in public, but spend some time around them and you’ll see all the hallmarks of a close, committed couple: they’re physically playful, they eat oxtail off the same plate, she’s often giggling at something he’s said, they can talk with just their eyes. One night he greets her by playfully pantomiming that he’s punching her in the ribs while never actually touching her as she giggles from the close attention. He continues to refuse to talk about his relationship, but told me he wants to have kids at some point in the next five years.
Jay became the President of Def Jam after years of upper management at the Universal Music Group eyeing him for a place in the executive ranks. But Jay came very close to becoming an executive in the Warner Music Group and he struggled with his decision down to the last moment until he was in his lawyer’s office, standing over the Def Jam contract, pen in hand, conflicted and unable to sign for five hours. It started back in 2003, before Jay retired as a rapper, before L.A. Reid was hired to run the Island Def Jam Music Group, back when Lyor Cohen was still the Chairman of Island Def Jam. That year Jay had a meeting with Doug Morris and Morris walked away very impressed. “I liked him because he comes from an entrepreneurial background,” Morris said. “When you run a label you learn the whole thing, you get the broad idea of what this business is all about which is more than promotion and marketing and A&R. It gives someone the whole picture when you have to keep the doors open yourself.“
That year Jay also met with Jimmy Iovine, the CEO of Interscope, which is under the Universal Music Group umbrella, on Iovine’s yacht in the South of France and at Bono’s home in the South of France, among other places. They discussed the possibility of Jay becoming an executive within the Universal Music Group and Iovine became a passionate advocate for Jay. Iovine told me, “He’s a talent, he’s a talent finder, he’s a record maker, he’s a magnet, he’s creative, he’s smart, he sees the music business as a 360, rather than just linear, he’s the modern record guy. He’s got great feel, he’s got great taste, and he knows how to market things. The rest you can learn. How do you let him walk out the door [and leave the Universal system]?”
In early 2004 Reid was hired and the search for a new Def Jam President began, but no one else was considered. One night Reid and Jay went out for a drink and a cigar. “We really opened up and talked for the first time,” Reid says. “I told him I was thinking about it. He let me know it was interesting for me to be thinking about it.” It was a very gentlemanly courtship. “We both come from a place where we aren’t desperate,” Reid says, “so we don’t do the hard sell to anyone. So I didn’t do the hard sell to him and he didn’t do the hard yes to me.” After many more meetings, including afternoon tea with Reid at the Peninsula Hotel, Universal offered Jay a three-year contract to be the President of Def Jam with a seven or eight figure salary, plus part ownership in Rocafella Records (Universal had recently purchased the 50% of Rocafella it didn’t own for $10 million), and, critically, ownership of masters he’d made while at Def Jam. They would become his in ten years.
“We definitely drove a hard bargain,” Reid said. “But it was never a hard sell, ever.”
Meanwhile, Jay’s old friend Lyor Cohen, had leapfrogged from being Chairman of Island Def Jam to Chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group’s US Recorded Music and he was doing the hard sell. He offered Jay a position overseeing all of Warner Music Group’s labels and a considerable piece of WMG’s initial public offering which could have turned out to be worth many millions. Several times Jay was certain he was going to Warner. The night before he signed the Def Jam contract he called Edgar Bronfman, Jr., the Chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group, Cohen’s boss. “I called Edgar house at one in the morning and I asked for something. I don’t wanna say what it is, but if he woulda gave me that I woulda [joined Warner]. He sortof agreed to it the next day but by then it was too late. It was too late in my mind.” The next day he went to his lawyer’s office to sign the three-year Def Jam contract, but found himself unable. “I had my mind made up to do it,” he said, “but I could not sign it.” He paced the room for five hours. He called Cohen who grabbed Bronfman and raced to the lawyer’s office hoping to change Jay’s mind but in the end he chose Def Jam. The decision turned on the chance to own his masters. “It’s an offer you can’t refuse,” he said. “I could say to my son or my daughter, or my nephews if I never have kids, here’s my whole collection of recordings. I own those, they’re yours.”
When Jay decided to accept partial ownership of Rocafella he knew that would upset Damon Dash, who at that point no longer owned a piece of Rocafella. “I’m like, sh!t, I know Damon gonna feel a way about Rocafella.” So he offered Dash his percentage of Rocafella in return for complete ownership of his debut album Reasonable Doubt, which is owned by Jay, Dash, and their partner Kareem Burke. “I wasn’t bullying him,” Jay said. “I was asking for something that was less than what I was offering.” Dash said yes, but then Burke said no. So Jay moved on. “In my mind,” Jay said, “and I still believe that to this day, I was bein more than generous.”
Both Jay and Dash say there was never a fight between them and that they’re still friends, but friends say they’d been growing apart slowly since the end of the Hard Knock Life tour in 1999 when Jay began to think about becoming a businessman and began to tire of Dash’s big, aggressive, perpetually combative personality. One executive said Dash was, “a defibrillator,” meaning he would bring a lot of shock and noise to situations, while Jay handled things with grace. Jay preferred to characterize the split as a result of growing up, but, asked if Dash’s personality started to wear on him he said, “Yeah, it’s a lot. But, to his credit, when you have that workin for you it’s great.”
After the Rocafella split, the small, but growing crack in their friendship became an irreparable fissure. Dash is still sore about how things went down. “He’s always gonna be my friend, but what he did as far as taking the [Rocafella] name never sat well with us,” Dash said, referring also to Burke. “It’s just not the way we were raised. How would you feel if you built a name with your homeboy, fought for it, it blows up, and then in a corporate way they say alright you can take the name and you get it and your boys don’t? He didn’t have to take the name. He just chose to. That’s still my man, but when you think someone’s built a certain way and they’re not, it’s surprising.”
In September Dash sold his stake in Rocawear for more than $20 million, ending his business ties to Jay. Dash no longer wears his Rocafella chain and says he’s no longer sure who Jay-Z is. Dash says, “I don’t even know that guy anymore.”
Dash said that after Jay began working at Def Jam he knew things between them wouldn’t be the same. “One time in the winter, when he first took the job, we got on an elevator,” he said, “and, if I were ever to write a movie this would have to be either the end of it or the serious point when you know things have changed. He was coming from whatever he was doin at Def Jam and I was comin from whatever I was doin and he had on a suit with shoes and a trench coat. And I had on my State Property and my hat to the side. And it was like we were two different people. It was ill. Our conversation was brief, wasn’t no malice, but we honestly were two different people. He was not the same person I had met. I would never expect him to wear a trench coat and shoes. It can just show that people can go in two totally separate directions.”
Behind all the business success and occasional turmoil of the past few years, Jay struggled through two of the most difficult personal moments he’s ever faced. In 2003 it became clear that his father, Adnes “AJ” Reeves, did not have long to live. Jay didn’t know his father because AJ left the family when Jay was just eleven years old and Jay hadn’t had contact with him since. He has a few memories from when his Dad was in the house. “He’d take me out and expect me to remember the way we went when I was five years old,” he said. “He was teaching me how to navigate through the streets. And then we’d ride in the car and he’d say, what size is that woman’s dress? I’d be like, four. He’d say, no, 11, you gotta pay attention. And that helps out a lot in raps when I’m talking about the Christian Louboutin and stuff. That’s still part of me.” But Jay has more memories of the pain of his father leaving him. “Kids look up to they pop like Superman,” Jay said. “Superman just left the crib? That’s traumatic sh!t. He was a good guy. It’s just that he didn’t handle the situation well. He handled it so bad that you forget all the good this guy did. The scorn, the resentment, all the feelings from that, as you see, I’m a grown ass man, but it was still there with me.”
