At first, people didn’t believe.
Raised by a single mother in Brooklyn’s rough Marcy projects, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter hit the streets as a teenager and made money, a lot of money, selling drugs. But what he really wanted was a rap career. He hooked up with The Jaz (later Jaz-O), a local artist who had a deal with EMI Records, and cut guest appearances with the likes of Original Flavor and Big Daddy Kane. He made a demo tape and shopped around for a deal of his own, but labels weren’t biting.
Never short on confidence, Jay got with fellow hustlers Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, and, using capital saved from the streets, founded a label, Roc-A-Fella Records, and set to work on a debut album. Recorded at the storied D&D Studios in Manhattan, with production from DJ Premier, Clark Kent, Ski, Jaz, Peter Panic and Irv Gotti, Reasonable Doubt was released June 25, 1996 through a distribution deal with Priority Records. The album didn’t set the world on fire right away. It sold just 420,000 copies its first year out, peaking at No. 23 on Billboard’s album chart, and wasn’t certified platinum ’til 2002. Nevertheless, it announced the arrival of Jay-Hova, the God MC, and its moments—“Dead Presidents,” with the Nas sample that would play so prominently in the greatest rap battle of all time; “Brooklyn’s Finest,” where Jay trades verses with the Notorious B.I.G.; and the hit single “Ain’t No Nigga,” which turned a 16-year-old Foxy Brown into a household name—loom ever larger with the passage of time.
Jay’s made seven more albums since, and sold over 20 million copies of them. A lot has changed. He and Jaz-O had a falling out, with back-and-forth snipes over credit and loyalty. Roc-A-Fella grew to be an empire, of course, one that would eventually span music, fashion, movies and liquor. Last year, Jay split from Dame and Biggs and took over Def Jam Records—and kept the Roc-A-Fella name for himself. People believe now.
On this 10th anniversary, XXL pays homage, revisiting the creation of a classic with those who were there. —Justin Monroe
1. “Can’t Knock the Hustle” (feat. Mary J. Blige)
Produced by Knowbody
Coproduced by Sean Cane and Dahoud
Knowbody: I made the beat at my mama’s house. It was probably like ’94. You know, Dame lived in 1199, which is right across the street from where I lived at. I know there was air [in the mix] and everything. I want to go back to doing beats like that.
The whole time after we gave Dame the beat and after he picked it, from then on we called like every week like, “What’s up? Can you find out what’s up?” They’d be like, “He’s writing.” So I don’t know if he was actually writing. Dame just told me, “Quit calling me.”
Sean Cane: I remember thinking if they really wanted to keep the beat. I remember I kept calling Dame. He was like, “Nah, he’s writing to it.” I don’t know if it was just being that they were trying to stall, but they just kept saying, “He’s writing to it. Getting Mary.” We was excited. Before we got Mary, we put Veronica on it to reference the song. Veronica, the Spanish singer, she was on Hola Records. Mary came in the day of the mix to do her vocals. She just really came in to do her part.
When Jay went in to do the clean vocals, I was like, “I think you messed up on this one. I think you could do this part here [again].” I forgot whether it was on the “nigga” or the “player.” I was like, “I think that part you could say it a little better.” He was like, “Play it back.” He’s like, “You’re wildin’.” That was in Platinum Island. That’s where it was mixed at. But it was recorded at D&D, where they paid niggas with the shoe box of money. It was either fives or ones. It was ones. We had to count it. Jay and Dame, they came with the shoe box of money. Their whole shit, coming with the logo, they was hungry. They was grinding. We sat at the studio with the shoe box of money, and it was three people counting the money. It wasn’t a lot. It was less than 10 Gs, put it like that. That same day is the day they brought in the Roc-A-Fella logo. They came in with the Roc-A-Fella logo, and were showing it to Jay like, “Yo, what you think about this for the logo?”
2. “Politics As Usual”
Produced by Ski
Ski: I was riding in the car with my baby’s mama. I had it on the oldies-but-goodies station, and I hear “Hurry Up This Way Again” by the Stylistics. I said, “Yo, this shit is crazy. If I sample this here, and chop it up right and let Jay hear it, he got to hear that shit and love it.” That same day, she took me to the old record store, and I took it home that night and chopped it up and played it for Jay the next day. He was going crazy for it. A funny thing is, at the same time, Clark actually found the sample too and did it. But I think the one I did was just a tad bit hotter. No disrespect to Clark, the one I did was just a tad bit hotter. That’s one of my favorite records to this day. I think that was the blueprint to what Kanye and Just are doing now, the whole soulful voice thing.
