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Jay-Z: The Fresh Air Interview

Jay-Z is one of the most successful hip-hop artists of all time. On Fresh Air, he discusses growing up in Brooklyn surrounded by drugs and violence, and the stories behind many of his famous songs.

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The Fresh Air Interview: Jay-Z 'Decoded'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. My guest Jay-Z has been incredibly
successful as a rapper and an entrepreneur, which is pretty amazing since he
could easily have been in prison or dead. He was born in 1969 and grew up in a
housing project, watched crack destroy his neighborhood. But he sold it on the
street before he found his new life in the recording studio and on stage.

In his new book, "Decoded" Jay-Z offers his story as an example of the story of
his generation, explaining the tough choices they faced at a violent and
chaotic time. "Decoded" also tells the stories behind 36 of Jay-Z's songs. He
holds the record for the most number one albums by a solo artist on the
Billboard 200. His recording with Alicia Keys, "Empire State of Mind" from his
2009 album, "Blueprint 3" has become something of a New York anthem.

Jay-Z co-founded the label Rockefeller Records as well as the clothing company,
Rocawear. He's the president of Def Jam Records. He's a part owner of the New
Jersey's NBA team, the Nets; and co-owns the sports bar, 40/40 Club. Let's
start with one of his signature songs, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)", produced by Kanye
West from Jay-Z's 2001 album, "The Blueprint".

(Soundbite of song, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)")

JAY-Z (Singer): (Singing) Ladies and gentlemen, put our hands together for the
astonishing...

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the 8th wonder of the world, The flow o' the
century... Oh it's timeless... HOVE!

Thanks for comin' out tonight. You coulda been anywhere in the world, but
you're here with me - I appreciate that... Uuunnnh...

H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. Fo' shizzle my nizzle used to dribble down in
VA. Was herbin' em in the home of the Terrapins. Got it dirt cheap for them.
Plus if they was short wit' cheese I would work wit' them. Boy and we - got rid
of that dirt for them. Wasn't born hustlers I was burpin' em. H to the izz-O, V
to the izz-A. Fo' sheezy my neezy keep my arms so breezy. Can't leave rap alone
the game needs me. Haters want me clapped and chromed it ain't easy. Cops wanna
knock me, D.A. wanna box me in. But somehow, I beat them charges like Rocky.

H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. Not guilty, he who does not feel me is not real
to me. Therefore he doesn't exist. So poof...vamoose son of a bitch.

H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. Fo' shizzle my nizzle used to dribble down in
VA. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. That's the anthem get'cha damn hands up. H
to the izz-O, V to the izz-A.

GROSS: Jay-Z welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you on our show.

JAY-Z: Thank you.

GROSS: So let me just start with the track that we heard, which samples the
Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Tell me what that song meant to you before you
used it in "Izzo"?

JAY-Z: Well I had a - I grew up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn and my mom
and pop had an extensive record collection, so Michael Jackson and Stevie
Wonder and all those sounds and souls and Motown etc., etc. filled the house.
So I was very familiar with the song when Kanye bought me the sample. It was
such an interesting and fresh take on it that I immediately was drawn to it.

GROSS: Now would you mind if I asked you about Izzo which I think is one of
your nicknames?

JAY-Z: Ah, yeah, yeah it's like an abbreviation, H to the Izzo, like for HOVA
is a spelling and it was like this I guess it's a form of pig Latin is the
language that we used like a slang. H to the Izzo, V to the Izze is basically
spelling Hova.

GROSS: Which is short for?

JAY-Z: J. Hova which is a nickname that you know they gave me because it's like
one time I was recording in the studio and I wasn't writing and one of my
friends like, man, this is like how you doing that man? God must really love
you. It's like a religious experience man and then he was like J-hova. And then
you know it started out as a joke and then it just stuck.

GROSS: Okay.

JAY-Z: As most nicknames do right?

GROSS: Right, now in talking about sampling, I'm reminded of something you say
in the book that I thought was really interesting. You know you talk about your
parents having a big record collection. Your father left when you were very
young - I think when you were nine. And you say that most of your friends'
fathers had left. You say our fathers were gone, usually because they just
bounced. But we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.
That's really interesting that one of your things that your father leaves
behind that you can use is his records.

JAY-Z: Yeah, I guess there's a bright side to everything right?

GROSS: Yeah, well, that's one way of looking at it. So what were your first
rhymes like? Like you got your first boom box when you were nine, your mother
gave it to you. You say, because she thought it would help keep you out of
trouble?

JAY-Z: Yeah so if I was focusing on music you know I wouldn't be you know
running the streets all wild. So she tried to encourage me to pursue my dreams
in music early on. And my first rhymes were pretty much, you know, very old
school, and, you know, academic but they were kind of advanced for a young kid.
Like I put a piece of one of them and it was like, I'm the king of hip-hop/
Renewed like the Reebok/The key in the lock/With words so provocative/As long
as I live.

