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Fresh Air's summer music interviews: Rap icon Jay-Z


JAY-Z: (Rapping) Big pimping, baby. It's big pimping, spending G's. Feel me. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Feel me.


This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. We're continuing our series of favorite music interviews from our archive with Jay-Z and Lizzo. First, we have Jay-Z, who's been incredibly successful as a rapper and an entrepreneur. We spoke in 2010 after he published his memoir, "Decoded," in which he wrote about growing up in a housing project and watching crack destroy his neighborhood. He sold drugs before finding success in the recording studio and on stage. His book also tells the stories behind 36 of his songs. He holds the record for the most No. 1 albums by a solo artist on the Billboard 200. In 2017, Jay-Z became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His 2009 record with Alicia Keys, "Empire State Of Mind," became something of a New York anthem. He's also known as Beyonce's husband. Let's start with one of Jay-Z's signature songs, "Izzo (H.O.V.A)," from his 2001 album, "The Blueprint."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, let's put our hands together for the astonishing...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) H to the izz-O (ph), V to the izz-A (ph).

JAY-Z: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the eighth wonder of the world. The flow of the century - oh, it's timeless. Hov (ph). Thanks for coming out tonight. You could have been anywhere in the world, but you're here with me. I appreciate that.

(Rapping) H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. For shizzle (ph), my nizzle (ph) used to dribble down in V-A. 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. For sheezy (ph), my neezy (ph), 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 wants 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. It's 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 V-A. H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. That's the anthem. Get your damn hands up. H to the izz-O...

GROSS: Jay-Z, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you on our show. So what were your first rhymes like? You - 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 brought a piece of one of them, and it was like, (rapping) I'm the king of hip-hop that were new like the Reebok with a key and a 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 pathetic.

GROSS: So - but you were about 9 when you wrote that?

JAY-Z: Yeah. Well, yeah, between 9 and 11. Those were my first rhymes.

GROSS: OK, so provocative is a pretty big word for a kid who's 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 that?

JAY-Z: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I found that in the dictionary. Look, 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 - you know, 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, top - 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. 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 - 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. The people who were addicted to it, the fiends, had very little self-respect for their self. This - 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 (ph) 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. 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, you know, as I was on the street and these ideas would come, I would run into the corner store, and would - the bodega - and grab, like, a paper bag or just buy juice - anything just to get a paper bag. And then, I would write the words on a 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 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. Well, I've lost plenty material. It's not the best way.

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 it happens. You 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. 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: We're listening to the interview I recorded with JAY-Z in 2010. We'll hear more of the interview after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2010 interview with JAY-Z, recorded after the publication of his memoir, "Decoded."

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...

JAY-Z: To say the least.

GROSS: ...For you. 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, 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. 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.


JAY-Z: Take the bass line out. 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, 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)...

JAY-Z: Yeah.

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.

JAY-Z: Yeah.

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 onstage, 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JAY-Z: But the reality is - and no one else will admit to this - well, maybe they will - is you're onstage in front of - 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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

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 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.

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 - 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 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: Because the K-9...

JAY-Z: And that was my...

GROSS: Yeah.

JAY-Z: 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 b**** or hoe 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 b**** 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 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: Hit me. (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. 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 9 minutes.


GROSS: My interview with JAY-Z was recorded in 2010. After a short break, we'll hear my 2019 interview with rapper, singer and classically trained flute player Lizzo. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) 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 St. 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...


THE CARTERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah… Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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