Jay-Z Interview

Full transcript of Clash's cover story

Currently gracing the cover of the latest issue of Clash magazine, Jay-Z is the hottest property in music right now as the world awaits his ‘The Blueprint 3’ album (read ClashMusic’s review HERE).

At the age of thirty-nine Jay-Z has a discography to kill for, his Roc Nation record label and Beyoncé rustling up a full English every morning. And that’s not to mention the basketball teams, clothing brands and night clubs. In his own words; “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”

Below you can read the full transcript of our chat with Jay-Z. Read more about the issue, and where to get it, HERE and check out a photo gallery of Jay-Z shot exclusively for Clash by Rankin HERE.

You can access a digital flipbook of the new issue HERE.

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Jay Z – ‘Run This Town’

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How are you?
I’m good. Pretty good.

Are you enjoying London?
London’s fantastic. It was beautiful last night. I didn’t go anywhere – I was just standing outside… I was gonna run through Hyde Park at three in the morning. But the big guy was scared (points to slab of muscle body guard). He used the word like creepy… It was too creepy! Which is true, but when I want to run I want to run. He was scared to go for a jog at three o’clock in the morning (laughs).

So ‘The Blueprint 3’; how long have you been recording it for?
Forever. My whole life. I must have honestly started the process three or four times. But it actually started out in the UK when I was playing Manchester. Kanye came along to my show and brought me a CD full of beats and they were all sequenced. So he’s like, “This is the album!”, and I was, “Woah – slow down”. Kanye thought it was done and ready. But that was pretty much the foundation for what would become ‘The Blueprint 3’.

Did you always know it was going to be ‘The Blueprint 3’?
Yeah. I knew from day one.

And did you always intend to complete the trilogy?
I had my last trilogy with the ‘….Lifetime’ volumes one, two and three and I’d skipped over ‘The Blueprint’ for a bunch of albums and I thought now was the time. It would be very appropriate to go back to it, you know? The first ‘Blueprint’ was a return to my roots. It was like the soul samples that I grew up listening to. This album sets the blueprint for the next generation. We are becoming those icons we looked up to – for this new generation, kids look up to us that way. Me, Kanye, Justin. I just wanted to return to making music like that. I’m calling it a new classic. The songs are really lush and I tackled it without any formulas in mind. It just needed to feel like classic music with new subjects of course… I had all these big records and all this success – with ‘The Blueprint’ I had to take a step back to take a step further.

But is this it? Or could we see a ‘Blueprint’ quadrilogy?
A quad what? (laughs) There is no more – this is the end of the series. Enjoy it!

So when you’re recording an album, do you approach it as if it could be your last? Every record should provide a fitting legacy…
Yeah, I try. I’ve actually been approaching it like that since the ‘Black Album’. If there is no more, I’m happy leaving that as my final word. It’s the blueprint of who I am. That’s a great pick up! Did I ever say that anywhere before? You’re pretty sharp…

You mentioned Kanye showing up with a CD full of beats. Is that how you like to work? Or is it more a case of getting into the studio with people and letting it evolve?
I like it to all evolve in here (taps head). He left me with the tracks, I just took them and sometimes I would send them to him when I’d done and let him do his thing. But it was really cool this time round cos Kanye is Kanye! When it was the first ‘Blueprint’, he didn’t have any opinion on anything. He didn’t dare. He laid the beat and was just happy to have a beat on there. You know, now he’s fucking Kanye West. We’re going into the studio and having these tug-of-wars over the direction of a song, or how this should sound. Things like that. It was fantastic, I like it that he has the ego (laughs).

Did any of that original CD make it onto the album?
Yeah. ‘Boy Fresh’ was on that original sequence of what Kanye played me in Manchester.

And I heard you recorded a lot of the album over in Hawaii. What made you decamp over there?
That’s Kanye – he goes out there and likes to record in Hawaii. He kept going on, saying ‘I’m telling you it’s a good vibe over there!’ And I’m like ‘Hawaii?! A good vibe in Hawaii?’ In the end I buckled and said alright. Turns out there was a great vibe! We laid down ‘D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)’ straight of the bat over there. So Kanye; it worked out!

