Jay Z, “Look At Me Now” (Originally Published August 2005)
A lot of people look at the Summer 2002—when you were away on vacation and Dame brought Cam’ron into Roc-A-Fella and gave him the VP position—as the moment. Everyone went, “Uh-oh, here comes the split.” Is that legitimate? To see that as the moment when things crystallized?
Um…I would guess yes and no. I’m not a petty person, but I can say maybe it was one of those things. Just ask the question back: If you’re on vacation and you own a record company and someone makes, or says they’re making, a move like that… ‘Cause if you ask Dame, I think he’d regret that. And I think what he was trying to say was—and I don’t really want to speak forhim, he has to speak for himself—but what I think he was trying to say was, he wants everyone to be vice presidents. And then people ran with it and took it that way, and it really got outta hand for the most part. But for that to happen when you’re on vacation, you’ll feel a way. But to say that’s the direct reason for us going and doing different things? I just think that was inevitable. We all bosses. I like the analogy, although it’s petty, but it’s real: We all bosses, but there’s only one presidential suite. If we in a hotel, somebody gotta move to another hotel. It ain’t as simple as that, but it’s sorta like that. We all bosses. We have a lot of things to do. In the beginning it was one common thing. It was Roc-A-Fella. Now it’s so many different things. Rocawear. Armadale, It was so many different things that we had to focus on that it would naturally draw us apart to do different things.
You’re a boss, but you’re an artist, too. If you had to choose, how would you want to be remembered, as artist or businessman?
If I had to choose, that’s an easy choice: I’m an artist in my heart. I’m an artist first. Without my artistry, none of this would be current right now. No Reebok deals, no ownership of the Nets. It was all because of my artistry. I’m not a sneakermaker by trade. I don’t love that. I mean, I love being fresh, but I’m an artist by trade.
So when’s the next Jay-Z album? Are you going to make another one?
Naah. Hell nah.
So, you’re still retired? Just from making albums.
Just from making albums. I still make songs. It bugs me when people say, “I thought you was retired.” I clearly said—and I also said that I’m human. So maybe one day if I’m on the corner and it’s calling me—I don’t wanna just box myself in where I can’t make another album—I’ll do it anyway. But it bothers me when people say, “I thought you was retired,” if I make a song or if I do a verse on somebody’s joint. I never said I wasn’t making anymore music. I should’ve shut up. That’s what I should’ve did. Me and my big mouth.
You said you wanted to find a different situation from Roc-A-Fella. What were you looking to find in a new situation?
I guess it’s a fresh start. Just a fresh start. To start all over without any complications, without anything. I’ll just say a fresh start.
Was it a matter of being unhappy with the way Roc-A-Fella was going?
I just wanna say we outgrew the situation. We all bosses. And as all bosses, we like different things. And it’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone’s doing wonderful, great. No one’s kicked out on the streets. No one’s starving, you know what I’m saying?
Was it a matter of wanting to get more into things like sneakers and basketball? Get away from music?
Nah. If it was to get away from the music, I would’ve just stepped away from the music. I’m not here…this isn’t paying my bills. It’s great money, but it’s not… I’ll probably, from what I do, I’ll probably lose more money here, ’cause it takes a lot of my time that I could be out doing other things. It was more so about… I don’t know. It’s just the next chapter. This insures the success of an artist through music—through not being able to get a deal, to having your own label, to running a major like Def Jam. Who knows what’s next.
And with Dame starting his own label, also under Universal—you’re cool with that?
I think that’s great. Like I said, no one’s kicked out on the streets.
I think there’s a perception that, at Roc-A-Fella, you were the artist, you handled the music, and Dame handled the business stuff. Is it a matter of trying to prove—
I don’t really have to prove anything. Dame is a great businessman. That doesn’t mean that I’m not a businessman because I’m a great artist, or perceived as a great artist. That’s for the people to say [Laughs]. I mean, I’ve been through a lot worse things in my life. I think I can sell CDs [Laughs]. I think I can do that. I think I know how to do that.
You’ve spoken in the past about how difficult it was for some of the artists that were under you at Roc-A-Fella to sell records. Guys like Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel.
I mean, relatively, ’cause they’ve all sold records. People think that having a gold album is a failure nowadays. I remember before, it was like the greatest thing in the world. A gold album, that’s 500,000 people. People fail to realize Bleek’s highest-selling album was 900,000. He was right at the door of platinum. Beans too: seven, 800,000, his highest-selling album. So, they doing great numbers. Not nowhere near Vol. 2, which was my highest-selling CD, like 5 million records. I think that it was a gift and a curse. They was getting the recognition of my celebrity, but it was also the weight of my celebrity. Like, “That’s not a Jay-Z album.”
At a certain level, especially at the corporate level that Def Jam is at, there seems to be less and less room for artists that sell 350 or 400,000 albums. Like, everyone needs to be going platinum or artists get dropped. Isn’t that the way the music business is nowadays?
Only because we push the cost of doing business up so high. The making of albums, I’ve seen budgets over $3 million. That’s just outrageous. I made Vol. 2 for $350,000, sold 5 million records. So, spending more money doesn’t mean—people get excited about getting million dollar deals. But like, you just really putting yourself up against the 8-ball. Because what happens is, you get a million-dollar deal, and then you get a video, 750, whatever the video cost. That money’s coming back. And now you have to make that money up. So when you don’t hit that first-week SoundScan, the project gets shut down. ‘Cause the marketing was set up too high. The cost of doing business is so high that companies gotta tuck and run when it’s getting too hot. “Oh, that’s it. We can’t keep spending money on this. We don’t know…we gotta leave.” So we have to bring the cost of doing business back down. It’s too hot.
Are you going to try to scale back at Def Jam? Is that possible in this environment?
It’s tough, because artists are spoiled. But they gotta know the reality of the situation. Just because you don’t get a million-dollar deal doesn’t mean you’re not worth a million dollars. Let’s work together. Let’s spend less on an album so we can make a artist out of you, instead of one video and you gone. A case like a Joe Budden last year. If the money spent was low and the videos were low, they would’ve been able to go further in that project.
With you controlling both Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam, do you think there’s gonna be any problems with people thinking that you’re not working as hard on the Def Jam-
Well, anyone that knows me knows that I’m a very prideful person. And my reputation’s on the line at both places. If I’m successful at Roc-A-Fella and not successful at Def Jam, it’s like it’s a failure for me. I want everybody to be successful equally. I’ve just never been that type of person. Guys had that faith in me to bestow that type of position on me. I’m not gonna take… I believe in Def Jam and the culture. I grew up watching Russell Simmons and these guys. I wouldn’t take that for granted.
The longtime Def Jam artists, have any of them expressed concerns to you about that?
It was never said in words, but it’s only natural to feel that way. But I’m not here to play those types of games. I didn’t take the job to play with their careers. This is how they feed they kids. I’m not playing with them like that. I wouldn’t want nobody playing with me like that.
What are some of the things you’ve done in the first couple of months on the job?