The Roots Of… Jay-Z

Each week we take an artist, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences. This week: Jay-Z

“I’m influenced by the ghetto you ruined,” Jay-Z announced on Renegade from 2001’s The Blueprint, “the same dude you gave nothin’ I made something doin’…”

Now recognised as one – if not the – biggest power-player in pop culture, Jay-Z began, and remains, someone driven by an insatiable desire to succeed. Born in Brooklyn in 1969, his family moved to the local Marcy Housing Projects when he was 5. It was here, among the dark hallways, dealers, nodding-out junkies, dice games and sense of raw adventure that a young Shawn Corey Carter began to take shape, but in 1980 his father suddenly left home, devastating the 11-year-old boy. “I never [wanted] to let myself get close to someone like that again,” he said, some 30 years later, but the next summer, on one bright Marcy afternoon, Shawn watched an older boy called Slate rhyme off the top of his head about everything he could see for half an hour straight, utterly mesmerising those around him. The first thought he had was, “That’s some cool shit.” The next was, “I could do that.” That very night he began creating his own rhymes and when the first wave of recorded hip-hop (as opposed to live, club-based hip-hop) began sweeping across the city, the boy who would become Jay-Z was hooked. Here was a way to reimagine himself, reconfigure his whole world – where crack cocaine had once gripped his neighbourhood, now hip-hop had taken hold – but young Master Carter’s role models were still drug dealers. In 2009 Jay-Z described his first album, Reasonable Doubt, is his favorite, “because all [my life’s] emotions and experiences came out in it.” But how did he get there?


In The Beginning
As a child Jay-Z explored his parents extensive vinyl collection; soaking up legends like Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Prince, The Commodores, Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye, but he always had an open mind, “As long as I can feel their soul through the wax,” he said in 1998, “that’s what I really listen to.” In 1981 a 12-year-old Shawn saw the Funky Four Plus One More perform That’s The Joint on Saturday night TV and the Sugar Hill Gang do Rapper’s Delight on Soul Train (his mother’s favourite show). The idea of this new music they’d only experienced out on the streets and on the radio being on mainstream TV was astonishing.

Rhyme Spree
As a teenager Shawn went to school with Christopher Wallace (Notorious Big) and Trevor Smith, Jr (Busta Rhymes) and, around 1983, as they all settle into their teens, what Jay-Z called a “cultural trifecta” of amazing records appeared. Afrika Bambaata’s Looking For The Perfect Beat was a huge influence, as was Herbie Hancock’s scratch-happy Rockit, but it was Run DMC’s It’s Like That and Sucker MC’s (originally a cassette only single from March that year) that really pushed Shawn, if not all of them, over the edge, “That one was definitive,” he explained years later. “Disco and even my parent’s classic RnB records all faded into the background.”

Hood Times
While Biggie and Busta concentrated on developing their style, Shawn, Jay-Z was more focused on expanding his drug dealing empire. However, in 1988, while under the wing of his rap-mentor, fellow Marcy resident Jaz (AKA Jaz O, AKA Big Jaz), Jay-Z recorded a demo alongside his friend and Big Daddy Kane. “I didn’t realise I had a gift until I made that tape,” he said, a decade or so later. It would take a few solid years, but as he entered his early 20s “stylish, political” albums by artists like Brand Nubian and Ice Cube (and his family’s pleading) would prompt Jay-Z to finally devote himself to music full-time.

Doubt And Proud
Having formed the Roc-A-Fella label with Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, Jay-Z set about recording his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, with a team of super-producers, among them DJ Clark Kent, DJ Premier and Ski. They drew on the same rich seam of rich soul, funk and jazz LPs he’d grown up with. Samples from Lonnie Liston Smith jostled with Aaron Neville and The Stylistics, while one track, Ain’t No Nigga (produced by Big Jaz) – appeared on the soundtrack to Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor soundtrack and became Jay-Z’s breakout track. He was 26 years old and this had all been a long time coming. “People are always looking for sensation,” he remarked later. “But I’m just not that nigga…”

More in this series


The Roots Of… My Bloody Valentine
The Roots Of… The Libertines
The Roots Of… Nirvana
The Roots Of… The Smiths
The Roots Of… The Killers