top of page

Jay-Z: The Life

originally published December 1998 / VIIBE magazine

Let me tell you something about money. And drugs. Myth and lore. Mandatory sentencing. Open caskets with bloated, bejeweled bodies.

About kamikaze capitalists who just happened to be teenagers. Young black boys who may have never understood their position—that of mere pawns—in the larger scheme of this but who quickly expanded their tightly wound worlds. Then set them afire. With the heaviest, most sophisticated weaponry countries like Israel had to import. How aunts and uncles became somnambulant street stalkers and parents police informants.

About the little girl who had always loved the little boys and quickly learned to love the things these boys now had to offer---all that glittered.

I'm not saying this was every black person's experience. Just those who were coming of age, poor, and living in a major city in the '80s. In New York, hustlers like Fat Cat from Queens and Calvin Klein from Brooklyn—they were becoming famous. Cities and small towns in Maryland, the Carolinas, Virginia, and even the nation's capital—especially the nation's capital—became bloody war zones for enterprising, murderous hustlers from New York City looking to "open" them up.

A lot of speculation/ On the monies I've made/ How is he for real/ Is that nigga really paid?/ Hustlers I've met or dealt with direct/ Is it true he stayed in beef and slept with a Tech?

"I was never a worker," say Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter. " And that's not even being arrogant. I was just never a worker." Jay, who made his fortune a decade before the release of his debut, 1996's Reasonable Doubt, isn't exactly forth-coming about his past. You half expect him to pat you down or check the hotel room smoke detector for cameras—and I've known him for a little while. We both knew and loved Big, and became friends because of him. "My situation—" He restarts, tensely, "I went out of town, not far, to Jersey. Me and my man. We was pioneering some shit. I was never around the Calvin Kleins, 'cause to be around them you would have to be under them. You weren't going to be over them. That would have been conflict."

The Life, as those who live it like to call it, sets the tone of all three of Jay-Z albums (Reasonable Doubt, 1997's In My Lifetime Vol. 1, and his new Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life), and the subject matter has opened him up to a fair amount of criticism. Jay's history as a New York baller is further complicated by his current closed, defensive, often unreadable demeanor. Folks who keep this kind of lore running are divided on Jay's '80s' status. He was either a) the nigga next to the nigga, but not That Nigga, and that he's simply telling other people's stories. Or b) Jay's money is still on the streets, with Roc-A-Fella serving as a front for his hustling business partners. Or c) His past is far darker than he tells it, and grudges over bodies and monies are still held.

Then there are my my dawgs, true hip hop heads who absolutely refuse to listen to any of Jay's albums; they hold someone in his camp responsible for their brother's murder. I was getting more money than most of the cats—than all of the cats I was with," Jay says, dealing with rumor one. On the possibility of his money still being dirty, he is utterly dismissive. "Come on now." And about brothers and bodies, well, some things are too real to be asking for some article.

Still, stories are passed. From one housing project to another. Brooklyn to Queens and beyond. The streets say Calvin Klein owned brownstones in Brooklyn with a purported million dollars stashed in each. The streets say that Killer Ben, who, like Capone, relieved ballers of their jewelry quite regularly, moved on to rappers, one of whom had him killed, if you believe the rumors. Let the mythmakers tell it, Fat Cat's war in D.C. became so intense that his solders began shooting at jake on sight. Those stories that are so mammoth or unbelievable morph into myth and in this way ghetto superstars are born; legends are made.

The one name that is a constant in relationship to Jay, from believers and nonbelievers alike, is Danny Dan—also from Bedford-Stuyvesant's Marcy Houses. It is said that when Dan was buried in the late '80s, he was wearing at least $100,000 worth of jewelry. His funeral, which was talked about for five years after, was one huge fashion show. But more than the jewelry or the girls in furs is the remarkable detail that Danny Dan died with a will. "Danny Dan was a cat in the projects, coming up," says Jay. "He was very influential in my life, but from afar. Holmes was doing it. He'd always put something away, not touch it. I was like, I need to be doing that." Danny Dan was five years older than Jay and was known for being the kind of reckless driver who would push German sedans past 100 m.p.h. down New York's crowded streets. "He always said he'd die in a car crash, and he did," say Jay. "Coming back from D.C. on

I-95." Those that talk say Danny's deat left a vacancy, further south, in Virginia and that Jay moved on it, opened it up further, and creamed off.

We've flown to Virginia; Jay and Roc-A-Fella upstarts Memphis Bleek and a trio of dimes called Major Coins are performing at a Labor Day weekend concert at Hampton Convention Center. I've followed him here to interview him about hustling. Jay takes a sip from his rum punch and looks out the hotel room window, over the harbor, in the direction of Newport News and Virginia Beach. "Yeah, this did it for me, for sure." Indeed, VA is like a second home to him.His man, a baller from Richmond, has a small fleet of cars driven down so Jay can get around.

