“When were you introduced to, as a hustler,” Charlie Rose asked Jay-Z last night at the Brooklyn Museum, “crack cocaine?”
Jay-Z rose from the back of his low leather chair onstage, hands cycling: “Growing up at the time we’re talking about, you have to remember we’re talking about, Reaganomics, crack cocaine was everywhere. You smelled it in hallways,” he said. “It wasn’t difficult, it was one conversation. It was one friend who was my age introduced me to someone else.”
The answer had taken some Rosian prodding — “You never used it?” “But it became a business?” “That’s the story you tell in Decoded” — so he continued when he saw the interviewer was about to ask something else.
“It was almost like a job interview, at the time,” Jay-Z said. His lapel-miked voice dropped as he mimicked the deeper, overly conspiratorial voice of a dealer. “He was like, ‘You got to be serious about this, you’re not playing, like. This is serious.’” The audience started to laugh and the rapper himself seemed to enjoy how standard the parody was. His timing was excellent. “You can’t, like, get high on your own supply, you know.”
Before they’d appeared onstage together for the hour-long interview, the two men had stepped outside to take a picture in front of the museum. They were already past the start time as they made their way through the lobby, to the elevator that would take them backstage, but the assembled entourage almost bumped into them with each step because, really, they were sauntering. And why should they rush? They’re Jay-Z and Charlie Rose. Charlie Rose wasn’t going to care if he didn’t appear to know enough about hip-hop culture, and Jay-Z didn’t mind making things plain.
“I was a terrible live performer. My first show I forgot the lyrics,” Jay-Z said onstage. “I would find one spot on the stage and stay there the whole time.”
“Rock bands, they tour. Younger bands they tour up and down, and you have 200 shows before you have an album out, so when they go on stage they’re already prepared because they’ve done the work. A lot of times with rap, the music leads first, so you have a hit record then they put you on the stage at Summer Jam with a mike in front of six thousand people, and you’re just shocked,” he said. “You grab your nuts.”
“At long last,” Mr. Rose said, pointing a finger. “I understand why rap stars are always grabbing their crotch.”
“You feel naked,” Jay-Z said.
They reminisced about the first time Jay-Z met the rapper Notorious B.I.G. They were shooting a video and Biggie Smalls was constantly being called away to work on a track with another group. Jay-Z couldn’t recall the title. “You know that song they did,” he told Mr. Rose, teasingly. Like most things he did, this elicited laughter from the crowd. Mr. Rose’s shoulders rose and fell as he covered his mouth.
“Tell me about December 4th,” Mr. Rose said later.
“It’s my birthday,” Jay-Z said.
“Well yes, it’s your birthday, but it’s a song,” Mr. Rose said. “Tell me about it.”
“It was the Black Album,” Jay-Z said.
“One of your great ones,” Mr. Rose said, matter of fact.
“One of your great ones.”
“Thank you,” Jay-Z said.
Part of the song played over the auditorium speakers. When it came to the sample of Jay-Z’s mother, who was in the audience, he looked out at her and mouthed, “This is the good part.” Mr. Rose, for his part, tapped his foot, bobbed his head and pointed at her.
“Tell me about Two Pack,” Mr. Rose said. This line easily got the biggest laugh of the night.
Jay-Z paused a beat. “Can I explain something to you?” he asked.
After the explanation, the two bumped fists.