ELVIS MITCHELL: Would you have ever thought there would be a time where you could have a song like “Empire State of Mind” blow up the way it has, and, yet, there aren’t any record stores around any more? Isn’t it strange that we got to this point?RTWT at the link. "Empire State of Mind" lyrics here.
JAY-Z: It’s horrible. I mean, you didn’t foresee this specifically, but you knew something would happen because whenever people reject change, things change for them anyhow. I think that’s what happened to the record business when Napster came around. The industry rejected what was happening instead of accepting it as change. Here we are today, more than a decade later, and we still haven’t figured it out.
MITCHELL: Well, it still speaks to the power of music that something like “Empire State of Mind” can pop like that. There’s still an appetite for it.
JAY-Z: Well, I don’t think the appetite is the problem. I think the consumption of music is at an all-time high. But I think the ways that record companies are trying to monetize it is just all over the place. At the end of the day, music is in the clouds. That’s where it’s at now. Before, you could hold it, look at it, turn it around. Now, it’s just in the air. That’s where it’s gonna wind up. You won’t need a shelf or a wall unit like my mom and pop had with all these big-ass records. You’ll just need your phone to call it up.
MITCHELL: I’m sorry, I’ve gotta stop you here. You must hear this all the time, but whenever you say something that’s a phrase from one of your songs . . . When you said “all-time high,” I just went right to “Numb/Encore.” Does that kind of thing happen often?
JAY-Z: All the time. It’s good. . . . It’s weird and good.
MITCHELL: I think it has to do with how you fold certain phrases into your lyrics in the way that people talk.
JAY-Z: I think it comes from me trying to tell the story in the most clear, concise, and truthful way—taking those everyday words and phrases and capturing them in a way that they become something else.
The people who write the headlines at places like the New York Post do something similar. They turn these phrases that you know into hooks. Sometimes they’re clever. Sometimes they’re stupid, like TIGER’S TALE. [laughs] Actually, that was pretty clever. Rakimsaid, “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard/Flip it/Now it’s a daily word” [from “Follow the Leader,” off Eric B. & Rakim’s 1988 album Follow the Leader]. That’s what I’m talking about.
MITCHELL: But having that power of understanding the way people speak obviously really means something to you.
JAY-Z: I started doing it on a small level, just for the people around me. Then I realized the impact it had, the connection it created with the millions of people who’ve been through the same thing that I’ve been through, or who can relate to my ambitions or emotions . . . You don’t have to be from Marcy projects to relate to the idea of, I’m not gonna lose. I’m gonna fight, and I’m gonna make something out of nothing. You know, that’s pretty much the American dream as it stands now. So, for me, the realization that I could speak to people like that came first on a small scale. Then it just started happening—I started having this vibration.
MITCHELL: You’ve always had a really good ear for things like that in your music, but one of your real gifts is that you can hear those sorts of things in other people’s music, too—like The Notorious B.I.G. or the Neptunes or Kanye West. That’s part of what makes you a great collaborator.
JAY-Z: I just really love the music. Everyone who makes music is a good collaborator at their foundation because in order to make music, you have to connect to it in a way that other people can’t. Other things can get in the way, whether it’s the boxes that people put themselves in, or the feelings they might have towards a person. But those things don’t get in the way for me. To me, there shouldn’t be any lines. All these ways we classify things as R&B and hip-hop and rock . . . It’s bullshit. It’s all music. If you put yourself in that box, then you won’t be able to hear that it’s all music at its soul. When people say stuff like, “Oh, that’s soft rock. I don’t listen to that,” I find that elitist. It’s music-racist. [laughs]
MITCHELL: That was one of the big parts of rap for a while. Not only were you not supposed to listen to other kinds of music, you weren’t supposed to listen to other MCs either.
JAY-Z: Yeah, but that was all bravado. That was all about, “I’m the best! No one else exists!” I pretty much forget all that in terms of collaborating. I really just like breaking down those barriers, whether it means doing an album with Linkin Park, an album with R. Kelly [The Best of Both Worlds, 2002], or playing at the Brandenburg Gate with Bono.
MITCHELL: Or doing a song like “Empire State of Mind” with Alicia Keys?
MITCHELL: If you think about all the guys in hip-hop that you came up with, you’re one of the only ones who is still here—and part of the reason is that a lot of those guys didn’t break out of that box you’re talking about. In fact, most of them are still in it.
JAY-Z: I think a big part of that is insecurity. You know, successful people have a bigger fear of failure than people who’ve never done anything because if you haven’t been successful, then you don’t know how it feels to lose it all. You don’t have that fear. So why do you think people get stuck in those boxes? It’s that fear of going back down. “I had success. I had a number one record. I had a number one album. I have to make this kind of record again or else I’m going to lose it all.” So that’s how you end up making the same song over and over. People find their zone, a place that’s comfortable, and they say, “I’m not gonna try that other thing. What if I fail? Then I’ll have to go back! What if I can’t get in the club anymore?” [both laugh] It’s difficult for me as well. The Blueprint 3 was the most difficult album that I’ve ever made.
MITCHELL: Why is that?
JAY-Z: Well, what I was trying to do with this album—which is the same thing I was trying to do on Kingdom Come —is go somewhere that hadn’t been gone before, to try to chart a new territory in rap. The reason I’ve been grounded, though, and able to make albums, is because I’ve allowed my friends to come with me and voice an opinion. That’s who keeps you grounded—the people who have known you longest. People who don’t know you, you don’t know their motives. They smile at you all day, “Oh, that’s great. You’ve done it again! You’re the greatest!” And that’s not good for an artist. You’ve gotta keep the people that have been around you, who saw you when you didn’t have anything, so they have the confidence to say, “Get out of here. That shit is bullshit!” I welcome that.
Friday, February 5, 2010
From Elvis Mitchell's interview with Jay-Z: