Jay-Z: The Fresh Air Interview
Long before he sold 50 million records worldwide — and before he appeared alongside Warren Buffett on the cover of Fortune magazine, accumulated 10 Grammy Awards and became the CEO of his own record label — Jay-Z was living with his mom in the Marcy Houses housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, just trying to survive day by day.
"It was a very intense and stressful situation," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There was playing in the Johnny-pump (an opened fire hydrant) and the ice-cream man coming around and all of these games that we'd play, and suddenly it would turn just violent and there would be shootings at 12 in the afternoon on any given day. It was a weird mix of emotions. One day, your best friend could be killed. The day before, you could be celebrating him getting a brand-new bike."
Now 40, Jay-Z hasn't forgotten his past — or the lyrics he's written over the years about his childhood in the projects. In his new book Decoded, he unpacks the detailed riffs and lyrics that make up 36 of his songs — while examining both his own life and the growth of hip-hop over the last two decades.
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He also talks candidly, both in the book and on Fresh Air, about the period in his life when he was a teenager selling crack cocaine on the streets.
"At 14 [or] 15 years old, you're thinking about sneakers or you're thinking about some sort of relief from all of the pain you're feeling," he says. "You're thinking about buying some food for the house. You're thinking about paying the extra light bill. So at that young age, you're not thinking about the destruction you're causing your own community."
At the time he was selling, Jay-Z was also coming up with rhymes. He normally wrote down his material in a green notebook he carried around with him — but he never took the notebook with him on the streets, he says.
"I would run into the corner store, the bodega, and just grab a paper bag or buy juice — anything just to get a paper bag," he says. "And I'd write the words on the paper bag and stuff these ideas in my pocket until I got back. Then I would transfer them into the notebook. As I got further and further away from home and my notebook, I had to memorize these rhymes — longer and longer and longer. ... By the time I got to record my first album, I was 26, I didn't need pen or paper — my memory had been trained just to listen to a song, think of the words, and lay them to tape."
Since his first album, he says, he's never written down any of his lyrics.
"I've lost plenty of material," he says. "It's not the best way. I wouldn't advise it to anyone. I've lost a couple albums' worth of great material. ... Think about when you can't remember a word and it drives you crazy. So imagine forgetting an entire rhyme. 'What's that? I said I was the greatest something?' "
One of the songs Jay-Z writes about extensively in the book is "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," a single from his third album Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life. It samples music from the musical Annie, which Jay-Z says he watched repeatedly as a child.
"When the TV version [of Annie] came on, I was drawn to it," he says. "It was the struggle of this poor kid in this environment and how her life changed. ... It immediately resonated."
Twenty years later, Jay-Z was on a Puff Daddy tour in the late '90s, when he heard a DJ play an instrumental version of "It's the Hard Knock Life" from Annie.
"It immediately brought me back to my childhood and that feeling," he says. "I knew right then and there that I had to make that record, and people would relate to the struggle and the aspiration in it, as well."
To get the rights for "Hard Knock Life," Jay-Z says he "exaggerated a touch" in his letter to the original songwriters, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin. He told them how much Annie meant to him growing up, because he won an essay contest as a child and got to see the musical on Broadway, cementing his love for the show. But, he says with a laugh, that actually never happened.
"I wrote a letter about how much Annie meant to me growing up and how I went to a Broadway play — which was an exaggeration," he says. "I saw it on TV. It was a bad lie ... for a good reason."
Jay-Z has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide. He is the former CEO of Def Jam Recordings and the founder of Roc Nation. He was ranked the 5th top male solo artist of the 2000s by Billboard magazine. He has also received a great deal of recognition from the American Music Awards, the BET Awards, and the MTV Video Music Awards.
On Sampling The Jackson Five's 'I Want You Back' In "IZZO"
"I grew up in Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, and my mom and pop had an extensive record collection, so Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and all of those sounds and souls of Motown filled the house," he says. "So I was very familiar with the song when Kanye [West] brought me the sample. It had been used in hip-hop previously, but it was just such an interesting and fresh take on it that I was immediately drawn to it."
On How Crack Changed The Marcy Projects In The Mid-'80s
"They have a saying, 'It takes a village to raise a child.' It changed the authority figure. Crack cocaine was done so openly, and the people who were addicted to it, the fiends, had very little self-respect. It was so highly addictive that they didn't care how they obtained it and they carried that out in front of children, who were dealing at the time. So the relationship of that respect, 'I have to respect my elders' ... that dynamic shifted and it broke forever. It just changed everything from that point on.
"I was very aware of the dangers involved because there were people dying [and] there were people going to jail and it wasn't a one-off. It wasn't an occurrence where everyone was shocked. It wouldn't be a shock like, 'How could that happen in this neighborhood?' It was really a weekly or monthly occurrence."
On Danger Mouse's Grey Album, Which Samples Both Jay-Z And The Beatles Without Copyright Permission
"I think it was a really strong album. I champion any form of creativity. And that was a genius idea to do, and it sparked so many others like it. It's really good. ... I was honored someone took the time to mash those records up with Beatles records. I was honored to be on quote-unquote the same song with The Beatles."
On The Song 'December 4th'
One of the songs Jay-Z writes about extensively in the book is "December 4th" from The Black Album; the song is heavily autobiographical and features riffs by Jay-Z's own mother, Gloria Carter.
"I tricked her [into appearing on that]," he says. "I told her to meet me down at the studio and we were going to go to lunch. She came down to the studio, and I just brought the track up and I said, 'I just want you to talk on it.' Because I knew if I told her [she was going to be on the song], she'd get really nervous. [She said], 'What do you want me to say?' And the rest is history."
