Jay-Z: interview

He’s one of the world’s biggest hip hop stars, and he’s got a mouth to match. Ahead of his O2 Wireless show, Jay-Z talks exclusively to Time Out about Winehouse, the White House and why rappers will always ‘hold their nuts’

  • Jay-Z: interview

    © Anthony Mandler

  • Barely a month after signing one of the biggest record contracts in history, the rapper, mogul and entrepreneur formerly known as Shawn Carter breezes into London. Not content with deserting his longtime label Def Jam, where he masterminded the careers of ‘Umbrella’-bearing Rihanna and friend Kanye West, Jay-Z arrives on a wave of contention relating to his appearance at Glastonbury – opinion divided fiercely over whether a hip hop artist was appropriate to headline the festival. Jay has said it was the biggest controversy he’s ever been involved in, which, considering he’s been arrested in the past, is quite a statement. For a megastar who has had a huge cultural impact within hip hop and beyond, Jay is disarmingly charming, friendly and articulate. Here’s his take on his relationship with our capital, and his thoughts on everything from Amy to Arsenal…

    Unlike a lot of rap acts, you put a lot of effort into the production of your live shows.

    ‘Rock bands, they play the small clubs, then someone discovers them and they get a record deal. With rap, you go in the studio, you make music, you put the music out, then all of a sudden you’re a star: you have a big record on the radio and you’re on stage, and you’ve never done it before. Let’s say your first show is Summer Jam and you’re in front of 60,000 people, and you’ve never played an arena, ever. You’re gonna suck. Nine times outta… no, ten times outta ten, you’re gonna suck. You don’t know how to engage a crowd, or work with lighting, so there’s just you standing on stage holding your nuts. Ha ha. That’s why there’s so many pictures of rappers holding their nuts, because that’s what you do. You’re like “Okay… hold my nuts”.’

    You must be looking forward to playing Hyde Park: you seem to have a special affinity with London.

    ‘It’s my favourite city to go to. It’s the blending of cultures. You can be around Brixton, among the people who really know hip hop, and then you can be among the people who know just the big smash records and it’s a little snobbish. It’s a very live city, it’s super cool. It’s actually the first place I played outside of America that really embraced hip hop, that had a knowledge of it and really understood the intricacies of the music and what I was talking about.’

    This isn’t your first gig at a London landmark – you played the first ever hip hop show at the Albert Hall.

    ‘Yeah. That was an amazing experience – exactly what music should be. It brought so many different classes and cultures together, it was unreal. Gwyneth Paltrow and Sha-Bron from Brixton, it was like, what is going on out there? I’m an observer, so I’m watching the whole thing, thinking: Look at this, man – this is a form of utopia.’

    Was the choice of such a historical venue deliberate?

    ‘Every one of those type of things is done deliberately. Because I believe that hip hop should play anywhere. I believe any music should play anywhere.’

    So what else do you get up to when you’re in town?

    ‘I’m a pretty big, almost a professional, gambler. I’m not gonna say any names because that’ll mess it all up, but there’re these little private clubs you can go to in the West End where you can hang out and gamble, and it’s pretty cool. And you know, I’m a foodie, so I’m always in search of the next good meal. There are plenty of great restaurants out there.’

    Which would you recommend?

    ‘Ah, nah nah, I’ll take you. These things are my gems, they’re secret gems to me, y’know? I got ya, though.’

    Do you get much opportunity to check out the local music scene?

    I discovered the Punjabi MC record [‘Beware of the Boys’, covered by Jay for his US top-five single] in a London club. I was like: What the hell is that? The whole club went off. I’d never heard the record before, so I called the guy the next day, to say I’m gonna do a remix, and he’s like, “Who is this?” ’

    You signed grime MC Lady Sovereign to Def Jam in 2005, too. What do you think makes London’s music scene so interesting?

    ‘I think in London – and I don’t wanna offend anybody in America, but this is a real statement – they still have the right approach to making music. In the US, people see it as a way to make money, they see it as a means to get out. It’s a hustle, which is great – any way you can provide for your family that’s legal is fantastic. But it still feels like people make music to make music over in London. You understand? When I listen to Amy Winehouse, I believe that her heart and soul is in the music, or if I listen to other British artists like Duffy or Estelle. The aesthetic of it is different, and it’s my point of view. It’s not anything formulaic. Not ringtone. I don’t think you have ringtone rappers.’

