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Jay-Z: Interviewed And 'Decoded'

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.

29:54

Other segments from the episode on December 30, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 30, 2010: Interview with Jay-Z; Interview with James Murphy.

Transcript

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Jay-Z: Interviewed And 'Decoded'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This year, we're wrapping up the year with a series featuring some of our most
entertaining interviews from 2010. Up next we have our interview with Jay-Z,
who has been incredibly successful as a rapper and an entrepreneur. He was born
in 1969 and grew up in The Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn. He watched crack
cocaine 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 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 his songs.

Jay-Z holds the record for the most number one albums by a solo artist on the
Billboard 200. He co-founded the label Roc-A-Fella Records with Damon Dash, 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 his recording with Alicia Keys, "Empire State of Mind," from
his 2009 album, "The Blueprint 3."

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

JAY-Z (Musician): (Rapping) Yeah. Yeah, G, 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 McDonald's, 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, home of that boy Biggie. Now I live on billboard, And I
brought my boys with me. Say what up to Ty Ty, still sipping Malta, sitting
courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high fives. I be spiked out, I can trip a
referee, tell by my attitude that I most definitely from New York.

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

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, just so, you know, 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 boastful 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 that 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 11. Those were my first rhymes.

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

JAY-Z: Yeah. You have 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, top, on top and on the bottom of you. It's a 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 - coming around.

And there were all these games that we played. And then it would turn -
suddenly, it just - violent, and there would be shootings at 12 in the
afternoon on any given day.

So it was just - weird mix of emotions. I mean - you know, 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, 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 shifted, 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. How did you start doing that?

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No job interview.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Résumé...

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, you know, crack cocaine.

GROSS: So you describe in the book how when you first started writing rhymes,
you had a notebook. But when you were hustling on the street, you weren't
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 until 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 until I got back. And then I would transfer them into the notebook. And
as I got further and further away from 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 lay them to 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: I've lost a couple albums' worth of great material. Well, I thought they
were great.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Jay-Z. And he has a new book,
called "Decoded." 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, were 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 Lexuses. 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: 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, and 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 some 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 bass line out, uh-huh. Here we go. Bounce with it.
Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah. Let it bump, yo.

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) From 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 know me to fail?

Where all my with the rubber grips, bust shots. And if you with me mom I rub on
your 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 Biggie, baby.

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

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 already, so this will be a 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 you 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 a 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, OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. OK.

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, OK - I mean, about "Hard Knock Life"? OK. 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: OK, so he liked it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Absolutely.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Jay-Z, he has a new book called
"Decoded," after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jay-Z, and he has a new book
called "Decoded" that's a collection of a lot of his rhymes. It's also the
stories behind those. And there's a lot of autobiography in it.

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

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 dysfunctional 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 relationships.

He's on the road. He's seeing girls who like him because he makes music. They
have - spend one night together, he gets a phone number; he 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 a little. 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? But since part of your
goal in the book is to kind of explain your generation and explain the music 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 have a hit record, and then
you throw this person on stage who's 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 was
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, but really - like, you've done the crotch thing too, right?

JAY-Z: Of course.

GROSS: So why are you doing 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: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: I forgot the words.

GROSS: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: We'll hear more of our interview with Jay-Z in the second half of the
show. Our interview was recorded last month, after the publication of his book
"Decoded." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z. His book
"Decoded," tells the story of his early life growing up in a Brooklyn housing
project selling crack when he was a teenager, 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.

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: OK.

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 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: OK, 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 you were
looking for that sort of thing.

GROSS: OK.

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 the 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
legit. Well, do you mind if I look around 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? 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-9s 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 man, 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 were holding, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY-Z: Yeah, if canine would've came - would've smelled 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, 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, recorded last month after the publication of his book "Decoded."

Coming up, James Murphy. His band LCD Soundsystem's latest album is on the 10
best list of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.

This is FRESH AIR.

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Inside LCD Soundsystem With Frontman James Murphy

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR.

Let's continue our end of the year series featuring some of our most
entertaining interviews from 2010 with James Murphy, the leader of the band LCD
Soundsystem, a band which sometimes is really just Murphy using instruments,
electronics and overdubbing.

LCD Soundsystem plays dance music and Murphy used to be a club DJ. But the
lyrics of his songs are often ironic and funny, and the music that inspires him
goes way beyond dance music.

In the New Yorker profile of Murphy, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote
quote, "LCD Soundsystem helped reintroduce dance music into indie rock,
blurring the lines effectively enough to bridge the divide between fans who
probably don't otherwise like dance music, and those who put on LCD records
only to dance to," unquote.