On Crotch-Grabbing In Rap Music
"In hip-hop, the music leads first. So usually, you have a hit record and then [the record executives] throw this person on stage who has never been on stage before. So they don't have any experience on how to perform in front of people, hold the mic — all these different things you need to know as a performer. So you get up there, you feel naked. So when you feel naked, what's the first thing you do? You cover yourself. So that bravado is an act of, 'I am so nervous right now. I am scared to death. I'm going to act so tough that I am going to hide it, and I have to grab my crotch.' That's just what happens."
On Misogynistic Rap Lyrics
"A lot of these albums are made when artists are young, 17 or 18 years old, so they've never had any real relationships. And if you come from the neighborhoods we're in, we have low esteem ourselves. And the women, well, the girls — they have low self-esteem as well. These are all dysfunctional relationships at a young age. The poet is pretty much [giving] his take on his dealings with girls at that time. He's not in a stable relationship; he's on the road. He's seeing girls who like him because he makes music. They spend one night together; he gets a phone number. He leaves for the next town and does the same thing over again."
On Using The Word 'Bitch' In '99 Problems'
"That was the writer in me being provocative, because that's what rap music should be at times. That was really directed to all of the people who hear buzz words in rap music — they hear 'bitch' or 'ho' or something and immediately dismiss everything else that takes place. And everything has to be put in context. And when you put it in context, you realize that I wasn't calling any female, besides a female dog, a 'bitch' on this song."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR; I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jay-Z, has been incredibly successful as a rapper and an entrepreneur, which is pretty amazing since he could easily have been in prison or dead. He was born in 1969 and grew up in a housing project, watched crack destroy his neighborhood. But he sold it on the street before he found his new life in the recording studio and on stage.
In his new book, "Decoded," Jay-Z offers his story as an example of the story of his generation, explaining the tough choices they faced at a violent and chaotic time. "Decoded" also tells the stories behind 36 of Jay-Z's songs. He holds the record for the most number one albums by a solo artist on the Billboard 200. His recording with Alicia Keys, "Empire State of Mind," from his 2009 album "Blueprint 3," has become something of a New York anthem.
Jay-Z co-founded the label Roc-A-Fella Records as well as the clothing company Rocawear. He's the president of Def Jam Records; he's a part owner of the - New Jersey's NBA team, the Nets; and co-owns the sports bar 40/40 Club. Let's start with one of his signature songs, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," produced by Kanye West from Jay-Z's 2001 album, "The Blueprint."
(Soundbite of song, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)")
JAY-Z (Singer): (Singing) Ladies and gentlemen, let's put our hands together for the astonishing...
H to the izz-o, V to the izz-A. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the eighth wonder of the world, The flow o' the century... oh, it's timeless... HOVE!
Thanks for comin' out tonight. You coulda been anywhere in the world, but you're here with me - I appreciate that... Uuunnnh...
H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. Fo' shizzle my nizzle used to dribble down in VA. Was herbin' em in the home of the Terrapins. Got it dirt cheap for them. Plus if they was short wit' cheese I would work wit' them. Boy and we - got rid of that dirt for them. Wasn't born hustlers I was burpin' em. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. Fo' sheezy my neezy keep my arms so breezy. Can't leave rap alone the game needs me. Haters want me clapped and chromed it ain't easy. Cops wanna knock me, D.A. wanna box me in. But somehow, I beat them charges like Rocky.
H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. Not guilty, he who does not feel me is not real to me. Therefore, he doesn't exist. So poof...vamoose son of a -
H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. Fo' shizzle my nizzle used to dribble down in VA. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. That's the anthem get'cha damn hands up. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A.
GROSS: Jay-Z, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you on our show.
JAY-Z: Thank you.
GROSS: So let me just start with the track that we heard, which samples the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Tell me what that song meant to you before you used it in "Izzo."
JAY-Z: Well I had a - I grew up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, and my mom and pop had an extensive record collection. So Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and all those sounds and souls - and Motown etc., etc. - filled the house. So I was very familiar with the song when Kanye bought me the sample. It was just such an interesting and fresh take on it that I immediately was drawn to it.
GROSS: Now, would you mind if I asked you about Izzo - which I think is one of your nicknames?
JAY-Z: Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's like an abbreviation - you know, H to the Izzo, like for Hova. It's a spelling, and it was like this - I guess it's a form of pig Latin. It's a language that we used like a slang. H to the izz-O, v to the izz-A is basically spelling Hova.
GROSS: Which is short for?
JAY-Z: J. Hova, which is a nickname that, you know, they gave me because it was like -one time, I was recording in the studio and I wasn't writing, and one of my friends was like, man, this is like, how you doing that, man? God must really love you. It's like a religious experience, man. And then he was like, J-hova. And then, you know, it started out as a joke, and then it just stuck.
JAY-Z: As most nicknames do, right?
GROSS: Right, now in talking about sampling, I'm reminded of something you say in the book that I thought was really interesting. You know, you talk about your parents having a big record collection. Your father left when you were very young - I think when you were 9. And you say that most of your friends' fathers had left. You say: Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced. But we took their old records, and used them to build something fresh. That's really interesting that one of your things that your father leaves behind, that you can use, is his records.
JAY-Z: Yeah, I guess there's a bright side to everything, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yeah, well, that's one way of looking at it. So what were your first rhymes like? Like, you got your first boom box when you were 9. Your mother gave it to you, you say, because she thought it would help keep you out of trouble.
