Jay-Z: Interviewed And 'Decoded' Jay-Z is one of the most successful hip-hop artists of all time. On Fresh Air, he discusses growing up in Brooklyn surrounded by drugs and violence, and the stories behind many of his famous songs.
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Jay-Z: Interviewed And 'Decoded'

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Jay-Z: Interviewed And 'Decoded'

Jay-Z: Interviewed And 'Decoded'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This year, we're wrapping up the year with a series featuring some of our most entertaining interviews from 2010. Up next we have our interview with Jay-Z, who has been incredibly successful as a rapper and an entrepreneur. He was born in 1969 and grew up in The Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn. He watched crack cocaine destroy his neighborhood, but he sold it on the street before he found his new life in the recording studio and on stage.

In his book "Decoded," Jay-Z offers his story as an example of the story of his generation, explaining the tough choices they faced at a violent and chaotic time. "Decoded" also tells the stories behind 36 of his songs.

Jay-Z holds the record for the most number one albums by a solo artist on the Billboard 200. He co-founded the label Roc-A-Fella Records with Damon Dash, as well as the clothing company Rocawear. He's the president of Def Jam Records; he's a part owner of the - New Jersey's NBA team, the Nets; and co-owns the sports bar 40/40 Club.

Let's start with his recording with Alicia Keys, "Empire State of Mind," from his 2009 album, "The Blueprint 3."

(Soundbite of song, "Empire State of Mind")

JAY-Z (Musician): (Rapping) Yeah. Yeah, G, I'm up at Brooklyn. Now I'm down in Tribeca, right next to De Niro, but I'll be hood forever. I'm the new Sinatra, and since I made it here, I can make it anywhere. Yeah, they love me everywhere.

I used to cop in Harlem. All of my Dominicanos, right there up on Broadway. Brought me back to that McDonald's, took it to my stash spot, 560 Stage Street. Catch me in the kitchen like a Simmons whipping pastry. Cruising down 8th Street. Off-white Lexus, driving so slow, but BK is from Texas.

Me I'm up at Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie. Now I live on billboard, And I brought my boys with me. Say what up to Ty Ty, still sipping Malta, sitting courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high fives. I be spiked out, I can trip a referee, tell by my attitude that I most definitely from New York.

GROSS: Jay-Z, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you on our show.

What were your first rhymes like? Like, you got your first boom-box when you were nine. Your mother gave it to you, you say, because she thought it would help keep you out of trouble.

JAY-Z: Yeah, just so, you know, if I was focusing on music, you know, I wouldn't be, you know, running the streets all wild. So she tried to encourage me to pursue my dreams in music early on.

And my first rhymes were pretty much, you know, very boastful and, you know, academic. But they were kind of advanced for a young kid. Like I put a piece of one of them, and it was like: I'm the king of hip-hop that renewed like the Reebok. The key in the lock with words so provocative, as long as I live.

And I look back on that rhyme now, and I'm like man, that's pretty prophetic.

GROSS: So you were about nine when you wrote that?

JAY-Z: Yeah, well, yeah - between nine and 11. Those were my first rhymes.

GROSS: Would you describe the Marcy Projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where you grew up in Brooklyn?

JAY-Z: Yeah. You have these three columns of buildings with four people on each floor, six floors, you know. So you had people to the left of you, right of you, top, on top and on the bottom of you. It's a very intense and stressful situation.

Everyone is going through different things, and in between all that stress and angst and, you know, having to deal with one another in such close proximity, there's so much love. And there was playing in the Johnny pump, and there was the ice cream man who - coming around.

And there were all these games that we played. And then it would turn -suddenly, it just - violent, and there would be shootings at 12 in the afternoon on any given day.

So it was just - weird mix of emotions. I mean - you know, one day your best friend could be killed; the day before, you could be celebrating him getting a brand-new bike. It was just extreme highs and lows.

GROSS: How hold were you when crack came to the neighborhood?

JAY-Z: It was about '85, so I had to be - never earlier than that - so maybe about 12, 13 years old.

GROSS: And how did that change the projects?

JAY-Z: Well, I think what it changed most was - you know, they have a saying: It takes a village to raise a child. It changed the authority figure because, you know, with crack cocaine, it was done so openly.

And the people who were addicted to it - the fiends - had very little self-respect for their self. It was so highly addictive that they didn't care how they obtained it. And they carried that out in front of children, who were dealing at the time.

