In 1996, hip-hop was an irresistible cultural force determined to overtake the 1970s originators as the genre’s “golden era”. Where Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy and others defined the first musical evolution, the likes of Snoop Dogg (Doggystyle), Nas (Illmatic), The Notorious BIG (Ready To Die) and Wu-Tang Clan (Enter The Wu-Tang [36 Chambers]) would dominate the second, arriving explosively with their debut albums. Meanwhile, Mobb Deep (The Infamous) and The Fugees (The Score) were bolstering their worth with incredible follow-ups to their first projects.
But in the midst of this renaissance, where competition was fierce, rose a young MC who managed to alter the game in his own image. On 25 June 1996, Jay-Z released Reasonable Doubt, the first – and many would argue, the best – glimpse of the legend he would become. Its status is undisputed; a classic LP that offered a screenshot of the hustler mentality that shaped Jay, the man and the rapper.
With that debut album turning 25 this week, a new five-part original audio series by Breaking Atoms: The Hip-Hop Podcast titled “Brooklyn’s Finest”, hosted by the hip-hop commentators Sumit Sharma and Chris Mitchell, chronicles the path Jay walked on the road to constructing it. It talks to key people from the rapper’s camp at the time, while laying out the album’s legacy and painting a vivid picture of his unrelenting grind.
Before he was married to Beyoncé, closing million-dollar deals with the NFL and leading the line of support of prison reform, Jay-Z was merely a precocious, self-sufficient young man trying to get noticed. Raised in the Marcy housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, his ascent towards manhood coincided with the city’s crack cocaine epidemic. In this pressure-cooker environment, Jay, who was born Shawn Carter, resorted to selling drugs when he was 13 years old.
But his musical talents didn’t go unnoticed. In 1986, as part of a rap group called High Potent with his fellow Marcy inhabitant, MC and mentor Jaz-O, Jay-Z got his first taste of fame with the group single “HP Gets Busy”. Even when they did solo tracks, they collaborated: Jaz featured Jay on his minor hit “Hawaiian Sophie” in 1989. Jay was rough around the edges, yet to find his identity as a performer, employing frantic, tongue twisting raps and double-time flows that would become a tired trope in the game years later. But the promise was apparent, and his and Jaz’s popularity ballooned thanks to rocking live shows across Brooklyn, building their legend on the streets. “We were doing things that nobody else was doing at the time in our neighbourhood,” Jaz-O tells Breaking Atoms.
Years of honing his craft in the early 1990s on guest features and “posse cuts” throughout New York would lead Jay to DJ Clark Kent, an industry figure whose belief in his skills were so strong he built a studio in his home for Jay to record. Clark Kent’s importance in Jay’s early story is not to be underestimated; it was through him that Jay would meet Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, his future business partners and fellow co-founders of Roc-A-Fella Records, the label that would release Jay’s albums until 2013. “At that time, I thought Jaz was the dopest MC I’d ever heard,” Kent told Breaking Atoms. “But when I went to Marcy to meet Jay and he rapped in front of me, I knew this guy was it. When I got my first A&R job at Atlantic Records, on the second day I said I wanted to sign Jaz and Jay-Z.”
Jay would never sign with Atlantic, ultimately leveraging his friendship with Dash and Burke to form his now legendary label, Roc-A-Fella, in 1995. With his buzz in the streets reaching fever pitch, he would convene in 1994 at the legendary D&D Studios in Manhattan – where Nas recorded Illmatic – to lay down what would become Reasonable Doubt. With Jaz-O, Clark Kent and music producer Ski Beatz beside him, the studio became his sanctuary as he laid bare his glamorous, gritty world on wax, marking him out as a suave, debonair and supreme rhymer.
Over 14 tracks, a slew of boom bap beats provided by Jaz, Clark Kent, Ski Beatz, DJ Premier and Irv Gotti ranged from the rhythmic, danceable funk of “Can’t Knock the Hustle” and “Ain’t No N*gga” to the ominous “22 Twos”, a would-be soundtrack for a rap Rocky Horror Picture Show. Meanwhile, middle track “Can I Live”’s smooth horn-led intro plays like background music for a meeting of mafiosi. Though boom bap was New York’s dominant soundscape, Reasonable Doubt added luxury and an unshakeable groove to its sonic palette.