You say that Kanye had the record already sequenced in his head and I assume you put a lot of effort into how it all hangs together, so how do you feel about people picking and choosing tracks when they listen to the album? iTunes encourages people not to sit down and listen to records anymore – does it bother you?
It is what it is and that’s how people listen to music. I can’t dictate how they go about that. My approach is still the same when I make a full album. When I sequence a record I’m thinking about you listening to the record and I don’t want to interrupt your good time! I don’t want to put a song in way over here, then something else way over here… I want it to make sense and tell a type story that just moves. So I still make it as an album and people decide how they want to listen to that music. Except in the case of ‘American Gangster’ – I wouldn’t let iTunes sell that because I didn’t want to break it up. But that was only because it was a concept album and a movie director doesn’t sell scenes of his movie. But all the other albums I’ve ever put out, iTunes have and I can’t dictate what people want to do with it once it’s out there. Maybe I am old fashioned, but a record is a piece of music from start to finish and that’s what I set out to create.

And when it comes to the subject matter of a record, is that you speaking or do you assume a character?
Even a record like ‘American Gangster’ wasn’t actually me looking to be the person in the film, it was my interpretation of the emotions I felt whilst watching it. I took emotions that related to my life from the movie scenes and talked about them in that way to make an album. It was a concept album, but not about the movie. It was influenced by the movie, so it was still me as me speaking and feeling, you know?

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Jay Z – ‘Show Me What You Got’

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Do you feel exposed as an artist putting your emotions out there for people to dissect and experience?
Despite us sitting here and discussing things, I’m not really the type of person who can sit and talk about how they feel. You know, I’m bad at that and so is my whole family. We were raised to hold a lot in, so for me making music is like therapy. It gives me a chance to express my emotions and the things I have going on, so yeah I’m exposed. But it can’t be any other way.

Listening to the album, there are some notable collaborations – Rhianna, Kanye, MGMT etc. Do you have a fixed idea of who you want on a particular track and then aim to get them?
Actually, they weren’t on till the other day. Literally, Kanye wasn’t on there until two days ago. It just felt like he needed to be on there. I was listening to this track and the drums just kept reminding me of ‘Jesus Walks’ and I could hear him… And that’s how collaborations usually happen for me. I don’t sit there and pick people out of the air. It’s more that I’ll find myself in someone’s zone and I’ll be ‘man, this would sound good if so-and-so was on it’.

But how far is it collaboration compared to a guest spot? Does someone like Rhianna get to have artistic input?
I like anyone who I’m working with to bring their flavour and their energy to the track. You know? Or else why get them? If I bring a person in they’re free to do whatever. You do whatever you want to do and what you feel. That’s the reason I came to you. Otherwise they’re just another instrument…
An expensive one at that.
(Laughing) Ain’t that right!

Anyone you’d really like to collaborate with?
Let me see… You know who? Jack White. He can do it all, he’s a renaissance man.

Throughout the album you seem to be reasserting yourself. At one point you say ‘tell me one thing I haven’t done’ then go on to say that no one is bigger than you apart from The Beatles. Do you feel a need to come back and state that you’re here and reassert your place?
You have to do that, you just have to. Every artist has to make a stance. One song I have is called ‘A Reminder’ and that’s what it is. I believe that you have to do that every time. How can you be complacent?

So when you’re recording do you cut yourself off from other people’s music? Or do you think it’s important to stay submerged – keep an eye on what everyone else is doing?
I don’t think you should ever isolate yourself – especially when you’re recording. You know, making an album and doing music is current events. It’s really a run-down of where you are in life at that exact moment. It’s my Kodak.

There’s no current affair bigger than Obama at the moment and you name check him a fair bit on the LP and you played his inauguration ball. How do you think he’s getting on now he’s well into his first year as president?
It’s going great. He has a lot to deal with. It’s going as well as it can go considering what came before. You know? You gonna hit on some things and you’re gonna miss on some things, but you gotta try. You can’t not do anything. I like his courage and I think he’s handling the job rather well. There’s a lot of challenging issues and you know, it’s going to take some time.

