Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, has been the president of Def Jam since January 3rd, 2005. "Soon as we came back off of vacation I was here, ten o'clock in the morning," he says with pride. His L-shaped corner office is on the twenty-ninth floor, and he's usually there by ten or eleven, but on this particular Friday he arrives at 12:20 p.m., BlackBerry to his ear as he zips past security and up the escalator, wearing a diamond-heavy Roc-A-Fella chain; a white-and-red European-soccer-inspired polo shirt from his clothing company, Rocawear; baggy Rocawear jeans; and white S. Carters with blood-red tips, all of which make him look about ten years younger than his thirty-five years.
He goes straight into an emergency meeting. A new song from Young Jeezy -- the twenty-five-year-old Atlanta rapper whose debut album, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation, entered the charts in August at Number Two -- has been leaked to radio. Jeezy's A&R man is afraid this will screw up plans for Jeezy's next single. Jeezy has sold more than 1 million records and has become the hottest new rapper of the year, making him Jay's first major success as a record executive. Still, Jay fails to see the leak as an emergency. He's always been panic-averse. His persona, in life and on record, is cool and in control -- the same even, authoritative tone whether the subject is sex, survival, wealth or vengeance. "His thing is, just make it simple," says Be-Hi, Jay's cousin, who grew up with him in the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. "People make obstacles for theyselves when shit ain't really no obstacle. He'll just show you the simpler way to do it."
At the not-so-emergency meeting, Jay explains that the leaked song is a club record, not a radio record, meaning most radio stations won't want to play it. "Manage your heat," he tells Jeezy's A&R man. "Get your Joe Torre on, nigga," which means, become a brilliant manager and navigate the situation, nigga.
Jay-Z has navigated a variety of situations brilliantly for more than twenty years. In the Eighties, when crack was dominating America's inner cities, Shawn Carter was a teenage street entrepreneur selling crack and other drugs. In his twenties, he escaped the street and turned his business skills to the world of hip-hop. When no label would sign him, he co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records in order to release his first album. As hip-hop moved into the Get Big Money era and rappers maximized their earning potential by diversifying into clothes, movies and bottled water, Jay-Z became one of hip-hop's most successful entrepreneurs. "Every black kid in America looks up to Jay as a role model," says Kanye West.
On December 4th, Jay turns thirty-six, and there's no midlife crisis anywhere in sight: He's worth more than $320 million and he is the president of the most important label in the history of hip-hop, Def Jam. Founded in 1984 by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the label has been home to several generations of major rappers: LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy in the Eighties; Jay, Method Man, Redman and DMX in the Nineties; and, more recently, West -- whose first major break came in 2001 as a producer for Jay -- and Young Jeezy. "Def Jam is the number-one hip-hop label in the world," says Antonio "L.A." Reid, chairman of the Island Def Jam Music Group. "Having Jay says that the legacy continues. If you're a sixteen-year-old rapper in Brooklyn or Atlanta or Houston, and you know that Jay-Z carries on the legacy of hip-hop, then Def Jam becomes your preferred destination."
Jay's deal with Universal reportedly pays him between $8 million and $10 million a year. He's also the president and part owner of Roc-A-Fella Records, the proud owner of a small piece of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets ("I was happy to cut that check!" he says) and owner of two multimillion-dollar Manhattan apartments, one of them a 10,000-square-foot loft in Tribeca worth $7.5 million and the other a penthouse at the Time Warner Center near Central Park worth more than $10 million, from which he can see a penthouse owned by his girlfriend, Beyonce. He is also, sometimes, an MC. "My life is crazy," he says, in awe of his own journey. "I'm not jaded. I'm on the board of the Nets. I'm the only black guy and I'm the youngest one there. I'm a fuckin' president-CEO of Def Jam. That shit still sounds crazy to me even to this day. What the fuck does that mean?" Then he gets all philosophical. "And I'm outside of it, too, baby. I'm outside of it, like, goddamn -- that's some crazy shit. And it's not stopping. It's gonna get even crazier."
But as far as he's come, he never forgets who he was, still carries old habits. For example, typical of a multimillionaire, his wallet has no money in it. Today there's just a single, lonely dollar. But in another pocket he's got a two-inch-thick knot of big bills, the sort you'd find in the pocket of a hustler. "I don't feel right without it," he says.
