Mr. Roc-A-Fella Center: Records, clothes, movies, vodka, sneakers, endorsements; Beyoncé’s sweetheart
Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z, a.k.a. Jigga, a.k.a. HOVA-as in “Jehova, god of rap”-says his solo effort, The Black Album , will be his last for at least two years. He writes in the current Vibe : “I can honestly say I’m bored with hip-hop …. I truly did this rap game to death. No one can be mad at me for putting it down.”
Most hip-hop insiders don’t even think his silence will last two years. At the age of 34, Mr. Carter has sold over 20 million records; he co-owns his own record label and production rights; his Roc-A-Fella empire also includes a wildly successful clothing line, a movie studio, a liquor venture, a sneaker line and-oh, yeah: He’s dating America’s new sweetheart, Beyoncé Knowles.
“Within hip-hop, Jay-Z is the coolest kid in school,” said Touré, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone . “He’s the guy who young rappers are looking to and saying, ‘Jay-Z has his own clothing line and vodka line and his own label. I gotta do what he did. I can’t get pimped by my record label …. I gotta control my own destiny like he did.’”
Shawn Carter was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 4, 1969. When he was 11, his father deserted the family. At 12, he shot his brother in the shoulder for stealing his ring. As a teenager, Mr. Carter sold drugs in the street to support a fledgling rap career. He became “Jazzy”-later shortened to Jay-Z-for his flashy dressing style. While attending George Westinghouse Vocational and Technical High School, he befriended Christopher (B.I.G.) Wallace and Trevor (Busta Rhymes) Smith. Jay-Z gained fame as a teenage rapper; for several years, he struggled as a featured player.
In 1995, Jay-Z and fellow rapper Damon Dash, along with a business associate, Kareem (Biggs) Burke, shopped a demo to several major record labels, all of whom passed on it. With no takers in sight, the trio set out on their own and founded Roc-A-Fella records, at the time an almost unheard-of move.
“Jay was in mogul territory from day one,” said Mimi Valdés, editor in chief of Vibe . “Most artists coming out aren’t thinking about things like owning their own masters.” Within a year and a half, the label had produced its first gold single, “Dead Presidents.” Roc-A-Fella enlisted major labels to distribute and market albums, but Jay-Z and his partners retained control over their artistic property.
Jay-Z’s popularity peaked in 1998 with Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life , the title track of which contained samples from the musical Annie . It sold five million copies and earned him a Grammy Award for best rap album. On tour, Jay-Z sold out his appearances in 52 cities, earning $18 million. At root of this success: deft lyrical ingenuity and dexterity. “As an M.C.,” said Touré, “he created new rhyme patterns and new ways of flowing.”
Even though he didn’t come up with “bling-bling”-the term that refers to flashy possessions, platinum jewelry and exotic cars-Jay-Z did more than almost any other artist to codify the bling-bling lifestyle into the hip-hop vocabulary. “No one was even talking about platinum jewelry before Jay-Z,” said Ms. Valdés.
Jay-Z boosted the sales of companies like Motorola, Belvedere and Maybach by giving them “shout-outs” in his songs. “Jay-Z says something,” said Kim Osorio, editor in chief of The Source , “and because of who he is, people follow it.”
In July 1999, Jay-Z’s clothing line, Rocawear, launched, eventually racking up over $500 million in retail sales. Roc-A-Fella Films followed in 2001. Last year, Jay-Z launched his own brand of vodka, Armadale. In April 2003, he became the first rapper to launch his own signature shoe line, the $115 “S. Carter.” It was the fastest-seller in Reebok’s history. “Every company in the world is trying to partner with him,” said Ms. Valdés. “But he’s been very savvy and careful.”
Even faced with competitors like the behemoth that is Eminem, Jay-Z won’t soon be knocked from his perch, said Ms. Osorio. “Hip-hop has such a fickle audience that it seems that everybody falls off,” she noted. “But that’s never happened to Jay. Even in his retirement, you can see he’s not going to let it happen.”
His staying power is due in no small part to his confidence that hip-hop has come to depend on his efforts for its continued importance. In “What Else Can I Say” from his latest album, Jay-Z spits out these cocky rhymes:
Never been a nigga this good for this long
… Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times
Times that by my influence on pop culture
I supposed to be No. 1 on everybody’s list
We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.
Follow Blair Golson via RSS.