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FEATURE: Time To Build

Photography Jonathan Mannion
Photography Jonathan Mannion

Jay-Z is no stranger to success. For all intents and purposes, his career started on June 25, 1996, when he released his seminal debut, Reasonable Doubt. By September 10, 2001, he was one of rap’s elite. There was the string of three No. 1 albums (1998’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, 1999’s Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, and 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia), several chart-topping singles (including 1999’s “Big Pimpin’” and 2000’s “I Just Wanna Love U”) and multiple platinum plaques. On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, though, when he dropped his sixth studio album, The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), Jay-Z’s career trajectory took a sharp ascent, beyond the sales and Billboard charts, when heads realized the album was an official classic.

On the same day that terrorists tragically struck down New York City’s historic twin towers, 9/11, Jay’s sixth album provided a much-needed cause for celebration. Nearly two weeks later, on September 22, Jigga opened up a performance at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom by declaring, “I dropped the same day as the twin towers.”

Recorded mostly over the course of one weekend in the summer of 2001, at New York City’s Baseline Studios, The Blueprint reinvented Jay-Z. The production team included the Trackmasters, Timbaland, Eminem and Bink. Thanks largely to relative newcomers Just Blaze and Kanye West—who collectively made seven of the disc’s 13 beats—though, The Blueprint marked the birth of the once-coveted Roc-A-Fella sound. Both are widely credited with the album’s focus on sped-up soul samples and lengthy vocal chops, a reintroduction to a sound once mastered by boardsmen such as the RZA.

Top to bottom, The Blueprint has been heralded as Hov’s most personal work to date. The charge was led by the Jackson 5–lifted “Izzo (H.O.V.A).,” where Hova proclaimed, “Not guilty, y’all got to feel me,” in response to his misdemeanor charge for stabbing Lance “Un” Rivera at an NYC nightclub in 1999. The singles to follow—“Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Song Cry”—delivered the necessary radio spins, while the hustler’s theme song “U Don’t Know” and the infamous diss track “Takeover” catered directly to the streets. The latter, a vicious assault on Queens MCs Mobb Deep and Nas, was debuted in part (the Prodigy-targeted verse, specifically) at Hot 97’s Summer Jam, on June 28, 2001, concluding with the not-too-subtle line, “Ask Nas, he don’t want it with Hov.” Dedicating an entire verse to his Queensbridge peer on the song’s album version, Jay-Z single-handedly brought a previously unspoken feud between he and Nas before the public eye.
Success was undeniable. Critics were ecstatic, and the album scanned 427,000 copies in its first week of release. Two and a half million copies later, Jay-Z’s lasting effort has even spawned two sequels—2002’s The Blueprint2: The Gift & the Curse and this year’s The Blueprint 3, released eight years to the day of the first one. To commemorate The Blueprint’s anniversary and the release of BP3, XXL chops it up with the album’s architects to find out just how Jay built his masterpiece. —ROB MARKMAN

Brooklyn rapper a.k.a. Jigga, Hova, The God MC, former president of Def Jam, founder of Roc Nation

Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua

A&R for Roc-A-Fella, partner, with Gee Roberson, of management company Hip Hop Since 1978

Lenny “S” Santiago
Former Director of A&R Roc-A-Fella

Gee Roberson
Vice President of A&R at Atlantic Records, partner, with Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua, of management company Hip Hop Since 1978, A&R for Roc-A-Fella (for The Blueprint)

Detroit rapper, producer

Virginia producer

Just Blaze
New Jersey producer

One half of the production duo the Trackmasters


Virginia producer

Gimel “Young Guru” Keaton

Former Roc-A-Fella engineer

Supa Engineer Duro

Former Roc-A-Fella mixing engineer

Queens rapper, producer, member of rap group
A Tribe Called Quest

Photography Jonathan Mannion
Photography Jonathan Mannion

Produced by BINK

BINK: I actually did “The Ruler’s Back” at Daddy’s House, in Puff’s studio. I was working on stuff for Loon or Black Rob. They didn’t take it. The crazy thing is that, the day I went to mix that record, I loaded up the disc with the sample on it, and it was corrupted. So I had to go back to Daddy’s House that day and look through boxes of records to find that actual record, and it killed me. Luckily, my father was in town to see me, and he went to Daddy’s House with me to dig through all of those records.

LENNY S: [Bink] was somebody who always had hot joints. But it was like extended fam. We didn’t look at him like no outside, random producer. He was actually a little closer than that. He definitely had an open-door policy.

JAY-Z: I don’t think [Slick Rick] had enough material. It was unfair that he didn’t get a chance to really be home in the studio and really do that again. So you gotta understand why he’s not there. Great Adventures of Slick Rick [is] one of the greatest albums ever made. The Storyteller was brilliant on that. I like to pay homage. I love the culture. I really love the culture. Even to a fault. Sometimes I’m criticized for it. That’s one of the big things. You gotta pay respect to the culture.