The group's 2007 album, "Sound Of Silver," was on NPR's list of the top albums
of the decade. LCD Soundsystem's last album, "This is Happening," was on the 10
best list of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.

Murphy says it will be his final album under the name LCD Soundsystem. Here's a
track from that album called "Drunk Girls," co-written by Murphy and featuring
him on vocals, drums, synthesizers, guitar, bass, Wurlitzer, tambourine and
claps.

(Soundbite of song, "Drunk Girls")

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM (Music group): (Singing) Drunk girls, drunk girls, drunk girls,
drunk girls. Drunk girls cause a couple of heart attacks. Drunk girls are
unusually mild. Drunk boys keep in pace with the pedophiles. Drunk girls are
boringly wild.

Drunk girls get invitations from nations. They got the patience of a million of
saints. Drunk boys, they steal, they steal from the cupboards. Drunk girls like
to file complaints.

Drunk girls are like a night of simplicity. They need a lover who is smarter
than me. Drunk boys, we walk like pedestrians. Drunk girls wait an hour to pee.

Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut. It comes back, but it's never the
same. Drunk boys, drunk boys, drunk boys, drunk boys. Drunk girls can be just
as insane.

Oh, oh, oh, I believe in waking up together. So, oh, oh, that means making eyes
across the room.

GROSS: That's "Drunk Girls" from LCD Soundsystem's new album "This is
Happening." My guest is James Murphy, who is not only the founder of the band,
he is most of the band. James Murphy, welcome to FRESH AIR.

So the band is called LCD Soundsystem, and you used to create sound systems.

Mr. JAMES MURPHY (Musician): Mm-hmm. Yes.

GROSS: And your record label was called, or is still called was called, is
called, DFA.

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah. DFA Records.

GROSS: Which stands for Death From Above, which is also what you called your
sound system because it was all about loud.

Mr. MURPHY: Yes. Really loud.

GROSS: Really loud. And why does really loud appeal to you, and how loud are we
talking?

Mr. MURPHY: OK. I don't like hurting ears. I don't like hurting people's ears.
I don't like hurting my own ears. And there are frequencies that I find that I
am hypersensitized to, and I think that people normally are.

The human voice, like, likes to hover around 1,000 hertz. And, you know, you
can go up to 20,000 and go down to 20 hertz and, you know, that's the kind of
the range of human that's kind of the area where we listen.

So I like to make sure we're not punishing anybody on these frequencies that
hurt your ears, but I do like the visceral, physical experience of bass when
it's attached to the rest of the sounds. The first shows I saw were really
bodily loud, and it was a really incredible experience for me.

Like, your adrenaline goes up. You kind of have a fight or flight experience
that can be maintained in a nice way by volume. And I think, like, a certain
type of airy treble, a certain type of airy space, that doesn't hurt your ears
again, is kind of wonderful and magical and for lack of a less hackneyed and
overused term, psychedelic. Volume is a big part of that.

I think people have a lot of people have lost the art of using volume in a way
that isn't just harsh and painful, but it's something that I'm really into.

GROSS: And you don't think you're hurting your ears?

Mr. MURPHY: I still test better than average. I still test really high
frequency. I mean, it can be fatiguing. You know, we shouldn't do more than
five shows in a row. But if it doesn't feel right physically, I would just be
thinking constantly on stage.

GROSS: You'd be thinking, oh, it's not loud enough, it's not loud enough or?

Mr. MURPHY: I would just be thinking. I would just turn my brain back on. I
need the...

GROSS: Oh, I see. So you...

Mr. MURPHY: For me, I need a certain amount of volume to turn the brain off.

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. MURPHY: Turn the rattling monkey in my head off.

GROSS: You worked as a DJ for how long?

Mr. MURPHY: I guess I started DJing, worked as, you know, I started DJing for,
you know, no money when I was 29 and around the same time as starting DFA
Records in New York. So DFA was a party, and I started DJing just at my own
party. And I didn't do it at other places. Nobody hired me. I hired myself.

GROSS: So how did DJing at your own parties contribute to your approach as a
composer because certainly when you're DJing, you're looking for a groove also.

Mr. MURPHY: Well, yeah, I mean, I think there's a - after being in, self-
involved punk bands my whole life, you were thinking about what it is you want
to make, who it is you want to be.

But DJing and finding dance music was much more about it was much more of a
communication device. It was, like, very blatant. It's like, if people aren't
dancing, you're not doing a good job. You can't make any other argument about
it.

And it changed making music for me because suddenly I wanted to make music. I
wanted to make songs after having given up. I stopped being in bands when I was
26, so I took three years off and I wanted to do it again because suddenly
there was an actual quantifiable way of measuring if you were doing your job.
People danced or they didn't. And if they did, you know, you're doing your job.
And if you like it and they did, then you're doing your job in an uncompromised
way, which was a really nice thing to finally be able to learn.

