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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Jay-Z


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we conclude our hip-hop history series and feature the interview I recorded in 2010 with rapper and music entrepreneur Jay-Z. Jay-Z grew up as Shawn Carter in a housing project in Brooklyn. And in the 1980s, he watched as crack cocaine destroyed his neighborhood. He even sold crack for a time to support his family before he found a new identity in the recording studio and on stage. He's often regarded as one of the greatest and most successful rappers of all time. He's won 24 Grammys, holds the record for the most No. 1 albums by a solo artist on the Billboard 200, and in 2017, he became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. For the past few years, he's recorded infrequently, but in 2018, he made an album with his wife, Beyonce, called "Everything Is Love."

He's also a successful entrepreneur. He's the founder and chair of the entertainment company Roc Nation, the former president of Def Jam Records and in 2019, he became hip-hop's first billionaire. Jay-Z has also been central to the commercial success of other artists, including Rihanna and Kanye West. When I spoke with Jay-Z in 2010, he'd just published his book, "Decoded," in which he tells the stories behind 36 of his songs. We talked about his early life in Brooklyn, his pivot from being a hustler to a rapper, how he writes and remembers his lyrics and how he got the rights to sample "Hard-Knock Life" from the musical "Annie."

But first, let's start with a story about Jay-Z told by Questlove, co-founder of The Roots, which became famous as a hip-hop band and has been the "Tonight Show" band ever since Jimmy Fallon became the host. He's also famous as a DJ and for his immense record collection. In 2021, Questlove told me about the crazy circumstances in which he first listened to Jay-Z's album, "The Blueprint." The album was released on 9/11. That morning, Questlove was staying in a hotel in Midtown Manhattan. He slept late, and when he heard the news about the attack on the World Trade Center and the terror and chaos surrounding it, his first impulse was to find a way to get to a record store.


GROSS: You paid a taxi driver $100 to take you to the Virgin record store, which was...


GROSS: ...A few blocks away. It's just amazing that your first reaction was, I got to get some more music.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: It's like, the world may be ending. I'd better get some more records. Like, what was going...

QUESTLOVE: I'll be...

GROSS: ...Through your mind when that's what you did?

QUESTLOVE: I'll be honest with you, the way that Prince describes what the apocalypse was like in "1999," the song, that's kind of what was happening. Like, I hate to say this, but - and this is kind of the basis of our friendship now, me and Jay-Z, I was just like, I got to hear what this Jay-Z record sounds like.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: I can't - I'm sorry (laughter). So I saw a taxi and, you know, he seemed rather calm. He was, like, the only calming figure out there. I said, can you drive to Virgin Megastore real quick? And I gave him $100. I said, do me a favor, just keep the meter running. Can you give me 20 minutes? I'm just going to run and get some things. He's like, yeah. And I ran in and just imagine, like, "Flight Of The Bumblebee" - (vocalizing). I ran. I rummaged through the entire DVD section. I rummaged through all - I bought records I had already. Came out with, like, eight bags. And I just went in my room - which is weird enough 'cause I only listened to "The Blueprint." I got to my room and I just...

GROSS: That was the Jay-Z album.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Yeah. The Jay-Z record. That's all I did. I just sat there and listened to it, and a funny thing happened. I liked that record.

GROSS: Were you not expecting to?

QUESTLOVE: In which I was, quote, supposed to not - I was supposed to not like that record. Like, there was an apartheid happening in hip-hop between the haves and the have-nots. The successful rappers were looked at as, like, the compromisers, the devils, the evildoers. And we were, like, the liberals. Like, we were the creatives, and we put creativity before money. And I told a mutual friend of mine - of Jay's - I was like, yo, I would never say this in public, but I was like, I kind of like this Jay-Z record. And this person took it as a cue and was like, yo, I have to tell Jay-Z this. I was like, no, no, no, don't tell him because he's the devil and da, da, da, da (ph). And she was like, look, I want you to breathe. This is important. I'm telling Jay that you like the record. And I really thought, like, my career was going to end. Like, what if the world finds out I talked to a rich rapper?