JAY-Z: Yeah, just so, you know, if I was focusing on music, you know, I wouldn't be - you know, running the streets all wild. So she tried to encourage me to pursue my dreams in music early on. And my first rhymes were pretty much, you know, very boastful and, you know, academic - but they were kind of advanced for a young kid. Like I put a piece of one of them and it was like, I'm the king of hip-hop/ Renewed like the Reebok/The key in the lock/With words so provocative/As long as I live.
And I look back on that rhyme now, and I'm like man, that's pretty prophetic.
GROSS: So you were about 9 when you wrote that?
JAY-Z: Yeah, well, yeah - between 9 and 11. Those were my first rhymes.
GROSS: Okay, so provocative is a pretty big word for a kid of that age. You write how you started reading the dictionary, like looking for cool words to use. Did you find that word in the dictionary, or did you already know it?
JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I found that in the dictionary. I had a sixth-grade teacher, Miss Louden, that was very pivotal to my hunger for wanting to know the English language and, you know, discover these words. And, you know, it was a tool in the music that - and the poetry that I chose to pursue.
GROSS: Would you describe the Marcy Projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where you grew up in Brooklyn?
JAY-Z: Yeah. You have these three columns of buildings, with four people on each floor, six floors, you know. So you had people to the left of you, right of you, on top and on the bottom of you. It's a very intense and stressful situation. Everyone is going through different things, and in between all that stress and angst and, you know, having to deal with one another in such close proximity, there's so much love. And there was playing in the johnny pump, and there was the ice cream man who - coming around. And there were all these games that we played. And then it would turn - suddenly, it just - violent, and there would be shootings at 12 in the afternoon on any given day.
So it was just - weird mix of emotions. I mean - you know, one day your best friend could be killed; the day before, you could be celebrating him getting a brand-new bike. It was just extreme highs and lows.
GROSS: How hold were you when crack came to the neighborhood?
JAY-Z: It was about '85, so I had to be - never earlier than that - so maybe about 12, 13 years old.
GROSS: And how did that change the projects?
JAY-Z: Well, I think what it changed most was - you know, they have a saying: It takes a village to raise a child. It changed the authority figure because, you know, with crack cocaine, it was done so openly. And the people who were addicted to it - the fiends - had very little self-respect for their self. It was so highly addictive that they didn't care how they obtained it. And they carried that out in front of children, who were dealing at the time. So that relationship of that respect of, you know, I have to respect my elders and - you know, Uncle Tyrone's coming; he wasn't really your uncle, but he was the uncle for the neighborhood. And you know, that dynamic shifted, and it had - broke, forever. And it just changed everything from that point on.
GROSS: And it just changed everything for you because you - and you write about this in the book and, you know, you've rapped about it, too. You ended up being a hustler. You ended up selling crack and helping your mother, as a single mother, support the family. Did she know that's how you were making the money?
JAY-Z: I'm sure she suspected, you know, as much, because it was so prevalent. What happened was, it was either you were using it or selling it, and that was pretty much the two options. I know there was - and that's a very blanket statement. I know it was a very small percentage that, you know, had nothing to do with drugs - maybe - in their household but, you know, the brother or sister, somebody - the uncle, the aunt - it was just so prevalent. You know, you could smell it in the hallways. You could see crack vials in the elevator, on the curb, you know, where the water flows; crack vials floating up and down like a river or something. It was just everywhere.
GROSS: So you'd seen how it really damaged people - crack - and then when you started selling it, did you ever think, I'm contributing to that damage.
JAY-Z: Oh, not until later on. You know, at 14, 15 years old, you know, you're thinking about - to be honest with you, you're thinking about sneakers, or you're thinking about some sort of relief from all the pain you feeling. You're thinking about buying some food for the house. You're thinking about paying the extra light bill. So at that young age, you're not thinking about the destruction that you're causing your own community.
GROSS: Well let me pause here, to re-introduce you. My guest is Jay-Z, and he has a new book. It's called "Decoded," and it is part memoir and part a collection of his lyrics, with the stories behind them. And I want to play another track here. And I want to play "December 4th" because it's - it's so autobiographical and about the period of your life that we're talking about, and also because your mother is featured on it.
JAY-Z: Yeah, I tricked her.
GROSS: We'll actually hear her voice, yeah. Did you say you tricked her?
JAY-Z: Yeah, it was her birthday. It was actually her birthday - December 4th is my birthday, which is the title of the song - and it was her birthday, September 17th, and I told her to meet me down at the studio, that we were going to go to lunch and - for her birthday. And she came down to the studio, and I just brought the track up. And I was like, I just want you to talk on it - because I knew if I told her, she'd get really nervous. So I just - I brought her down to the studio, and I just brought the track up and was like, I need you to talk on this. And she was like, what do you want me to say? And you know, the rest is history.
GROSS: What did you tell her when she said,what do you want me to say?
JAY-Z: Oh, just tell those stories that you told about me - about riding the bike when I was 4 and, you know, those sort of things. And she went in there and was - you know, we couldn't get off the mike after a minute 'cause she just kept talking.
GROSS: OK. So here's Jay-Z's "December 4th" from the "Black Album" - and also featuring his mother.
(Soundbite from song "December 4th")
Ms. GLORIA CARTER: Shawn Carter was born December 4th, weighing in at 10 pounds, 8 ounces. He was the last of my four children, the only one who didn't give me any pain when I gave birth to him. And that's how I knew that he was a special child.
Unidentified Voice: Hi, baby. What's wrong? You look like you've lost your best friend. Tell me; is it something that I've done again? You look like you've lost your best friend.
JAY-Z: They say they never really miss you 'til you dead or you gone. So on that note, I'm leaving after this song. So you ain't gotta feel no way about Jay so long. But at least let me tell you why I'm this way, hold on. I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adaness Reeves, who made love under the sycamore tree. Which makes me a more sicker emcee than my momma would claim, at 10 pounds when I was born I didn't give her no pain.