So that relationship of that respect of, you know, I have to respect my elders and - you know, Uncle Tyrone's coming; he wasn't really your uncle, but he was the uncle for the neighborhood. And you know, that dynamic shifted, and it had broke, forever. And it just changed everything from that point on.

GROSS: And it just changed everything for you because you - and you write about this in the book and, you know, you've rapped about it, too. You ended up being a hustler. You ended up selling crack. How did you start doing that?

JAY-Z: Well, yes, it wasn't very difficult. It was like -

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No job interview.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: R�sum�...

JAY-Z: Yeah. I knew a friend who knew a friend and - you know, he made an introduction. And we had a conversation almost like a job interview, and it was almost these rules of how to do it, and how not to get high on your own supply, and how to be a man of principle and of your word, and dealing with people. And it was like this advice as if it was a Fortune 500 job, you know, except it was, you know, crack cocaine.

GROSS: So you describe in the book how when you first started writing rhymes, you had a notebook. But when you were hustling on the street, you weren't carrying your notebook with you. And if a rhyme came to you that you wanted to remember, what would you do? You'd go to the store - tell the story, how you'd go to the store to...

JAY-Z: Yeah, what happened was I wrote so much in this book, I would sit at my table for hours and hours until my mother made me go to bed. And it was like this - this obsession with words and with writing. And as I got further away from that notebook - now as I was on the street, and these ideas would come, I would run into the corner store, The Bodega, and grab like, a paper bag or just buy a juice, anything just to get a paper bag.

And then I'd write the words on the paper bag and stuff these ideas in my pocket until I got back. And then I would transfer them into the notebook. And as I got further and further away from home and from the notebook, I had to memorize these rhymes longer and longer and longer - and like, with any exercise, you know, once you train your brain to do that, it becomes a natural occurrence.

So you know, about the time I got to record my first album - which was, I was 26 - I didn't need pen to paper. My memory had been trained, you know, just to listen to a song, think of the words, and then just lay them to tape.

GROSS: And what about now? Do you write down rhymes when they come to you, or -

JAY-Z: No, I haven't since my first album.

GROSS: And your memory's as good now, as it was then?

JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah. I've lost plenty material; it's not the best way. I wouldn't advise it. I wouldn't advise it to anyone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: I've lost a couple albums' worth of great material. Well, I thought they were great.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Jay-Z. And he has a new book, called "Decoded." So how much money had you been making on the street when you decided to try music?

JAY-Z: Well, I don't know if you really have a concrete number of how much money you were making. Sometimes it was really good, and it was fantastic.

I mean, I did pretty well, which made it more difficult for me because at the time, people in the street were making more than rappers, you know. I didn't -not until the big deals of Master P and Puff - deal with Badboy, with Arista Records, were people getting really big deals.

So for the most part, people on the street were making more than rappers. So, for me - I addressed this in the book as well - there's a song called "Can't Knock the Hustle." And it sounds like I'm saying, you can't knock my hustle.

But what - who I was talking to was the guys on the street because rap was my hustle, and, like, at the time street - the streets was my job. So when I was telling people yeah, I want to be a rap - I want to do this, they were like: Man, why do you want to be a rapper? Those guys get taken advantage of. Everybody takes their money.

You know - we go to parties, and we pull up in Mercedes and Lexuses. And they pull up in turtle-tops, with 16 people in them. Why do you want to do that?

And I was like man, I just really - I couldn't really explain to them how much I loved it. So I would just say, let me just try it. I just want to see what it's about.

GROSS: Let's talk about another one of your tracks. I want to play "Hard Knock Life, which really surprised me when I first heard it because you sample the song "Hard Knock Life" from the Broadway show "Annie," which I thought was a real surprise...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...surprising choice for you.

JAY-Z: To say the least.

GROSS: Yes, to say the least.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: So how did you decide to use that?

JAY-Z: Well, what happened was, my sister's name is Andrea Carter, and we call her Annie for short. So when the TV version of the play - you know, it came on and it was like, there's a story called "Annie."

I was immediately drawn to it; of course, it was my sister's name - like, what is this about? So you know, I watched it, and I was, you know, I was immediately drawn to that story and, you know, those words - instead of treated, we get tricked; instead of kisses, we get kicked - it immediately resonated with me.

So you know, fast-forward: I'm on the Puff Daddy tour, and I'm about to leave stage, and a DJ by the name of Kid Capri plays this track, no rap on it, just the instrumental. I, you know, it stopped me in my tracks.