I ask him how a city is opened and am surprised by the answer. "Everything that has ever happened has to do with a girl." Not that shit about blaming women's obsession with Dynasty on your appetite for destruction. "No, no, far more specific. You meet somebody and befriend her. You need her and the most thorough nigga in town. Because girls yap, she'll tell you who that is, who has money. You meet him; you've got something for him—better prices. He'll bring everybody else in line." And resistance?

"A lot of little fires. But in small towns you ain't wildin' out. You go to jail. This is like a Commonwealth; they'll lock you up for cursing. It takes a special nigga to do a small town. Anybody can D.C. You strong-arm D.C. Ya'll can shoot at each other every weekend." D.C. Exactly. Locals there got so fed up with New York frontiersman they began firing at almost anything with a N.Y. license plate. "I know. It was sweet for a minute, New York niggas fucked up. A lot of shit happened 'cause of a bitch." Ho-hum."You gotta believe that. You go into a nigga's town, you shining, and you messing with all their broads. You go into their town; drive whatever you want. Shine, fine.But don't fuck my baby's mother, man. And my man's baby's mother and his man's baby's mother. 'Cause now we sitting at Sizzler like this nigga fucked all our baby's mothers. Now it's a problem."

Have you ever killed anyone?

Nah. And I wouldn't tell you that.

Have you ever had anyone killed?

I wouldn't tell you that either. But no.

Just thought I'd ask.

Oh brother [sips from rum punch]. ‘You just thought you'd ask.’ Let me ask you something, Am I going to jail when this comes out? Should I just map out my little exit from the country now?

The thing is, there are no clouds above Jay. He is hands down the wittiest person I've ever met. He misses nothing and will floor you with quick one-liners. He is, more often than not, laughing. His laugh is odd, like a sneeze, and just as contagious. He drives around Manhattan by himself, blasting Aerosmith. And if for some reason you missed your daily fix of The Simpsons or Seinfeld, you can call Jay and he will act out the episode for you. The whole rapper thing, the obsession with dying and life being one bleak apocalyptic nightmare, just went right by him. His crew: Ty Ty, Wais, Radolfo, and Bleek; his business partners Damon Dash Kareem "Biggs" Burke, and ballers like Percy and Juan are a walking Def Comedy Jam concert. Except they're all really smart.

Earlier in the summer Jay took me to a down-low spot on 97th and Amsterdam where he promised I'd have the best lobster ever. It was a nondescript Puerto Rican joint with an awning that read RESTAURANT. The trip was impromptu—I hit him on his cell; we were both in Harlem and hungry—but his crew were already inside, holding down three cafeteria-style tables. Before the first bottle of wine was gone the table was doubled over in laughter. Juan, who is a star of a storyteller ("Did I ever tell you about the time Michael Jordan kicked me out of the VIP room of my own party?") and according to Jay, a baller who is rumored to be "richer than Bill Cosby," screams on a cat—at another table—for pulling out an oversized cellular. "This nigga's walking around with a fuckin' pay phone. Yo, papi! You need a quarter?"

Since Jay surrounds himself with people he respects, not soldiers or people who run errands for him, he will sit back, play audience, laugh so hard he tears.

Back in VA, on the double-decked tour boat that Timbaland has chartered for Labor Day weekend, Jay's crew holds down a table, throwing back shots of cognac and popping champagne bottles. When the DJ spins "Hard Knock Life," all at the table bang the beat out on the white linen and roar the chorus (which samples "Hard-Knock Life" from the Broadway musical Annie) at the top of their lungs. When the first few bars of his and Jermaine Dupri's summer smash "Money Ain't a Thing" begin to rock the boat, Jay and his man from Richmond start throwing Benjamins in the air. Girls, Virginia natives, and college students reach above them, picking money from the sky before it twirls to the floor.

As fucked up as the crack game is, as smoked out as your uncle was, as many dawgs as you've buried, all you really want to do is sit around screaming songs together, throwing shots back, and money towards the ceiling. So, like the benefactors of bloody capitalism since time immemorial, The Life blocks out the death, making the party possible.

"It starts off as one thing," say Jay. "Then it becomes another. In the beginning it's, ‘I gotta take care of my family’, but you can't keep saying that, because in your first month, you've changed their whole situation around. Once you start living The Life it’s just no stopping... It's like making the money, the sound of the money machines clicking—for some people the sensation of the coke under their nails, like dirt for construction workers—the constant hustle, everything from the living to the actual work. It's completely addictive."

He'd tried rap before, in1988. With Jaz, an MC from Brooklyn regrettably remembered for "Hawaiian Sophie." But the money was, like, insulting. "Jaz got a shitload of money from Geffen, like three hundred thousand dollars [for his record deal]. But he only saw, like, fifty thousand. That turned me off. I was like, Fuck that."

