Jay-Z: The King Of America is the new Jay-Z biography from Omnibus Press.
We caught up with the book’s author , Mark Beaumont, to talk about his experiences interviewing Jay-Z and the hip-hop icon’s past successes, present ambitions and future legacy.
You can also enter our Jay-Z competition to win three author signed copies of the book just in time for Christmas – click here before midnight on Tuesday December 18 to find out more!
Hi Mark! Jay-Z, King of America – what’s left to conquer and where do you see his focus and ambitions lying in the future?
Besides the challenges of fatherhood and the endless draw to bigger and bolder business expansion, I suspect Jay-Z won’t rest until hip-hop has reached the same cultural heights as rock’n’roll, so they can be fully integrated on an equal footing. Until rap has its own Glastonbury on an equal scale and until his new records and gigs are received with as much hysteria as those by The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac. He’s long been working on turning the arena spectacle of hip-hop into a rival for the most legendary rock shows – next stop will be the stadiums.
How much has Jay-Z’s musical and business success be driven by his at time intense origins in Brooklyn? Would he have been a success whatever his background?
His days dealing crack in Brooklyn, working long winter nights and overcoming dangerous, quick-thinking situations, taught Jay-Z a strict work ethic, an adaptability and a keen entrepreneurial streak. Without being able to turn his hustling skills to selling his own records from the back of cars when all of the labels turned him down, his career would never gave got off the ground. Had he come from a more comfortable background, with no need to struggle to achieve his ambitions, it’s unlikely he would’ve learnt the drive and determination he’d have needed to achieve his stratospheric success.
As a sort-of elder statesman-like figure within urban and mainstream music, what part do you think Jay-Z has played in making hip-hop acceptable and commercial?
Jay-Z was the first hip-hop act to headline Glastonbury, the first to put on a major arena rap tour and the first to make a hotly anticipated comeback from a career break. He’s collaborated with nu metal acts like Linkin Park, stadium indie bands like Coldplay and given his blessing to Danger Mouse’s electronic mash-up of his Black Album. He’s such an acceptable figure within all genres of music that no-one bats an eyelid at him headlining a European rock festival now, and that cross-over of cultures is arguably his biggest achievement in music. Because of his lead Kanye can collaborate with Bon Iver and new, edgy rap acts like Odd Future and Death Grips are essential additions to most festival bills. Yes, by lacing his songs with famous musical standards, familiar soul grooves and lyrics that spoke about crime, sex and violence from an angle of inner humanity and emotion he became the cuddliest gangster rapper in the business, but his breakthrough wasn’t just making hustler rap less scary to the mainstream. He recognized that hip-hop was being appreciated by an audience far beyond its accepted niche, and made the effort to smash down music’s imaginary boundaries as publically as possible.
What are the key qualities and lessons that Jay-Z’s friends and prodigies take from his guidance? How might the careers of Kanye and Rihanna fared without his influence?
Jay-Z gave Kanye his big break as a producer, and stuck with him, nurturing his talent over many albums until he was ready to launch his own rap career. Rihanna benefitted not just from Jay signing her to Def Jam but from the huge profile boost he gave her by rapping on ‘Umbrella’. But besides mentorship and publicity, Jay gave these and other artists a sense of worth and competition – for years Kanye pushed himself to rival Jay’s other producers to make the cut for his albums. His ethos of earning your success and constantly trying to beat down the competition rubbed off on his most talented prodigies.
How will his legend and legacy in the genre compare to more controversial and erratic artists such as Biggie Smalls, Tupac and Easy E?
Until his retirement, Jay-Z saw the value in old school confrontation and dispute, fuelling feuds with the likes of Nas in order to fill the publicity gap left by the deaths of Biggie and Tupac. But though he comes from the same battle rap tradition, his legacy will ultimately be one of reconciliation and unity – midway through his career he realized there was more worth in warmth than aggression, famously burying the hatchet with Nas at his I Declare War show. So he’ll be seen as the great rap arbiter, an ambassador for the genre rather than a petty provocateur.
Having interviewed him yourself, what did you take away about Jay-Z that might not always be part of his public persona?
I found him remarkably soft-spoken and outwardly modest, geeky almost. As I said in the book, if he hadn’t been a hustler rap superstar you’d half imagine him working in IT.
How has Jay-Z maintained his career and momentum when so many other artists have fallen due to personality flaws or a lack of creative stamina?
Largely due to an open mind and an open house. He’s not been afraid to dip into areas other hip-hop acts would balk at – rock, mainstream R&B, electronica, showtunes – while also working with an ever-shifting array of producers, snapping at the chance to work with hot new names he can make famous and rarely sticking to a fixed production team for more than a few albums at a time. It’s meant his sound has constantly evolved and pioneered.
Do you think Jay-Z will be remembered best as a hip-hop artist or a musical entrepreneur?
His business achievements look very impressive on a written CV and it’s very difficult now to separate Jay-Z the rapper from Jay-Z the multi-million-dollar empire, but his music is far more pervasive in popular culture and ultimately the core and root of his success. Even when he tried to retire from rap to head up Def Jam he was inevitably drawn back to the mike within a few years – he’ll always be remembered as a rap god first and the ghetto Donald Trump second.
If Jay-Z were to run for office, what sort of politician would he be?
I asked him this myself and he adroitly pointed out that anyone with his case history would be mad to have any political ambitions. But if he were to enter Congress, you’d hope his policies would focus on eradicating ghetto-ised poverty and giving projects kids the opportunities he had to make for himself.
Thanks for your time Mark!
JAY-Z CAREER TIMELINE
1969 – Born Shawn Corey Carter, December 4, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
1996 – Releases debut album Reasonable Doubt on his own Roc-A-Fella Records after failing to secure a record deal elsewhere.
1998 – Jay-Z’s biggest hit so far, Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem), utilising the chorus from It’s The Hard Knock Life from the Broadway musical Annie, becomes so huge he launches the first rap arena tour.
2001 – Jay reaches his critical peak with the hugely influential album The Blueprint, the first of a now legendary trilogy.
2003 – After what he claimed would be his final album, The Black Album, Jay-Z announces his retirement from performing, later taking on the role of President of Def Jam.
2006 – Having patched up his rivalry with Nas at his I Declare War show at Madison Square Gardens in 2005, Jay-Z makes rap’s first major comeback with Kingdom Come
2008 – Despite opposition from traditionally-minded rockers like Noel Gallagher, Jay-Z becomes the first hip-hop act to headline the main stage at Glastonbury in the same year as he started a brand new company to release his music, Roc Nation
2009 – Empire State Of Mind, his ode to NYC performed with Alicia Keys, is his first Billboard Number One as a lead artist, becoming an international anthem
2011 – His collaboration album with Kanye West, Watch The Throne, spawns the biggest grossing rap tour ever
2012 – Becomes father to Blue Ivy Carter, his first child with wife Beyonce Knowles