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Jay-Z
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Rockin' On A Roc-A-Fella

01/05/1999 3:00 AM, Yahoo! Music
Asondra Hunter


Jay-Z 
Rockin' On A Roc-A-Fella 
Exclusive myLAUNCH Feature By Asondra R. Hunter
"I didn't want to sell drugs. I wanted a better life. I didn't know where
 performing would take me exactly, but I knew it would take me far away from
 where I'd come from...Not saying that I wanted to leave my peoples, but ain't
 nothing fun about living in poverty."
There are certain mixtures one can count on; for instance, mix two parts water and one part dirt and you get mud. But other combinations involve a little more than mother nature recipes and simple mathematics. Take former drug-dealer-turned-platinum-selling-rapper Jay-Z, for example. Take a boy from the ghetto, put him in front of a mic and give him some phat beats, and we have ourselves a superstar in the making.

By now you know the condensed version of Jay-Z's story: Without assistance from mommy or daddy or a wealthy investor interested in the plight of rap music, a bony little kid from the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn trounced destitution and turned next to nothing into an empire. Two years ago, Jay-Z made headlines with the catchy single "Ain't No Nigga" and stayed in the limelight's glow by following up with Reasonable Doubt, a commendable album that went gold in just 12 weeks. Around the same time, he started his own record label Roc-A-Fella Records with best friend Damon Dash, and signed Christion, the Rangers, Sauce Money, Ruffness and Michelle Mitchell. (Both of the female acts were later dropped because, as Jay puts it, "They were difficult to work with and had no loyalty.")

Now, a story about a boy from the hood making good may not sound miraculous to you; it may even sound attainable. But factor in a couple of more elements and Jay-Z's life will, beyond a "reasonable doubt," start to sound like a real rags-to-riches fairytale. The rapper doesn't have an Ivy League college education, never took any finance classes, never had any suitable role models, and spent most of his adult life selling drugs and narrowly escaping arrest. Consider the odds of a black cat with his background becoming a hip-hop icon and we have ourselves a story, folks!

Tall, bald and attractive in a ghettocentric sort of way, this rapper used to answer to the name of Shawn Carter, and then Jazzy, before he became known as the wily word warrior Jay-Z. Jay didn't seek a career in the entertainment industry--at least not until the glitz and the glamour of peddling dope (the revered profession amongst the young, dumb and full of cum) started to play itself out. "I didn't want to sell drugs. I wanted a better life," he recalls. "I wanted to perform and I didn't know where performing would take me exactly, but I knew it would take me far away from where I'd come from...Not saying that I wanted to leave my peoples, but ain't nothing fun about living in poverty."

Grunting at the prospect of privation for a second, Jay clears his throat as if there's lint ball lodged in one of his tonsils and continues. "I never waited for anybody to give me anything. If I wanted something I knew that I was gonna have to be the one to go out and get it, because wasn't nothing just coming to the nigga like me. Opportunities didn't come my way. I had to chase them. I finally caught one."

When Jay was recently spotted at a De La Soul/ Busta Rhymes concert, dressed in jeans, street shoes and a nondescript jacket, he might have melted into the crowd if it weren't for the huge diamond nugget on his finger and the entourage of zealous brothas jocking his cock. What's most interesting about the current state of ghetto fabulousness is that a person will wear a $700 shirt with a pair of $27 jeans and that shit will come off fly. On how he achieve d his own flyness, the MC harks back to his teens. "When you're a kid, you want to wear the clothes all the other kids are wearing. Then you get a little money, you want to show off. So you buy a nice piece of jewelry. I guess needing to show off never fades, because you aren't used to having shit. I guess the style I have now has a lot to do with what's going on out there in the streets. I'll always be in style, casual and neat." Quite a humble declaration for a guy who now has television sets built into the front seat headrests of his Lex'.

