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Changing the Game: JAY-Z (Excerpt)

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2007)

Jay-Z / Photograph by ARTHUR ELGORT

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Friday, January 11, 2008

What follows is an excerpt from the Stop Smiling Interview with Jay-Z, which appears in Issue 33: 20 Interviews


CHANGING THE GAME (EXCERPT)

The Stop Smiling Interview with Jay-Z

By Michael A. Gonzales

From cinematic outlaws Vito Corleone (The Godfather) and Priest (Super Fly) to real-life dons like John Gotti and Nicky Barnes, the mythology of gangsters has always been a part of New York City culture. Outside of Chicago — another city that takes their bad boys seriously — New York has historically been the multiracial breeding ground for tough guys. Whether they’re traditional suit-wearing gangsters in Little Italy during the Fifties, leather jacket gang members roaming the Brooklyn streets in the Sixties, gaudy Sugar Hill players in the Seventies or wild-styled crack dealers in the Eighties, New York has always had a soft spot for criminal-minded Horatio Alger characters. Rising out of poverty and obscurity, these men “do what they gotta” to rise to the top of their game.

Hailing from Harlem during the Seventies, I can remember hearing stories about these cool cats. Sometimes I spotted a few of them hanging in front of the Shalimar Bar, dressed to kill in flamboyant suits, stylish hats and expensive shoes. Infamous drug kingpin Frank Lucas — whose rise and fall is chronicled in the new Ridley Scott film starring Denzel Washington, American Gangster — was one of those men.

Shipping heroin to the US inside the caskets of dead soldiers in Vietnam, Lucas controlled the drug trade on 116th Street with his potent brand named Blue Magic. According to the 2000 New York magazine piece The Return of Superfly, which the movie is based on, Lucas made a million dollars a day in the early Seventies. While the loot kept Lucas and his gang of relatives, called the Country Boys, in furs and private jets, it was inevitable that the family would take a fall.

Rapper, businessman and former drug dealer Jay-Z was only six years old when Frank Lucas was arrested in 1975, but he knows first-hand the demons that could lure one into a life of crime. Coming out of the stomping grounds of Marcy Projects in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn — a section so dangerous it is often prefaced with the phrase “do or die” — Jay-Z began his rap career documenting the hustler exploits of drug dealers he had befriended in the Eighties.

Whether pulling from his own boogie-down biography of selling drugs on the block, back when he was still known as Shawn Carter, or channeling the memories of men like Spanish Jose, a Crooklyn crack slinger whose pop owned a number-running bodega, Jay’s 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt was a street-life masterpiece. Opening with a re-enactment of the graphic pool hall shootout from Carlito’s Way, the smooth-voiced rapper pulled back the velveteen curtains and revealed his small piece of the planet to the rest of the world. As the sexy pop swagger of the first single, “Ain’t No Nigga” — a duet with teenage temptress Foxy Brown — became a boom box anthem in the summer of 1996, album tracks like “D’Evils,” “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” “Cashmere Thoughts” and “Brooklyn’s Finest” (which featured his homie the Notorious B.I.G. trading mack daddy rhymes) certified Reasonable Doubt as a tour de force of brutal beauty.

At a time when such things mattered, Reasonable Doubt was awarded a four-mic rating (later changed to a classic five) in the pages of The Source, and has since been ranked 248 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, published in November 2003; his sixth solo album, The Blueprint, was listed at 464. “If Frank Sinatra had been born a Brooklyn rapper, The Blueprint is the album he would have made,” they wrote.

Yet, unlike other so-called gangster rappers who bragged about violence or laced every sentence with pimp linguistics as a celebration of their own machismo, Jay-Z scripted songs that displayed a three-dimensional side of the hood that others pushed into the background of their gritty soundscapes.

Hanging with Jay in the hallway of his old Marcy building in 1997 on assignment from The Source magazine, he confessed, “You know, everything I come across in my life is material. This project, this ghetto is a part of me. But I’m not going to record a song about people getting killed every two minutes. That’s not real. We have cookouts, family picnics and our friends. All of us are just trying to maintain our balance in the anarchy that surrounds us.”

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