The emperor's state of mind
From small-time hustler to big-business honcho – Jay-Z has become bigger than hip-hop. The musician and successful entrepreneur tells JIM CARROLLabout his business empire, the pep talk he gave Obama and his vision for the future of the music industry
IT’S UNLIKELY that hip-hop’s founding fathers ever thought the day would come when the culture would be representing at the Lanesborough Hotel in London. These swanky five-star lodgings overlooking Hyde Park, where a room for the night at the top of house with butler will set you back £7,500, are a long way from the South Bronx tower block where hip-hop came into the world.
It’s also unlikely that anyone who experienced rap’s early days imagined Jay-Z coming down the tracks. To paraphrase Dead Prez, Shawn Corey Carter is probably bigger than hip-hop these days.
The stats don’t lie. On the music side there’s 45 million albums sold, numerous anthems penned ( Empire State of Mindmay be the one everyone knows, but there’s plenty more where that came from) and hundreds of thousands of tickets flogged worldwide.
Then, there’s Jay-Z the businessman. No one else in hip-hop has been as astute as Jigga when it comes to taking care of business. This ledger contains credits for the Rocawear clothing line (which he cashed in for $204 million in 2007), the record executive gig at Def Jam and the hugely promising Roc Nation hook-up with Live Nation (the latter paid $150 million to get in on the ground floor of that deal).
That’s before you factor in sports bars, restaurants, basketball teams and a beauty line called Carol’s Daughter. These days he’s as likely to hang with Warren Buffett and feature in Forbesmagazine as he is to pull poses for hip-hop bible The Source.
What’s interesting about all this is how he continues to combine stage and boardroom. While 2003’s The Black Albumwas supposed to mark his retirement from the rapping game, recent years have seen him return to the studio with a vengeance. New releases have attracted a brand new audience and, as he showed at Oxegen over the summer with the main stage performance of the weekend, he’s willing and able to turn them into fans.
It’s those festival appearances that have promoted the new best-of album, The Hits Collection, Volume One, which he is in London to plug.
“I owed Def Jam a greatest hits album as the last part of my contract, and I’ve owed them that for a couple of years,” he says. “This was the right time to look back – for two reasons. I collect books and art, so I wanted to produce a collector’s item for the people who’ve been down with me since day one. Then I’ve been doing all these huge shows and festivals in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and I know those kids don’t have all the albums, so it’s a quick guide to who I am and what I’m about.”
That album is one of two retrospectives Jay-Z is currently flogging. Decodedis a lavish book on his rise from streetwise small-time hustler to his current perch at the top of the rap tree, all told by deconstructing rhymes from 36 of his songs.
A few times during the interview Jay-Z refers to how rap is a relatively new kid on the block. For him, the book is also about making sense of hip-hop’s trip to date.
“I thought rap itself needed to be highlighted and the stories of what happened during those times needed to be told,” he says. “We went through some catastrophic times with the crack era and Reaganomics, and that affected rap in so many different ways.
“I also wanted to stress that rap is poetry. A lot of the focus is on business, which is cool, but we can’t forget the art. We’re finally getting better as businessmen in the rap game, and we’re getting paid after being taken advantage of since the beginning of time. But I think we need to remember our voice too, the things that make us who we are. The ability to tell our stories in a way which can work can’t be forgotten or overlooked.”
What also can’t be overlooked is how hip-hop has changed. As he talks about the live show he’s been taking around the world these past few years, Jay-Z reminisces about what it was like back in the day. “It was just a DJ and a MC and once you’d a hit record they threw you in front of 50,000 people. You didn’t know how to perform, you’d never done that before.”
Now, it’s moved to a different level. “We’ve had to evolve as performers. Rap artists like myself and Kanye can match anything you get in rock or pop. We had to build that to get to the point where Live Nation came in.”
The Live Nation deal means Jay-Z can lean on the live-music giant for help in the touring department, but that’s just one side of the Roc Nation equation. Asked if he was concerned about Live Nation’s lack of record label experience when he did the deal, he points out that Roc Nation has only put out a handful of records to date.
“We put other sides of the business in place so we don’t have to rush out records,” Jay-Z says before giving a lesson in how he does business. “Look at Roc Nation in the UK right now. We have four records in the Top Five today. One of them is from Rihanna, who we manage now. We also manage the producers who produced the record, so that’s actually two. We also have Alexis Jordan, who has got a hit with Happiness. We publish Cee Lo Green, and he’s at No 4 and we publish Bruno Mars and he’s at No 5.
“We’ve been doing lots of those publishing and management things, so Roc Nation is profitable and we can work on developing artists. There are other ways to take care of business. We’re a new-age entertainment company. We don’t have to rush out records. We’re trying not to make the same mistakes we’ve seen record companies do. Like putting out music just for the sake of it.”
Jay-Z spent a few years at the helm of Def Jam Records, where he observed the faltering momentum of the industry as an executive rather than an artist.
His take on how to save the business?
“It has to be reinvented. It’s not over. Music is going to be around forever, so the business of music is going to be around in some form forever too. The business has to adapt to what’s going on and embrace change and flip the model rather than fight it. There was a time when labels could do that, but then Napster came along and – bam – game over.”
He smiles when the question of his retirement after The Black Albumis brought up. Did he really see himself heading off into the sunset, climbing into a hammock and sipping cold drinks?
“The hammock is much easier, I can tell you,” he laughs. “But I never say never any more after that. I don’t do that now. But it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be still on a stage when I’m 50.”
That said, Jay-Z doesn’t really see why he can’t still be rhyming a decade from now. “Music is not physical, so age doesn’t really matter on that level. It’s about what’s being said on the record. A lot of time people who are 30 years old still try to record like they’re 18-year-old young ones. It doesn’t sound right and it doesn’t resonate with people because it’s not authentic. I’ve always believed that it’s the truth which is the most relevant. It’s your own fault if you’re not relevant.”
So no more calling people out with put-downs like “I’ve got money stacks bigger than you” from Takeover? There’s a loud chuckle from across the table. “Well, you know, if the situation calls for it.”
Instead he’s penning tunes such as Empire State of Mind, which sounded like a classic from the start. “I feel that song is this generation’s New York, New York,” he says. “Frank Sinatra’s version summed up his time, and this captures my time. I think it also became a big, important song because of the sense of hope that was emoting from the song and especially the chorus. I’m from New York, I love New York, and it’s amazing to see that song resonate with audiences around the world.”
What keeps him in the game is the drive to write more songs like that. Sure, it’s nice to have the cash to kick back at the Spotted Pig, Ken Friedman’s New York restaurant where he’s a silent partner alongside U2 manager Paul McGuinness (“they do this gnudi there which is just amazing – you got to check it out”). And having Barack Obama on speed dial is pretty cool. On the day after the US president took a shellacking in the mid-term elections, Jay-Z advised him to “look on the bright side. Keep being you. They’re judging you based on two years, and we’ve just come out of eight years of the worst administration ever, in my opinion. It’s going to take a little longer to turn that around.”
But there’s no doubt that rap remains his number one priority. Hip-hop saved his life and it’s now payback time.
“Anything I do is a win for hip-hop itself, and that’s what’s really driving my success these days,” he says. “It’s to show hip-hop in a new light, to kick down doors, to do things which have never been done before, to show to the next generation what’s possible.
“That’s the drive, man. If that didn’t exist, I don’t think I’d still be rapping right now. Every album is ‘what have you done for me lately?’ It’s another job interview. Forget the body of work, what’s this album going to do? Bono has to carry that weight too. That’s how it is for artists. That’s the challenge.”
The Hits Collection, Volume Oneis released today