It immediately brought me back to my childhood and that feeling. And I knew right then and there that I had to make that record and that, you know, people would relate to the struggle in it - and the aspiration in it as well.

GROSS: So let's hear the song, and then we'll talk some more about it. So this is "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," by Jay-Z.

(Soundbite of song, "Hard Knock Life, (Ghetto Anthem)")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Check the bass line out, uh-huh. Here we go. Bounce with it. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah. Let it bump, yo.

It's the hard knock life, uh-huh for us. It's the hard knock life, for us. Instead of treated, we get tricked. Instead of kisses, we get kicked. It's the hard knock life.

JAY-Z: (Rapping) From standing on the corners bopping, to driving some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen. We're dropping some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard. From the dope spot, with the smoke Glock fleeing the murder scene. You know me well. From nightmares of a lonely cell, my only hell but since when y'all know me to fail?

Where all my with the rubber grips, bust shots. And if you with me mom I rub on your and whatnot. I'm from the school of the hard knocks, we must not let outsiders violate our blocks, and my plot. Let's stick up the world and split it 50-50, uh-huh. Let's take the dough and stay real jiggy, uh-huh. And sip the Cris' and get pissy-pissy. Flow infinitely like the memory of my Biggie, baby.

You know it's hell when I come through. The life and times of Shawn Carter, volume two.

It's a hard knock life for us...

GROSS: That's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" by my guest, Jay-Z, who has a new book called "Decoded."

So you tell a great story in the book about how you got the rights to use that song, to use the song from "Annie," "Hard Knock Life." Would you tell the story?

JAY-Z: Yeah. Well, I mean, we got the rights already, so this will be a bit late. So - because I exaggerated a touch, you know. And it's typical, when you have to clear a song, you have to send it - a sampled song - you send it to the original writers, and they grant you permission, and you pay a fee for that permission.

You know - but some writers, their art is, for them, very important. So it has to be the right sort of attitude and the right take. And the emotion on the record has to fit, you know, what was originally intended.

So we're having difficulties clearing the sample. And I wrote a letter about how much it meant to me, you know, what it meant to me growing up, and how I went to like, a Broadway play, which was exaggeration. I saw it on TV and, you know, we got the rights...

GROSS: But let me stop you because in the book, you say...

JAY-Z: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that you told the big lie. In the book, you say that you...

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you made up that you entered an essay contest, and in the essay, you wrote about the importance of seeing "Annie" on Broadway, which you'd never seen on Broadway, in fact.

JAY-Z: Yeah. Right.

GROSS: And, you know, all that it meant to you when you saw it on Broadway, and I think you said you like, won in the essay contest and so you...

JAY-Z: I didn't want you to put the whole thing out there. I was trying to, you know, I could...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So in other words, you lied a little bit in order to get the rights.

JAY-Z: Yeah, it was, you know, it was a bad lie for a good reason.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, it worked out well for everybody.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Have you ever met Charles Strouse, who wrote the music for the song?

JAY-Z: No. But someone just reached out like the other day and said that he wants to speak with me. So I'm going to reach out to him. I mean, just the other day, so - which is really cool. I was in a house trying to - I went looking at a house on the Upper East Side, and I saw this plaque on the wall. And I'm like, wait a minute, that's my plaque. And I guess it was his house. This is a couple years back; I have to share that with him.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, you mean your Grammy. Is that what you're talking about?

JAY-Z: No. No. The plaque for the record, you know, our...

GROSS: Oh, the gold record plaque. The gold record plaque.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah-yeah. Oh, OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)


JAY-Z: It was like, a lot of times platinum, though. But, yeah, that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's funny. That's right.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, I interviewed him a few years ago. You want to hear what he had to say about "Annie"?

JAY-Z: Yes. Please. Please.

GROSS: Yeah, OK - I mean, about "Hard Knock Life"? OK. So this is Charles Strouse, who wrote the music for "Annie," talking about Jay-Z's version of "Hard Knock Life." And here's what he had to say about it.

Mr. CHARLES STROUSE (Composer for Broadway, Opera, TV and Film): He said something in the liner notes that it was gritty. He said it was gritty, and he felt that that was the way black people felt in the ghetto.

And the fact is, when we were working on "Annie," it was the first song that I had written the music for. And I wanted that song to be gritty. I didn't want it to be a fake. I wanted it to show these desperate times and these maltreated girls, et cetera, et cetera. So when he picked up on that I was very proud of myself for that reason alone.

