Check out these exclusive extracts from the first chapter of the new Omnibus Press book Jay Z: King of America by acclaimed author Mark Beaumont.The book is out in September and will be available from Musicroom.com soon. In the meantime, notify your interest with us online and we’ll let you know via email as soon you can order!
Chapter One: The School Of Hard Knocks
The gun shook in the child’s hand. He’d seen enough cop shows and watched enough firearms being flouted around Marcy by the gangsta kids to know how to bear his arm. Man, he’d even seen a local guy shot dead barely two years before. But though he tried to speak with calm insistence, to tell Eric – his brother’s eyes wide and panicked from the crack, his lips quivering, his fingers fidgety on the jewellery – that enough was enough, the stealing had to end, to put his ring back or he’d shoot, his aim trembled.
Trembled enough, perhaps, as the child squeezed shut his eyes and fired, to save his brother’s life.
The shot that rang out from apartment 5C across the courtyards of Marcy, through the maze-like walkways, down the litter-strewn stairwells, went virtually unnoticed. The addicts on benches twitched no more than usual; for the dealers gambling over games of cee-lo against walls clogged with tags it was just more ghetto background noise. Gunfire was a common sound in the Brooklyn projects. Kids went to sleep to it, gangbangers noted it in passing, another brother biting the dust. In the crack-infested 1980s, gunshots were the heartbeat of Bed-Stuy.
The child opened his eyes, half deafened from the blast. He dropped the gun, shocked, as his brother clutched himself, stumbled and fell, a wound pulsing in his shoulder. Suddenly Shawn Carter’s short life closed down on him.* The Jay-Z business biography Empire State Of Mind by Zack O’Malley Greenburg puts Jay-Z’s age as 17 at the time of the shooting. He’d never meant to shoot Eric, himself just four years older than Shawn. He’d got the gun from a friend’s place (it was easy enough to find – guns where everywhere in the projects) just to wave in his face, scare him enough that he’d stop stealing his own family’s possessions to feed his crack habit. Although the youngest of the Carter clan holed up in 5C, with his father long gone and his elder brother lost to rocks, Shawn felt he had to be the man of the house, to take responsibility for protecting his mother and two sisters. “He was doing a lot of drugs,” he’d one day confess to Oprah Winfrey, like so many lost children of the ghettos before him. “He was taking stuff from our family. I was the youngest, but I felt like I needed to protect everybody.”1 Now, one flinch too far on a hair trigger, and he saw a future of bars and beatings, another projects parole pleader trapped, like so many others, in the regurgitating maw of the US penitentiary system.
As Eric was being stretchered across the lobby of a nearby hospital – again, no eyes were raised at another shooting victim prostrate on the ward trolleys of that particular dead-end corner of Brooklyn – Shawn fled to a friend’s apartment, terrified. “I thought my life was over,” he’d say years later, “I thought I’d go to jail for ever.”2 A restless, fear-filled night was endured, hours stretched out a long, lonely lifetime. When the call finally came for him, though, it wasn’t a police chief requesting he turn in for questioning or social services plotting out his bleakest possible future. It was a call to say no charges would be pressed and that his brother would be happy to have Shawn visit him in his hospital bed. There, full of regret and forgiveness, Eric apologised for his weakness, addiction and theft, for the creature crack had made him, and became a man.
The young Shawn Carter sat by his brother’s bedside, relieved, shaken, but in receipt of a valuable but dangerous lesson: that you could do dreadful wrongs and walk away unpunished. Before long he’d be living his entire life by the creed that crime paid, and Eric’s misfortunes would point his own way through his early life – crack cocaine would also take over his life, albeit from the more profitable side of the addict equation. But shooting his brother was also Shawn’s first plunge into the darkest depths of himself. He’d exposed the worst excesses of anger and retribution he was capable of, and glimpsed the wasted life it could drag him down to. Perhaps – he may have thought – he could separate himself from his wickeder thoughts, create a new persona, a figure alongside Shawn Carter through which to expose and explore the growing hardships and violence on the project’s streets around him, and the frustrations, flamboyances and fears within. A character through which he could fathom out the death of his uncle, the desertion of his father, the disintegration of his wider world and the future, whatever low-down dealings and high-flying success it might bring.
An alter-ego. A cipher. A superstar.
They’d call him Jay-Z. And one day he would own the world.
