Jay-Z: The hustler

He's the greatest rapper alive. Jay-Z appeals to people who don't necessarily get hip-hop
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The Independent Online

Kanye might have the charisma; Fiddy might have the bullet wounds, and Diddy might have the overpriced perfume with his name all over it. But the rapper with the $150m deal is Jay-Z.

While the UK music press argues about his place on the Glastonbury line-up, Jay-Z can relax and count his blessings. Last week, he became the first hip-hop artist to sign a "360-degree" deal with concert promoters Live Nation, giving them a stake in all his myriad enterprises, and adding considerably to his personal fortune, already estimated at more than half a billion dollars.

The sum of $150m is more substantial than the price tag the promoter placed on Madonna ($120m) or U2 (a rumoured $100m-plus), and will see Live Nation funding not only Jay-Z's live performances, but also his next three albums to the tune of $10m each. The company will even pump $25m into his other business ventures, including clothing lines and a talent-spotting agency.

According to reports, Jay-Z also took time off last weekend to marry Beyoncé Knowles. Yet somehow even a relationship conducted under the noses of the hungry US tabloids has failed to dent his critical standing. After more than a decade of remarkable commercial success, Jay-Z remains beloved of hardcore hip-hop fans and mere hobbyists alike.

"He's the greatest rapper alive," says Trevor Nelson, the hip-hop DJ and presenter. "The most credible rappers, like Common, never tend to be multi-platinum artists. The most commercial rappers, like 50 Cent, never get into the hall of fame for their skills. But Jay-Z has both, and that's what makes him great."

Jay-Z was born Shawn Corey Carter in Brooklyn in 1969. His mother Gloria recalls her son's birth on a recording made for "December 4th", a track from 2003's The Black Album: "Sean Carter was born December 4th/ weighing in at 10 pounds eight ounces/ He was the last of my four children/ The only one who didn't give me any pain when I gave birth to him/ and that's how I knew he was a special child."

Carter grew up in the Marcy Houses project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, close to the subway station on Marcy Avenue where the J and Z trains both stop. Marcy Houses' 4,000-plus residents are squeezed into 1,700 apartments in 27 six-storey buildings; the housing project was built in 1949, and by the time of Carter's birth it was one of the city's roughest neighbourhoods.

Carter's father left home when he was 12 years old, and he was raised by his mother, to whom he remains very close. She recalls on "December 4th" that the young Shawn would keep his three elder siblings awake at night, drumming the kitchen table and rapping. Eventually, she bought him a boom-box for his birthday, and he began making his own rhymes. Such are his self-taught skills that Jay-Z supposedly never writes his lyrics down on paper, and The Blueprint, one of his most critically and commercially popular albums, was written in just two days.

Carter shared a schoolyard in downtown Brooklyn with fellow rappers Busta Rhymes and Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G., but failed to graduate after becoming involved in the drugs trade as a small-time dealer. He claims to have witnessed his first murder aged nine. But for Carter, then known as "Jazzy" (which later morphed into his current moniker), greater things beckoned. The street life was ripe material for the musical career on which he was about to embark.

In 1996, Carter and his friends Kareem Burke and Damon Dash (now a hip-hop mogul in his own right) set up an independent label, Roc-a-Fella records, to release Jay-Z's classic first album Reasonable Doubt, a DIY ethic that continues to inspire young urban artists today.

Just three months after Reasonable Doubt's release, however, hip-hop's violent reputation worsened with the murder of rap superstar Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas. In 1997 Wallace suffered the same fate in an alleged revenge killing. "Jay-Z is the surviving great from that generation," says Nelson. "The legacy of hip-hop is tarnished by the deaths of Tupac and Biggie. But Jay-Z swam through that controversy, and when hip-hop emerged as a viable genre that was here to stay, I think he kept it alive, almost single-handedly."

Following Wallace's death, Jay-Z and fellow rapper Nas grappled with one another for the crown of New York's hip-hop king, in one of the genre's most famous "beefs". The conflict was played out in the lyrics to some of the rivals' most successful albums, including Jay-Z's The Blueprint, from 2001. When the dust settled on the battlefield, with neither the clear victor, both their careers were in rude health. Jay-Z had made his name with a signature combination of skilful, telling rhymes and glossy, radio-friendly beats and samples.

In 2003, Jay-Z announced his retirement from making studio LPs with The Black Album. Despite his continuing success, he said, he wanted to focus on his business interests. Early in his career, he had recognised the commercial influence he wielded beyond the record store. Roc-A-Fella records had branched out into clothing to create the Rocawear brand, which he would then namedrop shamelessly in his lyrics. Last year, he sold the label for £108.5m. He owns stakes in a basketball team, a vodka brand, and chains of hotels and bars. In 2004, he began a three-year stint as president of the hip-hop label Def Jam, which had invested heavily in Roc-A-Fella during the 1990s.