Although through the years, I gave her her fair share, I gave her her first real scare. I made up for birth when I got here. She knows my purpose wasn't purpose, I ain't perfect, I care. But I feel worthless cause my shirts wasn't matchin' my gear. Now I'm just scratchin the surface cause what's buried under there was a kid torn apart once his pop disappeared. I went to school, got good grades, could behave when I wanted, but I had demons deep inside that would raise when confronted. Hold on.
Ms. CARTER: Shawn was a very shy child growing up...
GROSS: That's Jay-Z's "December 4th," and my guest is Jay-Z. He has a new book, called "Decoded." So this track we just heard is from the "Black Album." So I've got to ask you how you feel about the "Grey Album," which is the mash-up that Danger Mouse did of your "Black Album" and the Beatles' "White Album," without any copyright permission. So how do you feel about it musically, and how do you feel about the fact that he did it?
JAY-Z: I think it was a really strong album. I champion any form of creativity, and that was a genius idea - to do it. And it sparked so many others like it. There are other ones that - you know, it's really good - there are other ones that because of the blueprint that was set by him, that I think are a little better. But you know, him being the first and having the idea, I thought it was genius.
GROSS: Did you feel ripped off by the fact that he used your music on it without paying for it? Or did you think, it doesn't matter; it's really good art.
JAY-Z: No, I was actually honored that, you know, that someone took the time to mash those records up with Beatles records. I was honored to be on - you know, quote-unquote, the same song with the Beatles.
GROSS: My guest is Jay-Z. He has a new book, called "Decoded." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Let's talk about the period of your life when you were selling crack. How did you start doing that?
JAY-Z: Ah, well, yes, it wasn't very difficult. It was like -
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: No job interview?
JAY-Z: Yeah. I knew a friend who knew a friend and - you know, he made an introduction. And we had a conversation almost like a job interview, and it was almost these rules of how to do it, and how not to get high on your own supply, and how to be a man of principle and of your word, and dealing with people. And it was like this advice as if it was a Fortune 500 job, you know, except it was crack cocaine.
GROSS: And did you take that "Scarface" advice of, do not get high on your own supply?
JAY-Z: Yeah, that - strangely enough, that movie about, you know, all this violence and gore was like, one of the biggest things to impact our generation, you know. Not everyone listened, you know. It's a very difficult thing to do.
GROSS: So did you listen to that?
JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah. I did, yes.
GROSS: So you write about some of the generational differences at this time, when a lot of the teenagers were selling crack, and a lot of the adults were addicted. And you say one of the differences, generational differences was the way you dressed: baggy jeans and puffy coats to stash the crack and the weapons, and construction boots to survive cold winter nights working in the streets. Now I have to say, I've never thought of those baggy pants and puffy coats as ways to stash drugs and weapons.
JAY-Z: Yeah, it's like, that's what "Decoded" is pretty much about. It breaks down some of the things that - you know, the origins of things and how they arrived - especially, you know, with the songs, of course, but also with our generation. Those things now, that seemed like merely fashion, you know, were purposeful at one time or another.
GROSS: I have to say, some of those baggy jeans are so loose around the waist -like, they fall down to the middle of your behind. And I think if you had a weapon in there, they'd definitely drop to the floor because the weapon would just like, drag them right down.
JAY-Z: Well, you know, if you had a big enough weapon and...
(Soundbite of laughter) So you describe in the book how when you first started writing rhymes, you had a notebook. But when you were hustling on the street, you weren't carrying your notebook with you. And if a rhyme came to you that you wanted to remember, what would you do? You'd go to the store - tell the story, how you'd go to the store to...
JAY-Z: Yeah, what happened was, I wrote so much in this book, I would sit at my table for hours and hours 'til my mother made me go to bed. And it was like this - this obsession with words and with writing. And as I got further away from that notebook - now as I was on the street and these ideas would come, I would run into the corner store, the Bodega, and grab like, a paper bag or just buy a juice, anything just to get a paper bag. And then I'd write the words on the paper bag and stuff these ideas in my pocket 'til I got back. And then I would transfer them into the notebook. And as I got further and further away home and from the notebook, I had to memorize these rhymes longer and longer and longer - and like, with any exercise, you know, once you train your brain to do that, it becomes a natural occurrence.
So you know, about the time I got to record my first album - which was, I was 26 - I didn't need pen to paper. My memory had been trained, you know, just to listen to a song, think of the words, and then just lay them to tape.
GROSS: And what about now? Do you write down rhymes when they come to you, or -
JAY-Z: No, I haven't since my first album.
GROSS: And your memory's as good now, as it was then?
JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah. I've lost plenty material; it's not the best way. I wouldn't advise it. I wouldn't advise it to anyone. I've lost a couple albums' worth of great material. Well, I thought they were great - when I couldn't remember them, you know. To think about how, you know, when you can't remember a word and it drives you crazy - like man, I've got to think about this, you know it's - it's the, it's the... so imagine, you know, forgetting an entire rhyme and then having to sit there and like, what? I said I was the greatest something...
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Jay-Z. And he has a new book, called "Decoded." So what was the turning point in your life that got you out of hustling, and into the recording studio?
JAY-Z: It was like, events that would happen over the years. You know, I went to a guy by the name of Clark Kent. I made a couple of demos with him, and then I would leave - back into the streets, you know. My cousin stopped speaking to me; he thought I was wasting my talent. And I was like, one foot in and one foot out. I always had in the back of my mind that I would be back in the streets, for some reason; I guess I didn't have 100 percent belief in what I was doing. Then finally I just said, man, I'm just going to give this music a try. I'm going to give it 100 percent, and just forget everything that I'm doing, you know. And here we are.