“I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Abnis Reid/Who made love under the sycamore tree/Which makes me a more sicker M.C.” – Jay-Z, ‘December 4th’
At 4:45 a.m., December 4, 1969, many more shots rang out from apartment 2337 West Monroe Street in Chicago. The first bullet struck and instantly killed one Mark Clark, the man standing guard by the door with a shotgun laid across his knees. The round Clark fired off on reflex as he died was the only shot fired by any member of the Black Panthers movement during the entire FBI raid.
The next barrage of gunshots were aimed at the sleeping body of Fred Hampton, the freshly appointed chief of staff and spokesman of the Black Panther Party, lying curled up beside his pregnant girlfriend, drugged with barbiturates earlier in the evening by an FBI plant within the BPP named William O’Neal. When the invading officers discovered Hampton was still alive after the first barrage of shooting, reports claim the still-unconscious victim was murdered with two bullets point blank to the head.
The Black Panthers were a controversial group in the late Sixties – as a militant arm of the US civil rights movement dedicated to opposing police brutality against African-Americans and enforcing black rights, they were a popular rallying banner among poor and downtrodden black communities. However, their use of violence against police and their revolutionary rhetoric made them anathema to J. Edgar Hoover’s government, a feared and dangerous enemy of the establishment and a blueprint for gang culture that Hoover devoutly wished crushed.
Hampton was the wrong scapegoat to execute, though. With little more than minor theft on his record and a history of teaching political courses in church behind him, he was widely regarded to be an honourable, non-violent man, and his death dramatically switched the public’s sympathies. Jesse Jackson claimed in his eulogy to Hampton that “when Fred was shot in Chicago, black people in particular, and decent people in general, bled everywhere” and years later Chicago would declare December 4 as Fred Hampton Day. William O’Neal, for his part in Hampton’s death, committed suicide. Whether the Black Panthers can be blamed for the rise of gangs in the US or not, the killing of Fred Hampton certainly made them a counter-culture movement to be respected in the more rebellious and ireful of American hearts. Public Enemy, KRS-One and Tupac Shakur would all cite the Black Panthers and the group’s Fight The Power creed as an influence. It could be said that the seeds of 20th century rap music were sown in those dark, bloody, early hours of December 4 1969.
Then, some hours past dawn, 700 miles east, 21st century rap music was born.
Shawn Corey Carter slipped comfortably into the world that day despite his 10-pound bulk, giving his mother, she would later claim in song, no pain. The fourth and youngest child of Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves*, she sensed this one would be particularly special. Like his elder brother Eric and his two sisters Michelle and Andrea before him, baby Shawn was welcomed into a loving but strictly religious family.
When he was born, Gloria, Adnis and their children all lived with Adnis’ parents in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn: young Shawn’s grandfather (also named Adnis Reeves, necessitating his father being known to the family as Adnis Junior or AJ) preached at a Pentecostal church in the borough, the Church Of God In Christ, where his wife (Shawn’s grandmother) Ruby was also a Deaconess. Hence, the Lord’s Word held a heavy sway over the Reeves/Carter clan. Adnis Junior had been brought up a strict Christian, spending almost all of his spare time at his parent’s church and banned from playing popular music in the house. Despite this restriction AJ and Gloria had become avid fans and collectors of music, stockpiling stacked crates full of vinyl albums that took in every great soul, Motown, R&B and jazz record they could lay their hands on. All they needed was a place of their own to play them.
The five years Shawn Carter spent living at his grandparent’s house seemed an idyllic time. Like his father, he too was expected regularly at church – his earliest memories are of watching the spectacle of Pentecostal worship with its high-spirited drummers, passionate singers and congregation members beset with bouts of speaking in tongues or holy possession. At home he ate cheap chicken as though dining at a feast of medieval kings, unaware it’d long since become the fast fuel of poverty. And when allowed to roam free around the neighbourhood, he lost himself in childhood fantasies of adventure and glory. He and his earliest playmates discovered an abandoned boat on the block on which they’d set sail their imaginations a-sail every day, and by the age of four, he was already something of a local superstar.
While most of the neighbourhood kids were still teetering atop their tricycles or struggling to shed their training wheels, word spread the length of Bedford-Stuyvesant of the wonder that was the Bicycling Baby. Crowds would gather to watch this incredible spectacle, this circus-like feat. A speck of a child hoisted onto a two-wheel, ten-speed bicycle, his legs too short to reach both pedals. Yet, with a hoik of one foot on the chain he’d be off, balanced precariously on the saddle like a Wild West stuntman, one leg spiked through the frame for balance and direction. Cheers would rise as he scooted off across the street, the world’s tiniest showman. That boy, Bed-Stuy agreed, sure had some talent.
