“Are you sick of me?”
It’s the summer of 2010. Shawn Carter just showcased all his charm on the German television show „Stefan Raab“ for the last hour. But instead of the short break his manager offers him, he jumps straight on my couch. If the others rest, this man is here to talk. This is how it went down, as they say…
Shawn Carter. It is my pleasure. You enjoyed the TV show?
Lately you have been on the telly quite a lot.
Are you sick of me?
No, no. I like your public attitude. You know how to roll out your humor – at least as long the host is letting you. But let´s talk about your amazing new album „Blueprint 3“. This one and „The Ecstatic“ from Mos Def gave me my belief in hiphop back this year. Which leads us directly to the first song of the album, „What We Talkin’ About“. Within this you are asking the question of the sense of life – in your case this also means: where the fuck is hiphop going?
I try my best to figure out what is happening within the genre and pay also attention to life in general. „Talkin“ sets the tone for the album. If we gonna do this, I mean „The Blueprint 3“, the big question is: what are we talkin ‘bout? Do we talk about progression or do we talk about the same old things. If we talk about progression I am with you and we could have this conversation all day long.
Okay, let’s do this. Where do you see the progression? What are the new topics we should discuss?
Whatever is happening in the moment is your subject. Cause rap lives for so long as it is a young man’s business. Right now the music feels mostly like it is dedicated to a small audience – which is too narrow as an approach for me. But there is no reason for this. In reality we all listen to rap – and when the subject does not connect to our reality we turn away. Rap has to expand its audience to survive. It is pretty much a young genre. For me it looks right now like rock is taking things back, and as much as I respect the good bands out there, I ain’t gonna let this happen.
So, how do you fight this fight?
I do not have to change my way, as this comes naturally. When you are 16 you see things small scale, when you are 23 your perspective on the same thing is wider, also more complex – you see the consequences of certain decisions you made before.
What would the young Shawn Carter say to the Jay-Z of today if he would meet him on the streets?
„Wow man, how did you do that? This is really amazing.“ Cause he would love to do the same thing and would like to know how I did make it so far. And the answer: ask some questions. Be curious about life and be willing to accept the answers to your questions – cause some people ain’t willin to accept them. Make a million mistakes, this is life, no one is perfect.
I also like the „D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune)“ track quite a lot. Especially this soccer stadium sing-a-long anthem – which is out of tune. Very funny. Lyric-wise you talk in the song about you being a millionaire and still the toughest on the bloc – you really don’t see the young ones knocking on your door?
No. No one is bringing on tough subjects or taking risks. Instead everyone is putting on the auto-tune effect and wants to be on the radio. That is at least how I felt at that specific point, which brought me to produce „D.O.A.“. Man, we can’t stay on that road, cause if we do, another genre would come along or put us in the back for ten years. That´s exactly what happend when rap came and put everybody else in the background back in the days. Right now there are a lot great indie rock bands around, so we better watch our back. If we keep making this watered down radio version of rap music, you know, who says that they don’t take over and we have to watch them ruling for ten years.
Okay. As we are talking historic perspective here – if you look back, what are your high points and low points of the last decade?
Hmm, not an easy one. For me hiphop is connected to a lot of early happenings. I´m an old school kid. When in 1988 Rakim and Public Enemy showed up, and later in 1994, 96 Nas, Biggy, 2Pac, the Fugees, Lauryn Hill and Outkast, that’s my time.
Right. And later on? If we look on all these new acts which came up in the early 00s on labels like Stone Throw and Def Jux, they were hot for a moment, but somehow nobody of this generation made it to your league. They faded away.
Well, Kanye also came up in those years. He created another lane in hiphop which was needed, a super emotional one. He created the nerd as a new protagonist and talked about athletes and cheerleaders.
You took on the toughest game when you started your own label label Roc-A-Fella (which was later on bought by Def Jam and lead you to become CEO of Roc Nation). How did that feel for you?
It was good as far as the talent finding goes. Cause music is music and talent is talent. But when it comes to selling the music, this is pretty much where the challenges come in – because of the internet and the whole state of the music business and its single focus politics. It’s no longer about how big the hit is – if there is a hole in the back of the record store, where the records are, it is not the same anymore. But as far as we talking about the A&R aspects, well that part did not change.
Has it been a hard for you to see talented people who did not make it as you were not able to break them to the people?