    You own a share of [basketball team] the New Jersey Nets. What’s this we hear about you potentially investing in Arsenal?

    ‘I had invested in the Nets, and they [Arsenal] asked me if I was interested in investing. But I get that from time to time. Someone told me yesterday that someone else had a piece of the New York Yankees – “We wanna talk to you, yadda yadda yadda.” I mean, I love the Yankees so I’m in the middle of following that through, but sometimes it comes to be something and sometimes it comes to be nothing. That was one of the times it came to nothing.’

    You’ve just released a split single with the other famous rap Carter, Lil Wayne. Did you hear about what happened when he played at Stratford Rex a few months ago?

    ‘No, what happened?’

    The crowd tried to rob him.

    ‘What do you mean? You mean like “Aaaoow!”, like “Gimme your chain?” No… no… was this from excitement or…? Oh, wow. That’s very shocking. That must be some social commentary – something’s going on round there. I also heard that there’s a lot of killings going on at the moment. Oh, man, that’s horrible. That has to be addressed, because it’s coming from somewhere. No one gets up and just decides, “Okay, knives, this is what’s in now.” It’s not a fad, it’s not cool to do. It’s coming outta frustration. It’s frustration, and ignorance as well. That has to be addressed.’

    It’s interesting that you say that – most rappers appear to be very cautious about speaking out about social problems in their interviews.

    ‘Right. Yeah, that all comes out of fear. You gotta figure where most of these guys are coming from. They’re coming from very poverty-stricken areas, and now here they are and they have a chance to provide for themselves and their generation, and they want to hold on to it. So they’re a little afraid of especially that type of thing – you’re gonna take on the government. They’re afraid of the repercussions of that. They’re gonna absolutely shut them down.’

    You were also one of the few people to stick up for Kanye West when he made his post-Hurricane Katrina comments about George Bush…

    ‘I don’t profess to be a political rapper, like groups such as Dead Prez or Public Enemy, but I think social commentary should make its way into your music. Speaking on your neighbourhood is social commentary – what happens, what’s going on. Like I said, the fear of what could happen stops people: look at what they did to those Dixie Chicks! But then you also see what happened the next year when the Dixie Chicks came back and they got validated at the Grammys, when they won album of the year.’

    So it must have been a major compliment to have Barack Obama referencing ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’ (via the much-talked-about ‘shoulder dusting’ move following a bad-tempered debate with Hillary Clinton)?

    ‘Oh yeah, yeah! Ha ha ha! You see how far hip hop has moved into mainstream culture. Before, the type of presidential candidate we have wouldn’t even have heard a record like ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’. They might hear the one massive record of the year, like Will Smith’s ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It’. But that record – it was a hit, but not a number one.’

    So you’ll be waiting for your invitation to the White House then…

    ‘Ha ha! Yeah, absolutely. If he wanna hear some real talk… ’Cos that’s the only way I know how to talk about it. I’m not savvy with political jargon, I only know how to say, “This is fucked up: of course the crime is up, what you think is happening? People are struggling, they’re broke, they gotta pay the light bill, then pay the rent.” They don’t even know what that means! That’s why people are not so involved with politics. I never voted until two, three years ago. Because as a kid that’s how I was brought up – whoever was in office, nothing changed. ’Cos it never trickled down, right? Because that’s what politicians do – they gotta give to the people that’s right there and it never makes its way down to us. Because first of all, we weren’t voting, so our voice didn’t mean anything. Whether we were upset or happy, they didn’t care. But if our voice meant something, then they would have to deal with us. And that’s what people gotta understand. They’re not gonna deal with you if your voice don’t mean anything. If you can’t affect whether they’re in office or not, politicians are like “Why should I give you any money? Why should I fix parks? Why should I have a police watch out there so there’s not rampant drugs and shootings on Sundays?”’

    So you don’t have any plans to move into politics, then?

    ‘No. Ha ha ha! No, they’ll kill me in 30 seconds. “Shit! This guy’s in!” Bang! Ha ha! I won’t make it past the primaries! Ha ha! They talk about Obama’s priest – imagine what they’d do to me! My friend is locked up! Ha ha ha! That’s funny.’
    Jay-Z headlines the O2 Wireless festival in Hyde Park on July 3.

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