GROSS: So how much money had you been making on the street when you decided to try music?
JAY-Z: Well, I don't know if you really have a concrete number of how much money you were making. Sometimes it was really good, and it was fantastic. I mean, I did pretty well, which made it more difficult for me because at the time, people in the street were making more than rappers, you know. I didn't - not until the big deals of Master P and Puff - deal with Badboy, with Arista Records, were people getting really big deals.
So for the most part, people on the street were making more than rappers. So for me, I addressed this in the book as well. There's a song called "Can't Knock the Hustle," and it sounds like I'm saying, you can't knock my hustle. But what -who I was talking to was the guys on the street because rap was my hustle and like, at the time street - the streets was my job. So when I was telling people yeah, I want to be a rap - I want to do this, they were like man, why do you want to be a rapper? Those guys get taken advantage of. Everybody takes their money.
You know - we go to parties, and we pull up in Mercedes and Lexuses. And they pull up in turtle tops, with 16 people in them. Why do you want to do that? And I was like man, I just really - I couldn't really explain to them how much I loved it so I would just say, let me just try it. I just want to see what it's about.
GROSS: Jay-Z will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Decoded." I'm Terry Gross, and this FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
Im Terry Gross, back with rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z. His new book, "Decoded," tells the story of his life growing up in a Brooklyn housing project, selling crack when he was a teenager, and then finding a new life in hip-hop music. The book also tells the stories behind 36 of his songs. Early on in his career, Jay-Z entered the business side of hip-hop culture, co-founding Roc-A-Fella Records and Rocawear. He's now the president and CEO of Def Jam Records. President Obama is a fan of Jay-Z's music, and even referenced his song "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" during a campaign speech.
Let's talk about another one of your tracks. I want to play "Hard Knock Life, which really surprised me when I first heard it because you sample the song "Hard Knock Life" from the Broadway show "Annie," which I thought was a real surprise...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...surprising choice for you.
JAY-Z: To say the least.
GROSS: Yes, to say the least.
GROSS: So how did you decide to use that?
JAY-Z: Well, what happened was, my sister's name is Andrea Carter, and we call her Annie for short. So when the TV version of the play - you know, it came on and it was like, there's a story called "Annie." I was immediately drawn to it; of course, it was my sister's name - like, what is this about? So you know, I watched it and I was, you know, I was immediately drawn to that story and, you know, those words - instead of treated, we get tricked; instead of kisses, we get kicked - it immediately resonated with me.
So you know, fast forward: I'm on the Puff Daddy tour; Im about to leave stage and a DJ by the name of Kid Capri plays this track - no rap on it, just the instrumental. I, you know, it stopped me in my tracks. It immediately brought me back to my childhood and that feeling. And I knew right then and there that I had to make that record and that, you know, people would relate to the struggle in it - and the aspiration in it as well.
GROSS: So let's hear the song, and then we'll talk some more about it. So this is "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," by Jay-Z.
(Soundbite of song, "Hard Knock Life, Ghetto Anthem")
JAY-Z: (Rapping) Check the bass line out, uh-huh. Here we go. Bounce with it. Uh-huh uh-huh uh-huh, yeah. Let it bump, yo.
It's the hard knock life, uh-huh for us. It's the hard knock life, for us. Instead of treated, we get tricked. Instead of kisses, we get kicked. It's the hard knock life.
JAY-Z: (Rapping) From standing on the corners bopping, to driving some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen. Were dropping some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard. From the dope spot, with the smoke Glock fleeing the murder scene. You know me well. From nightmares of a lonely cell, my only hell but since when y'all (bleep) know me to fail? (bleep) naw.
Where all my (bleep) with the rubber grips, bust shots. And if you with me mom I rub on your (bleep) and whatnot. I'm from the school of the hard knocks, we must not let outsiders violate our blocks, and my plot. Let's stick up the world and split it 50-50, uh-huh. Let's take the dough and stay real jiggy, uh-huh. And sip the Cris' and get pissy-pissy. Flow infinitely like the memory of my (bleep) Biggie, baby.
You know it's hell when I come through. The life and times of Shawn Carter (bleep) volume two.
It's a hard knock life for us.
GROSS: That's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" by my guest, Jay-Z, who has a new book, called "Decoded."
So you tell a great story in the book, about how you got the rights to use that song - to use the song from "Annie," "Hard Knock Life." Would you tell the story?
JAY-Z: Yeah. Well, I mean, we got the rights already, so this will be a bit late. So - because I exaggerated a touch, you know. And it's typical, when you have to clear a song, you have to send it - a sampled song - you send it to the original writers, and they grant you permission, and you pay a fee for that permission.
You know - but some writers, their art is, for them, very important, so it has to be the right - sort of attitude, and the right take. And the emotion on the record has to fit, you know, what was originally intended. So we're having difficulties clearing the sample. And I wrote a letter about how much it meant to me, you know, what it meant to me growing up, and how I went to like, a Broadway play, which was exaggeration. I saw it on TV and, you know, we got the rights...
GROSS: But let me stop you because in the book, you say...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...that you told the big lie. In the book, you say that you...
GROSS: ...you made up that you entered an essay contest and in the essay, you wrote about the importance of seeing "Annie" on Broadway - which you'd never seen on Broadway, in fact.
JAY-Z: Yeah. Right.
GROSS: And, you know, all that it meant to you when you saw it on Broadway, and I think you said you like, won in the essay contest and so you...