Is he a good representation of America in 2009?
I think he’s the best representation of America in 2009. He is the only president we could have right now at this particular time. With the direction we were going as a people and the way we were being perceived around the world, we needed him. The moment he got it it felt like that perception of America changed. It felt like we had a World president. Just look around and places like London and Paris were cheering. It needed to happen and it did.

You’re quite outspoken on certain subjects alongside other artists like Kanye, Coldplay, U2 etc. and willing to stand up and say what you believe in? Is it an artistic responsibility?
I mean if you can and that’s what you want to do then yeah. But I don’t think it’s a responsibility of an artist. You know, the responsibility of an artist is to make great albums (laughs). But after that, you have a voice so use it to speak out on certain issues. I went to Africa with MTV as part of the Water for Life campaign and I thought that was a fantastic way of using my voice for something that really matter. It’s water! You know. We just take it for granted. I just open a bottle of water – that’s like eight dollars or something. But right now people are walking miles and miles for dirty water. I thought that was a good way to use my voice. It’s there, so why wouldn’t I.

Would you ever consider going into politics?
(Laughs) No! But people ask me that all the time. It’s so weird. I can honestly say that I never thought that I would be asked that question. Politics is too much about the perception of perfection. And I’m not perfect. You can’t have ever stole anything, you’ve never done anything bad, you can’t lie, you can’t say anything inappropriate or people will be calling for your job. I just think that’s impossible to attain. We’re all flawed human beings. In eight years, I may say something inappropriate (Laughs). Actually, not just one thing – a tonne of things. So no, I don’t see me going into politics.

Now you’re becoming the generation that others look up to, do you watch out for new talent?
Yeah, Drake is the newest and most exciting. He made a mixtape called ‘So Far Gone’ that is generating a lot of buzz.

But you’ve fostered talent since the early days. On the track ‘Everyday A Star is Born’ you seem to be giving a nod to the likes of Kanye and Rhianna who you have brought to the public’s attention.
With Kanye I feel like he’s my little brother. We’re a family.

And when Rhianna had her problems earlier this year, was did you all feel part of that?
Of course. We are a family, simple. If we need to close round to help someone, that’s what we do.

Do you think it’s important to nurture new talent? Help it up where you can?
You have to protect the thing that gave you all this success. You know? This music thing pretty much saved my life. I dread to think what I’d be doing now without it. So it’s my responsibility to pay that back and leave music intact and in a great place. And then it’s Kanye’s responsibility to leave it to the next generation and so on and so forth.

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Jay Z – ‘D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)’

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Taking that then, on a track like Death of Autotune, is that you protecting music from something you consider harmful? The fad for using autotune in hip-hop?
Yeah, it’s me challenging the industry or at least having that dialogue and saying we should talk about this. Anytime something is overused to the point it becomes a gimmick it’s time to move on. I’m not really putting anyone down. People seem to think it was a diss record and it’s not a diss record. I mean, I like some songs with autotune… I don’t like a million! If I hear ten, I’m good. If I hear a million I’m getting sick.

Why do you think it was embraced so enthusiastically?
It’s all part of a bigger thing. Because of the internet sales of music are down twenty percent so artists are struggling now. Take someone like Redman. Before he could put out a record and not get anywhere near number one, but still sell five hundred thousand copies, you know? Now that’s not going to happen. Simple. So what they’re going for is the biggest exposure they can get. Everyone wants to get played on the radio and radio gives people this impression that you can be successful if people are hearing it and then you sell more records. All the music is trying to fit in this one lane – everyone is trying to get on the radio. You know what I’m saying?

Has it passed now?
No, I fear not. There’s probably another year or so in it before people start saying ‘yeah, let’s try some different things’. To me, when you start hearing it in commercials for Wendy’s – that’s when you know it’s something to avoid. You’ll never hear me saying bling for the very same reason.