Jay was quick with the verses. Back then, he might have wrote two verses down on paper, but he never really wrote it down. I would sometimes glance down and see three words on his paper, but the nigga doing a whole song. I’m like, What’s he rapping from?
When I got paid for these records on Reasonable Doubt I used to go to Dame’s crib, and I remember them giving me a book bag just full of money.
I used to just get on the train. If niggas knew I had thousands of dollars in a backpack…
Clark Kent: It’s crazy, ’cause the same day that Ski brought him that beat, I brought him the same beat like an hour later. Jay was like, “Dag, I think yours is a little better.” ’Cause mines was pretty sounding, because I made it big and very clear. But Jay was like, “You know how we do it, and real is real. He gave it to me first.” So he did his version instead of doing my version of the same thing.
Me being a music business guy, I was like, “Which one’s better?” He was like, “Clark, that’s not right to switch one. He came first. And Ski is our boy.” So that’s how it was. And not for nothing, it was no love lost, ’cause Ski is my nigga. So I was just like, “Go ahead, do it. You’re right.” That’s the way we are. I don’t even know if Ski knows it went down like this.
Lenny Santiago: I remember Ski was doing a group—I don’t know if this is supposed to be out there, but whatever—he was doing Camp Lo. That was his group. He was very heavily involved with them. And actually, one or two of the songs were Camp Lo’s. “Feelin’ It” and “Politics As Usual.” I’m almost positive those were Camp Lo’s. And Jay ended up hearing them, and was like, “Oh no, no, no. I need that.” No dis-respect to them, but he just felt it so much, and he recorded it, and it ended up being his record.
3. “Brooklyn’s Finest” (feat. Notorious B.I.G.)
Produced by Clark Kent
Irv Gotti: I did not want that record to happen. I was adamantly against it. I would call Jay every day like, “No, fuck that! Don’t do this record.” I said, “What I’m scared of is you doin’ [a record] with Biggie and you comin’ off like his little man. And nigga, we can’t be owning shit if you his little man. You never gon’ get that throne.” But this nigga would call me and be like, “Nah, but Gotti, I’m tellin’ you, I’m gonna show ’em. I’m gon’ make people see that I’m that nigga.”
Jay and Big had a lot of love, but at that particular time it was very competitive. Go ’head and listen to that record—“It’s time to separate the pros from the cons/The platinum from the bronze…” Real talk, Big’s goin’ at Jay in that record. “You ain’t harmin’ me/So pardon me…” Trust me. He’s goin’ at him real tough.
Lenny Santiago: I was doing promotion at the time, and we were at the video shoot for “Dead Presidents.” If you remember, Biggie was in the video. And it was during a break, Damon was being Damon, and everyone was around talking—Jay, Big, Lil’ Cease, D. Roc—and Damon approached Biggie, like, “What’s up with that record? You gonna do something with Jay?” And Big was like, “Whatever, nigga. I’m waitin’ on y’all. Whatchu sayin’?” Dame was like, “I’m sayin’, though, we could do it right now.” At the time, Jay was comin’ up and Big was the shit. He had the biggest record out, Puff was doing his thing, and Bad Boy was on fire. So Dame was trying to put him to the test. And they kept going back and forth, and Big was like, “Man, listen, whatever, anytime, anywhere.” So Dame called Clark Kent like, “I got Big right here, he wants to do that record with Jay, whatever, whatever.” So that same night, they ended up recording the record. And Clark did the track, and it was a classic. It was just funny how it happened from being put on the spot.
Biggs: Biggie came to the video for “Dead Presidents,” and he was saying how much he liked Jay, the whole style. Dame was talking about it, and said, “Do a record tomorrow.” Him and Dame was drinking. They drank like five bottles of Cristal, shot for shot. Dame threw up outside. Dame had told Biggie to call the next day at five o’clock. I remember being in the office, and at five o’clock the phone rings. We went to the studio, and we spoke to him. We had a date, and they went in and recorded. It was funny, ’cause they came in with a pad, and Jay pushed the pad to Biggie. They’re both looking at the pad like, Go ahead, you take it. No, you take it. That’s when they found out that both of them didn’t write.
That day we went in, I think Jay laid down his whole part. Biggie lay down like a line or two, then he said he couldn’t finish, he had to go home and finish it. We had Biggie come and smoke 60 blunts. But he came back and laid down a little bit more, left again, and then he came back and finished it. We had fun the first [session]. Afterward, we all went to see Bernie Mac at Radio City Music Hall.