His office has great views across the Hudson River, a big chocolate-brown couch, a huge-screen TV bookended by gigantic speakers and, next to his desk, a large monitor for his e-mails. There are peach roses, white calla lilies and a purple orchid scattered around. On the wall there's a picture of Jay sharing a laugh with Prince Charles at a swanky event in London, and behind his desk a picture of Jay with a smiling Mariah Carey, an Island Def Jam artist. On the table sits a two-foot-tall scale model of architect Frank Gehry's plan for the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, where the Nets will move from New Jersey in 2008, with little trees and shrubs planted around the wooden buildings and acrylic skyscrapers shaped in the forms that Gehry will create. Not long after they first met, Gehry sent Jay a stack of James Joyce novels, because listening to tapes of Joyce reading Finnegans Wake reminded Gehry of hip-hop. Jay says he reads only nonfiction.
In a corner of Jay's office, on the floor, there's a street sign that says MARCY AVE., a remnant from his days in the Marcy projects. And on his desk, in the center, is the Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy he won for "99 Problems," the guitar-heavy 2003 single produced by Rick Rubin from the CD that announced Jay's retirement as a recording artist, The Black Album. The Grammy arrived a few days ago, and he decided to let it sit on his desk for a moment before bringing it home. Six years ago, Jay boycotted the Grammy Awards, saying, "Too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked." Not anymore. "I didn't care about Grammys until we won one," he says. This is his fourth. Beyonce has eight. He says she teases him about having so few.
Most of the day the door to Jay's office stays open and people flow in and out as if his were the cool room in the dorm. They come in and plop down on the couch, maybe toss a football around, maybe talk to him, maybe not. Jay sits behind his desk answering e-mails, looking at radio and album charts, listening to songs fresh from the studio, meeting with lawyers and managers, and talking to his artists. "Ludacris calls me every so often," he says. "'I just wanna pick your brain, man. What do you think is my next step?'"
Jay's management style is part old-school hustle, part New Age motivation. He's given to aphorisms like, "I'm not looking to be anybody's boss. I'm just looking to help the process. If they win, I win." One day, he talked about a Bruce Lee documentary he'd seen. "He was talking about 'be water.' I'm gonna write that up and send it to people: Be water. If you pour water in a cup, it takes the shape of a cup. If you pour it in a teapot, it takes the shape of a teapot. Be fluid. Treat each project differently. The best style is no style. Because styles can be figured out. And when you have no style, they can't figure you out."
In October, Jay won a five-label bidding war and signed the Roots, whose contract with the Interscope subsidiary Geffen was up. "What's scarin' the shit out of me," says Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, "is that his priority with Game Theory [the Roots' next album] is us turning in a critically acclaimed album. When I talk about singles, he says, 'Get that thought out of your head.' He knows, and the one thing that [Interscope CEO] Jimmy [Iovine] didn't know, is that there's no fooling your audience."
As Jay walks around the twenty-ninth floor, he yells out little jokes to his people, getting them to smile and laugh, trying to make everyone comfortable to have him around. "The employees had to get more accustomed to it than him," a friend says. "They're walking into his office saying, 'Oh, my God, that's Jay-Z!' And he's like, 'Hey, I'm just here to work.'"
Jay strolls around the corner to check out West's then-unreleased video for "Gold Digger" on someone's laptop. He's impressed by West's performance, but toward the end there's a shot of an angry woman holding a dagger. That's a problem. MTV won't play a video that prominently features a knife, but no one's had any luck persuading West to edit out the knife; Shakira has a knife in her video for "La Tortura," he argues, so why can't he? But her knife is in a kitchen scene while she's cutting onions. The shot has to be changed and delivered to MTV by 8 a.m. Monday, or they'll miss the chance to get onto MTV's rotation for a whole week. So Jay has to figure out the proper way to get one of his most stubborn and most successful artists to acquiesce. (West later agreed to obscure the knife with sparks of light.) The video-promotions woman, who worked with Jay when he was an artist, laughs at his predicament. "You used to do this to me," she says. "And I used to say, 'I can't wait till you're on the other side.'"
(Excerpted from RS 989, Dec. 15, 2005)