You mention that people thought it was a diss song and this whole cycle of beefs seems to have consumed hip-hop culture. You’ve been embroiled in ones with the likes of Nas, Lil Wayne and the Game over the years yet on the record you say ‘we’re not in the same league, so how am I in your way’. It sounded as though you were becoming weary of it all.
It’s really just common sense. For many you have been making music and at the forefront for so long, people like, “Man, you gotta let the new guys in”, and I’m like why? That’s never happened in the history of the world. It doesn’t work like that. You have to claim your spot. No one’s in your way. If I was to stop making music tomorrow doesn’t mean suddenly there is this gap. You don’t get elected. The people decide where you are. Whether I’m here or not, if they want you to be at the top then the people will move me out the way. On you go…

In the video for ‘Death of Auto-tune’ you’re seen blowing up champagne and jewellery. Is this you saying that it’s time to go back to basics?
Yes it is – I’m suggesting a counter cultural movement.

So how will hip hop fare throughout the economic recession? It has been so defined by consumerism in the past.
It has to react and reflect. The beautiful thing about a recession… Let me rephrase that! Probably the one bright side to the grimness of a recession is great music is made from pain. And there’s a lot of pain coming.

How did the video for ‘D.O.A.’ come about? It has a very strong aesthetic.
I wanted it to feel like we were taking it back. Everything you see is a metaphor for taking it back to basics. The warehouse represents my house and when I pulled the car up and went upstairs, you’re seeing me at home – getting a haircut. I’m shedding all the bullshit. And then eating, playing cards, shooting basket ball. They’re all just regular things. I wanted to give the same sense that if you were to go past Frank Sinatra’s house in the Sixties you don’t know who would have been there. Sammy Davies on Monday, Marilyn Monroe on Tuesday… I want to be the modern embodiment of that. So in the video there’s Harvey Keitel playing cards and LeBron James playing basketball. Ordinary, normal everyday things… And the explosions are me saying, “Let’s just get rid of all the gimmicks”. We need to cut out these gimmicks and all the bullshit so we can make music again.

How much input do you have into the video?
Lots – it’s mine (laughs).

So was it your idea to have Harvey Keitel in there?
Yeah, I wanted someone who represented New York. And he was a bit to the left of Robert De Niro, you know. But it’s that same character. They have that sense of the city.

Do you ever worry that the video becomes synonymous with the song? A track like ’99 Problems’ – I can’t hear that without seeing the video in my head.
But that’s the best video I ever made – hands down. So no, that doesn’t bother me. I think it’s all part of one thing. The visuals are part of the music and that’s actually a compliment as well. It’s all art. If you can make a video that marries the music and nails it so well, then you have something special. ’99 Problems’ is by far my best video. When you nail it – it’s just great.

When you were growing up, was music an important part of your life?
Yeah, my family had a huge record collection and we listened to everything – Prince, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, The Commodores, Marvin Gaye. My Mom had rap records too, King James 3rd, Jimmy Spicer… I can hear all these records. I used to sneak listens to the Richard Pryor records, with him cussing all over them. Al Green… Our whole house was the party house and just stacked with records. In the living room there were planks stacked up with crates between them. It was just a homemade unit; two crates, a board, two crates, a board… The reel-to-reel was on top, then the amp and the turntable. Records were just everywhere. It was overflowing!

If you hadn’t had been surrounded by all this music, would Jay-Z have been sat here today?
Maybe because it was so prevalent in the neighbourhood. It was just coming through and on the scene when I was growing up. Guys just out on the street rapping and crews bringing the music outside, wiring up to a lamp and having these on the spot block parties. But the fact that it was in the home made it seem so normal.

You said you grew up listening to Michael Jackson, how do you feel he’s being judged as an artist now he’s dead? It seems to me as though his public image has been rewound – the focus is more on the music than the life…
I think that’s a good think because he’s dead. For people to let go of all the other stuff and what he may or may not have done, all that other shit. However he lived his life is unimportant now. He has left us with his music and what he did for music… I mean, he is beyond the greatest entertainer ever ever created and I don’t know if anyone will get near that bar again. I saw bits and pieces of the memorial service and whilst it was cool and well done, at the end when his daughter spoke you realise that to her he was just a father. It was heart wrenching. It was her dad. He protected them so much from the media and that was a very admirable thing. Kids are kids.