GROSS: Well, I thought we'd hear another LCD Soundsystem recording, and this is
from earlier. This is called "Losing my Edge," and it's one of the most famous
things that you've done.

Mr. MURPHY: It's the first one.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, and let's hear it. I think it's like a really funny song,
and I'll just say it's about somebody who thinks he's losing his edge to the
kids who are coming up behind him. And so let's hear it, and then we'll talk
about it. So this is LCD Soundsystem.

(Soundbite of song, "Losing My Edge")

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: (Singing) I'm losing my edge. I heard you have a compilation
of every good song ever done by anybody, every great song by the Beach Boys,
all the underground hits, all the Modern Lovers tracks. I heard you have a
vinyl of every Niagra record on German import. I heard that you have a white
label of every seminal Detroit techno hit, 1985, '86, '87. I heard that you
have a CD compilation of every good '60s cut and another box set from the '70s.

I hear you're buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your
computer out the window because you want to make something real. You want to
make a Yaz record.

I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables. I
hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars. I
hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know. But
have you seen my records?

GROSS: So that's the first single by LCD...

Mr. MURPHY: That's the first single.

GROSS: ...Soundsystem, and my guest, James Murphy, is the creator of LCD
Soundsystem. And I think that's just so funny. And when I listen to it, I can't
help but wonder how much of this is about you and how much of it is older
people who you met coming up through the ranks who were afraid that they were
losing their edge to people like you.

Mr. MURPHY: It's a little bit both. It's really from a specific position and
time in my life more than it is about it, where I had started DJing, and I
hadn't released any music yet. We had DFA Records, and I started having - there
was parties that I was throwing, and I was DJing, and for the first time in my
life, I was almost cool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But not quite?

Mr. MURPHY: At almost, like, 29 years old, I had my first taste of, like, wait,
people want me to come to this party and DJ. This is very exciting for me.

And then I went to - I remember I went to a punk show, and between the bands
somebody was DJing. Now, that wasn't done. And I was like, wait, that's my
thing. Like, I play records, you know.

And they were playing some of the records I played, and I got really upset. I
looked, and they were like 24, 23, and I was really mad. And then I started
getting very embarrassed that I was getting mad because I remembered being in a
young band when I was 23 or 24 and talking to this guy who was like ancient - I
think he may have been 28 or 29, and he was talking about how kids now, they
don't know, you know, the guitar sounds aren't good and things like that. And I
remember just being, like, oh man, you never say that. That's just, that's such
a lame thing to say.

And then I caught myself doing it, and I'm, like, oh, I'm saying it, but at the
same time, it's true, but it's so pathetic. And it made for the easiest song
I've ever written. It was the easiest song to write.

The whole lyric with a couple of - I punched it in a couple of times, but I
played drums and sang that song in just one take, just without writing anything
beforehand. The only thing that I wrote was the list of songs that I yell at
the end, I mean the list of artists I yell at the end. The whole thing was just
made up because it was such a fertile and embarrassing and circular set of
feelings.

Like, it was so easy to know what I was mad about and so easy to be embarrassed
by it, and so, you know, it was just, like, endlessly, oh-but, oh-but, oh-but,
you know, type of emotion that I had. So it was a really - and after that, I
was overconfident. I was like, I can write songs all the time. This is easy.
Just have an experience that typifies your life at that moment and then go yell
about it.

GROSS: It's funny because I kind of half-imagined you taking like, having this
secret notebook in which you wrote down all the things that people said to you
about why they were worried about younger people coming up and replacing them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: No. It's...

GROSS: And why they were losing their edge because it's all so perfect.

Mr. MURPHY: It was so simple to me. It like seemed like such a good - and at
the end, the reason I yell all the band names was I suddenly realized, like,
I'm one of these - I suddenly realized, I was, like, this is what you do when
you know things. Knowing things, knowledge, or like your attachment to them or
your self-association with other bands or with books or whatever is usually
like this, often this weird amulet that protects you. Like, you're, like, no, I
am serious. Look at my library. Listen to this. Like, I'm going to list all the
books I've read, and now you know I'm a serious person.

And so it was just supposed to be like this amulet swinging around me to
protect me from being seen as anything that I didn't want to be seen as.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you've mentioned several times that you like really physical music.
You like to feel it in your body. So I guess it's no surprise that your first
instrument was drums.

Mr. MURPHY: My first instrument was guitar.