Dame Dash: We didn’t do all of “Brooklyn’s Finest” in D&D. We had to come back to it, ’cause that didn’t have a hook. Me and Clark Kent had to make up a hook. We had to hand it in like the next day. Me and Clark and Biggs was in the studio, then Biggs left, and we finally got it, me and Clark Kent. Clark was trying to get me on the hook. We took a rhyme from the song, “Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls, nigga, shit your drawers…,” and he was trying to get me to say it. I was like, “I’m not gonna do it.” I got Clark to do it.
Clark Kent: I just freshly came off of tour with Big. We were doing Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s [debut album], and he heard the beat and went crazy. He was like, “I want the beat.” I was like, “Nah, it’s Jay’s beat.” He’s like, “You’re always giving this guy everything.” He wanted that beat real bad. I’m leaving the studio to go to D&D to track it for Jay, and Big’s like, “Yo, I want to be on that record.” So I was like, “Yo, just come with me.” So I went upstairs, and I left him downstairs. I was like, “Big wants to be on that record. Why don’t you put Big on that record? He heard the beat. He likes it.” Jay was like, “I don’t really know him like that.” And Dame was like, “I ain’t paying him, neither.” I was just like, Ah, okay. So then I’m like, “If I get him to do it for free would you do it?” He was like, “Yeah, we’ll try it.” So I run downstairs. I go get Big, bring him upstairs, and they met each other the right way, properly. And everybody was like, “Well, if you’re going to do it for whatever…” Jay changed the verses around right there, and was like, “This is where you go, right there. You ready?” Big was like, “I can’t do this right now!”
Two months later, Big came back with his verses. Days later, I was mixing it, and there was no hook. We were supposed to do the hook when we were mixing it. And Jay says, “All right, you got to scratch something.” I’m trying to find things to scratch and nothing’s working. So I’m telling Jay, “Yo, y’all gotta come up with a hook.” Jay and Big are there. We’re at Giant Studios. Big goes, “I’ll be back, I’m going to the store.” And then an hour goes by, and he doesn’t go back. Then Jay goes, “I’ll be back.” They leave me there and never come back. So it’s like three in the morning, I decided to write a hook, and I performed the hook. That’s my voice.
To me, that’s the best collabo I’ve ever heard. You would never think that Jay’s verses were done so far in advance. It feels like they did it together. Big and Jay were that talented, they could pick up on that line and go from that line.
I’d made the beat before for one of Damon’s groups. He had a group called the Future Sound, and I remixed the record with the same beat. And Damon said, “Yo, that beat is hot, give it to Jay.” So he says he produced it because he said give it to Jay. How ridiculous is that? But whatever, it’s all good. And then the other day he told me I jerked him because I didn’t give him publishing.
4. “Dead Presidents II”
Produced by Ski
Ski: When I first found the sample and I threw the Nas thing in there, I liked the record a lot. But it wasn’t my favorite record. I really loved it after Jay got on it. That’s what made me a fan of “Dead Presi-dents.” It was an old jazz sample, Lonnie Liston Smith [“A Garden of Peace”]. And Nas [“The World Is Yours (Remix)”]. When Nas was hot a the time, Nas’ voice was crazy. And when Jay threw in the lyrics, the first verse, the way he came on was bananas.
Clark Kent: I heard the second version when I was on the road with Big. I was playing “Dead Presidents” over and over again. The first and the second one. I was like, “Big, my boy rap better than you.” And he was sick, ’cause I kept telling him. Everybody was mad at me. On the bus, I was like the alien for even trying it. But after Big heard that, this is before they met to do “Brooklyn’s Finest,” he was like, “Clark, that dude got it. He got it. He got it.” That let me know that I wasn’t crazy.
5. “Feelin’ It” (feat. Mecca)
Produced by Ski
Ski: It was me and Geechi Suede from Camp Lo, it was my hook and everything. Jay heard it and was like, “I want that record. I don’t care what you do, I want that record.” I didn’t want to give it to him, but I had to because I knew he was going to be the man at the time. So I said, “Fuck it, take the record.” It really was me and Suede from Camp Lo, the flow and everything, the way he was flowing on it. That’s the way we was flowing on it. So he just took the whole thing. But you know, he killed it in his own way.
Continue reading this feature in the August 2006 issue of XXL (#83).