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Jay Z – ‘Wonderwall/99 Problems’ (Live from Glastonbury 2008)’

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You had your King Of Pop moment last year when you played Glastonbury – how did that feel?
It was a pivotal moment for me. It’s up there alongside the first time I won a Grammy. In fact, it may have been more important. This wasn’t just a show cos it felt like a barrier being broken – a wall went down. Music should not be separated or segregated. Live performance or anywhere. We live in the age of the iPod and people have everything on there all together; Kings of Leon next to Kanye West or Lil Wayne. So that’s how we listen to music now and it seemed like a push back and weird that people would have a problem with me being there. I was like, “That shit is still happening?”. And in England of all places. Just to know that there were these few people, a minority hanging on to this outdated idea of tradition. But the masses spoke the moment I walked out and the people were ready. All that crowd cared about was what they had in front of them. I knew they were thinking, “Just be good” (laughs). “We don’t care what type of music you’re playing, just be good and the best!” And it just felt incredible. I can’t describe what a moment that was for me.

Were you aware of the festival before hand?
Yeah, a little bit. It was sat there on the peripheral, just outside my knowledge.

And what did you think of it when you saw the site? Was it what you expected?
I’ve never seen anything like it. All I remember was coming over the hill in the bus and I was in the toilet, and everyone was shouting for me to come look. We came over that hill and there were like fifty thousand tents and I was like, “Man, this looks like we’re invading the country!”. It’s like a medieval battle ground! I was like, “What kind of shit have we got ourselves in to?” (laughing). But I was prepared. We’d been tipped off about wellies and had everything on (laughs). Jay Z is in wellies!

So was it your idea to come out to ‘Wonderwall’?
It was and actually I did try to play it on the guitar. I should have just sat down and practised it and I could have nailed it on the day, but I didn’t think of it until an hour before I went on stage. So I’m sat in the dressing room trying to work out the chords for ‘Wonderwall’. But Noel Gallagher helped out a lot and I appreciate that!

But in reality there are very few hip-hop artists who could have headlined Glastonbury – purely on a logistical level. They just don’t suit big events that well. Is that down to the way you come up through mixtapes etc. whereas bands tend to play live in order to become known and get that practise in early on?
Definitely, that is exactly what happens. A lot of the time people have a hit before they even step a foot on stage. This type of music sees you put a song out and that song catches fire and suddenly people are booking you to play live shows. Next thing you’re stood there in front of fifty thousand people so what you gonna do? You grab your dick (laughs) and start shouting. “What the fuck, turn the music up and everybody scream!”. You don’t know what else to say when you never played a show. It’s just lack of experience. I’ve played more shows than a lot of rock bands and I think rappers are now coming round to thinking about the live show because they’re seeing the level of production and what we’re doing and understanding that it’s an intricate part of the whole performance and entertaining. Before it was a case of play the music, shout on stage and grab your baggy shirt!

When you record do you keep it in mind how it will play out live?
Only for the past couple of years. It is now something I have to think about when I record because I understand the importance of it. But it’s still a background consideration. If I can fit it in there I fit in there, if not I don’t.

Do you prefer playing large arena shows to small intimate ones?
They’re both equally great for different reasons. The intimate shows allow you to play the kind of records that won’t work in some sixty thousand deep venue, they’re just niche little things that maybe only fifteen hundred of your core fans truly know and understand. When it’s intimate, people are right there with you – they have a say in what works. But then the large show is great because of the sheer bigness of it. You start feeling like so… so big (laughs). I’m big! But it can be overwhelming, but it’s a fantastic feeling. I love it.

Are you looking forward to playing the arena dates with Coldplay then?
It’s going to be fantastic playing with them, especially with Chris (Martin) being such a close friend of mine. I’ve never played with them before, so it should be pretty cool. We’ve been friends for a long time now and we ended up doing a couple of tracks together and then last year we were both on the same festival bill and we thought about maybe doing something live as a unit…

So you like British music?
I like music! (laughs) Borders are irrelevant to me!

Words by Adam Park

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