GROSS: OK, so he liked it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Absolutely.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Jay-Z, he has a new book called "Decoded," after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jay-Z, and he has a new book called "Decoded" that's a collection of a lot of his rhymes. It's also the stories behind those. And there's a lot of autobiography in it.

Now, I just have to ask you, I'm sure you've been asked this a lot, but this -this is the bitch and ho question.

It just always seemed to me that so much about rap music - about men's rap music - is about, you know, demanding respect but not giving a whole lot to women, in the lyrics. And I'd be interested in your take on that.

JAY-Z: A lot of these albums are made when, you know, artists are pretty young: 17, 18 years old. So they've never really had any real relationships. And if you come, you know, in the neighborhoods we're in, you know, we have low self-esteem ourselves. You know, and then the women and - well, the girls, they have low self-esteem, as well.

So these are all dysfunctional relationships at a very young age, and the poet is really just pretty much saying his take on how - his dealings with girls at that time. He's not in really, a - stable relationships.

He's on the road. He's seeing girls who like him because he makes music. They have - spend one night together, he gets a phone number; he leaves to the next town and does the same thing, you know, over again.

GROSS: Now, you're talking about yourself here, too, when you were younger?

JAY-Z: Yeah, as well, yes.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So do you feel like you got over that eventually, that you matured out of that?

JAY-Z: Of course, yeah.

GROSS: And were there times when you continued to write in the character of that younger person?

JAY-Z: I mean, a song on my first album was "Ain't No (bleep)" - I guess ya'll can bleep that out a little. You know, and it was like, this careless relationship.

And then that went to "Big Pimpin" in '99. And on that same album was a song called "Song Cry," and then "Song Cry" became "Bonnie & Clyde" on 2004, which became "Venus vs. Mars" on my last album. So there's a steady growth in the conversations that's being had as it pertains to women, you know, as I grew.

GROSS: Can I ask you a question you might find weird? But since part of your goal in the book is to kind of explain your generation and explain the music to people. You know how a lot of hip-hop artists, when they're on stage, they kind of like, grab their crotch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Yeah. I have a great explanation for that.

GROSS: Yeah, like how did that start? Like, who started that, and why is that?

JAY-Z: Well, a lot a times in hip-hop - like in rock 'n' roll, you'll have bands who tour the world. They get in vans, and they tour the world, and they do rinky-dink clubs. And they get bottles thrown at them and, you know, until they hone their craft, until they become, you know, rock stars.

In hip-hop, the music leads first. So usually, you have a hit record, and then you throw this person on stage who's never been on stage before, you know, because the music leads.

So they don't have any experience on how to perform in front of people, hold the mic, you know, all these different things that you need to know as a performer.

So when you get up there, you feel naked, right? So when you feel naked, what's the first thing you do? You cover yourself. So that bravado is an act of, I am so nervous right now, and I'm scared to death. I'm going to act so tough that I'm going to hide it. And I have to grab, you know, my crotch. That's just what happens.

GROSS: I thought it was kind of the opposite, like this stuff is so good...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...I'm going to show off. No?

JAY-Z: That's, that's what - yeah, they want, that's what we want you to believe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: But the reality is, and no one else will admit to this - well, maybe they will - is you're on stage in front of - now with summer jams and things like that, people are getting put on stage in front of 50,000 people with a record that's a radio hit, and they've never performed before. It's going to be a disaster nine times out of 10.

GROSS: So do you feel like you were on stage before you were prepared for it? Probably not, because you did parties before that. You had experience.

JAY-Z: Exactly. I kind of went through a rock-'n'-roll stage. You know, I was kind of was doing parties and learning to perform. The first show I ever did, I just forgot the words. I stood there, and I tried to pass the mic to Damon Dash, who I co-founded Roc-A-Fella with. I gave him the mic - like, here. He was like man, I don't rap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: I just didn't know what to do. I was like, in shock.

GROSS: So, but really - like, you've done the crotch thing too, right?

JAY-Z: Of course.

GROSS: So why are you doing it? You're not afraid to be on stage.

JAY-Z: Yeah. I just told you, when - the first time I performed I was...


(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: I forgot the words.


(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: I didn't do it my last show, at Yankee Stadium. No. But yeah, but my earlier shows, yes.

GROSS: We'll hear more of our interview with Jay-Z in the second half of the show. Our interview was recorded last month, after the publication of his book "Decoded." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z. His book "Decoded," tells the story of his early life growing up in a Brooklyn housing project selling crack when he was a teenager, then finding a new life in hip-hop music. The book also tells the stories behind 36 of his songs. Early on in his career, Jay-Z entered the business side of hip-hop culture, co-founding Roc-A-Fella Records and Rocawear.