And I look back on that rhyme now and I'm like man that's pretty prophetic.

GROSS: So you were about nine when you wrote that?

JAY-Z: Yeah, well, yeah between nine and eleven. Those were my first rhymes.

GROSS: Okay so provocative is a pretty big word for a kid of that age. You
write how you started reading the dictionary like looking for cool words to
use. Did you find that word in the dictionary or did you already know it?

JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah I found that in the dictionary. I had a sixth
grade teacher, Miss Louden that was very pivotal to my hunger of wanting to
know the English language and you know discover these words, and, you know, it
was a tool and the music that - and the poetry that I chose to pursue.

GROSS: Would you describe the Marcy Projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant where you
grew up in Brooklyn?

JAY-Z: Yeah, you have a these three columns of buildings with four people on
each floor, six floors, you know so you had people to the left of you, right of
you, on top and on the bottom of you - so very intense and stressful situation.
Everyone is going through different things, and in between all that stress and
angst and you know having to deal with one another in such close proximity,
there's so much love. And there was playing in the Johnny pump and there was
the ice cream man who was coming around. And there were all these games that we
played. And then it would turn suddenly just violent and there would be
shootings at 12:00 in the afternoon on any given day.

So it was just a weird mix of emotions. I mean, one day your best friend could
be killed, the day before you could be celebrating him getting a brand new
bike. It was just extreme highs and lows.

GROSS: How hold were you when crack came to the neighborhood?

JAY-Z: It was about 85, so I had to be, never earlier than that, so maybe about
12 or 13 years old.

GROSS: And how did that change the projects?

JAY-Z: Well I think what it changed most was, you know, they have a saying, it
takes a village to raise a child. It changed the authority figure. Because, you
know, with crack cocaine it was done so openly and the people who were addicted
to it, the fiends had very little self respect for their self. It was so highly
addictive that they didn't care how they obtained it and they carried that out
in front of children who were dealing at the time. So that relationship of that
respect of, you know, I have to respect my elders and you know Uncle Tyrone's
coming. He wasn't really your uncle but he was the uncle for the neighborhood.
And you know that dynamic shift and it had broke, forever, and it just changed
everything from that point on.

GROSS: And it just changed everything for you because you - and you write about
this in the book and you know you've rapped about it too. You ended up being a
hustler. You ended up selling crack and helping your mother, as a single
mother, support the family. Did she know that's how you were making the money?

JAY-Z: I'm sure she suspected, you know, as much, because it was so prevalent.
What happened was, it was either you were using it or selling it, and that was
pretty much the two options. I know that it was - and that's a very blanket
statement. I know it was a very small percentage that you know had nothing to
do with drugs maybe in their household but you know the brother or sister,
somebody, the uncle, the aunt it was just so prevalent. You know, you could
smell it in the hallways. You could see crack vials in the elevator, on the
curb you know where the water flows, crack vials floating up and down like a
river or something. It was just everywhere.

GROSS: So you'd see how it really damaged people, crack and then when you
started selling it, did you ever think I'm contributing to that damage?

JAY-Z: Well not until later on, you know at 14, 15 years old you're thinking
about - to be honest with you, you're thinking about sneakers or you're
thinking about some sort of relief from all the pain you feeling. You're
thinking about buying some food for the house. You're thinking about paying the
extra light bill. So at that young age, you're not thinking about the
destruction that you're causing your own community.

GROSS: Well let me pause, here, to re-introduce you. My guest is Jay-Z and he
has a new book. It's called, "Decoded" and it is part memoir and part a
collection of his lyrics with the stories behind them. And I want to play
another track here. And I want to play "December 4th" because it's, it's so
autobiographical and about the period of your life that we're talking about,
and also because your mother is featured on it.

JAY-Z: Yeah I tricked her.

GROSS: I hear her voice, yeah. You say you tricked her?

JAY-Z: Yeah it was her birthday. It was actually her birthday, December 4th is
my birthday, which is the title of the song, and it was her birthday -
September 17th and I told her to meet me down at the studio that we were going
to go to lunch and - for her birthday. And she came down to the studio and I
just cracked up, I just want you to talk on it - because I know if I told her,
she'd get really nervous. So I just, I brought her down to the studio and I
just brought the track up and was like I need you to talk on this. And she was
like, what do you want me to say? And you know the rest is history.

GROSS: What did you tell her when she said what do you want me to say?

JAY-Z: I was just oh just tell those stories that you told about me about
riding the bike when I was four and you know those sort of things. And she went
in there and was - you know, we couldn't get off the mike after the minute. She
just kept talking.

GROSS: Okay, so here's Jay-Z's "December 4th" from the "Black Album" and also
featuring his mother.

(Soundbite from song "December 4th")

Ms. GLORIA CARTER: Sean Carter was born December 4th, weighing in at 10 pounds
eight ounces. He was the last of my four children. The only one who didn't give
me any pain when I gave birth to him, and that's how I knew that he was a
special child.

