Empire State Of Mind: The Jay-Z Interview

Posted December 18, 2009 in Music Features

In 1996 Shawn Corey Carter emerged as a rapper and a promising lyricist. Now, 13 years on, Jay-Z is a platinum selling artist with more numbers ones than Elvis. But not only that – he is record company mogul with his own Roc-A-Fella label, and Universal subsidiary Def Jam, he is behind an expanding clothing empire in Rocawear, he owns basketball team New Jersey Nets, the hip sports bar chain 40/40 Club and a new publishing and entertainment venture, Roc Nation. His biggest feat to date, though, remains creating a legendary hiphop album: The Blueprint, released just about the same time as the second aircraft hit the World Trade Centre. The album featured the smooth sounds of the then-unknown Kanye West as producer of some its tracks, most notably the hit single Izzo (H.O.V.A.) and the Bobby Blue Bland-sampling Heart Of The City.

Two weeks after September 11th New York, where I was living at the time, was still paralysed and I saw Jay-Z open his concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom with the words “I dropped the same day as the Twin Towers!”

More or less exactly to the date eight years later he released his eleventh album Blueprint III. The first album released on his new label Roc Nation. I meet him at the plush Café Opera in Stockholm, a city he first visited in 1996 for a gig that got him a jacket and roughly 1000 Euro in a paper bag. A lot has happened since.

What achievement do you take most pride from?

To have had a solid career and being important to hiphop culture. To be more relevant now than in 1996.

Yeah, a lot of rappers from your generation are not around today.

You have to find your real you – who you are inside. Then you have to express that truth to an audience. Many people go through the same thing and they can feel you are honest and follow you because of that, through good times and bad. Repeatedly, some artists try to make music for 15 year olds and that is no way to express their true self. They lose out on the details, stuff that kids can sense, they’re doing themselves a disservice and they become irrelevant. Truth and feelings have no gender, colour or age. It works all over the world. The biggest asset us humans have is honesty.

You described Blueprint III as a new classic. Can you elaborate?

It has that classic relation to music as an artform. The album don’t follow no trends or gimmicks, it just expresses my truth. I have written the songs only for the sake of creating music. These are songs that sound very different from each other, like Thank You, the clarinets on D.O.A., the greatness of Empire State Of Mind. Different sounds.

Why did the album become part of the Blueprint trilogy?

It ties together with the other two. They all represent different times of my life. The first Blueprint is about my childhood with soul samples, stuff I listened to during my upbringing. The second represents my teens during the 80s with reggae, rock, soul, the east and the west coast. Blueprint III revolves around something we haven’t seen before. To mature with hiphop. To have a career that stretches longer than three or four years. That’s not typical for hiphop. It’s about giving and discovering.

Last year you almost became a political touchstone in the Obama campaign when he referred to Dirt Off Your Shoulder when opponents launched attacks. How did that make you feel?

I felt that hiphop had become accepted as part of American culture and it was a respected music genre, that we had reached our goal. For a long period non-musicians looked down on hiphop. This is like the whole world have taken to hiphop music. Rap music is a part of America. Here was the future leader of the free world and he showed that he wasn’t afraid to admit he was into rap music.

Would you agree that things like that leads to the genre losing its underground status?

Yes, but it’s like prejudice. It makes no difference that there’s a black president appointed to the White House. There will still be problems in America. There is still class distinction, unemployment and injustice. Sure, we’ve come a long way, just like we have in hiphop. But we have hit a brick wall with downloading and the major labels failing to follow the progress. They have all been so shortsighted – “we need a hit single now!”. They force big artists into making albums suited to radio instead of focusing on achieving something genuine. This is our first major obstacle om hiphop culture and we must think about how we get round it.

With downloading from the Internet, do all artists have to become businessmen?

An artist is an artist. If you love working creatively you will find a way of doing it. Of course it’s a lot tougher but I think the current situation will make things better. At one stage record labels made so much money that artists became a product off a conveyor belt. One year my label Def Jam we released 56 artists. There’s no way that 56 good artists are released during one and the same year – especially not on a single label, everyone knows that. It’s never happened in any period, even if you count all different labels.

When you no longer can afford to release artists that way you have to go back to what is genuine, people who love music. For a while people just became artists to make money. I understand people wanted to hustle, it was good cuz it helped people get away from the Projects but in the end it became too much business thinking. So to scale down the industry is cool. Now labels can only afford to invest in real artists. If you no longer can get loaded through music it will only attract people who really love the craft. And that in turn will contribute to truly great music. And hopefully the musicians will make some cash… through selling merchandise and things like that.

You have had a dream career, what would be your advice to young people involved in music?

90 percent should look to do something else. To the remaining ten percent I’d like to say “one percent of you will make it. I count on you having the passion to cope, to continue no matter what and believe in yourself, cuz people nine times out of ten say things that are wrong. Be determined and be prepared to work for free. That this will lead to becoming a superstar is a lie. People see MTV Cribs and pursue that but that’s the final destination. A lot of play and hard work is required. Apart from passion you will need supernatural confidence. If making music is something you love, just continue, do not let anyone bully you. I wish you good luck.”

You see young people burning cars and harassing police in the suburbs Europe, what do you make of that?

I have advice for your politicians. Acts like that is only a cry for attention. There is obviously problems in the suburbs resulting in violence. I know, I’ve seen it where I grew up. Politicians never did anything for our neighbourhood. Why? We didn’t vote so they never saw a reason to help us. I don’t want to sound like a cynic but politicians only care about people who can give them power. When you’re exposed to poverty, bad schooling and living conditions you start to cry for attention. This is kids, so it’s hard to talk to them in the right way. They need someone or something to direct their anger at.

Do you remember the exact moment you realised that you had gone from being an ordinary rapper and become a superstar?

Year 1998. I was in Virginia for a record signing session. I was already a businessman, I was executive producer on the first album but when and where it really changed was in this record store. When I looked out the window there was 10 000 kids outside. Afterwards I couldn’t make it to the car. In the end they managed to separate the crowd, I tried to get out but they broke down the barriers and I had to go back in again. Finally I could get to the limo and a helicopter appeared over us and kids where running after us on the highway. That day I realised that from now on, nothing would ever be the same.

Speaking of superstars, do you have a personal memory of Michael Jackson?

He called me to do a song. On the phone he said, “man, I really like that Hard Knock Life”. I said “thanks, man”. He went “no, no, the way you rap” and then he began talking about this particular part. He spoke of my album like an artist. I thought “wow, this guy is really a musician who loves details and creating, after all this fame he’s more than anything a musician at heart”. I said I wanted him to come see one of my concerts, and he did.

Do you still have anything to prove?

What I love with rap is the challenges. It’s all about the next album. To make an album that becomes a classic. After the first Blueprint I thought “what are you doing next?” but I came to the conclusion that in terms of rap it don’t matter. The challenge is what makes me keep going. My fuel.

You turn 40 in December. For how long do you think you can be relevant to a hiphop audience?

I hope to age with rap like rock artists. I don’t know how old Mick Jagger is but he’s energetic on stage anyway. I hope hiphop progresses so 60-year olds can rap from the stage. I won’t be one of them though. To stand on the stage, grabbing your balls, acting tough is not something I’ll do when I’m that age. But why should there be a difference between hiphop and other genres in that respect? It’s about music, there’s only the instrumentation that differs.

Words: Cyril Hellman
Photo: Chris Baldwin


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