Jay’s father’s leaving is one of the most traumatic moments of his life, a moment that led him to become emotionally cold. “I’d say I changed a little bit.” He paused. “I changed a lot. I became more guarded. I never wanted to be attached to something and get that taken away again. I never wanted to feel that feeling again [of being left]. I never wanted to be too happy or gung ho about something or too mad about something. I just wanted to be cool about it. And it effects my relationships with women. Cuz even when I was with women I wasn’t really with them. In the back of my mind I’d always feel like, when this sh!t breaks up, you know, whatever. So I never really just let myself go. I was always guarded, always guarded. And always suspicious. I never let myself just go.” (He says that because he’s never let himself go he’s never once been heartbroken over a girl. “Never, ever. Never. Never.“)
Until recently Jay never knew the real reason why his father left. While dream hampton was working on the Black Book she uncovered the truth in an interview with Jay’s mother. “He didn’t know that a big turning point in his Dad’s life was when his younger brother got stabbed in the heart,” hampton says. “Jay’s uncle was stabbed in the chest during an unfair fight and his father became consumed with desire for revenge. His boys would be calling him at two in the morning like yo, I just saw that nigga over here and he would throw on some clothes and head out lookin for this nigga. And he kinda never recovered from that.” Jay said, “That made him a bitter, evil, different guy.”
When Jay’s mother found out that AJ didn’t have long to live she made it her mission to get Jay and his father to reconnect before it was too late. Jay was resistant. “I was like, mmmm, nah,” he said. “But she kept going, kept goin. So I was like alright, bring him over to my house. Of course, I knew he’s not gonna come.” Jay sat at his place in New Jersey, waiting for his father to come see him, just knowing he wouldn’t come, bringing back childhood feelings of abandonment that he’d worked so hard to insulate himself from. AJ didn’t come. “I was like, I knew it,” Jay said.
Jay was very reluctant to give his father another chance, but eventually he did. “The second time I was sittin there like, this time he has to come because if he doesn’t come I’m never doin this again. I’m never doin this again.” But this time his father showed up. “Me and my pop got to talk,” he said. “That was very defining of my life. I got to let it go. I got to tell him everything I wanted to say. I just said what I felt. It wasn’t yelling and crying and drastic and dramatic. It was very adult and grown men, but it was tough. I didn’t let him off the hook. I was real tough with him. We just went through that whole thing. How could you do that? He was like, well you knew where I was. I was like, I’m a kid. I’m not supposed to find you. What are you talking about? He said, you’re right. And then it was cool and that kinda freed everything.” Jay found his father an apartment in Brooklyn near the hospital and furnished it. “That’s the right thing to do as far as karma and everything,” he says. A few months later when his father passed Jay was able to feel at peace. At least until the summer of 2005 when a much more difficult death tumbled into his life.
Jay has four nephews and one niece and he looks at them as if they were his own kids. He should because, friends say, he’s played a major part in raising them. When Annie’s son, Colleek Luckie graduated from high school, Jay flew across the country to be there. “I flew, I landed, I get in the car, I asked the driver, you know where you goin, right?” The driver said yes, so Jay took a nap, but when he awoke they were lost. “I’m thinking, if I miss his graduation, oh my God. I gave him my word. I don’t ever wanna break my word with these guys. Specially from when how I came up, like my pop. I know how kids remember. I’m the kid who never forgets.” He was so upset he almost punched the driver. “I was so mad. I had tears in my eyes and sh!t. I don’t cry over nothing. But I made it [to the ceremony]. I was a little late, but I made it.”
But on June 28th, 2005, Luckie was killed in a car accident in Pennsylvania while riding in the Chrysler Jay had bought him as a graduation present. Jay was in LA for the BET Awards when he heard. “He cried,” Waples said. “I know he had a couple good cries. He told me he needed a good cry. I think it was mind-blowing for him.” Jay said, “It was the toughest sh!t. Nothing close to it. Numbingly. Like I’m numb. I’m numb.” Months later he’s still deling with the pain. “sh!t comes time-released.” He paused. “Beautiful kid.”
