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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 5)

As high as he's risen, Jay-Z recognizes how quickly it can all disappear. A single bad decision in the universe of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle can shatter a carefully constructed career. Still, it took him a while to learn the lesson; he's talked in interviews about his guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge after a 1999 stabbing incident in a New York club involving a fellow producer (who refused to press charges)—and how that made him keenly aware how quickly everything he'd worked for could suddenly disappear. (He got three years' probation.)

"I'm not who I was 10 years ago," he says. "The things I did 10 years ago are some of the stupidest things I've done."

In retrospect, he says, he should have followed the example of his boyhood friend and mentor Christopher Wallace. Wallace was Jay-Z's high school classmate in Brooklyn, who reached rap's pinnacle as the Notorious B.I.G. (also known as Biggie Smalls) before being shot to death in 1997, the victim of an East Coast—West Coast rap feud.

"Biggie was so mature," Jay-Z says. "I remember one time going to a club with him. There were a bunch of guys hanging around in front of the club; he didn't like the look of them and so he said, 'I'm not going in.' He was so much more accomplished than me. I thought he was just scared, but he saw the big picture. He knew by looking at those guys that, if he went in, he would be inviting trouble. I thought that was the reason to go in—to show you're not scared. But he went home. I look at it now and think, Wow, he was already at that point. "That's what I try to tell the younger artists I work with: that, aside from business, the decisions you make determine whether you'll be successful. You can go to a club and make a bad decision and ruin your career. So don't make stupid decisions."

These days, Jay-Z hobnobs with people such as former President Bill Clinton and billionaire Bill Gates. Still, it boggles his mind to think where they were 20 years ago (Gates running Microsoft, Clinton governing Arkansas) and where he was: selling crack on a Brooklyn street corner.

"If you asked me 10 years ago where I'd be, I'd have stopped so short I wouldn't even have been close," he says. "I mean, I was just on the road helping get the president elected. I wouldn't have imagined half of this—not even a quarter of it. I knew what I was speaking about was a real subject, but I didn't know the avenues it would open. Really, there's probably less than 1 percent of what I've done that I would have said, 'Yeah . . . '"

He talks about a ritual he has with Jacob Arabo (better known as Jacob the Jeweler, a favorite jewelry designer of rappers and NBA stars), in which they get together the day before Christmas each year to eat pizza—and caviar. "Caviar!" Jay-Z says in amazement. "I didn't even know what caviar was. Fish eggs? That's disgusting; that's repulsive. If someone told me they liked it, I would have thought they were fronting; I would have said they were being bourgie. Now I really enjoy it."

His guilty pleasure in life? Travel.

"I love experiencing new sunsets," Jay-Z says. "I love food and wine and sunsets. You give me a great sunset, a perfect meal, a great bottle of wine—and a cigar to finish it off—and I don't have a care in the world."

Marshall Fine is journalist and film critic whose movie reviews can be found at

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