Jay Z, “Look At Me Now” (Originally Published August 2005)
Jay-Z is not a businessman; he’s a business, man. After giving away one million downloads of Magna Carta Holy Grail through a Samsung promotion, Hov managed to sell an additional 527,000 copies in the first week. Some detractors still doubt his management of big business deals, but let’s not forget Hov has always been pretty savvy at it. With that in mind, we take you back to our 2005 cover story during “The Carter Administration.” Fresh off publicly announcing his retirement, former Features Editor Dave Bry picks the brain of Jay. They discuss everything from the success of Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel to his newly appointed position as CEO of Def Jam. Look at him now.
Since he last spoke with XXL, Jay-Z “retired” from rap, took complete control of Roc-A-Fella Records and became the president of Def Jam Records. Needless to say,we have a lot to catch up on, as the Black JFK explains his position on the pressing issues of the past and addresses the future of hip-hop music.
Written By: Dave Bry
Having retired a year-and-a-half ago from his day job as the greatest rapper alive (you can imagine how boring that could get), Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has been putting his focus elsewhere of late. On top of his co-ownership of Roc-A-Fella Records, Rocawear clothing, the 40/40 Club and Armadale Vodka, he signed a major sneaker deal with Reebok and took a minority stake in an NBA franchise, the New Jersey Nets, which he plans to help relocate to his home borough of Brooklyn.
But early this year, the world got perhaps its best look yet at the intelligence that Jay-Z has. Folks have been predicting the dissolution of the Roc-A-Fella empire since 2002. That summer, while he was on a yacht in the Mediterranean—the first real vacation he’d ever taken, he said—his longtime partner Damon Dash fired a slew of staffers and announced the promotion of an old Harlem cohort, the rapper Cam’ron, to vice president. Jay vetoed the move when he got home, and the rift became public. Over the next year, rumors spread that Jay was leaving the Roc—and its joint venture agreement with Def Jam Records—to start a new label, S. Carter Records, under Warner Bros. Music (Warner Bros. having recently been taken over by Jay’s friend and mentor, former Def Jam chief Lyor Cohen.
Last December, the gears went into motion. Jay, Dash and third Roc-A-Fella principal, Kareem “Biggs” Burke, sold the remaining interest in the company to Def Jam for $10 million. But in January, rather than joining Cohen at Warner Bros., Jay accepted a position as president and CEO of Def Jam. Reporting to Universal Music brass Doug Morris and L.A. Reid, Jay got an office at 825 Eighth Avenue, sole control of Roc-A-Fella—which would remain its own entity, in its own name—and, perhaps most importantly, the rights to the masters of the eight albums he released under Def Jam from 1997 to 2003. With this, he ushered in a new era. The Carter Administration, he calls it.
It was quite a coup. But did it come at the expense of Jay’s former partners? While they’ve started a separate company, the Damon Dash Music Group, also under Universal, Dash and Biggs told XXL that they were disappointed that Jay had kept the Roc-A-Fella name, and that he’d tried to use it as a bargaining chip to win full ownership of the masters to Reasonable Doubt, the one album they’d put out before entering their deal with Def Jam.
When we meet Jay in his private office at the 40/40 Club, he’s helping an excited employee choose tracks for a mixtape to introduce an artist he’s in the process of signing. They wrap it up, the mixtape maker excuses himself, and the savvy prez is ready to talk. As cool and controlled as ever, measuring every word, he breaks it down—all this stuff. And why he invited Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James to be on XXL‘s cover with the rest of his, um… cabinet.
XXL: Who’s your new artist?
Jay-Z: He’s out of Houston.
What’s his name?
I ain’t ready to disclose all that information.
Okay, so I guess the first question a lot of people are wondering about is: Why the split with Dame and Biggs?
I knew that was going to be your first question. Like, I’m not in the business to talk about guys I did business with—I want you to print all this—been real tight with, for over 10 years. But since there’s so much out there, so much has been said, I will say this one thing: I’ma just ask the people in the world to put themselves in my shoes. However the situation happened, whether we outgrew the situation or what have you, it was time for me to seek a new deal in the situation. While I was doing that, I was gonna leave Roc-A-Fella Records, and if anybody can imagine building something from nothing, and being the main driving force for that, and then having to leave all your legacy and everything behind, I know that’d be a tough situation for anyone. While I was seeking out another deal, whether it was with the S. Carter Records or what have you, there was a deal on the table to be the president of Def Jam, continue running Roc-A-Fella, CEO-president of Roc-A-Fella also, and get all my masters back. But since I was the one that wanted to leave, I was like, let me try to figure out some way where everyone can be happy. So I said, let me have Reasonable Doubt. It’s not a money thing. Reasonable Doubt, if you look at it, it sells, whatever it sells in catalog. Maybe a hundred thousand a year.
It’s very little money, but it meant everything to me because it was my baby. It was my first one. And it was also more of a principle thing: Just give me something, something to walk. Something to hold on to. I don’t wanna walk away from Roc-A-Fella RecordsÐif you can imagine thatÐwith nothing… So I was like, let me get Reasonable Doubt and I’ll give up [the rest of] my masters. I’ll give up Roc-A-Fella, I’ll give up president and CEO of Def Jam Records—everything. Just give me my baby to hold on to so 10 years down the line, I can look back and I got something—I’m not empty-handed. And I was the one being offered everything. I thought it was more than fair… And when that was turned down, I had to make a choice. I’ll leave that for the people to say what choice they would’ve made. That’s about it. I don’t really wanna talk about Dame or Biggs. I don’t have nothing negative to say about them.