Yeah. My thing is to make great music. Cause at the end of the day, I can’t terminate if a record sells one copy or one millon. I can’t eat myself up over that. But I can make sure that I am and the people I am working with are all bringing in 100%. I mean I had more frustration with the record labels and not with my artists. I wanted the labels to do more, I alwas told them, „we have to do something for the guys“.
„Thank You“ is all about giving the yeah-sayers a clap on their back. You show your big heart. But, honestly, does a Jay-Z never need a bit of approval? Some tender loving at the dinner from your friends?
No, no. I listen to whoever is in the room, it could be the engineer or the guy who just came in to pick up the glasses. From time to time I organise these, how do they call it when they put some people in the room, a sample of folks?
Like a movie ‘focus group’? You do that?
Yeah, but with my friends. If ten people put their hands up, I put „Thank you“ higher , when only three like it, I push it further down the album.
Have there been some tracks, which you did not bring out cause of others’ opinions?
Yes, sometimes that happens. But if I really believe in it, it is personal and I still go my way. Thats what happened with the first track, „What you talking about“, the one you liked. For me it sets the tone of the album, it’s perfect. So I said, „i cant help you guys, it has to go on the album“. I am glad I did not listen.
It’s a great one. You had to do it. But my favorite track is „Venus Vs. Mars“, cause it is broadens the sound spectrum so much. On this one you include ethno sounds, a kinda trend being around for the last two, three years in dance music. Is this something you follow?
That was Timbaland. He is always all over the world. He just finds so many different sounds. Thats why I really like working with him. It is exciting for me. He brings in so many unnheard sounds.
The way you work with these ethno-african sounds reminds me less of the original records from africa and more of old Talking Heads records.
And then your lyrics kick in perfectly. They got this bubblegum approach of bringing in Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown as well as the shaved head of Britney.
I just wanna be playful with it. The whole thing is about the war between the girl and me, venus versus mars. First of we are like the perfect match, she is the yin, I am the yang. But at the end of the song we find out that we are totally different.
You mentioned Timbaland. You still work with a lot of the so called superproducers of the last years like him and the Neptunes and Dr. Dre. Again the question: do you see somebody young coming up?
There are a lot of young, little guys out there. But they are all producing within the territory the big ones defined. I don’t wanna do an album based on a sound, I wanna do an album based on emotions – that´s the classic approach of doing music. For „Empire States Of Mind“, the song with Alicia Keys, I worked with a new guy – and the result is so powerful. It is one of the songs everybody reacts to immediatelly. It did perform without radio play, went straight in the British top ten and is now number 2 with no radio airplay yet.
Talking about young producers: you worked together with Justice on the beat for „On To The Next One“. Do you follow a lot of the electronic productions? What is hiphop able to learn from those electronic kids?
The idea came from Swizz Beatz, with whom I made this track. I was in London and he sent the beat to me. Just the driving of it made me call him: „Man, this is fantastic!“ I wanted to cut it right on, but somehow I did not. So at the end of the album sessions, I always play all the unused beats to everybody to see if I missed something. When I played that one, the whole room started jumping. It reminded me of the feeling I had when I first heard it. I cut it that day.
Did you know their stuff before?
Not the album, but the one video to the track „Stress“, in which they walk in styled jackets vandalizing the Parisian banlieues. That was fantastic.
Do you listen to a lot of that kinda music or do you let that part roll with the folks around you?
No, no. I like music. I experiment with and listen to all kind of music. I go to Indierock shows on one day and to a Lil Wayne concert the next day. I enjoy them the same but for different reasons.
And when it comes to the new wave of female rappers like Amanda Blank and Kid Sister – are these people you are interested in?
I heard Kid Sister early on. She started off really exciting, but went a little quiet. I don’t know what happened to the project.
Well, from what I know, they work hard on it. It’s supposed to finally drop soon. The new single „Right Hand Hi“ is quite cool.
Let’s see what happens. Honestly, new girls are really needed. Our genre needs male and female rappers as well as gangsters and soulfuls – I like diverse music.
Listening to your album, the lyrics are as much fun as the little production details. When you start an album, do you have a clear perspective on the stories you wanna tell?
What happens: In the beginning I try to find my theme for the album. With the first „Blueprint“ it was all about the soul samples, the music I did grow up with, the things that shook me as a kid. „Blueprint 2“ was me as a teenager. That’s why it was a double album, that´s why it was all over the place: a song with Lenny Kravitz, another one with Sean Paul, or Frank Sinatra samples. I acted like a teenager on it: ADD, attention deficit disorder, I was all over the place. For this one I wanted a classic approach to make it an album with a more mature feeling to it. So I had pretty much a theme in mind and let the tracks dictate the rest.
