RANDOM PREFACE THOUGHTS: This was the first piece of press Vibe did on Jay-Z. The day of the interview, I went down to Roc-A-Fella’s old office on John St. in the financial district to listen to Reasonable Doubt – which was still about a month away from being released – and meet up with Jay. I remember thinking it seemed like an odd place for a hip-hop label to set up shop – the space itself looked more like a legal library – and there was a real DIY feel to the whole operation.
The first person I saw when I entered the place was Lord Sear – then primarily known for bugging out on Stretch and Bobbito’s radio show. He was seated at one of a row of desks for reasons that are still unclear to me. (The official Roc-A-Fella greeter, maybe?) Someone introduced me to a short dude who introduced himself as “Pain In Da Ass,” and I naturally assumed the guy was just messin’ with me. (Eventually, after I’d hear the album complete with skits I’d figure out his role.)
Label A&R/everything-man Lenny S. played me the album, which I thought sounded pretty decent overall. Only later did I realize that the version I’d initially heard did not include “Brooklyn’s Finest.” (Funny to what degree the absence of a song can alter your perception of an entire record. If there are such things as “swing tracks” – i.e. ones that elevate an LP from the merely good to great – then this was Reasonable Doubt‘s to me.) Lenny was particularly good at emphasizing the sophistication of Jay’s wordplay where he felt it especially clever, spelling out the dual meanings of the lines like “Bring It On’s,” “N*ggas wanna try to hem my long jeans” (which expensive watch buyers will recognize as, “N*ggas wanna try to hem my Longines”).
I also distinctly recall being witness to Damon Dash verbally ripping another employee a new one over something or other, followed by an uncomfortable, awkward silence in the room as everyone sort of averted their eyes. As if on cue, Jay-Z looked up from whatever memo or fax he’d been walking around reading, turned to me and exclaimed with a sitcom worthy happy-go-lucky shrug, “Welcome to Roc-A-Fella!” Classic.
Jay got his car from out the nearby lot, and we drove to his preferred restaurant at the time – Pizzeria Uno on Sixth Ave in the Village. He was particularly fond of the chicken fajitas. (I’m sure he and Beyoncé still eat there all the time.) Before interviewing Jay, I’d been told by a colleague that he was not a great talker, but I pretty much found the opposite to be true – even though you wouldn’t know it based on the brevity of my profile. He was reserved, chose his words thoughtfully, but wasn’t stingy with them. Having experienced up close the pitfalls of the record industry via his then close friend the Jaz (on which he elaborated somewhat during our conversation), his preference to control his career via his own label made a lot of sense.
When the story eventually ran in Vibe, I was pissed that they removed Jaz’s name from the copy and substituted “a fellow Brooklyn Marcy Projects emcee.” Might seem minor, but I hated when info like that got chopped just because some housewife who picked up the magazine at the supermarket wouldn’t necessarily know or care who the Jaz was. Even if it for the sake of streamlining copy. (Anyway, it was all a conspiracy, I was convinced, to make the writers look less thorough in our knowledge.) Here’s the original version of the story I turned in. It’s technically not as polished as what eventually ran in the magazine, but I feel the subtle differences capture the experience a little more accurately as I remember it. Enjoy.