So let's play - let's get another song in here, and let's do "99 Problems."

JAY-Z: Sure.

GROSS: We'll do the clean version.

JAY-Z: Aw.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's radio, my friend.

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: So this is actually based on a story - loosely based on a story that happened to you. Would you explain?

JAY-Z: Well, it's based on a generational story as well. There is a higher thing. Like, there was a time where there was a lot of activity going on, on the turnpike - from New York headed south - because there were a lot of drugs going back and forth. And so the state troopers at that time just blanketed every single car, anybody that was of color. And it was this term, driving while black. And people were getting pulled over for absolutely no reason, you know, other than their color. So I just had to set the scene up.

So now we're driving, and we're doing - we're actually doing something bad. You know, we're transporting drugs from New York to, you know, down south. And we get pulled over by a state trooper. But we get pulled over for absolutely nothing. We're wrong. The cop is wrong. This conversation ensues, and it's racial undertones. And he says: Are you - do you have a gun on you, like a lot of you are? You know, just that statement right there. And the conversation between two people who are both in the wrong, but are both used to getting their way. So there is this clever banter that goes back and forth between the two.

GROSS: OK, and we're going to hear the part of this song that deals with the story that you just told.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: And again, it's the clean version so a lot of the words are going to sound kind of...

JAY-Z: It's the second verse, the...

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And I will say that one of the words that isn't clearly said here because it's distorted - because it's the clean version - is the word bitch, which in the context of this part of the song means dog, because you're talking about canine dogs here.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Because the canine...

JAY-Z: Yeah. And that was my...

GROSS: Yeah.

JAY-Z: And that was the writer in me being provocative, because that's what rap should be as well, you know, at times. That was really directed to all the people who hear buzzwords in rap music - they hear bitch or ho or something -and immediately dismiss everything else that, you know, takes place. And everything has to be put in context. And when you put it in context, you realize that I wasn't calling any female, besides the female dog, a bitch on this song.

GROSS: And is that in spite of the opening part that says: If you're having girl problems I feel bad for you, son. I've got 99 problems but the bitch ain't one.

JAY-Z: Yeah, that was to lead the listener down the wrong path if you were looking for that sort of thing.


JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: So here's "99 Problems" by my guest, Jay-Z.

(Soundbite of song, "99 Problems")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) The year is '94 and in my trunk is raw in my rear view mirror is the mother (bleep) law. I got two choices ya'll, pull over the car or bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor. Now I ain't trying to see no highway chase with Jake. Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case. So I pull over to the side of the road. I heard, son do you know why I'm stopping you for? 'Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hats real low. Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don't know.

Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo? Well you was doing 55 in the 54. Uh-huh. License and registration and step out of the car. You carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are. I ain't stepping out of (bleep). All my papers legit. Well, do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?

Well my glove compartment is locked; so is the trunk and the back, and I know my rights so you going to need a warrant for that. Aren't you sharp as a tack. Are some type of lawyer or something? Somebody important or something? Nah, I ain't pass the bar but I know a little bit. Enough that you won't illegally search my (bleep). We'll see how smart you are when the K-9s come. I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one. Hit me, 99 problems but a bitch ain't one.

If your having girl problems I feel bad for you son. I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one. Hit me.

GROSS: That was "99 Problems" by my guest, Jay-Z. Do we have time for the other 98 problems?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Well, if you can get it in nine minutes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, you know, part of that story is that the canine - the cops' canine corps was supposed be coming after you, but you got - they let you go just before the dogs came?

JAY-Z: Yeah. It was - I guess it was far away on another call, and the cop tried to hold us. He really had no probable cause, no reason to hold us, so he just said man, get out of here. And as we left, about 10 minutes up the ride, we see this car, sirens blaring, screeching down. And we look on the side and we see Canine Unit, and we just all - just a little sigh of relief, like huh, that was close.

GROSS: Because you were holding, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Yeah, if canine would've came - would've smelled it, and we would've been finished. It would've...

GROSS: Yeah.

JAY-Z: No book.

GROSS: Right. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, no lots of things.

JAY-Z: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So, Jay-Z, it's been really great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

JAY-Z: I had a great time. thank you.

GROSS: Jay-Z, recorded last month after the publication of his book "Decoded."

Coming up, James Murphy. His band LCD Soundsystem's latest album is on the 10 best list of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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