JAY-Z: They say they never really miss you til you dead or you gone. So on that
note I'm leaving after the song. So you ain't gotta feel no way about Jay so
long. At least let me tell you why I'm this way, Hold on. I was conceived by
Gloria Carter and Adaness Revees. Who made love under the Siccamore tree. Which
makes me a more sicker emcee than my momma would claim, at 10 pounds when I was
born I didn't give her no pain. Although through the years I gave her her fair
share, I gave her her first real scare. I made up for birth when I got here.
She knows my purpose wasn't purpose, I ain't perfect, I care. But I feel
worthless cause my shirts wasn't matchin my gear. Now I'm just scratchin the
surface cause what's burried under there was a kid torn apart once his pop
disappeared. I went to school got good grades, could behave when I wanted, but
I had demons deep inside that would raise when confronted. Hold on.

Ms. CARTER: Shawn was a very shy child growing up...

GROSS: That's Jay-Z's "December 4th" and my guest is Jay-Z. He has a new book
called, "Decoded." So that track we just heard was from the "Black Album". So
I've got to ask you how you feel about the "Grey Album" which is the mash up
that Danger Mouse did of your "Black Album" and the Beatles' "White Album"
without any copyright permission. So, how do you feel about it, musically, and
how do you feel about the fact that he did it?

JAY-Z: I think it was a really strong album. I mean, I champion any form of
creativity and that was a genius idea to do it. And it sparked so many others
like it. There are other ones that, you know, it's really good. There are other
ones that because of the blueprint that was set by him that I think are a
little better, but you know, him being the first and having an idea. I thought
it was genius.

GROSS: Did you feel ripped off by the fact that he used your music on it
without paying for it or did you think it doesn't matter it's really good art.

JAY-Z: No I was actually honored that you know that someone took the time to
mash those records up with Beatles records. I was honored to be on you know,
quote, unquote, the same song with the Beatles.

GROSS: My guest is Jay-Z. He has a new book called, "Decoded". We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is rap star and entrepreneur Jay-Z. He has a new book called,
"Decoded". Let's talk about the period of your life when you were selling
crack. How did you start doing that?

JAY-Z: Ah, well yes, it wasn't very difficult. It was like.

GROSS: No job interview?

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Resume...

JAY-Z: Yeah, I knew a friend who knew a friend and you know he made an
introduction and we had a conversation almost like a job interview and it was
almost these rules of how to do it and how not to get high on your own supply.
And how to be a man of principle and of your word and dealing with people and
it was like this advice as if it was a Fortune 500 job. You know except it was
crack cocaine.

GROSS: And did you take that "Scarface" advice of do not get high on your own
supply?

JAY-Z: Yeah that, strangely enough that movie about you know all this violence
and gore was like one of the biggest things to impact our generation you know,
not everyone listened. You know it's a very difficult thing to do.

GROSS: So did you listen to that?

JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah I did, yes.

GROSS: So, you write about some of the generational differences at this time
when a lot of the teenagers were selling crack and a lot of the adults were
addicted and you say one of the differences, generational differences was the
way you dressed, baggy jeans and puffy coats to stash the crack and the weapons
and construction boots to survive cold winter nights working in the streets.
Now I have to say I've never thought of those baggy pants and puffy coats as
ways to stash drugs and weapons.

JAY-Z: Yeah, it's like, that's what the book is pretty much about. It breaks
down some of the things that you know the origins of things and how they
arrived especially you know with the songs of course but also with our
generation. Those things now it seemed like merely fashion you know were
purposeful at one time or another.

GROSS: I have to say some of those baggy jeans are so loose around the waist
like they fall down to the middle of your behind and I think if you had a
weapon in there they'd definitely drop to the floor because the weapon would
like drag them right down.

JAY-Z: Oh, you know if you had a big enough weapon and...

GROSS: Whatever... So, you described in the book how when you first started
writing rhymes you had a notebook, but when you were hustling on the street you
were carrying your notebook with you and if a rhyme came to you that you wanted
to remember what would you do? You'd go to the store, tell the story how you'd
go to the store to...

JAY-Z: Yeah, what happened was I wrote so much in this book, I would sit at my
table for hours and hours till my mother made me go to bed. And it was like
this, this obsession with words and with writing. And as I got further away
from that notebook, now as I was on the street and these ideas would come I
would run into the corner store, the bodega and grab like a paper bag or just
buy a juice, anything just to get a paper bag and then I'd write the words on
the paper bag and stuff these ideas in my pocket till I got back and then I
would transfer them into the notebook. And as I got further and further away
home and from the notebook I had to memorize these rhymes longer and longer and
longer and like with any exercise you know once you train your brain to do that
it becomes a natural occurrence.

So you know about the time I got to record my first album which was, I was 26 I
didn't need pen to paper. My memory had been trained you know just to listen to
a song, think of the words and then just lam the tape.