Produced by KANYE WEST

YOUNG GURU: There’s a lot of times when people take shots at Jay, and Jay, because of the way that he is, doesn’t really answer people back. All the time, I wish that he’d answer them back, but a lot of people, he’s like, “They’re not really worth it.” The Mobb Deep and the Nas thing had been going on for a minute… He came out and did one of the verses at Summer Jam, and then he went back and finished the record. He finished the Summer Jam joint with, “Ask Nas, he don’t want it with Hov,” and everybody went crazy. That was sort of baiting him, but the finishing of that record was just like, “Oh, this is retarded.” That’s actually the first mix that I ever did for Jay.

LENNY S: Everybody in there was obviously super biased. Biggest Jay fans and supporters in the world. We were 100 percent gung ho, gassing Jay to do it. I remember Kanye semiwondering, “Damn, am I gonna kill myself from Nas or anybody else ever taking my tracks?” [Laughs] But at the end of the day,
I don’t think he really cared. “It’s Jay’s words. I just happened to do the track. It’s not my fault.” But I definitely remember it being a question mark. Ask Ron Browz, to this day, feels the same about “Ether.” When I see him, he still mentions that.

YOUNG GURU: Jay, for me, is the consummate super-cool guy. I’ve never really seen this guy sweat. That’s a running joke that we have: He’s an alien, because I’ve never seen him sweat. So it’s not like he [was] extra-mad in the studio, like, “I’m going to kill these guys.” It was just, “Let me think of the sick lines I can say.” I was just amazed at Kanye’s flipping of The Doors’ sample, so the whole time I’m in there, I’m just like, “This beat is retarded.” But it wasn’t this super-angry vibe. I’ve never seen Jay super angry, or he doesn’t show it. It’s always the poker face. I don’t want to give the impression it was this super-angry record. Like I was saying, it was done in the middle of so much stuff… Say we just completed a song and go play PlayStation. Twenty minutes later, he’s come up with another three verses.

JAY-Z: I only could take so much. I take one or two, and I’ma take one more from you, lil’ man, and I’ma… It was Summer Jam, and it just all made sense. The last Nas verse I wrote, after he made one of those records that came before “Ether.”… It was another record [“Stillmatic”] that he had made. I was like, “Okay, I’m goin’ in on the last verse.” I did the last verse last. I didn’t have the last verse. “Takeover” was two verses, and then I added that last one. [Editor’s note: “Takeover” actually has four verses total.] He called me a rap version of Sisqo: “H to the Izzo, you rap version of Sisqo.”

3) “IZZO (H.O.V.A.)”
Produced by KANYE WEST

JAY-Z: You can’t deny Michael [Jackson; “Izzo” samples the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”]. It’s just too easy right there. I remember having the hook, [and] it was too repetitive. Telling Tone, “Man, this record could be something, but the hook—‘H to the Izzo’—sounds like the verses. It just keeps going. It needs something to break it up.” Tone was like, “Put the girl under it.” The best and the worst mistake we ever made—shit. And
I was like, “Yo, you a genius. That’s why you in here.”… I got sued messing with Tone on “Izzo,” because he had a girl with him who we put under the hook. She said she created that hook.

LENNY S: That was one of the most stressful records of [Jay’s] life. Of his career… We didn’t give “feature” credit to artists who aren’t known celebrities. Like, you “feature” Mary J. Blige. But if I get some random girl from my block, it’s “additional vocals.”

YOUNG GURU: I was mad at “Izzo.” When I first heard “Izzo,” I was like, “Oh, Michael Jackson sample. This is kinda corny.” But that was my time when I really understood. Jay broke it down to me. This had become the key to his success, and he was just like, “Guru, I could rap forever and please you.”… It also speaks to my relationship with Jay. Jay understands exactly my viewpoint and who I am and what I represent. I’m the underground hip-hop guy. I hate to even use that word, but I don’t really like too much commercial hip-hop that’s formulaic, because it just feels stale. So there’s times when Jay makes certain kinds of records, like a “Bonnie and Clyde” or an “Izzo,” but it’s [like] that verse [on “The Bounce”] where he says these are the songs that “keep the registers ringing.”

GEE: [Cam’ron] was working on the track at the time. Our system was really on some new-age Motown. We treated it no differently than when Berry Gordy used to have his producers cook up the beat, and then he gives it to his writers, and the best song wins in that case. We never have a situation where we earmarked a track for that one artist. The beat CD was the beat CD. It wasn’t just a Jay CD or a Cam CD or a [Beanie Sigel] CD.

