Radio & Podcasts

Alvin Hall

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Jay Z: From Brooklyn to the Boardroom

BBC Radio 4

December 2006

Wincott Foundation Awards for Financial Journalism and Broadcasting
Radio Program of the Year, 2006

Given his street-entrepreneurial past, the language he uses in his songs, and his stage persona, you would think the rapper Jay-Z would be a bit rough, a bit egomaniacal, a bit standoff-ish. Not so.

Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter has gone from being a drug dealer in one of the roughest areas of Brooklyn to being both the head of a record label and a spokesperson for worldwide brands like Hewlett Packard and Budweiser. Yet, he remains casual and chilled, turning up for our interview without a big entourage in tow. There is no posturing. No paranoia. No defensiveness.

Determined to make it

When Jay-Z talks about his career and his business interest, it becomes clear that this guy has absorbed one of the oldest adages of the financial markets: wealth is built through concentration; it is held on to through diversification. How does he know this?
Many people have to go the business school for an MBA to learn this lesson and Jay-Z is a high-school drop out. In Jay's case, he has lived it.

"I don't have a template on how to be a [chief executive], I'm still myself. I'm still a straight shooter," Jay-Z says. As a young rapper he worked hard on getting his flow perfect, on making his lyrics full of the right references, on never writing down a lyric. When he couldn't get a record deal for this first CD, he and friends used the same street entrepreneurial skills they had used to sell drugs in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects. "We knew we had something the people wanted, so instead of quitting we built it ourselves," says Jay-Z. They sold copies of his first CD out of the boot of their car next to Gray's Papaya, a famous hotdog store on 6th Avenue and 8th Street in Manhattan.

Jay-Z was determined to become the rapper with the best flow, and if selling his CD himself on the street was necessary to achieve success, so be it. "We'd play our music loud in the cars, and people would be like 'yo, what's that?' and we'd sell it right out of the trunk," he recalls. And it worked.

Business brains

Jay-Z was not so hungry that he felt compelled to grab the first record deal that came along. He and his business partners had learned from other black entertainer's mistakes - an important element of his success. Together they established their own record label, the audaciously named Roc-A-Fella Records, a shout-out to one of the richest families in the US.

They held out for a deal that gave them the sun, the moon, and the stars, yet did not bankrupt the record company. Everyone made money, but Jay and his partner made the lion's share.

Big dreams

Jay-Z admits that he doesn't know everything - hard to imagine given the swagger, bold braggadocio that seems genetically a part of rapper's music and lives. When his clothing line, Rocawear, was floundering, he asked Russell Simmons, the original founder of Def Jam Records, for help. He learned from his near tragic mistake and went on to develop a line of clothing that clocked up sales of $90m (£45m) in its first year. This is a pattern that you see over and over his Jay-Z's career.

He may not always get it right the first time, but he knows who to ask for help, he learns from other people's experiences, he knows how to avoid being trapped by his mistakes, and he knows how to be smarter the next time around. Jay-Z believes the greatest threat to his future success is "dreaming too big". Yet he continues to do so. And other people find his success at fulfilling these dreams infectious, both on CD and in person.