Few, if any, rap fans would ever dispute Jay-Z’s skills as a lyricist, but when it comes to his business acumen, there is still a question mark in a lot of people’s minds. How much was he actually responsible for certain deals? Is he just a figurehead for his companies or is he making the day to day decisions? How much money does he really take home financially for such-and-such arrangement? These are all questions that writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg tackles in his recently released book, Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office.

While he was not able to speak to Hov for the story, using his connections as a staff writer for Forbes magazine as well as a rolodex filled with an abundance of Jay associates, O’Malley Greenburg was able to uncover a lot of new information that would have otherwise been unknown to even the biggest Jigga stan.

XXLMag.com had the chance to speak to O’Malley Greenburg earlier this week about several interesting topics brought up in the book, including the controversy surrounding Jay’s relationship with champagne company Armand de Brignac, his connection to MC Serch of 3rd Bass fame, as well as some of his little known failed business endeavors. Welcome to the business of Jay-Z 101. —Jesse Gissen

XXL: What inspired you to write a book about Jay-Z in the first place? Are you a big hip-hop fan?

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: Yeah, definitely. I’ve been a fan of hip-hop for as long as I can remember and when I got to Forbes I started covering the business of hip-hop. I helped launch the first “Hip-Hop Cash Kings” package that we put out in 2007, ranking the [highest earners] in the genre and then sort of subsequently I took over that franchise and then I’ve been editing and reporting that package every year ever since. So Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Diddy of course came together and did the “I Get Money (Forbes 1-2-3 Remix)” in 2007 and there’s been a lot of attention I guess on the Cash Kings list whenever we put them out. And so that’s how the folks at Penguin found me and asked me to write this book.

Oh ok, so they asked you to write the book,? You didn’t pitch the idea?

ZOG: Yeah, they came to me.

Besides Jay-Z, what people in particular did you reach out to, that declined to speak to you?

ZOG: There were a few people for sure in Jay-Z’s inner circle, out of respect for him, who didn’t want to have their names included. A couple of whom I had already interviewed and they actually thought it would be fine with him, even though he wasn’t involved with the book, but then they went and spoke to him again and he said, ‘Actually no please retract everything that you said.’ And I can’t name names but there were a couple of those. Big names.

Did you try to reach out to any of the rappers from the Roc-A-Fella camp like Memphis Bleek or Beanie Sigel?

ZOG: I reached out to a bunch of the artists and again, I don’t want to name any of the names of the people that didn’t talk but suffice to say, there is very few people in Jay-Z’s current inner circle who wanted to talk.


Recently, the Atlantic ran a chapter of your book about Jay-Z’s assumed business relationship with the champagne company Armand de Brignac on their website. Shortly after the excerpt was posted it was taken down. The Atlantic said it was due to some sort of controversial information, but your book was carefully researched, right?Others thought that, since you were exposing Jay-Z, his camp asked the Atlantic to take it down. We’ve never heard you comment on the situation. What are you thoughts?

ZOG: Let’s say I was as surprised as everybody else was to see it taken down and I still—how do I put this…

Well the book was already out there at this point. This was just an excerpt from the book being made available online, correct?

ZOG: Yeah. Well let’s put it this way. Jay-Z’s people have never come to us. They had a copy of the book weeks before it came out.

You sent it to them.

ZOG: Yeah, we messengered it out. So they never expressed any complaint with anything in the book to us. So, as to what—I’m trying to be careful how I say this so I don’t get in trouble—I guess I have to leave it that, I was as surprised as everyone else to see it taken down and I think it’s one of the best and most revealing chapters in the book.

On another note, the stuff with MC Serch was very interesting as well. I never knew that they were working on a business deal with Jeep together. How did you find out about that?

ZOG: That was a very funny set of coincidences. I knew somebody who knew somebody who suggested I talk to Serch, that he might have a good story to tell me and I had never talked to Serch before. So I just called him up and he talked my ear off. It was great. And he told me this whole long tale about what was going on, which ended up being Chapter 10…I think that’s it’s just a great anecdote, and more than an anecdote this would have been one of Jay-Z’s biggest business deals if they had taken this to full scale projection as this would have been planned. I think, just looking at the numbers and talking to Serch and [another man in on the deal] Marques McCammon, we could have been talking tens of millions of dollars over the lifetime of this deal. But also kind of a rolling advertisement for him; to have all of these Jay-Z Jeeps rolling around, not that he really needs more advertising or recognition but that certainly would have been quite a coup in a really mainstream arena that has proven at least until pretty recently to be a tough one to crack into for hip-hop artists in terms of endorsements.

I think the Serch connection was especially interesting because the only time we heard Jay mention his name was when he was dissing Nas  on the “The Takeover,” “I know who I paid, God, Serchlite Publishing." And we knew that Serch was in Detroit, but who knew he had hooks in the car industry.

ZOG: Serch was so turned off by this whole experience with Detroit and the way things turned out with the Jay-Z Jeep, he told me he swore off Detroit and the car industry. And I said ‘Would you ever do business with the car industry again?’ He paused and he said, ‘I’d rather trade in my sneaker collection.’ [Laughs] And that was how I knew he really meant it.

I don’t remember you ever touching on Jay-Z’s plan to open a line of hotels.

ZOG: I alluded to it, I think at the end ’cause some of this stuff was still unfolding as we were going to press, or the latest development was so I mention it but I didn’t really sink my teeth into it because it was a timing issue. But I think that was a good example of one of his only failed plans that people know about. A lot the other things that didn’t work out he kind of sweeps under the rug and he does a really good job of doing that to sort of maintain this invincible image that he has. And I think on the one hand good for him. That’s one way of managing your personal brand. But I think on the other hand, knowing about these sort of missed opportunities and knowing that not everything he touches turns to gold, I think that’s kind of a nice lesson; a nice insight for the aspiring entrepreneur out there. It’s like even Jay-Z messes up sometimes. It's not necessarily his own fault, but seeing how he reacts to failure and seeing how he manages it I think it speaks volumes on how he operates.

What do you think his next business move is going to be?

ZOG: Well I keep hearing rumblings about deals that he has in the works, but he’s in an interesting place right now — he’s kind of established himself as a really viable international arena touring act. So, it’s a matter of any time that he wants to make money he can just go do a couple dozen shows; he grosses like a million dollars a night, he takes home a third of it, give or take — probably give. So right now, in terms of time equaling money, it’s really hard to top that when he can just go and do that anytime he wants. He’s made noises about wanting to get involved in Hollywood, maybe producing movies, that kind of thing. Beyonce obviously has a growing profile as an actress so that would be an arena that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting more involved in and that could maybe even rival the hourly wage of being the touring act. But I think the thing with Jay-Z is that he’s just constantly shown this penchant for finding deals that nobody would expect. Before he signed that Live Nation deal people were... nobody expected that to happen. They thought maybe he’d start his own label.

Do you think his quest for power will eventually lead him to politics?

ZOG: Let’s put it this way, I would think that he would want to do that but I think that there are still too many people in the public sphere that would dismiss him because of his drug dealing past.

Sure look how the right wingers portrayed Common.

ZOG: [Laughs] Right, if Common was a gangsta rapper, cop killer, imagine what they’d say about Jay-Z.

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