GROSS: And what about now, do you write down rhymes when they come to you or?

JAY-Z: No, I haven't since my first album.

GROSS: And your memory's as good now, as it was then?

JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah, I've lost plenty material it's not the best way. I wouldn't
advise it. I wouldn't advise it to anyone. I've lost a couple of album's worth
of great material. But, I thought they were great when I couldn't remember them
you know. To think about how you know when you can't remember a word and it
drives you crazy. Man I've got to think about this, you know it's, it's the,
it's the... so imagine you know forgetting an entire rhyme and to have to sit
there and like what? I said I was the greatest something...

GROSS: Well if you're just joining us my guest is Jay-Z and he has a new book
called, "Decoded". So what was the turning point in your life that got you out
of hustling and into the recording studio?

JAY-Z: It was like events that would happen over the years. You know I went to
a guy by the name of Clark Kent. I made a couple of demos with him and then I
would leave back into the streets. You know my cousin stopped speaking to me.
He thought I was wasting my talent. And I was like one foot in and one foot
out. I always had in the back of my mind that I would be back in the streets
for some reason and I guess I didn't have 100 percent belief in what I was
doing. Then finally I just said, man I'm just going to give this music a try.
I'm going to give it a 100 percent and just forget everything that I'm doing
you know and here we are.

GROSS: So how much money had you been making on the street when you decided to
try music?

JAY-Z: Well I don't know if you really have a concrete number of how much money
you were making. Sometimes it was really good and it was fantastic. I mean I
did pretty well, which made it more difficult for me. Because at the time,
people in the street were making more than rappers you know. I didn't, not
until the big deals of Master P and Puff deal with Badboy with Arista Records
where people getting really big deals.

So for the most part people on the street were making more than rappers so for
me I addressed this in the book as well, there's a song called, "Can't Knock
the Hustle" and it sounds like I'm saying you can't knock my hustle. But what,
who I was talking to was the guys on the street because rap was my hustle and
like at the time street, the streets was my job. So when I was telling people
yeah I want to be a rap, I want to do this. They were like man why do you want
to be a rapper? Those guys get taken advantage of. Everybody takes their money.

You know we go to parties and we pull up in Mercedes and Lexus' and they pull
up in turtle tops with 16 people in them. Why do you want to do that? And I was
like man I just really - I couldn't really explain to them how much I loved it
so I would just say, let me just try it. I just want to see what it's about.

GROSS: Jay-Z will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is
called, "Decoded." I'm Terry Gross and this FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I’m Terry Gross, back with a rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z. His new book
"Decoded," tells the story of his life growing up in a Brooklyn housing
project, selling crack when he was a teenager and then finding a new life in
hip-hop music. The book also tells the stories behind 36 of his songs. Early on
in his career, Jay-Z entered the business side of hip-hop culture, co-founding
Roc-A-Fella Records and Rocawear. He's now the president and CEO of Def Jam
Records. President Obama is a fan of Jay-Z's music and even referenced his song
"Dirt Off Your Shoulder" during a campaign speech.

Let's talk about another one of your tracks. I want to play "Hard Knock Life,”
which really surprised me when I first heard it because you sample the song
"Hard Knock Life" from the Broadway show "Annie," which I thought was a real
surprise...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...surprising choice for you.

JAY-Z: To say the least.

GROSS: Yes, to say the least.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: So how did you decide to use that?

JAY-Z: Well, what happened was my sister's name is Andrea Carter and we call
her Annie for short. So when the TV version of the play, you know, it came on
and it was like there's a story called "Annie," I was immediately drawn to it,
of course, it was my sister's name, like what is this about? So, you know, I
watched it and I was, you know, I was immediately drawn to that story and, you
know, those words - instead of treated we get tricked. Instead of kisses we get
kicked. It immediately resonated with me.

So, you know, fast forward, I'm on the Puff Daddy tour, I’m about to leave
stage and a DJ by the name of Kid Capri plays this track, no rap on it, just
the instrumental. I, you know, it stopped me in my tracks. It immediately
brought me back to my childhood and that feeling. And I knew right then and
there that I had to make that record and that, you know, people would relate to
the struggle in it and the aspiration in it as well.

GROSS: So let's hear the song and then we'll talk a little more about it. So
this is "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" by Jay-Z.

(Soundbite of song, "Hard Knock Life, Ghetto Anthem")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Check the bassline out, uh-huh. Here we go. Bounce with it.
Uh-huh uh-huh uh-huh, yeah. Let it bump, yo.

("Annie" sample) It's the hard knock life, uh-huh for us. It's the hard knock
life, for us. Instead of treated, we get tricked. Instead of kisses, we get
kicked. It's the hard knock life.