And she came back to me and said, you know what? That really touched him because it's one thing for, like, his fan base to like it, but the fact that he made you - and the thing was, like, Common also told her, like, you know, I like this record, too. Like, we were scared to let the world know that we liked this Jay-Z record - that he wanted to talk to me the next day. And I was like, no, I'm never calling him back. So I, like, avoided him like the plague for, like, three weeks. He wanted to ask me if we would be his band for "MTV Unplug." And it turns out, like, Jay is one of the most - he's one of my favorite people to work with of all the people I ever worked with. Like, it turned out to be one of the best experiences ever. It changed our lives, really.

GROSS: Well, we should hear something from "Blueprint," from the Jay-Z album that you're talking about. What would you like to play from it?

QUESTLOVE: Wow. It's - let's see. Probably I would play "Izzo," the most popular cut on that record produced by Kanye West - "Izzo."

GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) I appreciate that. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A (ph). Fo' shizzle my nizzle (ph) used to dribble down in VA. Was hurting them in the home of the Terrapins. Got it dirt cheap for them. Plus, if they was short with cheese I would work with them. Brought in weed, got rid of that dirt for them. Wasn't born hustlers, I was birthing them. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. Fo' sheezy my neezy (ph) keep my arms so freezy (ph). Can't leave rap alone. The game needs me. Haters want me clapped and chromed. It ain't easy. Cops want to knock me. DA want to 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. 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...

GROSS: We just heard from Questlove. Here's the interview I recorded with Jay-Z in 2010.


GROSS: Jay-Z Welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you on our show. So let me just start...

JAY-Z: Thank you.

GROSS: ...With a 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 - I grew up in 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 of Motown, etc., etc., filled the house. So I was very familiar with the song when Kanye brought me the sample. It was just such an interesting and fresh take on it that I, you know, 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: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's like an abbreviation. You know, H to the izz-O, like, for Hova. It's a spelling, and it was, like, this - I guess it's a form of pig Latin. It's language that we used like a slang. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. It's basically spelling Hova.

GROSS: Which is short for...

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


JAY-Z: As most nicknames do, right?

GROSS: Right. So what were your first rhymes like? Like, you got your first boombox when you were 9. Your mother gave it to you, you say, because she thought it would help keep you out of trouble.

JAY-Z: Yeah. 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, the 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, I'm like, man, it's pretty prophetic.

GROSS: OK. So provocative is a pretty big word for a kid of that age. 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 Lowden, that was very pivotal to my hunger for wanting to know the English language and, you know, discover these words. And, you know, it was a tool in the music that I - 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 these three columns of buildings with four people on each floor, six floors, you know, so you have people to the left of you, right of you, on top and on the bottom of you. It's a very intense and stressful situation. Everyone's 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 was 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. And, you know, one day your best friend could be killed. The day before, you could be celebrating him getting a brand-new bike. It's just extreme highs and lows.

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

JAY-Z: It was about '85, so I had to be - no, a little earlier than that, so maybe about 12, 13 years old.

GROSS: And how did that change the projects?

JAY-Z: Well, I think it - 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 theyselves. 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, who 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 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, 'cause 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 there was - you know, 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, the sister, the - somebody, the uncle, the aunt, it was just - it was so prevalent.

GROSS: So you'd seen 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: Oh, not until later on. You know, at 14, 15 years old, you know, 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're feeling. You're thinking about buying some food for the house. You're thinking about paying an extra light bill. So at that young age, you're not thinking about the destruction that you're causing your own community.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 2010 interview with Jay-Z. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2010 interview with Jay-Z.


GROSS: I want to play another track here, and I want to play "December 4th" because it's so autobiographical and about the period of your life that we're talking about and also because your mother's featured on it.

JAY-Z: Yeah. I tricked her.

GROSS: We'll actually hear her voice. Yeah.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you say you tricked her?

