President Carter got up this morning around eight, watched SportsCenter and worked out in the gym at his place in New Jersey with a personal trainer, then slid into his Mercedes Maybach and let his longtime driver Romero take him over the George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan to the Universal building at Eighth Avenue and Fiftieth Street.
Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, has been the president of Def Jam since January 3rd, 2005. ‘Soon as we came back off of vacation I was here, ten o’clock in the morning,” he says with pride. His L-shaped corner office is on the twenty-ninth floor, and he’s usually there by ten or eleven, but on this particular Friday he arrives at 12:20 P.M., BlackBerry to his ear as he zips past security and up the escalator, wearing a diamond-heavy Roc-A-Fella chain; a white-and-red European-soccer-inspired polo shirt from his clothing company. Rocawear; baggy Rocawear jeans; and white S. Carters with blood-red tips, all of which make him look about ten years younger than his thirty-five years.
He goes straight into an emergency meeting. A new song from Young Jeezy — the twenty-five-year-old Atlanta rapper whose debut album, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation, entered the charts in August at Number Two — has been leaked to radio. Jeezy’s A&R man is afraid this will screw up plans for Jeezy’s next single. Jeezy has sold more than 1 million records and has become the hottest new rapper of the year, making him Jay’s first major success as a record executive. Still, Jay fails to see the leak as an emergency. He’s always been panic-averse. His persona, in life and on record, is cool and in control — the same even, authoritative tone whether the subject is sex, survival, wealth or vengeance. “His thing is, just make it simple,” says Be-Hi, Jay’s cousin, who grew up with him in the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. “People make obstacles for theyselves when shit ain’t really no obstacle. He’ll just show you the simpler way to do it.”
At the not-so-emergency meeting, Jay explains that the leaked song is a club record, not a radio record, meaning most radio stations won’t want to play it. “Manage your heat,” he tells Jeezy’s A&R man. “Get your Joe Torre on, nigga,” which means, become a brilliant manager and navigate the situation, nigga.
Jay-Z has navigated a variety of situations brilliantly for more than twenty years. In the Eighties, when crack was dominating America’s inner cities, Shawn Carter was a teenage street entrepreneur selling crack and other drugs. In his twenties, he escaped the street and turned his business skills to the world of hip-hop. When no label would sign him, he co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records in order to release his first album. As hip-hop moved into the Get Big Money era and rappers maximized their earning potential by diversifying into clothes, movies and bottled water, Jay-Z became one of hip-hop’s most successful entrepreneurs. “Every black kid in America looks up to Jay as a role model,” says Kanye West.
On December 4th, Jay turns thirty-six, and there’s no midlife crisis anywhere in sight: He’s worth more than $320 million and he is the president of the most important label in the history of hip-hop, Def Jam. Founded in 1984 by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the label has been home to several generations of major rappers: LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy in the Eighties; Jay, Method Man, Redman and DMX in the Nineties; and, more recently, West — whose first major break came in 2001 as a producer for Jay — and Young Jeezy. “Def Jam is the number-one hip-hop label in the world,” says Antonio “L.A.” Reid, chairman of the Island DefJam Music Group. “Having Jay says that the legacy continues. If you’re a sixteen-year-old rapper in Brooklyn or Atlanta or Houston, and you know that Jay-Z carries on the legacy of hip-hop, then Def Jam becomes your preferred destination.”
Jay’s deal with Universal reportedly pays him between $8 million and $10 million a year. He’s also the president and part owner of Roc-A-Fella Records, the proud owner of a small piece of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets (“I was happy to cut that check!” he says) and owner of two multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartments, one of them a 10,000-square-foot loft in Tribeca worth $7.5 million and the other a penthouse at the Time Warner Center near Central Park worth more than $10 million, from which he can see a penthouse owned by his girlfriend, Beyoncé. He is also, sometimes, an MC. “My life is crazy,” he says, in awe of his own journey. “I’m not jaded. I’m on the board of the Nets. I’m the only black guy and I’m the youngest one there. I’m a fuckin’ president-CEO of Def Jam. That shit still sounds crazy to me even to this day. What the fuck does that mean?” Then he gets all philosophical. “And I’m outside of it, too, baby. I’m outside of it, like, goddamn — that’s some crazy shit. And it’s not stopping. It’s gonna get even crazier.”