JAY-Z: (Rapping) We’re standing on the corners bopping to driving some of the
hottest cars New York has ever seen. We’re dropping some of the hottest verses
rap has ever heard. From the dope spot, with the smoke Glock fleeing the murder
scene. You know me well. From nightmares of a lonely cell, my only hell but
since when y'all (bleep) know me to fail? (bleep) naw.

Where all my (bleep) with the rubber grips, bust shots. And if you with me mom
I rub on your (bleep) and whatnot. I'm from the school of the hard knocks, we
must not let outsiders violate our blocks, and my plot. Let's stick up the
world and split it 50-50, uh-huh. Let's take the dough and stay real jiggy, uh-
huh. And sip the Cris' and get pissy-pissy. Flow infinitely like the memory of
my (bleep) Biggie, baby.

You know it's hell when I come through. The life and times of Shawn Carter
(bleep) volume two.

("Annie" sample) It's a hard knock life for us.

GROSS: That's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" by my guest Jay-Z, who has a
new book called "Decoded."

So you tell a great story in the book about how you got the rights to use that
song - to use the song from "Annie," "Hard Knock Life." Would you tell the
story?

JAY-Z: Yeah. Well, I mean, we got the rights, all right, so a little bit late.
So because I exaggerated a touch. You know, and it's typical when you have to
clear a song, you have to send it - a sampled song - you send it to the
original writers and they grant you permission and you pay a fee for that
permission.

You know, but some writers, their art is for them very important, so it has to
be the right sort of attitude and the right take, and the emotion on the record
has to fit, you know, what was originally intended. So we're having
difficulties clearing the sample. And I wrote a letter about how much it meant
to me, you know, what it meant to me growing up, and how I went to like a
Broadway play, which was exaggeration. I saw it on TV and, you know, we got the
rights...

GROSS: But let me stop you because in the book you say...

JAY-Z: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that he told the big lie. In the book you say that you...

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you made up that you entered an essay contest and in the essay you
wrote about the importance of seeing "Annie" on Broadway, which you'd never
seen on Broadway, in fact.

JAY-Z: Yeah. Right.

GROSS: And, you know, all that it meant to you when you saw it on Broadway and
I think you said you like won in the essay contest and so you...

JAY-Z: I didn't want you to put the whole thing out there. I was trying to, you
know, I could...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So in other words, you lied a little bit in order to get the rights.

JAY-Z: Yeah, it was, you know, it was a bad lie for a good reason.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, it worked out well for everybody.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Have you ever met Charles Strouse, who wrote the music for the song?

JAY-Z: No. But someone just reached out like the other day and said that he
wants to speak with me, so I’m going to reach out to him. I mean, just the
other day, so which is really cool. I was in the house trying to - I went
looking at a house on the Upper East Side and I saw this plaque on the wall.
And I’m like, wait a minute, that's my plaque. And I guess it was his house.
This is a couple years back. I have to share that with him.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, you mean your Grammy. Is that what you're talking about?

JAY-Z: No. No. The plaque for the record, you know, our...

GROSS: Oh, the Gold record plaque. The Gold record plaque.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah-yeah. Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. Okay.

JAY-Z: It was like a lot of times platinum, though. But, yeah, that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's funny. That's right.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, I interviewed him a few years ago. You want to hear what he had to
say about "Annie?"

JAY-Z: Yes. Please. Please.

GROSS: Yeah. Okay. I mean about "Hard Knock Life?" Okay. So this is Charles
Strouse who wrote the music for "Annie," talking about Jay-Z's version of "Hard
Knock Life." And here's what he had to say about it.

Mr. CHARLES STROUSE (Composer for Broadway, Opera, TV and Film): He said
something in the liner notes that it was gritty. He said it was gritty and he
felt that that was the way black people felt in the ghetto. And the fact is,
when we were working on "Annie," it was the first song that I had written the
music for. And I wanted that song to be gritty. I didn't want it to be a fake.
I wanted it to show these desperate times and these maltreated girls, et
cetera, et cetera. So when he picked up on that I was very proud of myself for
that reason alone.

GROSS: Okay, so he liked it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Absolutely.

GROSS: My guest is Jay-Z. He has a new book called "Decoded."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is rap star and entrepreneur Jay-Z. He has a new book called
"Decoded."

Now, parts of the street life that you'd left behind when you stopped hustling
and started making music followed you and followed some of the people you knew,
some of the other famous rappers into the music world. I’m thinking, you know,
like Biggie gets killed. Tupac gets shot. You were accused of stabbing someone
and you could tell us or not tell us what actually happened with that. But I
think it's just kind of tragic that that kind of violence kind of followed into
the music world. I guess I'd be interested in what your take on that is.

JAY-Z: Like, yeah, I kind of discussed that in the book as well. Like when you
come into, inside the music business and you're coming from these rough
neighborhoods, you know, as soon as you sign a record deal it's not like freeze
tag, like everything stops, like no I'm a rapper now. You know, you still have
friends. You still have old problems that you've been through.

