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The Music Mogul

Jay-Z has bult an empire on the back of his hip-hop stardom with a cigar in his hand.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Jay-Z, May/June 2009

(continued from page 3)

"The thing that made me stop doing it was that I had a talent," he says. "And I had people saying to me, 'You have a true talent.' I believe in karma, that everything happens for a reason—call me crazy, but that's what I believe. So knowing that I had talent—and doing what I had been doing to get by—I knew that I had to give the music 100 percent of my time. I had to leave the streets alone and give it my all. But if I'm honest, I'll tell you that if the music thing hadn't worked, I would have gone back."

He and his then-partners, Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, recorded his first album themselves and pitched it to the leading record labels. When none of them would take a chance on an untried rapper, the three men launched their own label, Roc-A-Fella, and put Jay-Z's first album out themselves, relentlessly touring East Coast clubs to promote the album. Reasonable Doubt was successful enough that Def Jam offered Roc-A-Fella a distribution deal. With his third album, Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life, a bit of autobiography built on a hook sampled from the Broadway musical Annie.

After feeling his way into the business world as CEO of his own burgeoning label, Jay-Z has grown into an urban businessman and entrepreneur legitimate enough to help stump for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. He spent time with the candidate on the campaign trail and was invited to Obama's presidential inauguration, where wife Beyoncé performed. There's awe in Jay-Z's voice when he talks about being in Washington, D.C., for the historic event. "There was this euphoric feeling in Washington," he says with a smile. "There was such a great mood. I'd run across people who'd been there when Martin Luther King [Jr.] had his march—people who never thought they'd see the day America would elect an African-American president. Speaking to Obama on the three or four occasions that I did was surreal. Where I come from, you never think you'll end up having a normal conversation with the president of the free world. It gave me this huge sense of accomplishment. I've won a couple of Grammys and that felt great—but this was something way beyond that."

Despite his own political activism—for Obama and on behalf of the issue of clean water—Jay-Z has no political ambitions of his own. "I'm not a politician," he says. "I've been through too much dirt—and I tell the truth. It would never work for me.

"But I don't think you should have to have a spotless record to run for office. We want people who are honest, who will stand up. Life is complicated. You do things when you're young that you wouldn't do now. Everyone has written with a crayon on their mother's wall. That doesn't mean you'd do it now. What we don't want are crooks. You look at all these people who graduated from Princeton and Harvard, who are supposed to be pillars of the community—every day in the newspaper arrested for some kind of financial fraud. Then you look at someone like Michael Phelps. He's 23. What's he gonna do? He's a kid. He's going to experiment."

Obama's election, Jay-Z says, offers minority youth a positive role model, something he didn't have growing up in his neighborhood. Instead, he looked up to the drug dealers who became the "gangsta" heroes—tragic or otherwise—of the rappers and rap fans in the 1980s and '90s. "When I was growing up, there weren't role models like doctors and lawyers in our community, nobody on TV who looked like us," he says.

"People need to understand: nobody makes a decision to risk their life, to stand in front of their mother's house and bring danger to her doorstep by selling drugs. That's a decision you believe you have to make, because there aren't other choices. That starts with people with no education, with low self-esteem. Those are people who think, well, what am I really risking? This is my life and I don't love it. If this is my life, well, it's worth risking it—because if I make it, then I can have a better life. I can buy my mama a house and myself a great car.

"Obama represents so much hope for blacks and Latinos. The hope he represents is bigger than any of the huge problems he could possibly correct. When you have positive role models, you can change your life for the better. The day Obama got elected, the gangsta became less relevant."

Jay-Z maintains a sense of detachment from his own drug-dealing past. It provided the street cred he needed to launch his rap career. Yet he recognizes now that the crack epidemic of the 1980s and '90s decimated his neighborhood and community—and that he contributed to that. He doesn't excuse it. But he doesn't apologize for it either.

"At the time, I couldn't see that," he says. "I think that's why I was able to get out—because my heart was pure. Once you have the knowledge of the effect it's having—and then you still do it—then you'll be punished. I believe in that karma. If you have the knowledge and you still continue, then there's something wrong with you.


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