The album’s authenticity, meanwhile, reigned supreme, seamlessly capturing the inner workings of a mind scarred by the crack era that enveloped his Brooklyn neighbourhood and turned young African-American kids into hood entrepreneurs to survive and move up the socioeconomic food chain. Rarely had a rapper captured this aspect of African-American life before Jay: he placed you in the room where the crack he sold was cooked and bagged up, in meetings with his Colombian suppliers, and inside his own psyche as he made sense of his path. Whereas peers such as Nas were gritty in their depictions of New York and Snoop Dogg’s charisma and street savvy shined on the West Coast, Jay was an amalgamation of both qualities.
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Jay wore his battle scars proudly, with the confidence of John Gotti in his prime as he laced his lyrical product onto the rap game. He basked in the glory of his drug-dealing riches on “Feelin’ It” before pulling back the curtain on the very next track, “D’Evils”, revealing the treachery and disloyalty that can form the backbone of that kind of success.
Ever the collected, methodical tactician, Jay had to negotiate his own morality during his rise to fame. He advised youngsters to take a similar route along the way (“Coming of Age”) while staying assured of his journey from beginning (“Can’t Knock the Hustle”) to end (“Regrets”). With storytelling akin to The Godfather’s Mario Puzo, Jay made the drug game sound like a bastion of sophistication and extravagance, his clarity and intelligence cutting through even the most sordid subject matter. Hip-hop historian Dart Adams conveyed the album’s quality to Breaking Atoms: “If you read a noir crime novel that was written by somebody who wasn’t adept at using prose, that’s what Reasonable Doubt is. Jay made it elegant to talk about hustling, struggling, trying to survive and the drawbacks of being successful and everybody else’s reaction to you.”
By its release in the summer of 1996, Reasonable Doubt, while well received, wasn’t the instant classic some quarters of hip-hop may claim. In one review written by Charlie Braxton in The Source Magazine – the Bible of hip-hop journalism, famous for its five-mic rating system – rated the project just four out of five, saying: “In terms of the subject matter, Jay-Z isn’t saying anything new. But what makes [Reasonable Doubt] stand out here is the slick way [Jay-Z] flips lyrics. He flows like he’s conversing with you at a party or on the street.”
Reasonable Doubt would initially struggle commercially but it continued to climb the Billboard Hot 100 chart, eventually peaking at number 23. Yet the work wasn’t done, for Jay was determined to see his name everywhere. Speaking to Breaking Atoms, Nick Raphael, who, alongside Christian Tattersfield, signed Jay to a worldwide distribution deal in 1996 through London-based Northwestside Records, recalls meeting Jay in New York and seeing him “driving a 190 E Mercedes-Benz with a Roc-A-Fella logo on the front, leaning out of the car handing flyers and CDs” in a gung-ho spate of grassroots promotion.
Meanwhile, Jay and Roc-A-Fella utilised the services of the label’s “Street Team”, a network of promoters throughout the USA, to get Reasonable Doubt talked about and units shifted. Chezik Tsunoda, a valuable member of the operation, paints a picture in the podcast: “I was holding up picket signs and shouting on the streets whenever Jay was around to bring attention to him. I remember late nights driving across the country and hitting up record stores before Jay was getting there. We just got in there and did what we had to [to spread the word]; we were grimy in that sense.” Here, in the UK, broadcaster and music executive Pete Tong played “Can’t Knock the Hustle” on his influential BBC Radio 1 show, helping Jay’s stature grow in real time on this side of the Atlantic.
It was this community spirit that makes those who were there refer to Reasonable Doubt as a “family album”, one which greatly benefited not just from Jay’s efforts, but of the collective around him. “The growth and success of that album… everybody was part of that,” says another of the podcast’s talking heads, Maria Davis, a music promoter and former host of the music show Mad Wednesdays who was featured on the intro of “22 Two’s”. “Dame Dash was a real force behind it, he didn’t take no for an answer, he didn’t let anybody bullsh*t him, and [Roc-A-Fella] went out and built their own label, not knowing the success [Reasonable Doubt] would have.”
Today, it has become a mainstay of conversations about the greatest rap albums ever, as generations new and old recognise its classic status. For ushering in the career of one of the genre’s greatest exports and offering a period piece of the African-American experience, it will continue to live long in the hearts and minds of those who were there, and the fans it inspires. “The whole album is one song, it’s an incredibly complete thought,” said Clark Kent. “When you listen to Reasonable Doubt, you understand why Jay is a billionaire: he’s had that hustler’s mentality from day one. It opened your eyes to someone you just wouldn’t have listened to. But also, for the new listener, it lets you know how we got here today.”
‘Brooklyn’s Finest: The Making of Reasonable Doubt By Jay-Z,’ a new audio series by the Breaking Atoms Podcast, is out now
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