So when people see you now and just because you signed a contract, you know,
it's not like they're going to stop. It's just the reality. You're still a
human being. You're still - you have to either know how to deal with that
situation or it deals with you. And, you know, fortunately for me, I was pretty
much my own boss so I didn't have much weight to carry. Of course, I had the
weight of people that I associated myself with and people that I’m around and,
you know, that night that's what happened, like a big fight.

And then you realize that you're famous now. So it was a big fight that got out
of hand. I've had a hundred of those and, you know, never went to the front
page of the paper but now that I signed this contract, now it's on the news all
day and I have to turn myself in. And I really like, man, I had a lots of these
fights.

You know, the guy who got, the record executive, you know, they - I wasn’t a
record executive. Here was - I sold - my company sold, you know, a million
records and, you know, I don't know what his company - I don't know if he sold
a record at that time but he was a record executive. Just think about how they
frame it. I’m not just blaming the media. I take full responsibility in the
fight, but I'm just talking about how it was sensationalized. He's a...

GROSS: That you stabbed a record executive when you're saying he hadn't even
done anything yet.

JAY-Z: A record executive. Yeah.

GROSS: And you thought that he had bootlegged your album and put it out before
the release date, so you were...

JAY-Z: Exactly. And he was a friend of mine.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

JAY-Z: By the way. It was just, you know, a friend. We had a tussle. He went
home. He didn’t...

GROSS: Did you actually stab him?

JAY-Z: Well, it was a fight that got out of hand. Let's just say that.

GROSS: Okay.

JAY-Z: Right? And he, you know, he went home without - he didn’t take - they
didn't give him aspirin, anything. He went home the same night, you know, they
sensationalized it like he was in the hospital in critical or something.

GROSS: So you turned yourself in on that one.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: And pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, just to finish the story. Do I have
that right?

JAY-Z: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So, but anyway, so you do think it's kind of...

JAY-Z: It's very tragic but if you put it in context, you could see why and how
some of these things happened because if you go through these neighborhoods and
places that we grew up in, it's happening. You know, it's not reported on the
news. You know, for every Biggie Smalls and Tupac there's a million other kids
that lose their lives to senseless violence in the ‘hood all the time and it's
not on TV.

These two guys come from the same neighborhood where all this stuff is
happening and it's happening today, continues to happen that, you know,
everyone wants to ignore it unless it's, you know, a famous person and it's not
right. Every life is valuable.

GROSS: Now, I just have to ask you, I sure you've been asked this a lot, but
this - this is the bitch and ho question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It just always seemed to me that so much about rap music - about men's
rap music is about, you know, demanding respect but not giving a whole lot to
women in the lyrics. And I'd be interested in your take on that.

JAY-Z: A lot of these albums are made when, you know, artists are pretty young
- 17, 18 years old, so they've never really had any real relationships. And if
you come, you know, in the neighborhoods we're in, you know, we have low self-
esteem ourselves. You know, and then the women and, well, the girls, they have
low self-esteem as well.

So these are all just functional relationships at a very young age and the poet
is really just pretty much saying his take on how his dealings with girls at
that time. He's not in really a stable relationship. He’s on the road. He’s
seeing girls who like him because he makes music. They have - spend one night
together, he gets her phone number and leaves to the next town and does the
same thing, you know, over again.

GROSS: Now you’re talking about yourself here too, when you were younger?

JAY-Z: Yeah, as well, yes.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So do you feel like you got over that eventually, that you
matured out of that?

JAY-Z: Of course, yeah.

GROSS: And were there times when you continued to write in the character of
that younger person?

JAY-Z: I mean, a song on my first album was "Ain't No (bleep)" - I guess ya'll
can bleep that out. You know, and it was like this careless relationship and
then that went to "Big Pimpin” in '99 and on that same album was a song called
"Song Cry," and then "Song Cry" became "Bonnie & Clyde" on 2004, which became
"Venus vs. Mars" on my last album. So there's a steady growth in the
conversations that's being had as it pertains to women, you know, as I grew.

GROSS: Can I ask you a question you might find weird because part of your goal
in the book is to kind of explain your generation and explain the music...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...to people. You know how a lot of hip-hop artists, when they're on
stage they kind of like grab their crotch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Yeah. I have a great explanation for that.

GROSS: Yeah, like how did that start? Like, who started that and why is that?

JAY-Z: Well, a lot a times in hip-hop, like in rock 'n' roll you'll have bands
who tour the world. They get in vans and they tour the world and they do rinky-
dink clubs and they get bottles thrown at them and, you know, until they hone
their craft, until they become, you know, rock stars.

In hip-hop the music leads first. So usually you'll have a hit record and then
you throw this person on stage who has never been on stage before, you know,
because the music leads. So they don't have any experience on how to perform in
front of people, hold the mic, you know, all these different things that you
need to know as a performer.