JAY-Z: Yeah. It was her birthday. It was actually her birthday. December 4 is my birthday, which is the title of the song. And it was her birthday, September 17, 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 brought the track up, and I was like, I just want you to talk on it - 'cause I knew if I told her, she'd get really nervous. So I just - I brought it down to the studio, and I just brought the track up, and I was like, I need you to talk on this. And she's like, what do you want me to say? And you know, the rest is history.

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

JAY-Z: Just tell those stories that you told about me about riding a bike when I was 4 and, you know, those sort of things. And she went in there, and it was - you know, we couldn't get off the mic after a minute 'cause she just kept talking.

GROSS: OK. So here's Jay-Z's "December 4th" from "The Black Album," and also featuring his mother.


GLORIA CARTER: Shawn Carter was born December 4, weighing in at 10 pounds, 8 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.

THE CHI-LITES: Hi, baby. What's wrong? You look like you've lost your best friend. Tell me, is it something that I've done again. You look like you've lost your best friend. Tell me...

JAY-Z: (Rapping) They say they never really miss you 'til you dead or you gone. So on that note, I'm leaving after this song so you ain't got to feel no way about Jay - so long. But at least let me tell you why I'm this way - hold on. I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves, who made love under the sycamore tree, which makes me a more sicker MC. And 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 matching my gear. Now I'm just scratching the surface 'cause what's buried 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.

CARTER: Shawn was a very shy child growing up.

GROSS: That's Jay-Z's "December 4th," and my guest is Jay-Z. Let's talk about the period of your life when you were selling crack. How did you start doing that?

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


GROSS: No job interview...

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: Resume.

JAY-Z: Yeah. Yeah. I knew a friend who knew a friend. And, you know, he made an induction. 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 in 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: 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 "Decoded" is pretty much about. It breaks down some of the things that - you know, the origins of things and how they arrive, especially, you know, with the songs, of course, but also with our generation. Those things now that seem like merely fashion, you know, were purposeful at one time or another.

GROSS: 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 obsession with words and with writing. And as I got farther away from that notebook, you know, 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 farther and farther 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, by the time I got to record my first album, which was - I was 26, I didn't need pen or paper. My memory had been trained, you know, just to, you know, listen to a song, think of the words, and then just lay them on 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 is as good now as it was then?

JAY-Z: Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah. I've lost plenty of material. It's not the best way. I wouldn't advise it to...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JAY-Z: I wouldn't advise it to anyone. I've lost a couple albums' worth of great material.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JAY-Z: Well, 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 like, man, I got to think about this, you know? It's the - so imagine, you know, forgetting an entire rhyme and having to sit there and, like - what? I said I was the greatest something.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Jay-Z in 2010. We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) Feel me now. Listen. Momma loved me. Pop left me. Mickey fed me. Annie dressed me. Eric fought me, made me tougher. Love you for that, my [expletive], no matter what, bruh. Marcy raised me, and whether right or wrong, streets gave me all I write in this song. Hootie babysitted, changed my diapers. Gil introduced me to the game that changed my life up. East Trenton grew me, had me skipping school. Valencia's boyfriend, Volvo, had me making moves. Momma raised me. Pop, I miss you. God, help me forgive him, I got some issues. Mickey cleaned my ears. Annie shampooed my hair. Eric was fly.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're concluding our hip-hop history series with my 2010 interview with Jay-Z. This year, he was ranked as the greatest rapper of all time by Billboard and Vibe. He's won 24 Grammys. Now he records infrequently, but he's still a successful entrepreneur. He's the founder and chair of the entertainment company Roc Nation, the former president of Def Jam Records. And in 2019, he became hip-hop's first billionaire. When we spoke, he had just published his book, "Decoded," which describes how he wrote 36 of his songs. The book also describes two sides of his life, his early years as a hustler selling crack and his career as a rapper.

So what was the turning point in your life that got you out of hustling and into the recording studio?