JAY-Z: I didn't want you to put the whole thing out there. I was trying to, you know, I could...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So in other words, you lied a little bit in order to get the rights.
JAY-Z: Yeah, it was, you know, it was a bad lie for a good reason.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Well, it worked out well for everybody.
GROSS: Have you ever met Charles Strouse, who wrote the music for the song?
JAY-Z: No. But someone just reached out like the other day, and said that he wants to speak with me, so Im going to reach out to him. I mean, just the other day, so - which is really cool. I was in the house trying to - I went looking at a house on the Upper East Side, and I saw this plaque on the wall. And Im like, wait a minute, that's my plaque. And I guess it was his house. This is a couple years back; I have to share that with him.
GROSS: Oh. Oh, you mean your Grammy. Is that what you're talking about?
JAY-Z: No. No. The plaque for the record, you know, our...
GROSS: Oh, the gold record plaque. The gold record plaque.
GROSS: Yeah-yeah. Oh, okay.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay. Okay.
JAY-Z: It was like, a lot of times platinum, though. But, yeah, that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's funny. That's right.
GROSS: Well, I interviewed him a few years ago. You want to hear what he had to say about "Annie"?
JAY-Z: Yes. Please. Please.
GROSS: Yeah, OK - I mean, about "Hard Knock Life"? OK. So this is Charles Strouse, who wrote the music for "Annie," talking about Jay-Z's version of "Hard Knock Life." And here's what he had to say about it.
Mr. CHARLES STROUSE (Composer for Broadway, Opera, TV and Film): He said something in the liner notes that it was gritty. He said it was gritty, and he felt that that was the way black people felt in the ghetto. And the fact is, when we were working on "Annie," it was the first song that I had written the music for. And I wanted that song to be gritty. I didn't want it to be a fake. I wanted it to show these desperate times and these maltreated girls, etc., etc. So when he picked up on that I was very proud of myself - for that reason alone.
GROSS: Okay, so he liked it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: My guest is Jay-Z. He has a new book, called "Decoded."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is rap star and entrepreneur Jay-Z. He has a new book, called "Decoded."
Now, parts of the street life that you'd left behind, when you stopped hustling and started making music, followed you and followed some of the people you knew, some of the other famous rappers into the music world. Im thinking, you know -like, Biggie gets killed; Tupac gets shot. You were accused of stabbing someone -and you could tell us, or not tell us, what actually happened with that. But I think it's just kind of tragic that that kind of violence kind of followed into the music world. I guess I'd be interested in what your take on that is.
JAY-Z: Yeah, I kind of discuss that in the book as well. Like when you come into - inside the music business and you're coming from these rough neighborhoods, you know, as soon as you sign a record deal it's not like freeze tag, like everything stops - like no, I'm a rapper now. You know, you still have friends; you still have old problems that you've been through.
So when people see you now and just because you signed a contract, you know, it's not like they're going to stop. It's just the reality. You're still a human being. You're still - you have to either know how to deal with that situation, or it deals with you. And, you know, fortunately for me, I was pretty much my own boss so I didn't have much weight to carry. Of course, I had the weight of people that I associated myself with, and people that Im around. And you know, that night, that's what happened - like, a big fight.
And then you realize that you're famous now. So it was a big fight that got out of hand. I've had a hundred of those and, you know, I've never - went to the front page of the paper. But now that I've signed this contract, now it's on the news all day, and I have to turn myself in. And I'm really like, man, I had a lot of these fights.
You know, the guy who got - the record executive, you know, they - I wasnt a record executive. Here it was, I sold - my company sold, you know, a million records and, you know, I don't know what his company - I don't know if he sold a record at that time, but he was a record executive. Just think about how they frame it. Im not just blaming the media. I take full responsibility in the fight, but I'm just talking about how it was sensationalized. He's a...
GROSS: That you stabbed a record executive, when you're saying he hadn't even done anything yet.
JAY-Z: A record executive. Yeah.
GROSS: And you thought that he had bootlegged your album and put it out before the release date, so you were...
JAY-Z: Exactly. And he was a friend of mine.
JAY-Z: By the way. It was just, you know, a friend. We had a tussle. He went home. He didnt...
GROSS: Did you actually stab him?
JAY-Z: Well, it was a fight that got out of hand. Let's just say that.
JAY-Z: Right? And he, you know, he went home without - he didnt take - they didn't give him aspirin, anything. He went home the same night, you know. They sensationalized it like he was in the hospital in critical or something.
GROSS: So you turned yourself in on that one.
GROSS: And pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, just to finish the story. Do I have that right?
JAY-Z: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: Okay. So, but anyway, so you do think it's kind of...
JAY-Z: It's very tragic but if you put it in context, you could see why and how some of these things happened because if you go through these neighborhoods and places that we grew up in, it's happening. You know, it's not reported on the news. You know, for every Biggie Smalls and Tupac, there's a million other kids that lose their lives to senseless violence in the hood all the time, and it's not on TV.
These two guys come from the same neighborhood where all this stuff is happening - and it's happening today, continues to happen that, you know, everyone wants to ignore it unless it's, you know, a famous person. And it's not right; every life is valuable.
GROSS: Now, I just have to ask you - I'm sure you've been asked this a lot, but this - this is the bitch and ho question.
It just always seemed to me that so much about rap music - about men's rap music - is about, you know, demanding respect but not giving a whole lot to women, in the lyrics. And I'd be interested in your take on that.
JAY-Z: A lot of these albums are made when, you know, artists are pretty young - 17, 18 years old - so they've never really had any real relationships. And if you come, you know, in the neighborhoods we're in, you know, we have low self-esteem ourselves. You know, and then the women and - well, the girls, they have low self-esteem as well.