The opening track on Jay-Z's debut LP was entitled "Can't Knock the Hustle"; as Nelson explains, "'Hustle' is not a dirty word in hop-hop. Hustling is what they all see themselves as doing. A lot of artists came from that background on the street and they've always seen hip-hop as a hustling business."

Jay-Z has always been ready to collaborate with artists from other genres, and that, too, displays his shrewd business sense. One of his most popular tracks is the mash-up "Numb/Encore" with his rapping layered over the crunching guitars of a Linkin Park song. On one of Jay-Z's most recent visits to the UK, Chris Martin of Coldplay joined him on stage at the Royal Albert Hall. And, most famously of all, he produced and performed on Beyoncé's breakout solo hit "Crazy in Love".

"The first time I met Chris Martin, he said 'I'm such a big fan of Jay-Z'," Nelson recalls, "and I thought he's probably just saying that. But a year later they collaborated. Jay-Z appeals to people who don't necessarily get hip-hop."

That mainstream legitimacy has allowed Jay-Z access to a world beyond the imaginations of many of his Brooklyn contemporaries. Earlier this year, for example, he and Kanye West were consulted by Barack "B-Rock" Obama for their advice on winning the hearts and minds of America's hip-hop community. Trevor Nelson introduced Jay-Z to Prince Charles at a Prince's Trust event in 2004. "They had a little word about Beyoncé, and giggled about William being a fan. You could sense Jay-Z really wanted to be in that environment, to be around royalty."

Jay-Z's lyrics were always highly autobiographical, and for years he stuck to the same subjects: the hustle, the street. One of his many gifts was finding new ways to describe those familiar scenes. His least popular work is Kingdom Come, the comeback album that announced his return to music in 2006. On it, he tried to move away, lyrically, from his roots to talk about growing older and becoming an executive. There was even a political number about Hurricane Katrina. But it failed to resonate with fans.

So when he hit upon the same source material as film director Ridley Scott – the life of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas – he found a legitimate way to return to his old material, under the guise of another character. The result is a return to form on this year's concept album American Gangster.

It was inevitable that a hip-hop artist would one day headline Glastonbury; the question was not so much when as who. Many expected Kanye West to have the privilege. Jay-Z is not, in record sales terms, the force he once was. American Gangster sold a meagre million copies in the US, compared with three million for The Black Album. West has made a stronger impact on the UK charts with his three albums. The naysayers have blamed Jay-Z for the event's slow ticket sales, and accused its organisers of booking him in a cynical ploy to attract a younger, more "urban" crowd.

But Jay-Z's body of work speaks for itself. DJ Tom Ravenscroft, whose father John Peel had a stage at Glastonbury named after him, thinks Jay-Z's inclusion on the bill is a positive break from the norm. "There are too many damn festivals now," says Ravenscroft. "I went to bloody loads of them last year and I didn't enjoy any. They've all got the same bands and the same crowds and the same supposed 'ethos'. So Jay-Z is the most interesting person to play at Glastonbury for at least the last three years. It's almost an incentive to go."

The urban music fraternity is unlikely to turn out in droves to stand in a muddy field, even if it means seeing one of its idols. Rumours abound that the controversy has put Jay-Z off appearing before the unfamiliar Glastonbury crowd altogether. Festival organiser Michael Eavis has promised to introduce the rapper on stage personally to help to calm his nerves.

But one thing is certain. If Jay-Z were really so wary of appearing, he wouldn't have agreed to it in the first place. He has always walked the tightrope between critical adoration and commercial success with enviable poise. Now, paradoxically, his fortune allows him to keep it just as real as ever. "The great thing for me is that I don't have to do anything for the money," he said recently. "I only do it because I like it."

A Life in Brief

Born Brooklyn, New York, 4 December 1969.

Family Became involved with his partner Beyoncé Knowles after working together in 2002; rumoured to have married last week.

Education Dropped out of George Westinghouse Information Technology High School, Brooklyn, also the former school of Busta Rhymes and The Notorious B.I.G.

Career Ten solo albums including Reasonable Doubt (1996), Hard Knock Life (1998), The Blueprint (2001), The Black Album (2003). Was CEO of hip-hop record labels Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella.

He says "I was forced to be an artist and a CEO from the beginning. I was forced to be like a businessman because when I was trying to get a record deal, it was so hard to get a record deal on my own that it was either give up or create my own company."

They say "I think he's a genius." – Chris Martin of Coldplay.