So Jay resumed his hustle. And that was work. He was shot at three times, once from less that 10 feet away, by a childhood friend. "That's why he got so close," Jay says. "I didn't see it coming. It was over some stupid shit, one of his houses in Trenton. We saw each other a couple weeks later at the parole office, no guns allowed. We laughed about it. "Jay was arrested and detained for about a week in Jersey. "Way back," he says. "One some juvenile shit." He saw money; put a lot of it away, like Danny Dan before him. Lost friends and worker. And felt it, from a business standpoint at least. "You can always make more money. Once people are gone or locked up, there's no bringing them back or finding lost time. Some cats just think about the money, but it's really about people and relationships." Then, without much ceremony, around '92, he says he just left it alone.

"Being broke at thirty/ Give a nigga the chills..." Jay is reciting the lyric from Biggie's "Real Niggas Do Real Things." It rang true for him the first time he heard Big say it. "That one line right there. That shit just made me shiver. That was my constant struggle. No matter how I was doing, I'd be like, Yeah, I'm all right now, but what am I gonna do when I'm, like, thirty, forty. I can't keep up with this pace." So Jay began shopping himself as a solo artist.

"All of a sudden I was trying to get a deal; essentially become a worker," says Jay. "I guess I thought the sacrifice, the cut in money, was worth it for the peace of mind." Fortunately, his partner Damon Dash—who was trying to break into the music industry as manager of a group called the Future Sound—had that enterprising down-South approach to the record business, convincing Jay—after having endured a string of rejections—that they should take things into their own hands. Hence Roc-A-Fella Records, named after the billionaire architect of New York's ultratough drug policy. Reasonable Doubt was an instant classic in New York, yielding him a gold single— the smash "Ain't no Nigga" with Foxy Brown. His conversational tone, impeccable timing, and sharp observations made him a lyricist lover's favorite. With songs like "Can I Live" and "Dead Presidents," Jay was telling the story of the consummate baller—his own.

Jay and Big, Brooklyn natives with common connects, became friends, appearing on each other's albums. Jay added his vocals to Puff's No Way Out's "Young G's" after Big was gunned down in L.A. He attended the funeral by himself. Stood the entire time and left quickly, speaking to no one. "Going to Big's funeral was a big deal for me. I don't go to funerals, period. I don't want that to be my last memory of them." After the funeral he retreated to an island in the Caribbean, and was basically unreachable for a week or two. Then he came home and knocked out his second album, In My Lifetime Vol. 1, an eloquent but uneven reflection on hustling, breaking a promise he made to his fans on Reasonable Doubt—that that album would be his only. Despite Roc-A-Fella's new joint venture with Def Jam, his sophomore LP—although gold—didn't live up to his commercial expectations. I ask him if he considers the album a failure. "I could never fail... I think eighty-five percent of it is solid. And that eighty-five percent was better than everybody's else's album at the time."

Less than a year after his rushed sophomore effort, his third, most perfect album, Vol.2 Hard Knock Life, is complete. And his setup couldn't have been better: The anthemic "Money Ain't a Thang," "It's Alright (featuring Memphis Bleek)," and "Can I Get A...(featuring Amil [Major Coins] and Ja Rule)" are all enjoying heavy radio rotation. "This whole thing, me reaching the zenith of my fame on my third album, it seems backwards to other people, but this is how it's always been," say Jay. "People are looking for the sensational, and I'm just not that nigga." When we attend a Norfolk State football game Labor Day weekend, Jay-Z is literally mobbed and has to be rushed out on some real star shit. And while I'm pissed about losing a shoe in the commotion, he admits to enjoying it. "That's love. Who doesn't want to be loved? I understand women," he muses." I know they're smarter than men, that's why I can write for them... plus, I think it's my lips or something... maybe they think I'm gonna eat their coochie. In '99 that'll be my thing, I'll just hit broads off." A plan. "But mostly, I think they're attracted to The Life. If they don't want to be a part of it, they're at least curious."

For Jay and Roc-A-Fella, the baller lifestyle has become his selling point—the CD, the coke, The Life—all a marketing plan. Instead of enticing would-be ballers into working for him, he has become an iconographic symbol for our generation's hyper-materialism. Articulating The Life, be it the possibility of mutiny by workers ("Coming of Age [Da Sequel] featuring Memphis Bleek") or the opening up of a city by using a girl ("Paper Chase" featuring Foxy Brown), Jay is untouchable. He didn't invent these codes. Real-life ballers did that.

I don't know, maybe he did too. Him and all his friends, improvising their way into expansion, past federal laws, and in between bullets. Since he "was never a worker," it is reasonable to assume he had some. I wonder aloud if moneymakers like himself consider the lives for which they've been directly responsible. I ask him to consider the little boys who just wanted to be him. The ones who are serving 80 percent or paid for The Life with their own. I want to know if he is haunted, if he feels regret. "Sometimes I sit on the edge of my bed for like an hour. I'll be in a zone, and I'll just think about... just everything. But then I shake it off, you know?" Well, no, I don't.

"I live with it. With this whole thing, you don't recruit, people come to you, wanting to work, begging you to be put on. We all know what the consequences are—jail or death." But there are mothers to face, I damn near plead, sons and daughters and baby mothers'. He is neither dismissive nor characteristically quick with his reply.

"We all gotta live with it."


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page