JAY-Z: That record was maybe the last one. I was touching it, then I’d leave it alone. That record was, like, a process. I remember…I don’t smoke that much… Well, my man who sold weed and shit came, and he said, “Man, you need—man, just smoke some weed.” I smoked some weed, and that’s how I finished “Izzo.”

Produced by JUST BLAZE

JAY-Z: I got two monsters [Kanye and Just] in [the studio at the time]. I’m doing these records like this [snaps fingers]… It started stepping on toes and everything. “Girls, Girls, Girls” sounds like a Kanye record. Just was like, “Oh, you want a soul sample? I got that, too.”

JUST BLAZE: I already had “Girls, Girls, Girls” made for a minute. I was toying with the idea of giving it to Ghostface… I played it for [Jay], and he was like, “Let’s go do it right now.” I think he had already toyed with the idea of doing a record like that, where it wouldn’t be a huge smash, as far as a club record, but it was very visual.

LENNY S: At first, I think we had Biz [Markie], but then it was like, “Okay, but do we need Biz on every hook? Is that gonna be hot?”… I think John Meneilly—Jay’s manager—actually came up with the Biz Markie idea, and then Jay came up with one of the other two on his own.

Q-TIP: [Jay] texted me and was like, “Yo, come by the studio.” I went there, and he had the track up, and he had Slick Rick on there, [and] Biz, and [he] explained to me what the song was. He played it for me with the lyrics, and I was like, “Yeah, it’s dope.” Then I saw what the hook was. He was like, “You can sing it or talk it or do whatever you want.” I just did it in one take, and that was it. He was eating a hero, and I was like, “Aight, I’ll see you at the gym later.”

JUST BLAZE: When I met [Ghostface] years later, I told him. He was like, “Yo, God, I knew it when I heard it, that was supposed to be for me.”


TONE: [Jay] actually made two attempts on the record. He vocaled it one time, and it was actually perfect. And then I was riding around with that version, [and] he called me on the phone. He said, “Now it’s a classic.” I said, “What you talking about?” He said, “I fixed it. It’s a classic now.” And then he sent me the new version, with the verse that the public hears now, and it was unbelievable.

JAY-Z: Tone always disappears. You see him one month, [and then] he’s gone. I wanted him to not executive produce, but… I always liked the way he mixed records, and the way he does his drops in such a hip-hop approach to it, and I really want him on the thing… [Tone] was supposed to oversee The Blueprint. He missed the whole opportunity. I would kill myself.

DURO: [Tone] might’ve been one of the people that’d been like, “Yo, it needs to be bigger,” and that’s when I came in. I remember when I was mixing that song, I didn’t know it was a single at that point. The sample was hot. It just needed that knock.

TONE: Jay doesn’t even know it was [originally] for N.O.R.E. [Laughs] N.O.R.E. doesn’t even know it was for N.O.R.E. That’s funny. It was actually the same joint, but with the word “N.O.R.E.” Instead of “Jigga,” it was “N.O.R.E.”

JAY-Z: What “Jigga That Nigga” did was, in the soul samples and that feeling, it kept you awake. It was one of those joints that was out of place, but out of place in a good way. ’Cause it’s, like, in the middle of the album, pretty much, and it breaks the album up to go right back into that motion.

Produced by JUST BLAZE

JAY-Z: During that time, I had two rooms in Baseline. It was a big room that I was in, that I’d record in. Then it was a small room that Just would be in doing beats. What happened was, Just would peep his head in and hear what me and Kanye was doing and would just go back mad. Like, go back and just go [pounds fist on table], and just come in and be like, “Yo.” And it was like this every day. It was like a heavyweight slugfest. For three days they was just knocking each other out. And I remember him playing that joint, and I was like, “Oh my God.”

JUST BLAZE: I might’ve attacked that [beat] two or three times before I felt that I really nailed it. I was gonna flip that sample for Busta [Rhymes], then I ended up not doing it… That’s actually the record that got me comfortable in my relationship with Jay. That and “Song Cry,” because the demo versions of those songs didn’t sound like the final product.

LENNY S: [Just] would start the sample out, and then do just a little piece of it, then bring us in the room and get that initial naysay right away. That one was all the way, right away. One hundred percent retarded. Hardest record on the album.

JUST BLAZE: I was never 100 percent happy with the way the beat went down, because the way the album happened so fast. I always planned on doing a lot more with that beat. That’s why I revisited it on [The Blueprint2: The Gift & the Curse].—Compiled by Matt Barone, Carl Chery, Jack Erwin, Kamaria Gboro, John Kennedy, Rob Markman, Vanessa Satten and Bonsu Thompson

For more of the Time To Build feature make sure to pick up XXL’s October issue on newsstands now.

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