Even so young, though, Shawn was no bragger. His pious grandparents instilled in him a humbleness and modesty, but also a restraint in emotional matters. “I’m not really the type of person who can sit and talk about how they feel,” he’d say later in life, “we were raised to hold a lot in.”3 One day he’d find a fulfilling form of therapy to combat this tendency towards reticence, a way to express his emotions to the utmost. But for now, and throughout the dips and dives of his formative years, his inwardness would define and consume him.
That, and the bleak new world he was about to be swallowed up by.
The Marcy projects in 1974 were a warren of red brick incarceration – once you were in, you rarely got out.
Though many tried, testing various escape routes. Some bought their daily tickets to oblivion central from the heroin dealers hustling on most of Marcy’s corridors and corners, and took their trip away half-comatose on the project’s benches. Others leapt for freedom during police raids from their apartment windows, each of which was numbered on the street-facing side to help police cover all possible exits and pin-point the right perp. Still more, as gun crime, drugs and gang culture took grip, left in cuffs or bags.
Shawn would later describe Marcy and other such poor housing schemes as “huge islands built mostly in the middle of nowhere, designed to warehouse lives”4. These 27 six-storey blocks rising above the J and Z subway lines station at Brooklyn’s Marcy Avenue – a huge complex built on the site of an old Dutch windmill in 1949 to house over 4000 residents running the racial gamut from black to Puerto Rican to Arab to Chinese (but stopping short, notably, of the Caucasian community) – had the austerity of a penal colony, and the hope and ambition to match.
The Carter/Reeves family moved into Apartment 5C when Shawn was five years old (Shawn shared a room with his brother Eric) and for him, at first, the place was a sprawling playground. With his friend DeHaven Irby from across the hall he learned the labyrinth of run-down corridors and ill-lit walkways connecting the red brick buildings, racing the fetid alleyways like a rat in a maze. He discovered dark nooks and hidden crannies for hide-outs and secret camps, crunched delighted over the glistening glass shards of the playing fields and basketball courts. He watched the hustlers throwing bills at their dice games of cee-lo, tipped unconscious addicts off their benches to laugh at them suddenly coming to from their stupors. In a world of danger and deprivation, Shawn Carter frolicked unaware.
If Marcy Houses were a new country he barely ever left – the subway only went to Queens, not Manhattan; the city seemed a world away, only to be visited and gawped at on school trips – his new apartment, too, opened up wide new horizons. Sonically speaking. Freed from the musical restrictions of Adnis Senior and Ruby, Gloria and Adnis Junior threw themselves endlessly into the floods of vinyl engulfing the apartment. Every weekend the family would shimmy through the rooms cleaning the place along to soul grooves from Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, The Blackbyrds, The Average White Band or Van McCoy & The Soul City Symphony. Late at night, when their parties reached fever pitch, music flowing from the turntable and reel-to-reel teetering atop a stack of planks and crates in the front room, young Shawn would sneak from his room in his pyjamas to sit by the doorway, watch the adults dancing and listen to the sweet, soulful sounds of The Jackson Five, Love Unlimited Orchestra, The Commodores, James Brown and Tavares. Shawn felt the music seep deep into his core, sitting swaying in the dark, blissed out on the honeyed voices and seductive grooves.
As the Seventies went on, Gloria and Adnis also began to play music that would influence Shawn even more fundamentally. “My mom had rap records too,” he’d claim, “King James 3rd, Jimmy Spicer… I used to sneak listens to the Richard Pryor records, with him cussing all over them. Al Green… Our whole house was the party house and just stacked with records… It was overflowing!”5
At the time, rap music was still in an equally formative state. Block parties were taking hold in the Bronx, DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock had started MCing over the beats stripped from funk and soul records. The early rap collective Funky Four Plus One formed in 1976 while Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation, Melle Mel & The Furious Five, Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash were gaining popularity and kudos among the burgeoning rap scene developing on the New York streets. Hip-hop, underground, was blowing up, but was still making little inroad into the sphere of reference of the Soul Train-watching, seven-year-old Shawn Carter, beyond the beats he heard creeping into his parent’s collection. For his part, he was too obsessed with Michael Jackson, practicing Jacko spins along to the Jacksons tunes ‘Enjoy Yourself’ and ‘Dancing Machine’ with Michelle and Andrea acting as his backing singers. A tiny starman, seeking a scene.
