Jay Z: The Fresh Air Interview
JAY-Z (RAPPER): Take the bass line out. Uh-huh.
DAVID BIANCULLI (HOST): This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD KNOCK LIFE (GHETTO ANTHEM)")
JAY-Z: (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.
(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...
BIANCULLI: Our guest Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter, has been incredibly successful as a rapper and an entrepreneur. And last night, he became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame at a ceremony in New York City. All of this is pretty amazing since he could just as easily have been in prison or dead.
He was born in 1969 and grew up in a Brooklyn housing project. Jay-Z watched crack cocaine destroy his neighborhood, but he sold it on the street before finding his new life in the recording studio and onstage.
In his 2010 autobiography, "Decoded," Jay-Z writes about his life as an example of the story of his generation, explaining the tough choices faced at a violent and chaotic time. "Decoded" includes the story of an assault case to which Jay-Z ultimately pled guilty to a misdemeanor and also includes the stories behind 36 of his songs. Jay-Z holds the record for the most No. 1 albums by a solo artist on the Billboard 200. His 2009 recording with Alicia Keys, "Empire State Of Mind," became something of a New York anthem.
His 2013 album, "Magna Carta Holy Grail," was Jay-Z’s 13th consecutive studio album to top the U.S. Billboard 200 chart. Terry interviewed Jay-Z in 2010. Let’s start with one of his signature songs, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," produced by Kanye West from Jay-Z's 2001 album, "The Blueprint."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IZZO (H.O.V.A.)")
JAY-Z: (Speaking) Ladies and gentlemen, let's put our hands together for the astonishing...
(Singing) H to the izz-O (ph), V to the izz-A.
(Rapping) Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the eighth wonder of the world, the flow of the century. Oh, it's timeless... HOV. Thanks for coming out tonight. You could have been anywhere in the world, but you're here with me. I appreciate that.
H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. For shizzle, my nizzle, used to dribble down in VA, was herbing 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. For sheezy, my neezy, keep my arms so breezy. Can't leave rap alone. The game needs me. Haters want me clapped and chromed it ain't easy. Cops 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, son of a...
H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. For shizzle, my nizzle, used to dribble down in VA. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. That's the anthem get your damn hands up. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS (HOST): 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: Let me just start with the track that we heard, which samples the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Tell me what that song meant to you before you used it in "Izzo."
JAY-Z: Well, I had a - I grew up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, and my mom and pop had an extensive record collection. So Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and all those sounds and souls - 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: Ah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, it's like a 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 a 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: J-Hova, which is a nickname that, you know, they gave me because it was like a - 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 you doing that, man? God must really love you. It's like a religious experience, man. And then he was like, J-Hova. And then, you know, it started out as a joke. And then it just stuck.
GROSS: OK (laughter).
JAY-Z: As most nicknames do. Right?
GROSS: (Laughter) Right. Now, in talking about sampling, I'm reminded of something you say in the book that I thought was really interesting. You know, you talk about your parents having a big record collection. Your father left when you were very young - I think when you were 9. And you say...
GROSS: ...That most of your friends' fathers had left. You say (reading) our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced. But we took their old records, and used them to build something fresh.
That's really interesting that one of your things that your father leaves behind that you can use is his records.
JAY-Z: Yeah. Yeah, I guess there's a bright side to everything. Right?
GROSS: Yeah. Well, that's one way of looking at it.
GROSS: 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, 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, (rapping) 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, and I'm like man, that's pretty prophetic (laughter).
GROSS: So you were about 9 when you wrote that?
JAY-Z: Yeah. Well, yeah, either - between 9 and 11. Those were my first rhymes.
GROSS: OK, so provocative is a pretty big word for a kid of that age. You write how you started reading the dictionary, like, looking for cool words to use. Did you find that word in the dictionary, or did you already know it?
JAY-Z: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I found that in the dictionary. I had a sixth-grade teacher, Ms. 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 - in 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 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 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. 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 old were you when crack came to the neighborhood?
JAY-Z: It was about '85, so I had to be - even 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 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, 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.
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 the extra light bill. So at that young age, you're not thinking about the destruction that you're causing your own community.
GROSS: I want to play another track here. And I want to play "December 4th" because it's - it's so autobiographical and about the period of your life that we're talking about and also because your mother is featured on it (laughter).
JAY-Z: Yeah, I tricked her.
GROSS: People actually hear her voice, yeah. 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 for her birthday. And she came down 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 her down to the studio, and I just brought the track up. And I was like, I need you to talk on this. And she was like, what do you want me to say? And, you know, the rest is history.
GROSS: What did you tell her when she said, what do you want me to say?
JAY-Z: Oh, just tell those stories that you told about me - about riding the 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 her off the mic after a minute. It was (laughter) - she just kept talking.