On Thursday, October 27th, at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the current home of the New Jersey Nets, hiphop history was made. It was 11.25pm, two hours into Jay’s “I Declare War” concert sponsored by Power 105.1. Jay was onstage, moving through the Oval Office-themed stage—a rug with a presidential seal, a desk with two green banker’s lamps and an all-red phone, and two secret service-like men standing still at the back of the stage. He was doing his classic “Where I’m From,” from In My Lifetime Vol. 1. He rhymed, “I’m from where niggas pull your card/ And argue all day about who’s the best MC/ Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas.” Then he abruptly told the DJ to stop the record. The concert was called “I Declare War” because Jay had promised to diss some rappers, to damage some careers. Now, the crowd thought, Jay will deliver on his promise of war. Four years before at a radio station-sponsored concert in New York Jay unleashed “The Takeover,” a song dissing Nas (a.k.a. Esco, after Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar) and Mobb Deep. A venomous and all too personal battle ensued between Jay and Nas, who came back attacking “Gay-Z and Cock-A-Fella Records” on “Ether.” Jay feels he won the battle though he knows many people think Nas won it. “I think if you judge “Takeover” against “Ether,” it’s a better record,” Jay said. “But when you have a David and Goliath situation, it’s tough to win those things when you win everything.” Many people were offended by Jay’s rhymes in “Superugly,” his underground reply to “Ether,” where he spoke in graphic detail about having sex with the mother of Nas’s daughter, but Jay felt justified to say anything after “Ether,” where Nas slings several gay slurs. ”If you listen to “Ether,” like d!ck sucking lips and sh!t like that, as a man you don’t say that to another man,” Jay said. “I would never tell a man, yo suck my d!ck. I would never say nothing like that to a man unless I planned on goin all the way with him.”
Now, with the music stopped, the 20,000-deep crowd breathed deep and wondered who would be attacked this time?
“This was called I Declare War,” Jay said. “I was gonna lay a motherfcuker out. But as this was coming together I seen the LOX perform with Puff.” The mogul and the group fueded years ago but did “It’s All About the Benjamins” together at the concert. “I seen the return of Beanie Sigel.” Since the breakup of Rocafella it was uncertain if their friendship had ended. “And I just said fcuk it. It’s bigger than I declare war. It’s like the motherfcukin President presents the United Nations.” The crowd sensed that something colossal was about to happen. “So you know what I did for hiphop?” Jay said. “I said fcuk that sh!t. Let’s go, Esco.” And at 11.36pm, a man rose up into view at the top of the stage. Nas!
The crowd went wild. The hiphop titans were together onstage, their beef officially over. Jay had promised war but had brought something far more precious: peace. Nas walked down the stairs at the side of the stage toward Jay in a military green jacket and hat, the way he dressed circa his 1994 classic debut album, Illmatic. Jay went into “Dead Presidents” from Reasonable Doubt, a song which samples Nas for the chorus. But now Nas did the chorus live, then went into a rhyme from “The World Is Yours,” (from which “Dead Presidents” took its chorus). At the end of the song they shook hands, then stood side by side facing the crowd, taking in the long, thunderous standing ovation from the shocked thousands.
“This is hiphop history,” Nas told the crowd. “Niggas is makin money and still mad at the world? This is all about peace. We savin the East Coast!”
“All that beef sh!t is wack,” Jay said. “Let’s get this money.”