In elementary school, Shawn was a smart, active child. He played little league baseball (they were a sporting family; Eric would go on to be a college basketball hotshot and the family had a hoop erected in their front room), claimed to have a photographic memory and showed signs of far outstripping his classmates as a rare Brooklyn example of a child genius (or at least, when he’d reach sixth grade, he’d be tested at a twelfth grade level). But much of his most vital education took place on the streets.
His father Adnis was an attentive and caring man, keen to ensure his son developed the intuition and attention to detail he’d need to survive life in the pitfall-filled, unforgiving projects. He taught him to play chess to sharpen his forward thinking instincts, his sense of always thinking one step ahead of the game, and some weekends Adnis would take Shawn into Manhattan, to the sordid soul of the place, to Times Square at its most putrid Seventies depths, to observe. To observe the pimps and gangs, the hookers and bums, the seething squalor. And to recall. Over steak and fries in Lindy’s diner on 53rd Street Adnis would tell Shawn to watch the people passing by on the sidewalk outside, then guess their clothes sizes. Walking back to the subway, the father would insist his son led the way – learning leadership, responsibility – and then quiz him on the wording of signs in shop windows or the attire of the people they’d passed. Adnis taught Shawn to have his eyes always open, aware of the peripheries, one keeping his back. It was as if Adnis could predict for his son a life of ambush and attack, and he gave him the skills to protect himself.
The pair grew unfathomably close.
And Shawn’s keen powers of observation turned to the darker forces around him, shedding a new and ominous light over the projects. He noticed the men – the hustlers, he knew – getting out of expensive cars, so much flasher and more affluent than Marcy’s usual motley crew. There, perhaps, he saw his own way out. And he noticed, in the New York Post, the fascinating character of Vinnie Gigante, The Oddfather, a known mafia man who was considered insane, old and harmless by dint of him always being pictured wandering the streets of New York in his bed-robes and slippers, muttering to himself. The persona was an elaborate ruse: as Gigante rose to positions of great power and influence in the US underworld, he escaped suspicion and conviction throughout the Seventies, deemed too mentally unstable to stand trial.* There, Shawn saw the grand benefits of disguising yourself as something you’re not.
There were some instincts, however, he didn’t want to trust. One December 4 Shawn sat on a bench in Brooklyn, the bench where he’d arranged to meet his father for a day of birthday treats and observation tests. An hour passed with no sign of Adnis. As Shawn trudged away from the meeting spot, coat curled up against the chill of the winter, he observed something new about his father.
He might not be the best guy to rely on.
1979 was the year Benny died and Slate came alive.
Marcy was changing, shifting its tone, getting edgier. Shawn Carter could sense it in the air, in the quiver of the addicts’ eyes and the tension in the hustlers’ holster hands. Guns were beginning to swamp the projects, gangs grew on bravado and retaliation, and the toll mounted up. “Navigating this place was life-or-death,” Shawn would say6, and that year he came face to face with both sides of that eternal coin.
Benny was the man who’d take the Marcy kids to play baseball. A popular guy with real talent on the mound; his young proteges swore he could make it to the majors if the right scout got wind of him. Then, one time, Shawn and a gaggle of friends caught sight of Benny running at pace through the Marcy walkways, another man on his tail. Sensing action – a fight, a showdown, a clash of fists – an excited Shawn and his entourage followed the pair into a building.
What they saw there was no game.
A hollow crack. It stopped them in their tracks, killed their giggling, dried their mouths and tightened their throats, reverberated through them carrying a chill shiver of dread and nausea. Across the floor, Benny fell to the ground. So many times he’d heard the shots from afar; never once had he been caught in their aftershock.
Benny was the first man Shawn Carter watched die.*
Slate, on the other hand, was the first kid Shawn Carter saw really living.
Though the shooting of Benny made him more wary around the projects, less inclined to go running towards crowds or chase commotion, the music drew him in. It was a circle of people, young kids, clapping and cheering to a deep funk beat in the summer heat. And words spread too; spitting, charging rhymes with a life, poetry and rhythm all their own. He pushed his way through the backs. In the centre of the circle stood Slate, a Marcy kid Shawn knew but had never really noticed. Only this wasn’t the Slate that Shawn vaguely knew. This was Slate, superstar.