GROSS: So here's Jay-Z's "December 4th" from "The Black Album" and also featuring his mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DECEMBER 4TH")
GLORIA CARTER: (Speaking) Shawn Carter was born December 4th, 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.
JAY-Z: (Speaking) 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.
(Rapping) They say they never really miss you till 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 Adnes Reeves, who made love under the sycamore tree, which makes me a more sicker emcee. 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 felt 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. He has a new book called "Decoded." So this track we just heard is from "The Black Album." So I've got to ask you how you feel about "The Grey Album," which is the mashup that Danger Mouse did of your "Black Album" and the Beatles' "White Album," without any copyright permission (laughter). So how do you feel about it musically, and how do you feel about the fact that he did it?
JAY-Z: I think it was a really strong album. I mean, I champion any form of creativity, and that was a genius idea to do it. And it sparked so many others like it. But you know, him being the first and having the idea, I thought it was genius.
GROSS: Did you feel ripped off by the fact that he used your music on it without paying for it? Or did you think, doesn't matter; it's really good art?
JAY-Z: No, I was actually honored that, you know, someone took the time to mash those records up with Beatles records. I was honored to be on - you know, quote, unquote, "the same song with the Beatles."
BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's 2010 interview with Jay-Z on the occasion of his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "DIRT OFF YOUR SHOULDER")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Jay-Z. Last night, he became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
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 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 a - 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 arrived, 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 till my mother made me go to bed. And it was like this obsession with words and with writing. And as I got further away from that notebook - now as I was on the street and these ideas would come, I would run into the corner store, the bodega, and grab, like, a paper bag or just buy a juice, anything just to get a paper bag. And then I'd write the words on the paper bag and stuff these ideas in my pocket till I got back. And then I would transfer them into the notebook. And as I got further and further away 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 to 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 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 (laughter). I've lost plenty material. It's not the best way. I wouldn't advise it to...
JAY-Z: I wouldn't advise it to anyone. I've lost a couple albums' worth of great material - 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've got to think about this. You know, it's the, it's the - so imagine, you know, forgetting an entire rhyme and then having to sit there and like - what? I said I was the greatest something.
GROSS: So what was the turning point in your life that got you out of hustling and into the recording studio?
JAY-Z: It was, like, events that would happen over the years. You know, I went to a guy 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. I guess I didn't have a hundred percent belief in what I was doing. Then finally, I just said, man, I'm just going to give this music a try. I'm going to give it a hundred percent and just forget everything that I'm doing, you know. And here we are.
GROSS: So how much money had you been making on the street when you decided to try music?
JAY-Z: Well, I don't know if you really have a concrete number of how much money you were making. Sometimes it was really good, and it was fantastic. I mean, I did pretty well, which made it more difficult for me because, at the time, people in the street were making more than rappers, you know. 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 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 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.
BIANCULLI: Jay-Z speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. Last night, he became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Coming up, he'll tell us the stories behind his songs "99 Problems" and "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)." And film critic David Edelstein has some thoughts about the new Tom Cruise monster movie, "The Mummy." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW DAY")
JAY-Z: (Rapping) Sorry, junior, I already ruined you 'cause you ain't even alive. Paparazzi pursuing you. Sins of a father make your life 10 times harder. I just want to take you a barber. Bonding on charters - all the [expletive] that I never did, teach you good values so you cherish it. Took 26 years to find my path. My only job is cut the time in half. So at 13, we'll have our first drink together - black bar mitzvah, mazel tov, mogul talk. Look a man dead in his eyes so he know you talk truth. When you speak it, give your word. Keep it. And if the day comes I only see him on the weekend, I just pray that we was in love on the night that we conceived him. Promise to never leave him even if his mama tweaking 'cause my dad left me, and I promise never repeat him, never repeat him, never repeat him.
(Singing) Drifting on by. It's a new life for me. It's a new life for me. Ooh, and I'm feeling good. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview with Jay-Z. They spoke in 2010 when Jay-Z autobiography, "Decoded," was published. Last night, Jay-Z became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
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.
JAY-Z: Yeah (laughter).
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, 'cause of 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: (Speaking) Take the bass line out. Uh-huh. Jigga. Let it bump though.
(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.
(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 (ph), 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], Volume 2.
(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 give - 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: But let me stop you because in the book, you say (laughter)...
GROSS: ...That you told the 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.
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, which is really cool. I was in the house trying to - I went looking at a house on the Upper East Side, and I saw this plaque on the wall. And I'm, like, wait a minute. That's my plaque. And I guess it was his house. This is a couple years back. I have to share that with him.
GROSS: Oh. Oh, you mean your Grammy? Is that what you're talking about?
JAY-Z: No, no, the plaque for the record. You know, RIAA gives you...
GROSS: Oh, the gold record plaque, the gold record plaque.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Oh, OK (laughter).
JAY-Z: It was, like, a lot of times platinum, though. But, yeah, that (laughter).
