Decoding Jay-Z

Rapper talks about life, hip-hop, songs in literary debut

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Published: Mon 22 Nov 2010, 10:25 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:01 PM

FROM SELLING CRACK cocaine as a teenage hustler to becoming one of America’s richest rappers, Jay-Z writes about his life, decodes his music and explains hip-hop culture in his literary debut Decoded.

The New York City native writes in the sometimes coarse language of the Brooklyn streets where he grew up, explaining how hip-hop was his generation’s way of telling the world what it was like to grow up in an urban “wartime.”

“I lost people I loved, was betrayed by people I trusted, felt the breeze of bullets flying by my head. I saw crack addiction destroy families — it almost destroyed mine — but I sold it, too,” Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, writes in Decoded.

“Guns were easier to get in the ‘hood than public assistance. There were times when the violence just seemed like background music,” Jay-Z, who has won 10 Grammy Awards, said of growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The 40-year-old said he started rapping in 1978 when he was nine and saw an older child “rhyming” at the Marcy public housing complex in Brooklyn where he lived. “That night I started writing rhymes in my spiral notebook,” he tells readers.

Hip-hop music was born in New York’s South Bronx in 1970s and has grown into an industry worth billions of dollars with mass appeal beyond its urban roots. Rappers not only make music, but also sell the hip-hop lifestyle.

Jay-Z has released 11 studio albums — 2009’s The Blueprint 3 produced No. 1 U.S. hit Empire State of Mind — and also founded the Rocawear fashion label, which he sold in 2007 for $204 million.

Dream of a hustler

He co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records and from 2005 to 2007, he was president and chief executive of Def Jam Recordings, which is owned by the Universal Music Group. Jay-Z signed acts including R&B singers Rihanna and Ne-Yo to the label.

The man Forbes magazine predicts will be one of the richest 400 Americans by 2015, said he was inspired by hip-hop pioneer and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, describing him as an “informal mentor.” Jay-Z met Simmons when he was negotiating a Def Jam deal soon after the 1996 release of his debut album.

“I was looking at Russell and thinking, I want to be this nigga, not his artist,” writes Jay-Z, who is married to singer Beyonce. “He’d discovered a way to work in the legit world but to live the dream of a hustler: independence, wealth, and success outside of the mainstream’s rules.”

In Decoded Jay-Z translates 36 of his songs and defends his regular use of “nigga,” saying “it’s just a word.”

“People give words power, so banning a word is futile, really,” he wrote. “The key is to change the person. And we change people through conversation, not through censorship.”

He likens hip-hop to a mix of poetry and boxing with a competitive edge that is learned by many rappers growing up in tough neighbourhoods across the United States.

“That competitive spirit that we learned growing up in the streets was never just for play and theater. It was real. That desire to compete — and to win — was the engine of everything we did. And we learned how to compete the hard way,” he said.

“This is what the streets have done for us, for me: They’ve given us our drive; they’ve made us stronger,” Jay-Z writes. “Through hip-hop we found a way to redeem those lessons, and use them to change the world.”

There are some celebrities who court it and some who need it, due to the fact that you can become famous these days just by being featured in it. It’s an aspect of the news that has become very important over the years. Doing the job I do, I am of course part of the process and I have no problem with gossip or gossip pages.

What I find a little worrying is that young people pick up ‘Page Three’ before they read the news headlines on the front page. Both have their place, but you should always be interested in the world around you as well as celebrity culture.

I don’t tend to read about gossip because I get the news first-hand; walking onto a set is like walking onto the pages themselves. We all talk to each other, but by the time the press gets hold of the news it is like Chinese whispers - it may have become distorted. I don’t mind it because the press never invents something out of thin air; there is always a spark that starts a rumour. There is always an element of truth that had to have started it off.

What I don’t like is when gossip becomes vicious and too personal. It’s fine to comment on what people are wearing and who may be seeing whom. Pictures of celebrities sell papers and I know if Aishwarya Rai turns up to an event there will be six big pictures of her on the page, or if I’m the biggest star there, maybe a big picture of me. What I disagree with is commenting on someone’s intimate details, maybe concerning their health, which is nobody’s business but their own.

Gossip pages and celebrities have a symbiotic relationship and as long as it remains cordial, I welcome it.”

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