Days later Jay was typically understated. “That was some little sh!t,” he said. “Don’t make it a big section at the end of the article.” But Nas feels it was a major moment. “That was the highest mountain ever climbed in the game,” he said. “The feeling was beyond words.” Nas said the reconcilliation began when he realized he was nearing the end of his deal with Columbia and started thinking about signing with Jay’s label. “Def Jam is somewhere where the understanding of our culture is respected,” Nas said. “I’m all for people who love the music to control it. That was what I was wantin to get into and just by explorin what was out there, this conversation [with Jay] came about. It just felt like time.” Nas and Jay met a few weeks before the concert. “It was a conversation that was long overdue,” Nas said. “There was a lot of laughter and a lot of serious conversation where there’s no laugh or smile. It was a meeting of the minds and reconcilliation.” He feels that hiphop has become overrun with beefs and battles. “Ever since me and Jay started our thing, the whole thing has been battles,” he said. “Just about every MC got a beef with another MC. Everybody. Which is cool, could be creative, but uplifting is what the nature of hiphop is about and I think people are forgettin where to draw the line. That beef sh!t is played out.”
The main source of beef in modern hiphop is, of course, 50 Cent, the neighborhood bully of hiphop who’s currently got issues with Nas, Jadakiss, Fat Joe, the Game, and Dr. Dre. Asked if the concert had been partly about 50, Nas said, “If the shoe fits.”
Thus for Jay, who looks at life like a chess game, the I Declare War reconcilliations can be seen as a dual purpose move. Jay aligned himself with two men who released songs about 50 this year: Nas who made “Be Easy,” and Jadakiss who made “Checkmate.” But Jay didn’t say a word about 50. For 50 beef is part of the marketing plan, but now if he attacks Jay he’ll be seen as the aggressor attacking the popular and retired Jiggaman and Jay will have a tremendous sympathetic advantage. Not mentioning 50 was more powerful than anything Jay could’ve said.
Jay-Z is supposedly retired. He says there’s no album forthcoming any time soon but this year he rocked two big concerts (he recreated the Nas reconcilliation the following night in Philly) and supplanted Busta Rhymes as the World’s Best Guest Rapper on the strength of his part in three of the year’s hottest records: Kanye’s “Diamonds (from Sierra Leone),” Young Jeezy’s “Go Crazy,” remix, and Mariah’s “Shake It Off,” remix, as well as some other songs. It all begs the question, will he unretire? The answer depends on which day you ask. One day I asked if he wanted to get back in the game. He said, “I’m itching,” and he clenched his shoulders and you could see the pulse of excitement about going back to the studio. “Music is boring. Needs a punch, needs a kicker, needs a Chronic, needs a Detox. This Kanye album could be it, but music… it needs a moment.” But a week later, asked, How close are you to making a record, he said, “Not close,” and his shoulders stayed low as he said it, his body reflecting how settled he is about it. “I was itching, but you know. I’m not itching today. I was itching that day but it comes and goes. I have an itch to do it, but I wanna be starving to do it. I wanna get my Pookie on. Like, ok, it’s calling me. I wanna do it with my full attention and passion. I didn’t want to take it for granted and just do it because it’s November and sh!t.”
But the rhyme processor in his mind hasn’t stopped working. He’s got songs in his head. “I got six or seven good ones and a bunch of other silly ideas,” he says. “But six or seven that could go tomorrow.” He builds on and remembers these songs by rhyming when he showers. “Now I rhyme more in the shower,” he said. “Every day, every shower.” Jay-Z’s retired in name only. Don’t expect another album any time soon, but he continues to be an MC, not just recording guest rhymes, but also coming up with new songs without a pen and performing them for very small audiences.
Then he stands up and starts to freestyle, rhyming so calmly that at first I thought he was still just talking. “It’s who you are, man/ you gotta understand/ clothes don’t make the man/ man make the clothes/ when I stunt and I pose/ I’m a pimp but ain’t stuntin no hoes/ All I’m wantin is dough/ Maybe a lady for comfort/ when foes is lined up at my do’/ But no, not to shootout with me/ Put on a cute outfit and hit me off/ So my mind’s right when niggas come to/ pick me off.”
Then he says, “I think that’s a good place to end it.”
Byron Crawford a/k/a Bol is the celebrated author of several books, most recently NaS Lost: A Tribute to the Little Homey.
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