Shawn remembers the scene vividly. “He was transformed, like the church ladies touched by the spirit, and everyone was mesmerized. He was rhyming, throwing out couplet after couplet like he was in a trance… 30 minutes straight off the top of his head, never losing the beat, riding the handclaps… It was like watching some kind of combat.”7
Shawn was entranced by the sight, this modest kid metamorphosed before his eyes into a hero, drenched in adoration, by the power of words alone. Slate rapped about the basic street furniture he could see around him, commented on the tattered sneakers of denims he spotted in the circle or simply boasted about his own attire, skills or wordplay, and the circle worshipped him for it, utterly believed his throw-away gloats that he was the best rhymer in New York. Right there, in that primitive cypher, Slate was the most famous kid in Marcy.
And, watching him agape, Shawn Carter realised he could be too.
Within hours he began writing his first lines in a spiral notebook, the words streaming out of him like wildfire. Within days the notepad was full, so his mother clipped together a rudimentary notebook for him, a sheaf of paper held with a paperclip. When that too was overrun with rhymes, she found him a binder full of unlined paper; before long every inch and corner of every page was a maze of lyrics for songs yet unwritten. Shawn’s mind was a machine, he had a true gift and lust for this fiery, soul-searching poetry, for marking down the milestones, achievements and dreams of his young life. Suddenly, he’d found a way to make some sense of himself, to define who he was.
Next, he had to perfect his art.
The slapping and tapping became the new pulse of 5C. From windowsills, kitchen tables, desks, mattresses, any surface within reach, Shawn would keep his beats with flickering fingers and propulsive palms. Eric, Michelle and Andrea would wake in the middle of the night hearing a steady, regular drumming from the kitchen, where Shawn would be keeping the beat and pattern of the night. From the moment he woke up ‘til the minute he dropped, he’d practice: when he wasn’t hooking his rhymes to rhythms and rehearsing tongue-twisting lyrical acrobatics, determined to become the most agile and gymnastic word-spitter on the block, he was scouring dictionaries to beef up his vocabulary or honing his flow into a bulky tape recorder. If he was out in the street and a line popped into his head, he’d prop his binder against a street lamp or bench to note it down, and his schoolmates soon caught on to his new passion. Some envied him his talent, sneaking looks at his binder and performing his lyrics as their own, causing him to start writing in a miniscule script too small for others to read and hiding his book under his bed. Most, though, admired his dedication; his mother was so keen to encourage him that – much to his sibling’s annoyance, you presume – she bought him a boom box to help him start freestyling, and his new ‘rap name’ took hold. From the age of nine onwards, his friends called him Jazzy.
Come July 1979, The Fatback Band would launch recorded hip-hop with ‘King Tim III (Personality Jock)’ and The Sugarhill Gang would release what’s widely considered the first breakthrough rap record, ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Though the true underground scene resented the tune’s Top 40 US success as it wasn’t the work of any of the pioneering name MCs and seemed vaguely novelty in comparison to some of the more intense rappers developing across NYC, Shawn and his entire generation (including one Russell Simmons, who’d use the inspiration of the record’s success to launch his own label Def Jam) adored it. But if 1979 was the year hip-hop broke worldwide, 1978 was an equally momentous year for its eventual coming of age, and its cross-culture mainstream acceptance.
1978 was the year Jay-Z was born.
His name alone was enough to send whispers around the battle crowds, like Wild West towns used to hiss with the names of outlaws. Jay-Z, young kid, 14 maybe, but man, the kid had skills. He was the fastest rapper in Marcy, maybe all of New York, spat rhymes like semi-automatic fire. And he knew it. Every battle he joined, he tore through his opponents like they’d barely learned to speak, left them all for dust. He’d calmly soak up every jibe, boast and taunt the other guy had in him and then – boom – he’d launch his tirade, words skipping and flipping like Ali’s feet, his hands measuring out meter and rhythm like a baller’s baton, the mic melting. And hey, he walked the walk; they said he stuck a slug in his own brother one time.
Across the Marcy courtyard battles of the mid-1980s – grown from those small ciphers of ’78 into gladiatorial events in makeshift coliseums now, with pumped-up crowds passing judgement, digs between battlers getting so sharp and personal they sometimes ended in violence, and professional DJs sucking juice from street lamps to power their decks, pounding out beats to bulge the apartment windows – the name of Jay-Z spread with a wide-eyed respect.