JAY-Z: There was, like, events that would happen over the years. You know, I went to a guy named Clark Kent - 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, 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% 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 100% 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? It didn't - not until the big deals of Master P and Puff deal with Bad Boy, with Arista Records, were people getting really big deals. So for the most part, people in the street were making more than rappers. So for me, I address 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 I'm - who I was talking to was the guys on the street because rap was my hustle and, like, at the time, the streets was my job. So when I was telling people, yeah, I want to be a rapper, 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 - (laughter) surprising choice for you.

JAY-Z: To say the least.

GROSS: Yes, to say the least. 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, came on and it was like, this is a story called "Annie," I was immediately drawn to it, of course, because it was 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. 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.


JAY-Z: Take the bass line out. Jigga. Yeah. Let it bump, though.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) It's the hard-knock life 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 for 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 [expletive] know me to fail? [Expletive] no. Where all my [expletive] with the rubber grips? Bust shots. And if you with me, ma, I'll rub on your [expletive] 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 [expletive] Biggie, baby. You know it's hell when I come through. The life and times of Shawn Carter, [expletive], "Vol. 2."

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) It's the 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 (laughter). Well, I mean, we got the rights already, so it's a bit late, so - 'cause 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 luckily.

GROSS: Let me stop you, because in the book you say (laughter)...

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That you told a big lie. In the book, you say that you...

JAY-Z: Yeah (laughter).

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 (laughter).

GROSS: ...And, you know, all that it meant to you when you saw it on Broadway. And I think you said you, like, won 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 have...


GROSS: So how did - 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.


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, as well. 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 it was - I guess it was his house. This was 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...

GROSS: Oh, the gold record plaque.

JAY-Z: ...RA gives you - yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, OK.

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

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

JAY-Z: Yeah.

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

JAY-Z: Yes, 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.


CHARLES STROUSE: He said something in the liner notes that he - 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, etc., etc. So when he picked up on that, I was very proud of myself for that reason alone.

GROSS: OK. So he liked it.

JAY-Z: Absolutely.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2010 interview with Jay-Z. We'll hear more of it after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2010 interview with Jay-Z.


GROSS: 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. And I guess I'd be interested in what your take on that is.

JAY-Z: 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 the 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 associate - 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 got to 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've signed this contract, now it's on the news all day, and I have to turn myself in. And I'm really like, man, I had a lot of these fights, you know, the guy who got - the record executive, you know, they - I wasn't a record executive. Here it 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 this is how it was sensationalized...

GROSS: That you...

JAY-Z: He was a...

GROSS: ...Stabbed a record executive when you're saying...

JAY-Z: Yeah, a record executive.

GROSS: ...He hadn't even done anything yet, and...

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: ...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, by the way. It was just, you know, a friend. We had a tussle. He went home. He didn't...

GROSS: So did you actually stab him?

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


JAY-Z: ...Right? And he - you know, he went home without - he didn't take a - they didn't give him Aspirin, anything. He went home the same night. You know, they sensationalized it like he was in the hospital and 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, is that - do I have that right?

JAY-Z: Yes. Yeah.

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

JAY-Z: It was very tragic...

GROSS: Very tragic.

JAY-Z: ...But - it's very tragic, but if you put it in context, you could see why and how some of these things happen. 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 two 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'm sure you've been asked this a lot, but this is the b**** 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 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: 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 [expletive]." I guess y'all 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 "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?

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 of times in hip-hop, like in rock 'n' roll, you 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. And hip-hop, the music leads first. So usually, you have a hit record, and then you throw this person onstage who's never been onstage 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 (laughter). I'm...

JAY-Z: No. That's what...

GROSS: ...Going to show off. No?

JAY-Z: Yeah, they want - that's what we want you to believe. But the reality is - and no one else will admit to this - maybe they will - is you onstage 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 9 times out of 10.

GROSS: So do you feel like you were onstage before you 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. 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 - you're not afraid to be onstage.

