Having spent the last year scouring every word I could lay my hands on on the celebrated topic of Jay-Z - concluding in the publication this week of my biography on the rapper, Jay-Z: King Of America, I uncovered some fascinating snippets about the life and times of the world’s biggest rap star.
Is he really a head honcho of the Illuminati? What were the true roots of his beefs with Nas, Beanie Sigel and – gulp – LL Cool J? Why did he shoot his own brother? And how did he fool the copyright owners of Annie into letting him use their chorus for ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’? My take on all those are in the book, but here’s a sample of the revelations I turned up…
With the intention of being able to release ‘Jay-Z editions’ of anything from jeeps to motorboats, in 2005 Jay had designers create an entirely new colour for him – Jay-Z Blue. It’s a silverfish colour, with tiny flecks of platinum.
For many years Jay-Z rapped about the police having it in for him, and rappers in general. Many thought this was pure paranoia, until Jay was pulled over by squealing squad cars on his way home from a club in 2001 and hauled into the precinct in cuffs because a (legal, licensed) gun was found on his bodyguard. There he found an entire wall covered in pictures of rappers, part of a concerted police effort to target rappers via a division called the Gang Intelligence Unit. One of their number was specifically allocated to tailing Jay wherever he went; Jay would often spot him parked outside clubs and swap jokes with him.
Several of Jay-Z’s ex-colleagues – Damon Dash, Jaz-O and Beanie Sigel most notably – charge him with having sold them out, prizing money and fame over loyalty. But in the other corner there are stories such as that of Emory Jones, Jay-Z’s cousin and the subject of the track ‘Do U Wanna Ride’ on Jay-Z’s post-retirement comeback album ‘Kingdom Come’. At the time Emory was in prison serving time for cocaine trafficking (the Smoking Gun website reported that Emory had been Jay-Z’s boss during his hustling days) and the song promised him visions of the high life he’d enjoy as soon as he was released. Sure enough, Emory was met at the prison gates in 2010 by a Maybach, his early release helped along by Jay-Z’s personal pledge to the judge that he was offering Emory a $50,000 a year position at his Roc Apparel Group.
The Best Of Both Worlds tour – Jay-Z joining forces with R Kelly for an arena tour in 2002 – was cancelled in the wake of Kelly’s charges of child pornography (for which he’s since been acquitted), but the pair gave the collaboration tour another go in 2004 to promote their second joint album Unfinished Business. The tour was a disaster from the off, with Kelly failing to show up for vital production rehearsals, turning up hours late for the gigs (causing shows to over-run way past curfew and later shows to be cancelled) and including a dodgy joke about underage girlfriends. When he finally stormed offstage at Madison Square Gardens claiming he saw someone waving a gun at him from the crowd, Jay-Z had had enough – he pulled Kelly from the tour altogether, quickly cobbled together a string of guest stars and completed the New York gigs alone. And Kelly? He was pepper-sprayed by one of Jay-Z’s crew the next time he tried to get near Jay’s stage.
It looked like a fantastic stunt months in the planning, but Jay-Z only decided to open with a rambling comedy cover of ‘Wonderwall’ at Glastonbury an hour before he went onstage. Unfortunately this wasn’t long enough for him to learn to play guitar, let alone the chords involved.
Now let’s not be coy, Jay-Z’s early career was speckled with tracks that showed a certain level of contempt for various factions of the fairer sex. No-one’s making any excuses here for ‘Get Your Mind Right Mami’. But the line “but a bitch aint one” in ’99 Problems’ was a witty twist on his critics’ perceptions of him as a misogynist, a trick to rile them. See, the “if you’re having girl problems” line is a lyrical sleight of hand, since not once in the song does “bitch” refer to a woman. A sniffer dog, yes. Snidey critics, yes. An un-manly type of chap, yes. But a woman, no.
Of sorts. To promote his early singles and give his Roc-A-Fella partner Damon Dash a chance at fulfilling his dream of being a movie producer, in 1998 made a film called Streets Is Watching, compiling Jay-Z’s music videos into a 60-minute film with a vague gangland narrative. One set-piece, to the tune of ‘Face Off’, is basically just an excuse for a blast of unregulated soft porn, as Jay-Z and his crew lounge in a private mansion strip club full of naked girls grinding their bits explicitly into the camera, and the Roc-A-Fella crew’s faces. Then, inexplicably, they shoot someone. Go figure.
Jay developed his speed-rap style while out on the street corners of Marcy and New Jersey selling crack. And, as we all know, that doesn’t leave much hands-free time to go writing down lyrics, right? So he taught himself to corner off a section of his brain to store rhymes he’d invent while out hustling, and never went back to the pad again. At his first recording session with Notorious BIG, for example, the pair sat across a table with a notepad on it, both waiting for the other to pick it up and start writing their verses. When neither did, they realised they shared the same memorising technique and became friends for life. Or about eighteen months, in Biggie’s case.
No major-label-puppet overnight success story, Jay. With every label turning him down from his initial demos he, Dash and Roc-A-Fella cohort Kareem Burke pulled together the cash to release Jay’s first single themselves, selling it from the boots of their cars outside clubs, bars and even barber shops. Jay even hired a small van to tour the East Coast in 1994, playing tiny clubs and chasing down every notorious rap battler he could find to take on – DMX, Big L, even LL Cool J. On one of his first trips away from the East Coast in 2006, with his debut album ‘Reasonable Doubt’ causing major waves in New York hip-hop, he arrived in Las Vegas to play a 1000-capacity theatre show attended by only 20 fans. Self-made? You betcha.
Once Jay came into money – serious money, with his breakthrough hit ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’, he wasn’t averse to throwing it around. Quite literally. On a Labor Day boat party thrown by Timbaland in 1998 he and the Roc-A-Fella crew were seen throwing banknotes in the air along to the song, and backstage on the subsequent tour, Jay would run games of cee-lo, a street dice game, with the minimum stake set at $1500 a throw.