So these are all dysfunctional relationships at a very young age, and the poet is really just pretty much saying his take on how - his dealings with girls at that time. He's not in really, a - stable relationships. Hes on the road. Hes seeing girls who like him because he makes music. They have - spend one night together, he gets a phone number; he leaves to the next town, and does the same thing, you know, over again.
GROSS: Now, youre talking about yourself here, too, when you were younger?
JAY-Z: Yeah, as well, yes.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So do you feel like you got over that eventually, that you matured out of that?
JAY-Z: Of course, yeah.
GROSS: And were there times when you continued to write in the character of that younger person?
JAY-Z: I mean, a song on my first album was "Ain't No (bleep)" - I guess ya'll can bleep that out. You know, and it was like, this careless relationship. And then that went to "Big Pimpin in '99. And on that same album was a song called "Song Cry," and then "Song Cry" became "Bonnie & Clyde" on 2004, which became "Venus vs. Mars" on my last album. So there's a steady growth in the conversations - that's being had as it pertains to women, you know, as I grew.
GROSS: Can I ask you a question you might find weird - but since part of your goal in the book is to kind of explain your generation and explain the music to people. You know how a lot of hip-hop artists, when they're on stage, they kind of like, grab their crotch?
(Soundbite of laughter)
JAY-Z: Yeah. I have a great explanation for that.
GROSS: Yeah, like how did that start? Like, who started that, and why is that?
JAY-Z: Well, a lot a times in hip-hop - like in rock 'n' roll, you'll have bands who tour the world. They get in vans and they tour the world, and they do rinky-dink clubs. And they get bottles thrown at them and, you know, until they hone their craft, until they become, you know, rock stars.
In hip-hop, the music leads first. So usually, you have a hit record. And then you throw this person on stage who has never been on stage before, you know, because the music leads. So they don't have any experience on how to perform in front of people, hold the mic, you know, all these different things that you need to know as a performer.
So when you get up there, you feel naked, right? So when you feel naked, what's the first thing you do? You cover yourself. So that bravado is an act of, I am so nervous right now, and Im scared to death. Im going to act so tough that I'm going to hide it. And I have to grab, you know, my crotch. That's just what happens.
GROSS: I thought it was kind of the opposite, like this stuff is so good...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...I'm going to show off. No?
JAY-Z: That's, that's what - yeah, they want, that's what we want you to believe.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JAY-Z: But the reality is, and no one else will admit to this - well, maybe they will - is youre on stage in front of - now with summer jams and things like that, people are getting put on stage in front of 50,000 people with a record that's a radio hit, and they've never performed before. It's going to be a disaster nine times out of 10.
GROSS: So do you feel like you were on stage before you were prepared for it? Probably not, because you did parties before that. You had experience.
JAY-Z: Exactly. I kind of went through a rock 'n' roll stage. You know, I kind of was doing parties and learning to perform. The first show I ever did, I just forgot the words. I stood there, and I tried to pass the mic to Damon Dash, who I co-founded Roc-A-Fella with. I gave him the mic - like, here. He was like man, I don't rap.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JAY-Z: I just didn't know what to do. I was like, in shock.
GROSS: But really - like, you've done the crotch thing too, right?
JAY-Z: Of course.
GROSS: So why are you doing it? You're not afraid to be on stage.
JAY-Z: Yeah. I just told you, when the first time I performed I was...
(Soundbite of laughter)
JAY-Z: I forgot the words.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JAY-Z: I didn't do it my last show, at Yankee Stadium. No. But yeah, but my earlier shows, yes.
GROSS: So let's play - let's get another song in here, and let's do "99 Problems."
GROSS: We'll do the clean version.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It's radio, my friend.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So this is actually based on a story - loosely based on a story that happened to you. Would you explain?
JAY-Z: Well, it's based on a generational story as well. There is a higher thing. Like, there was a time where there was a lot of activity going on, on the turnpike - from New York headed south - because there were a lot of drugs going back and forth. And so the state troopers at that time just blanketed every single car, anybody that was of color. And it was this term, driving while black. And people were getting pulled over for absolutely no reason, you know, other than their color. So I just had to set the scene up.
So now we're driving, and we're doing - we're actually doing something bad. You know, we're transporting drugs from New York to, you know, down south. And we get pulled over by a state trooper. But we get pulled over for absolutely nothing. We're wrong. The cop is wrong. This conversation ensues, and it's racial undertones. And he says: Are you - do you have a gun on you, like a lot of you are? You know, just that statement right there. And the conversation between two people who are both in the wrong, but are both used to getting their way. So there is this clever banter that goes back and forth between the two.
GROSS: OK, and we're going to hear the part of this song that deals with the story that you just told.
GROSS: And again, it's the clean version so a lot of the words are going to sound kind of...
JAY-Z: It's the second verse, the...
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And I will say that one of the words that isn't clearly said here because it's distorted - because it's the clean version - is the word bitch, which in the context of this part of the song means dog, because you're talking about canine dogs here.
GROSS: Because the canine...
JAY-Z: Yeah. And that was my...
JAY-Z: And that was the writer in me being provocative, because that's what rap should be as well, you know, at times. That was really directed to all the people who hear buzzwords in rap music - they hear bitch or ho or something - and immediately dismiss everything else that, you know, takes place. And everything has to be put in context. And when you put it in context, you realize that I wasn't calling any female, besides the female dog, a bitch on this song.
GROSS: And is that in spite of the opening part that says: If you're having girl problems I feel bad for you, son. I've got 99 problems but the bitch ain't one.