Still, this is no overnight success story. Although Jay's first taste of the music biz was back in 1988, things didn't exactly take off right then. "I did a verse on this song 'Hawaiian Sophie' and that's how I got my start. A friend of mine named Jazz introduces me to the entertainment business, and looking back, I was pretty much grateful for the opportunity to be put on. Too bad, things didn't pick up like they should have after that, so I kept hustlin'. But, in every interview I gotta thank Jazz for looking out, because when I didn't know where I might have ended up, and that's when I knew I wanted more of this business in some form or another."

Though he wanted more of the business, it didn't seem to want more of him--not just yet, anyway. Several years passed before he was ready to expend the type of sweat and sacrifice that goes along with acquiring anything worth having. In 1993, he and Dash peddled the single "In My Lifetime" from the trunk of his car like fake Rolex salesmen, until Payday Records caught the vapors from the hype this underground hit had caused. "They [Payday] eventually signed me to a deal, but were acting shady the whole time, like they didn't know how to work a record or something," says Jay. "The things that they were setting up for me I could have done myself. They had me traveling places to do instores, and my product wasn't even available in the store. We shot one video, but when the time came for me to do the video for the second single, I had to be cut out. They gave me the money and I started my own company. There was a little arguing back and forth, but our conflict finally got resolved. The bottom line was they wasn't doing their job, so I had to get out of there."

After his second great escape--first from the ghetto, then from Payday Records--Jay rented a small office space in a low-rent part of downtown New York City. Adjacent to the financial district, this section is one of the dreariest parts of the busiest city in the world. Storefronts housing $10 clothing stores, watch repair shops and hot dog huts line the narrow, dark, seemingly haunted streets. John Street, where Roc-A-Fella temporarily flourished until the big move uptown, eerily resembles the shadowy alley where Patrick Swayze's character was killed in Ghost.

"I don't mind being down here in this area, because this is just a starting point for us." Jay asserted in a prior interview when asked why the hell would anyone set up shop in this gloomy, God-forsaken part of town. "I like being away from everybody right now, because I can get all my stuff together, then I can move uptown with all those other niggas when everything's straight. No sense in spending a whole lot of money on office space and moving employees round if your product isn't bringing in any money yet--that's a mistake executives make. I used my money to get this label off the ground and that was the right decision, yaknowhatI'msayin."

For the record, none of Jay's start-up cash came from the drug trade or Roc-A-Fella's distributor, Priority Records. "We didn't need dirty money to start Roc-A-Fella, because we had Payday's money and just so you know, I didn't want to ask Priority for shit. They would have kicked in some money [for overhead expenses], but I wanted to do this on my own so the profit was mine, free and clear. At a certain point, if you ain't livin' right you want to do things legally. You want to leave your past behind and start looking for the future."

Audio Icon "I Know What Girls Like"
Audio Icon "Imaginary Prayer"
Audio Icon "Streets Is Watchin"
Looking towards the future was an unfathomable concept for a kid who once took only two things for granted: hopelessness and death. If the future was to become a tangible reality, a drastic change had to occur. Whether he liked it or not, Jay had to develop a value structure, gear up for mental maturation, and stay out of trouble's reach. And then, if he was really serious about this doing a complete turnaround, he'd have to find a purpose in life, set goals, and bid goodbye to the miscreants he called friends. Oh, yeah, and he'd have to stop selling drugs--for good.

Which brings us to the current day, as Jay-Z's story continues with his latest offering, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 , a commercial jewel recorded in a little over six months that includes a contribution (on the cut "Sunshine") by Grammy Award-winning producer Babyface. During a recent interview, Babyface discussed his feelings on blending rap and R&B, a mixture at times comparable to mixing cyanide with Sweet-N-Low. "I think anything you do with music is terribly creative if you don't practice using a certain formula. Jay-Z is a nice guy and we probably won't hang out or anything like that, but I like what he does musically and he respects me, so we went into the studio and knocked a song out. It was a little hard hooking up at first, because of our schedules, but when we finally did get together, the results were cool."





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