Word was, the kid had some tragedy to spit, too.
In 1980, a call had come in to Apartment 5C that would tear the family apart. A scuffle outside a notorious Brooklyn bar involving Adnis’ brother Ray, Jazzy’s uncle; a knife was pulled, Ray took it to the hilt, DOA. The community bristled with the name of the culprit – the whole city seemed to know who killed Ray – but no one would stick their hand up as a witness and the police drew a streetful of blanks.
The loss of a brother, though, wasn’t something Adnis Reeves would just roll over and accept. He became sleepless, argumentative with Gloria, obsessed with hunting down Ray’s murderer. “People would call in the middle of the night and tell him, ‘So-and-so is out here’,” Jay-Z would claim. “So my dad would get up, get his gun, and go outside to look for the guy… This was my dad’s baby brother.”8
One day, Adnis went out on one of his goose-chases, and never came back. Out there in the projects, out of grief and desperation, he’d turned to alcohol and heroin, and lost himself. “My dad was in so much pain that he started using drugs and became a different person,” Jay-Z recalls. “The trauma of the event, coupled with the drugs, caused him to lose his soul.” No one fully explained the reasons for their parents’ split to the Carter children, just that their family was fractured. “My mom prepared us more than [Adnis] did. I don’t think he was ready for that level of discussion and emotion. He was a guy who was pretty detached from his feelings.” At 11 years old, Shawn suddenly felt the weight of familial responsibility on his tiny shoulders, a need to protect his mother and siblings and help improve their situation. “I remember telling her, ‘Don’t worry, when I get big, I’m going to take care of this.’ I felt like I had to step up.”9
With the loss of his father, however – and soon the loss of a cousin too, who died falling out of a broken window in a Marcy apartment – Jazzy (as he was still nicknamed then) fell to pieces. “To me, that was basically the end of our relationship,” he said to Vibe magazine of his father. “That was when the hurt and then the healing began for me, from that day right there.” Already a soft-spoken, quiet student, at Eli Whitney High School, which he attended alongside DeHaven and a kid called Anthony Cruz (one day to be renamed AZ and become a Grammy nominated associate of Nas and The Firm), his high grades plummeted and his interest and concentration waned. He enjoyed English lessons – anything to do with words fascinated him – but he spent the rest of his time distracted, daydreaming about sports or rapping. At home he withdrew into himself: with his mother forced to work to support the family, Jazzy was left alone after school hours. He became separated from his mother and siblings, grew angry, insular and guarded, closed off to emotional attachment in case he was ever again hurt that deeply.
“When you’re growing up, your dad is your superhero,” he’d explain. “Once you’ve let yourself fall that in love with someone, once you put him on such a high pedestal and he lets you down, you never want to experience that pain again. So I remember just being really quiet and really cold. Never wanting to let myself get close to someone like that again… I carried that feeling throughout my life… It made me not express my feelings as much. I was already a shy kid, and it made me a little reclusive. But it also made me independent. And stronger. It was a weird juxtaposition.”10
Better to have loved and lost? That wasn’t Jaz’s experience. “If your dad died before you were born, yeah, it hurts, but it’s not like you had a connection with something that was real. Not to say it’s any better, but to have that connection and then have it ripped away was, like, the worst. My dad was such a good dad that when he left, he left a huge scar.”11
Inevitably, he turned to the therapy that was hip-hop. By the time Jazzy had turned 14, rap had flooded Marcy (where the local talent pool of rappers was becoming formidable), the New York projects and beyond. The ground-breaking scratchings of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ blasted from every car stereo and skate park the summer of ’83, inspiring Jaz to try his hand at DJing, scratching records on a couple of turntables a friend had set up across a plank of wood in his front room. Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’ was the backing track to his latest bedroom dance routines. He got into hip-hop radio shows by pioneering scene notaries like DJ Red Alert, Afrika Islam and The World’s Famous Supreme Team.
