Shawn Corey Carter was brought into this world (Brooklyn to be precise) on December 4th, 1969, the year Rupert Murdoch purchased The News of the World, the Jets won the third Superbowl, Led Zepplin released their first album and the Beatles had their last public performance. Nixon was elected president and American gangster Frank Lucas was shipping heroin into Harlem, on the other side of Manhattan, in the false bottoms of the coffins of American soldiers.
Carter was abandoned by his father and raised in the notorious Marcy housing projects of Bed-Stuy. At age 12, during the rising crack epidemic in the early 80s, Carter caught his brother stealing a ring from him to pay for drugs. Street logic demanded revenge. In a hood world populated by gangsters, where guns littered every crib, it’s hard to imagine whether this 12-year-old was unique or simply one of a breed who saw violence as the obvious solution. Carter acquired a weapon and shot his own brother in the shoulder.
“Saw the devil in your eyes, high off more than weed, confused, I just closed my young eyes and squeezed.” – You Must Love Me, In My Lifetime, Vol.1
Despite the thug appeal, Carter admits he was scared and thought he was going to jail. The incident drew a fine line drawn between incarceration and freedom and may have been one of the defining moments in the life of the man would be king of hip hop.
Around the same time in Chicago, another kind of drug deal was going sour. Seven people were murdered when government-approved narco-peddlers Johnson & Johnson unwittingly doled out cyanide-laced Tylenol capules. Amidst the controversy, Chicago State University English Department Chair Donda West was ensconced in a decidedly middle-class, crack cocaine-free environment, single-handedly raising her son Kanye. Kanye West spent the remainder of the 80s and early 90s as a straight A/B student eventually dropping out of Chicago State University and the American Academy of Art in Chicago to pursue a career in music.
“I’m no longer confused but don’t tell anybody. I’m about to break the rules but don’ tell anybody. I got something better than school but don’t tell anybody.” – Graduation Day, The College Dropout
By the age of 17, Carter was not only the undisputed neighborhood rap champ, going by the name Jay-Z, he was also on the street side of the drug business as a crack dealer. Sociologist Kenneth B. Clark noted that “individuals in inner-city ghettos creatively adapt to this system of severely restricted opportunities.” In a 2009 60 Minutes II interview, Jay-Z bluntly framed the dilemma he faced: “It was either you’re doin’ it or you was movin’ it.”
Unlike less talented, less hungry individuals, Jay-Z had an alternative. After being shot at three times from less than six feet away, crack apparently became less appetizing than rap as a survival tactic. In an effort to raise his profile and secure a record deal, Jay-Z faced-off against and won several rap battles with James Todd Smith, a.k.a. LL Cool J. Jay also appeared on Big Daddy Kane’s 1994 track Show and Prove with rap legend O’ Dirty Bastard and freestyled at intermissions during Big Daddy Kane shows. Still he remained unsigned.
A businessman by trade, Jay fell back on old habits, this time dealing tapes with business associate Damon Dash, and gained a level of notoriety which eventually led to a single release with Payday Records. Jay cited Payday’s shady business practices and general cluelessness as reasons for rejecting a record contract with them and co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995 to sell his own albums. He recorded his debut Reasonable Doubt in a near mythic session, spitting a hallucinatory tirade of verses from memory. His next three albums sold in the millions and brought Jay into the limelight.
In 1999, record executive Lance Rivera was accused of bootlegging Jay-Z’s third album, Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter. As if condemned to repeat the past, Jay-Z allegedly stabbed Rivera.
Between 1996 and 1999, Kanye West was honing his skills as a producer on tracks by Goodie Mob, Jermaine Dupri and Foxy Brown among other high profile artists. In 2000, West was picked up by Roc-A-Fella and produced Jay-Z’s This Can’t Be Life which led to his work on The Blueprint.
Jay-Z reportedly wrote the lyrics to The Blueprint in two days while on trial for criminal charges of assault and gun possession and in the midst of several feuds with other rappers. Respect was at an all-time low. All the lessons of the hard knock life came home. Again he faced jail time, only this time he risked losing far more than a ring and there was no parole for bad behavior.
Jay walked on all criminal charges against him during production of The Blueprint. Released on September 11, 2001, The Blueprint was hailed as a hip hop classic. Quintessential Jay and Kanye, the album signaled a shift across the genre toward Kanye’s old school meets new school sound and laid the groundwork for Kanye’s debut, The College Dropout. The dynamic between Jay, the King, and Kanye, the young upstart, had been forged under extreme duress. Kanye had Jay’s back in the pit when the buzzard’s were circling. He was watching The Throne.