GROSS: Oh. So it is a surprise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah. No. But I learn - yeah, I was a singer-guitar player as a
kid. AKA, I was a self-important pretentious jerk as a kid and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: ...a controlling, you know, teenager. I started playing guitar when
I was - I started my first band when I was 12, 13, all through high school I
played guitar. And I moved to New York when I was 19 and started feeling like
maybe the guitar wasn't for me. I met a guy who was a really great guitar
player. He was a natural guitar player. This guy name Yotaka Yokoyama(ph) who
was a violinist, who picked up guitar and we liked a lot of the same music. And
we played together.

And watching him play guitar made me realize that maybe I'm not playing the
right instrument for me because he was just so natural and physical. And I was
always trying to struggle to get the guitar to give me more of something. And
then I started playing drums. I was like oh, these are great. You hit them
harder and they get louder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: This is all - this all really makes sense. And so I started being
drummer in bands. I think now I've settled on that the instrument that's most
appropriate for me is the bass guitar, because it's somewhere between the two.
It's like the workhorse and you can play it very physically and it delivers a
lot more like punch in the stomach. But it also can drive the song around. It's
a rhythmic instrument, but it's also a melodic instrument or at least a tonal
instrument.

GROSS: My guest is James Murphy, founder of the band LCD Soundsystem. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "All My Friends")

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with James Murphy, founder of the band
LCD Soundsystem.

I want to play another song. And this is also an earlier LCD Soundsystem track,
and it's the title track of your album "Sound Of Silver." And I just think the
lyric's really interesting about being nostalgic for being a teenager until you
remember what it was really like to be a teenager. So why don't we hear it and
then we'll talk about it.

(Soundbite of song, "Sound Of Silver")

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: (Singing) Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel
like a teenager. Until you remember the feelings of a real live emotional
teenager. Then you think again.

Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you
remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again.

Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you
remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again.

Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you
remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again.

Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you
remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again.

GROSS: That's LCD Soundsystem. My guest is James Murphy, who's the creator of
the band and plays most of the instruments on the records and does the vocals
and writes the songs.

So is this a kind of personal song for you?

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah. But in more ways than one, possibly. The type of singing is
the most personal and embarrassing part of that song. I was really into Heaven
17 as a kid too, like new wave stuff and the singing is kind of like arch.
People don't sing like that anymore, kind of this kind of like '80s new
romantic baritone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: And I really love it. And I'd been on a quest for almost the length
of this band to just trust my taste even when it's pretty embarrassing, because
embarrassments kind of are an untapped rock emotion, usually. People don't get
too into embarrassment. They get into heartbreak and cool but they don't get in
too much into just being embarrassing. So yeah, I just wanted to belt it out in
this kind of weird way.

GROSS: And what was your real live emotional life as a teenager?

Mr. MURPHY: I led a pretty OK school time. I was just a - I kind of made things
difficult for myself. Like when I was younger I fit in a lot better. I was an
athletic kid and I was a pretty big kid. But then when we got about 13, certain
types of - I had much older brothers and sisters and certain types of like
hyper self-aware stuff happened to me pretty young. My voice changed when I was
in fourth grade. I was 10. I looked bigger. You know, and something happened
where I was not kind of on the same page as a lot of my peers. And watching the
cruelty develop around 12, 13 was super psychically like traumatic for me.

Of course, now it's like oh yeah, people are kind of crappy to each other
sometimes. You can live with that. It's OK. But at that time I had no
experience of this. So watching suddenly two friends that were best friends the
year before turn into cliques and, you know, the more popular of those two
would be taunting the less popular of his ex-best friend and just - all that
stuff was just like, you know, I felt like I was in some sort of horrifying,
you know, psychedelic nightmare that I couldn't wake up from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: And it really, really traumatized me in a way that I find kind of
embarrassing. But, of course, it's all just predictable stuff that everybody
goes through. But I think you're supposed to be - I think the blessing is at
that age you're pretty oblivious to a lot of it and so wrapped up in it that
you don't, you know, like you're kind of missing the horror. And I didn't have
that luxury and it was not nice to watch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: James Murphy is the founder of the band LCD Soundsystem. His latest
album is called "This is Happening." Our interview was recorded in June.

We'll close today with music by pianist, composer and educator Billy Taylor. He
died Tuesday at the age of 89. He not only played good music, he introduced
many people to jazz through his Jazzmobile, his teaching and his radio shows.
He hosted a jazz show at WLIB in New York in the '60s. On NPR, he hosted the
concert series "Jazz Alive" and "Jazz the Kennedy Center."

This is a 1996 recording of his best known composition "I Wish I Knew How It
Would Feel To Be Free."

(Soundbite of song, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free")

I'm Terry Gross.
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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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