JAY-Z: Yeah, that was to lead the listener down the wrong path if you were looking for that sort of thing.
GROSS: So here's "99 Problems" by my guest, Jay-Z.
(Soundbite of song, "99 Problems")
JAY-Z: (Rapping) The year is '94 and in my trunk is raw in my rear view mirror is the mother (bleep) law. I got two choices ya'll, pull over the car or bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor. Now I ain't trying to see no highway chase with Jake. Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case. So I pull over to the side of the road. I heard, son do you know why I'm stopping you for? 'Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hats real low. Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don't know.
Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo? Well you was doing 55 in the 54. Uh-huh. License and registration and step out of the car. You carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are. I ain't stepping out of (bleep). All my papers legit. Well, do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?
Well my glove compartment is locked; so is the trunk and the back, and I know my rights so you going to need a warrant for that. Aren't you sharp as a tack. Are some type of lawyer or something? Somebody important or something? Nah, I ain't pass the bar but I know a little bit. Enough that you won't illegally search my (bleep). We'll see how smart you are when the K-9s come. I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one. Hit me, 99 problems but a bitch ain't one.
If your having girl problems I feel bad for you son. I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one. Hit me.
GROSS: That was "99 Problems" by my guest, Jay-Z. Do we have time for the other 98 problems?
(Soundbite of laughter)
JAY-Z: Well, if you can get it in nine minutes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So, you know, part of that story is that the canine - the cops' canine corps was supposed be coming after you, but you got - they let you go just before the dogs came?
JAY-Z: Yeah. It was - I guess it was far away on another call, and the cop tried to hold us. He really had no probable cause, no reason to hold us, so he just said man, get out of here. And as we left, about 10 minutes up the ride, we see this car, sirens blaring, screeching down. And we look on the side and we see Canine Unit, and we just all - just a little sigh of relief, like huh, that was close.
GROSS: Because you were holding, so...
(Soundbite of laughter)
JAY-Z: Yeah, if canine would've came - would've smelled it, and we would've been finished. It would've...
JAY-Z: No book.
GROSS: Right. Right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yeah, no lots of things.
JAY-Z: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So I really have to ask your impression of this. You know, President Bush, in his new memoir, says that a low point of his presidency was when Kanye West - your friend Kanye West - said at a Hurricane Katrina benefit that George Bush doesn't care about black people. So he thought that that was really unfair because he was being called a racist when he's not. Kanye has since apologized to the president. So what's your take on how this thing has played out?
JAY-Z: You know, first I find it strange, like everyone else should, that one of his lowest points was somebody talking about him. He's the president. You know, people should insult him a lot. That's part of the job description. People are not going to be happy with what you do. And when certain events happened, like Katrina, and then you see people, you know, on the roof and they are people of color, for the most part, and there's "help" on the roof, and this is happening in America on TV - and then you see the commander-in-chief, you know, just drive by on a, you know - in a plane, which I explain in, you know, in the book, and on this song called "Minority Report," you know, we were all angry. It didn't feel like a natural disaster. It felt like something that was happening directly to blacks. And it immediately brought us back to those images of people getting beaten with, sprayed with hoses, and beaten on the bridge at Selma. And all these emotions, you know, were going on inside of us.
Kanye really spoke what everyone else felt. You know, when he said that, everyone immediately was like: That's exactly how we all feel. And that's just how we felt. You know, it felt more than a national disaster. We felt that if that had happened somewhere else, that wouldn't be happening. And calling people a refugee in their own, you know, in their own home because they are fighting to what, steal the TV that they can't plug in anywhere. I mean, they're obviously frustrated and scared and angry. That whole thing was just handled horribly wrong and, you know, days going by with, you know, I can go on for days. So, I think - I mean, but Kanye, if...
GROSS: But youre - yeah.
JAY-Z: If Kanye apologized then - I mean, you know, he said it so, you know, that's how he felt. But what he said was how everyone felt.
GROSS: And very briefly, I know President Obama is a fan of yours. You supported him, and you write about how you met him - in the book. Very briefly, because we are out of time, because I know you are so busy - your thoughts about his presidency so far - still thumbs up or...
JAY-Z: Speaking of Bush, you know, he's left the worst eight years of our life and in order to judge Obama, you have to judge what happened before. You have to judge when he inherited. I think a lot of people would like to forget, you know, what we were coming out of, and what was left on the desk for the incoming president. I think he's had so many challenges and, you know, I applaud his effort and, you know, where he's going. Of course, it's not 100 percent but, you know, you got - we have to take into context what he's inherited, and what he's working with. He's working from - in the negative. And if you think that he can fix eight years' worth of damage - well, more, but eight years' worth of damage in two years, then I don't know. I don't know if that's even realistic.
GROSS: Well, Jay-Z, it's been really great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.
JAY-Z: I had a great time. thank you.
GROSS: Jay-Z's new book is called "Decoded." You can read an excerpt of it, watch music videos for all of the songs mentioned on today's show, and listen to an audio extra from the interview, on NPRMusic.org.
(Soundbite of song, "Empire State of Mind")
JAY-Z: (Rapping) Yeah. Yeah, Im up at Brooklyn. Now I'm down in Tribeca, right next to De Niro, but Ill be hood forever. Im the new Sinatra, and since I made it here, I can make it anywhere. Yeah, they love me everywhere. I used to cop in Harlem. All of my Dominicanos, right there up on Broadway. Brought me back to that McDonalds, took it to my stash spot, 560 Stage Street. Catch me in the kitchen like a Simmons whipping pastry. Cruising down 8th Street. Off white Lexus, driving so slow but BK is from Texas... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.