So when you get up there you feel naked, right? So when you feel naked what's
the first thing you do? You cover yourself. So that bravado is an act of I am
so nervous right now and I’m scared to death. I’m going to act so tough that
I'm going to hide it. And I have to grab, you know, my crotch. That's just what
happens.

GROSS: I thought it was kind of the opposite, like this stuff is so good...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...I'm going to show off. No?

JAY-Z: That's, that's what - yeah, they want, that's what we want you to
believe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: But the reality is, and no one else will admit to this, well maybe they
will, is you’re on stage in front of, now with summer jams and things like
that, people are getting put on stage in front of 50,000 people with a record
that's a radio hit and they've never performed before. It's going to be a
disaster nine times out of 10.

GROSS: So do you feel like you were on stage before you were prepared for it?
Probably not, because you did parties before that. You had experience.

JAY-Z: Exactly. I kind of went through a rock 'n roll stage. You know, I kind
of was doing parties and learning to perform. The first show I ever did I just
forgot the words. I stood there and I tried to pass the mic to Damon Dash, who
I co-founded Roc-A-Fella with. I gave him the mic like, here. He was like man,
I don't rap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: I just didn't know what to do. I was like in shock.

GROSS: So what really like, you've done the crotch thing too, right?

JAY-Z: Of course.

GROSS: So why do you do it? You're not afraid to be on stage.

JAY-Z: Yeah. I just told you, when the first time I performed I was...

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: I forgot the words.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: I didn't do it my last show at Yankee Stadium. No. But, yeah, but my
earlier shows, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is Jay-Z. He has a new book called "Decoded."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is rap star and entrepreneur, Jay-Z. He has a new book called
"Decoded."

So let's play, let's get another song in here, and let's do "99 Problems."

JAY-Z: Sure.

GROSS: We'll do the clean version.

JAY-Z: Aw.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's radio, my friend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Okay.

GROSS: So this is actually based on a story - loosely based on a story that
happened to you. Would you explain?

JAY-Z: Well, it's based on a generational story as well. There is a higher
thing. Like there was a time where there was a lot of activity going on on the
turnpike, from New York headed south, because there were a lot of drugs going
on back and forth. And so the state troopers at that time just blanketed every
single car, anybody that was of color and it was this term, driving while
black. And people were getting pulled over for absolutely no reason, you know,
other than their color. So, I just had to set the scene up.

So now we're driving and we're doing - we're actually doing something bad. You
know, we're transporting drugs from New York to, you know, down south and we
get pulled over by a state trooper. But we get pulled over for absolutely
nothing. We're wrong. The cop is wrong. This conversation ensues and it's
racial undertones. And he says are you, do you have a gun on you like a lot of
you are? You know, just that statement right there. And the conversation
between two people who are both in the wrong but are both used to getting their
way. So there is this clever banter that goes back and forth between the two.

GROSS: Okay, and we're going to hear the part of this song that deals with the
story that you just told.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: And again, it's the clean version so a lot of the words are going to
sound kind of...

JAY-Z: It's the second verse, the...

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And I will say that one of the words that isn't clearly said
here because it's distorted because it's the clean version, is the word bitch,
which in the context of this part of the song means dog because you're talking
about canine dogs here.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Because the canine.

JAY-Z: Yeah. And that was my...

GROSS: Yeah.

JAY-Z: And that was the writer in me being provocative, because that's what rap
should be as well, you know, at times. That was really directed to all the
people who hear buzzwords in rap music, they hear bitch or ho or something and
immediately dismiss everything else that, you know, takes place. And everything
has to be put in context. And when you put it in context you realize that I
wasn't calling any female, besides the female dog, a bitch on this song.

GROSS: And is that in spite of the opening part that says, if you're having
girl problems I feel bad for you son. I've got 99 problems but the bitch ain't
one?

JAY-Z: Yeah, that was to lead the listener down the wrong path if were looking
for that sort of thing.

GROSS: Okay.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: So, here's "99 Problems" by my guest Jay-Z.

(Soundbite of song, "99 Problems")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) The year is '94 and in my trunk is raw in my rear view mirror
is the mother (bleep) law. I got two choices ya'll, pull over the car or bounce
on the double put the pedal to the floor. Now I ain't trying to see no highway
chase with Jake. Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case. So I, pull over
to the side of the road. I heard, son do you know why I'm stopping you for?
'Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hats real low. Do I look like a mind
reader sir? I don't know.

Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo? Well you was doing 55 in this 54.
Uh-huh. License and registration and step out of the car. You carrying a weapon
on you. I know a lot of you are. I ain't stepping out of (bleep). All my papers
legitimate. Well, do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?

Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back and I know my
rights so you going to need a warrant for that. Aren't you sharp as a tack are
some type of lawyer or something? Or somebody important or something? Nah, I
ain't pass the bar but I know a little bit. Enough that you won't illegally
search my (bleep). We'll see how smart you are when the K-9's come. I got 99
problems but a bitch ain't one. Hit me. 99 problems but a bitch ain't one.