GROSS: That's funny. That's right.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
CHARLES STROUSE (COMPOSER): 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, 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.
BIANCULLI: Jay-Z, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. We'll continue their conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "99 PROBLEMS")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Jay-Z. Last night, he became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
GROSS: Now, I just have to ask you. I'm sure you've been asked this a lot, but this is the bitch-and-ho question (laughter). 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. 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.
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, and he leaves to the next town and does the same thing 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 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 (laughter) to people. You know how a lot of hip-hop artists, when they're on stage, they kind of like, grab their crotch (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 onstage who's never been onstage before, you know, 'cause 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 going to show off. No?
JAY-Z: No, that's what - yeah, they want - that's what we want you to believe.
JAY-Z: But the reality is - and no one else will admit to this- well, maybe they will - is now with Summer Jams and things like that, people are getting put onstage 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 were prepared for it? Probably not, because you did parties before that - you had experience.
JAY-Z: Exactly. I kind of went through a rock 'n' roll stage. You know, I kind of was doing parties and learning to perform. The first show I ever did, I just forgot the words. I stood there, and I tried to pass the mic to Damon Dash, who I co-founded Roc-A-Fella with. I gave him the mic, like, here. He was like, man, I don't rap.
JAY-Z: I just didn't know what to do. I didn't - I was just, like, in shock.
GROSS: 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 onstage.
JAY-Z: Yeah. I just told you, when I - first time I performed I was...
GROSS: OK (laughter).
JAY-Z: I forgot the words.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
JAY-Z: I didn't do it at my last show at Yankee Stadium, no.
JAY-Z: But, yeah. But my earlier shows, yes.
GROSS: So let's play - let's get another song in here. And let's...
GROSS: ...Do "99 Problems." We'll do the clean version.
GROSS: (Laughter) 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 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 there'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 this song that deals with the story that you just told.
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 - where this takes place.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, 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 K-9 dogs here.
GROSS: Because the K-9...
JAY-Z: Yeah. And that was my...
JAY-Z: And that was my - and that 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. 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: So here's "99 Problems" by my guest, Jay-Z.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "99 PROBLEMS")
JAY-Z: (Rapping) The year's '94. In my trunk is raw. In my rearview mirror is the mother-[expletive] 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. 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 [expletive] and 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 a 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 [expletive]. We'll see how smart you are when the K-9 comes. I got 99 problems, but a [expletive] ain't one. Hit me - 99 problems, but a [expletive] ain't one. If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son. I got 99 problems, but a [expletive] 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 can 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 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 K-9 unit. And we just all - just a little sigh of relief, like, that was close.
GROSS: 'Cause you were holding. So (laughter) I'm sure it was.
JAY-Z: Yeah, if K-9 would've came, it would've smelled it. And we would've been finished. It would've...
JAY-Z: No book.
GROSS: Right, right.
GROSS: Yeah, no lots of things.
JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah (laughter).
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.
BIANCULLI: Jay-Z, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. Last night, he became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMPIRE STATE OF MIND")
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 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 -hola, my Dominicanos - right there up on Broadway, brought me back to that McDonald's. Took it to my stash spot, 560 State 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 out that 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 Mai Tais. Sitting courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high fives. [Expletive], I be spiked out. I can trip a referee. Tell by attitude that I'm definitely from...
ALICIA KEYS (MUSICAL ARTIST): (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.
JAY-Z: (Rapping) Come on.
(Singing) Let's hear it for New York...
JAY-Z: (Rapping) You're welcome, OG. I made you hot, [expletive].
(Singing) New York, New York...
JAY-Z: (Rapping) Catch at the X with OG at a Yankee game. [Expletive], 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 [expletive] walking my clique, though. Welcome to the melting pot, corners where we sellin' [expletive], Afrika Bambaataa [expletive], home of the hip-hop. Yellow cab, gypsy cab, dollar cab, holler back. For foreigners, it ain't fair. They act like they forgot how to act. Eight million stories, out there in the naked city. It's a pity. Half of y'all won't make it. Me, I got to plug Special Ed, "I Got It Made." If Jeezy's playing LeBron, I'm paying Dwayne Wade. Three-dice Cee-lo, three-card Monte, Labor Day parade, rest in peace, Bob Marley. Statue of Liberty, long live the World Trade. Long live the king, yo. I'm from the Empire State. That's...
(Singing) In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of. There's nothing you can't do.
JAY-Z: (Rapping) That boy good.
(Singing) Now you're in New York.
JAY-Z: (Rapping) Welcome to the bright lights, baby.
(Singing) These streets will make you feel brand new. Big lights will inspire you. Let's hear it for New York, New York, New York...
BIANCULLI: Coming up, film critic David Edelstein discusses the new Tom Cruise monster movie, "The Mummy." This is FRESH AIR.
Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.