Then came Run-D.M.C.’s ‘It’s Like That’/’Sucker MCs’ single, which shifted Jazzy’s perspective on the possibilities of black music in the 1980s. He turned his focus from his earliest heroes, Michael Jackson and Prince, towards this group who better represented their fans and his community. The way he saw it*, where most mainstream black artists seemed to him to be playing down their ethnicity for mass R&B acceptance or embracing eccentricity to distract from their race, the unashamedly powerful Run-D.M.C. – and ‘Sucker MCs’ in particular – were out to loudly, proudly and accurately reflect real street-life stories and hardships in their music, and thereby set the foundations for rap music to come. “It was going to be raw and aggressive,” he believed, “but also witty and slick. It was going to boast and compete and exaggerate.”12 Like the rhymes Jazzy was becoming more and more skilful at delivering with practice, Run-D.M.C.† were all about being true to who you are, but also true to the roots of hip-hop – the aggressive braggadocio, the one-upmanship, the suaveness of the street player and the flaunting of freshly gained wealth and high-life trappings. Indeed, listening to Run-D.M.C., Jazzy felt the same aspiration and wonder as when he and his friends would gawp at the hustler’s expensive BMWs cruising the projects.
Meanwhile, rap had also made serious inroads into popular culture. The Funky Four Plus One had become the first hip-hop act to appear on Saturday Night Live to play ‘That’s The Joint’ in 1981. That same year ABC News reported on the Rock Steady Crew’s battle with Dynamic Rockers at the Lincoln Center, and Sugarhill Gang stunned Jazzy when they made an appearance on his beloved Soul Train. Rap, he knew, was about to break big. So by the time Eli Whitney was shut down and he changed schools to George Westinghouse Career And Technical Education High School in downtown Brooklyn, Jazzy had upped his hip-hop game.
George Westinghouse was a wreck of a school; the bathrooms were blacked out and thick with dope smoke, the windows were shattered, the whole building was dense with menace, the teachers were afraid of the pupils. Jazzy was a distant, subdued attendant who kept his own company in the cafeteria most days, but these still waters ran awful deep. Word got around about his agility and sass in the mini-battles he’d conduct against other wannabe rappers in the meal hall, the beats slammed out on tables, and respect grew for him among Westinghouse’s various hip-hop hopefuls – Busta Rhymes cruised those same halls, and Jazzy even got a nod or two from the larger, older kid that everyone was tipping for real hip-hop success. Kid by the name of Christopher Wallace, although most knew him as Biggie Smalls.
In the battles of Marcy, Jazzy caught both eyes and ears. By 1984 he’d developed such a strong reputation as the hottest young rapper in the projects that some friends tried to arrange for him a Heavyweight Title-style bout against the champion Marcy rapper of the time, Jonathan ‘Jaz-O’ Burks, four years Jazzy’s senior. Full of bravado and self-belief, Jazzy took the challenge and showed up for the battle with a head full of rhymes and steam. Jaz-O, however, saw more of an apprentice in this young kid than an opponent: asking Jazzy to rap for him rather than battle, he saw the unrefined talent in the teenager, and decided to take him under his wing. Over months of tuition, Jaz-O turned Jazzy on to the concepts of artistic license, of exaggeration, extended metaphor and simile, of squirming around words like a snake. Jaz became Jazzy’s mentor, a brother figure and a provider when the younger kid went hungry. The folklore goes* that, in Jaz-O’s honour, Jazzy morphed his name. From then on, he’d be Jay-Z.
And as Jay-Z, he owned the Marcy battle scene. By the time he was spotted by another of Marcy’s rap ace faces DJ Clark Kent he, in Kent’s words, “outclassed”13 anyone he rapped with, at barely fifteen years of age.
“Jaz-O was a rapper around Brooklyn,” said Kent, “and his producer was Fresh Gordon and me and Fresh were tight. Fresh Gordon was this rapper who actually knew how to make music. We would be in his crib and Jaz-O would come over and he would make Jaz-O’s records… One time I’m at Fresh Gordon’s house and Jaz-O comes over and he has Jay-Z with him. And Jay-Z is dumb young. He might have been 15, maybe 16. They started rhyming together and he was insane. I just kept saying ‘this is the best rapper I’ve ever heard’. And they’re looking at me like I’m crazy.”14
Kent saw the potential to turn Jay-Z from a little league rapper on the outskirts to a real main player, and over the coming years he’d help do exactly that. But right then, Jay-Z didn’t see any great appeal in being a rapper, not long term. He didn’t see anyone rapping their way to fortunes around his neighbourhood. Those guys, he figured, were just puppets in someone else’s expensive music video.
No, the guys making the real money? Jay-Z’s real figures of hope and aspiration? Those were the hustlers…
JAY-Z: THE KING OF AMERICA by Mark Beaumont is published in September 2012 by Omnibus Press.