If your having girl problems I feel bad for you son. I got 99 problems but a
bitch ain't one. Hit me.

GROSS: That was "99 Problems" by my guest Jay-Z. Do we have time for the other
98 problems?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Well, if you can get it in nine minutes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, you know, part of that story is that the canine - the cops Canine
Corps was supposed be coming after you, but you got - they let you go just
before the dogs came?

JAY-Z: Yeah. It was - I guess it was far away on another call and the cop tried
to hold us. He really had no probable cause, no reason to hold us, so he just
said men get out of here. And as we left, about 10 minutes up the ride, we see
this car, sirens blaring, screeching down. And we look on the side and we see
Canine Unit and we just all just a little sigh of relief, like huh, that was
close.

GROSS: Because you are holding, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Yeah, if canine would've came they would smelt it and we would've been
finished. It would've...

GROSS: Yeah.

JAY-Z: No book.

GROSS: Right. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, no lots of things.

JAY-Z: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So, I really have to ask your impression of this. You know, President
Bush in his new memoir, says that a low point of his presidency was when Kanye
West, your friend Kanye West, said at a Hurricane Katrina benefit that George
Bush doesn't care about black people. So he thought that that was really unfair
because he was being called a racist when he's not. Kanye has since apologized
to the president, so what's your take on how this thing has played out?

JAY-Z: You know, first I find it strange, like everyone else should, that one
of his lowest points was somebody talking about him. He's the president. You
know, people should insult him a lot. That's part of the job description.
People are not going to be happy with what you do. And when certain events
happened, like Katrina, and then you see people, you know, on the roof and they
are people of color for the most part, and there's help on the roof, and this
is happening in America on TV, and then you see the commander-in-chief, you
know, just drive by on a, you know, in a plane, which I explain in, you know,
in the book, and on this song called "Minority Report," you know, we were all
angry. It didn't feel like a natural disaster. It felt like something that was
happening directly to blacks and it immediately brought us back to images of
people getting beaten with, sprayed with hoses and beaten on the bridge at
Selma and all these emotions, you know, were going on inside of us.

Kanye really spoke what everyone else felt. You know, when he said that
everyone immediately was like that's exactly how we all feel. And that's just
how we felt. You know, it felt more than a national disaster. We felt that if
that had happened somewhere else, that wouldn't be happening. And calling
people a refugee in their own, you know, in their own home because they are
fighting to what, steal the TV that they can't plug in anywhere. I mean they're
obviously frustrated and scared and angry. That whole thing was just handled
horribly wrong and, you know, days going by with, you know, I can go on for
days. So, I think - I mean but Kanye, if...

GROSS: But you’re - yeah.

JAY-Z: If Kanye apologize then I mean, you know, he said it so, you know,
that's how he felt. But what he said was how everyone felt.

GROSS: And very briefly, I know President Obama is a fan of yours. You
supported him and you write about how you met him in the book. Very briefly,
because we are out of time, because I know you are so busy - your thoughts
about his presidency so far? Still sums up or?

JAY-Z: Speaking of Bush, you know, he's left the worst eight years of our life
and in order to judge Obama you have to judge what happened before. You have to
judge when he inherited. I think a lot of people would like to forget, you
know, what we were coming out of and what was left on the desk for the incoming
president. I think he's had so many challenges and, you know, I applaud his
effort and, you know, where he's going. Of course, it's not 100 percent but,
you know, you got - we have to take into context what he's inherited and what
he's working with. He's working from in the negative. And if you think that he
can fix eight years worth of damage well more, but eight years worth of damage
in two years, then I don't know. I don't know if that's even realistic.

GROSS: Well, Jay-Z, it's been really great to talk with you. Thank you so much
for talking with us.

JAY-Z: I had a great time. thank you.

GROSS: Jay-Z's new book is called "Decoded." You can read an excerpt of it,
watch music videos for all of the songs mentioned on today's show, and listen
to an audio extra from the interview on NPRMusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Empire State of Mind")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Yeah. Yeah, I’m up at Brooklyn. Now I'm down in Tribeca, right
next to De Niro, but I’ll be hood forever. I’m the new Sinatra, and since I
made it here, I can make it anywhere. Yeah, they love me everywhere. I used to
cop in Harlem. All of my Dominicanos, right there up on Broadway. Brought me
back to that McDonalds, took it to my stash spot, 560 Stage Street. Catch me in
the kitchen like a Simmons whipping pastry. Cruising down 8th Street. Off white
Lexus, driving so slow but BK is from Texas. Me I’m up at Bed-Stuy.

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Empire State of Mind")

Ms. ALICIA KEYS (Singer-songwriter, musician): In New York, concrete jungle
where dreams are made of, there's nothing you can’t do. Now you’re in New York.
These streets will make you feel brand new. The lights will inspire you. Let's
here it for New York, New York, New York.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
131334322

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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