As my writing career developed, I reviewed Jay-Z’s albums and concerts in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. I had moved to Los Angeles in 1998 to be the features editor of Rap Pages magazine, but for a variety of reasons, I’d never had the opportunity to interview Jay-Z.
That changed on January 7, 2000, when we met up at the Def Jam office in West Hollywood, California. At this point, Jay-Z was coming off of four successful albums, including 1998’s Vol. 2… The Hard Knock Life, which sold more than 4.5 million copies. His headlining tour of the same name was the first rap tour that had played in arenas in about a decade and his Rocawear was one of the hottest clothing brands in the hip-hop community. In short, Jay-Z was now a massive star.
But a few weeks prior to my interview, Jay-Z was arrested for allegedly stabbing record company executive Lance “Un” Rivera December 2, 1999, at a listening party for Q-Tip’s Amplified album in New York.
Given this, I figured Jay-Z would be a bit stand-offish. Nonetheless, but I was looking forward to interviewing him. When his publicist introduced us and was leaving the room, he asked to have the door locked. He was relaxed and good-natured during our conversation, which is published here for the first time in its entirety.
Soren Baker: You traveled a lot overseas and domestically with The Jaz and you’ve said that you learned a lot because you noticed that business wasn’t being handled properly when you were in London with him. What did you pick up or gain from the mistakes that he’s made?
Jay-Z: That was a very instrumental trip for me right there. I learned a lot of things about the business. On the trip, it was all good. He produced his whole first album, Word To The Jaz. But they sent him out there to work with Bryan “Chuck” New, who had just produced Will Smith’s album with “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” [1998’s He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper]. Right there, that was my first lesson. Never compromise your music no matter what. I don’t care what no one else sold. That’s their formula. It might work for them. It might not work for you. All they did was tweak, turn a couple of knobs and put their name on it. The second thing was we were out there and we’ve got Mercedes Benz limousines everyday. We’re on the phone from London, young kids. We’re talking to everybody in the world. We’re thinking that they’re doing it for us. [We’re on the phone telling everyone,] “We’ve got this big apartment. Everything is all love out here.” I learned the word recoup. We were out there spending, which was his money. They didn’t even give him a choice, like, “This is your money you’re spending.” It was like, “We’re doing this for you.” They made it seem like they’re doing something for him when in actuality they weren’t doing a thing for him except spending his money, his advance money. Those were things I learned about the business. Those are the most important lessons in the music business to me: not compromising your music for anything or for any type of sales and recouping. You must learn that word. Guys out here are shooting $8 million videos. Videos are recoupable, oftentimes, 50 percent up to a certain number. It’s a real quick number, [often $100,000]. After that, you recoup that $100,000 at 50 percent. Everything else is 100 percent you. Those two are very, very important.
Baker’s complete book about Jay-Z can be found at Amazon.com.