With your attitude, that you still bring it higher than all the other guys out there, you go quite confrontal. How is your response from other rappers?
„D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune)“ was a headbutt. People got really wound up about it – which is great, cause that is what I wanted to do with my art. To provoke conversations. With the album in general – everybody liked it. But „D.O.A.“ meant everybody had to take a side. It was a clash: auto-tune versus D.O.A. – which is great. It felt like it was against an entire movement. But it was not a movement, it was a gimmick.
So what did Kanye say?
It was pretty much his idea. When we were in the studio, he said: „This record is so hot, it has to be against anything!“ He did not know where I was going with this, but he pushed me. Later on the song he says, „this is too far“. Yes, that is him in the back screaming at me. It was beautiful. I said what I wanted to say and he said his part. I can’t stop him from making an album with auto-tune and he can’t stop me from recording an album against it. It just is what it is.
We already spoke about hiphop’s 1990s. With the genre getting bigger and bigger, suddenly there were Turkish, German and Scandinavian hiphop productions popping up. Did you follow this explosion – and why do you think it did stop at a certain moment?
Na, I can’t say I follow it too closely. But it made sense that people turned away as it was not so exciting anymore. It was too narrow, new subjects had to be brought in. As you could see: if the subjects are brought and there are records like „New York“ it has an international and immediate effect. It is not the genre, it’s the music being made. So hopefully we stretch it out.
You sampled Sinatra on this record. Is his crooner style a potential role for your 40s?
I am a big fan of what he did. He created the blueprint for what I try to do: He had a record label too, he signed Jimi Hendrix – Kanye is my Jimi Hendrix. He had relationships with the president – Obama is my man.
Did you meet up a lot with Obama?
A couple of conversations.
Are you happy with how he’s doing his job?
Yeah. He needs to get a little stronger and push himself through. He gets a lot of restrictions when he has ideas. It is unbelievable that some people are against certain ideas. I mean, when someone gets sick, you ain’t thinking that people could possible be against them getting cured. That’s evil, you speak out loud against that. That’s disgusting.
Why is it that all these successful hiphop artists also run clothing and shoes brands? I obviously ask you this as you run Roc-A-Wear, a shoe collection in cooperation with Reebok, and you own the NBA basketball team New Jersey Nets. Doesn’t it steal away a lot of your creative time?
Being an artist is always number one, it is my passion. All these other things are a just a mark of culture, things I am involved with every day which just pop up. You know, you wake up in the morning, take a shower, listen to music – it is all an expression of how you feel about yourself and how you wanna present yourself to the world. So these forms are just another creative arm in my life. They are also natural forms, but I am of course not as passionate about making a sweater as about making a song. I am more the editor when it comes to clothes. I don’t draw, but my design team is really great, so I come up with ideas like „the shoulder is placed to high, put it there“ or „wave the arm thing“.
I think we are coming to the end of our conversation sadly. Got to ask though, what is the idea behind the cover version of Alphaville’s „Forever Young“ on the album? It is the only song I don’t like on the record. Is this at the end of the decade your personal statement to the 80s revival?
I like you being honest with me. But for me this is one of the best tracks of the album. I really like it. You know, you only get one life, and it depends on you what you do with it. You are able to modelize yourself forever. I am an entertainer, right, I hope to produce at the end classical music which will be played forever and ever from the upcoming generations. Like the music that I love. I love the drums and the synths of that track a lot, I almost love the whole thing. The production ideas are so powerful to me.
Okay, got you. In a way you are the living proof of a different attitude – as you do not wanna stay forever the same and young, you think about bringing hiphop into the next decades of your life.
Absolutely right. Because the further up you go, the brighter the audience is, the wider the music is spreading. What happens to a lot of artists, even they get older, they still try to dictate to a small audience – but they are not able to connect with them anymore and fall into irrelevance. When you listen to it, you feel no real emotions anymore. And why is that? They ain’t living this life everyday any more. But emotions do not have an age and colour. We all aspire to things: you aspire to be a writer, and I aspire to be a rapper. That goes outside genre, gender and anything else. When you imitate you miss the emotions. So the key is to still aspire and feel things and then people will connect.
This connecting made you the best proof of the old story: from the ghetto to the top of the charts. Since yesterday you hold more number one hits as Elvis.
That said, „Young Forever“ is meant as the soundtrack of your music not you.
Right. Exactly. My man.
Good talk. Thank you.