JAY-Z: Yeah. I just told you I went out first time I performed, I was...

GROSS: OK (laughter).

JAY-Z: I forgot the words.


JAY-Z: I didn't do it my last show at Yankee Stadium, no.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JAY-Z: But, yeah, but my earlier shows, yes.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2010 interview with Jay-Z. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Oh, whew. Just because of you. Oh, whew. Just because of you. Whoa, ooh. Just because of you.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2010 interview with Jay-Z.


GROSS: So let's play - let's get another song in here.

JAY-Z: Sure.

GROSS: And let's do "99 Problems." We'll do the clean version.

JAY-Z: Aw.

GROSS: It's radio, my friend.


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's 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's this clever banter that goes back and forth between the two.

GROSS: OK. And we're going to hear the part of the 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. That's where it takes place.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And we'll 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 b****, which, in the context of this part of the song means dog because you're talking about K-9 dogs here...

JAY-Z: Yeah.

GROSS: ...'Cause the...

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

GROSS: Yeah.

JAY-Z: ...Was the writer in me being provocative 'cause 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 then 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 beside a female dog a b**** on this song.

GROSS: You know, 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 b**** 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.


JAY-Z: Yeah.

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


JAY-Z: (Rapping) Hit me. The year's '94 and my trunk is raw. In my rearview mirror is the motherf****** law. I got two choices, y'all, pull over the car or bounce on the devil, 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 hat's real low. Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don't know. Am I under arrest, or should I guess some more? Well, you was doing 55 in a 54. License and registration and step out of the car. Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are.

(Rapping) I ain't stepping out of - 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 in the back. And I know my rights so you're going to need a warrant for that. Aren't you sharp as a tack? You some type of lawyer or something? Somebody important or something? Well, I ain't passed the bar, but I know a little bit. Enough that you won't illegally search my [expletive]. Well, we'll see how smart you are when the K-9 comes. I've got 99 problems, but a - ain't one. Hit me. Ninety-nine problems but a - ain't one. If you're having girl problems I feel bad for you, son. I got 99 problems, but a - ain't one. Hit me.

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


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


GROSS: So, you know, part of that story is that the K-9 - the cops' K-9 corps was supposed to be coming after you. 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 K-9 unit and we just all just - a little sigh of relief like, oh, that was close.

GROSS: 'Cause you were holding, so it was very close.

JAY-Z: Yeah, if the K-9 would have came, it would have smelled it, then we would have been finished. It would have...

GROSS: Yeah.

JAY-Z: No book.

GROSS: Right. Right. Yeah. No lots of things. 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: My interview with Jay-Z was recorded in 2010. Well, that concludes our hip-hop history series. If you want to hear the other archive interviews in our series, including artists Grandmaster Flash, Queen Latifah, RZA, De La Soul and Andre 3000, you'll find them on our podcast and on our website.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Zadie Smith. She's known for her essays and novels about contemporary life and art. But her new book is a historical novel set in Victorian England. Her characters are dealing with some of the same issues we face today - gender inequality, class divisions and the perpetual consequences of slavery. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) Yeah. Yeah, I'm out that Brooklyn. Now I'm down in Tribeca. Right next to De Niro, but I'll be hood forever. I'm Sinatra. And since I made it here, I can make it anywhere. Yeah, they love me everywhere. I used to cop in Harlem, hola, my Dominicanos. Right there up on Broadway, brought me back to that McDonald's. Took it to my stash spot...

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.


ALICIA KEYS: (Singing) 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. Big lights will inspire you. Let's hear it for New York, New York, New York.

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Catch me at the X with at a Yankee game. I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can. You should know I bleed blue, but I ain't a Crip though. But I got a gang of - walking with my clique, though. Welcome to the melting pot, corners where we selling - Afrika Bambaataa, home of the hip-hop. Yellow cab, gypsy cab, dollar cab, holla back. For foreigners, it ain't fair. They act like they forgot how to add. Eight million stories... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.