Who Is Jay-Z?
Jay-Z, born Shawn Corey Carter on Dec. 4, 1969, is an American entrepreneur, investor, music producer, and rapper. With a net worth of $1 billion according to Forbes Magazine, Jay-Z is the first hip-hop artist to become a billionaire.
Jay-Z has 14 No. 1 albums, according to the Billboard 200, and 21 Grammy Awards. His business ventures include a successful apparel line he sold in 2007, entertainment company Roc Nation, and sports management agency Roc Nation Sports. He owns or has owned stakes in several other businesses. These include nightclubs and champagne brand Armand de Brignac, nicknamed "Ace of Spades," and music-streaming service, Tidal.
Jay-Z has also endorsed a wide array of products, including Microsoft's Bing, Reebok shoes, Hewlett-Packard computers, and Budweiser beer.
Jay-Z's Early Life and Education
Jay-Z was raised in a housing project in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Although the neighborhood was poor and sometimes dangerous, Jay-Z remembers growing up with music always on hand.
"I grew up in Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, and my mom and pop had an extensive record collection, so Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and all of those sounds and souls of Motown filled the house," he recollected.
His mother, Gloria Carter, raised him and his three siblings after their father left the family. Jay-Z was 11 at the time, and the experience was devastating.
"When you're growing up, your dad is your superhero. Once you've let yourself fall that in love with someone, once you put him on such a high pedestal and he lets you down, you never want to experience that pain again," he’d later say.
That vacuum was filled by other people, such as young Jay-Z’s musical mentor Jaz-O, and perhaps more importantly, by the music itself.
“We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift," Jay-Z would write.
A Young Man's Obsession
Music was an obsession for the young man. His mother recalls him waking the family at night with rhythms drummed on a kitchen table. At the same time, Jay-Z was also a budding lyricist.
"I would run into the corner store, the bodega, and just grab a paper bag or buy juice - anything just to get a paper bag. And I'd write the words on the paper bag and stuff these ideas in my pocket until I got back. Then I would transfer them into the notebook," he said.
But his childhood wasn’t all about music. The 1980s were a complicated, difficult, and potentially deadly time to grow up in New York City’s housing projects. With the crack epidemic kicking into high gear, violence, addiction, and broken homes were common. But even more than crumbling schools, limited opportunities, and violence on the streets, it was the indignity of being poor that made the biggest impression on Jay-Z.
Scarcity and Squalor
"The burden of poverty isn't just that you don't always have the things you need; it's the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you'd do anything to lift that burden," he wrote of the formative effect of financial hardship.
The atmosphere of scarcity and squalor, as well as the all-consuming struggle to escape it, is impossible to ignore in his music. But it also affected Jay-Z in other ways. When he was 12, he reportedly shot his older brother in the shoulder in retaliation after he stole Jay-Z’s jewelry.
As a teenager, he attended George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School in Downtown Brooklyn, where he rubbed shoulders with future rappers The Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes, before transferring to Trenton Central High School in Trenton, New Jersey.
Jay-Z dropped out of high school and began selling crack cocaine. It wasn’t an easy line of work, and he claimed he was shot at on three separate occasions during his time dealing drugs.
All the while, though, he continued writing lyrics, freestyling, and listening closely to the music. Around this time, he changed his nickname "Jazzy" to the stage name, "Jay-Z," to honor his boyhood musical mentor, Jaz-O. “I had no aspirations, no plans, no goals, no back-up goals," Jay-Z has said of his young self.
Jay-Z's Early Career
Jay-Z began his musical career in the late ‘80s, with brief appearances on several of Jaz-O's early recordings. He also took on rapper LL Cool J in a number of rap battles in the early '90s. But he didn’t begin to reach a wide audience until 1994 when he was featured on the Big Daddy Kane album, "Daddy's Home."
Despite connections in the hip-hop community and having been featured on Big Daddy Kane's album, Jay-Z couldn’t find a major label to take a chance on him.
So, in 1995 the rapper—then 26—sold CDs out of his car, and with the proceeds, he teamed up with friends Damon Dash and Kareem Biggs to create the Roc-A-Fella Records label in 1995. Jay-Z credited the move, born of a desire to get his music to a wider audience, with pushing him forever into the world of business.
"I was forced to be an artist and a CEO from the beginning, so I was forced to be like a businessman because when I was trying to get a record deal, it was so hard to get a record deal on my own that it was either give up or create my own company," he said of the decision.
A Distribution Deal
He arranged a distribution deal and released his debut album "Reasonable Doubt" in 1996, and it soared to No. 23 on the Billboard 200. That success gave him the leverage he needed to broaden the label’s distribution, which he did through a deal with Def Jam in 1997.
The follow-up album "In My Lifetime, Vol. 1," was a deeply personal effort, produced by Sean "Diddy" Combs (formerly also known as "Puff Daddy" and "Puffy"), and sold better than the first. The next album, "Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life," was also a success, and included his biggest hit to that point, "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)."
Run-In With Law Enforcement
Jay-Z had a run-in with the law in late 1999, just before the studio release of his third album, "Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter."
Jay-Z stabbed Lance "Un" Rivera in the stomach and shoulder with a five-inch knife on Dec. 1, 1999. The attack took place at the Kit Kat Klub, a New York City nightclub in Times Square that has since gone out of business.
He believed that Rivera, a record executive, had bootlegged his "Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter." The album wasn’t due out until the end of December, but illegal copies were available at street vendors more than a month in advance.
At the nightclub, he sought out Rivera and initiated a conversation about his rumored role in bootlegging Jay-Z’s album. Rivera responded in a hostile fashion, and Jay-Z went to speak with his friends about the situation, and how best to proceed. The deliberation didn’t last long.
“Before I even realized what I was doing, I headed back over to him, but this time I was blacking out with anger. The next thing I knew, all hell had broken loose in the club,” Jay-Z said of the incident in his 2010 book, "Decoded."
He allegedly had some of his friends cause a commotion, which he used as a distraction while he stabbed Rivera. Jay-Z surrendered to police the next night. He was released on $50,000 bail.
Indicted in Manhattan Criminal Court a month later, Jay-Z initially pled not guilty. But not long after, he plea-bargained the charges down to a misdemeanor. He finally pled guilty and accepted a three-year probation sentence.
“There was no reason to put my life on the line, and the lives of everyone who depend on me, because of a momentary loss of control... I vowed to never allow myself to be in a situation like that again.”
Jay-Z's Success Story
Seven years after he started the Roc-A-Fella Records label, Jay-Z released seven albums that sold over 15 million copies. By 2010, he boasted a net worth of more than $50 million.
With his success in the music world cemented, Jay-Z began to diversify. In 1999, he started Rocawear with Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash. The clothing line included shoes, accessories, and casual wear for men, women, and children. With Jay-Z’s name attached, it was a big success, reportedly taking in revenues of more than $100 million in 2001 and $300 million in 2002.
Jay-Z's other fashion and lifestyle brand investments include stakes in Carol's Daughter, a line of beauty products. And in 2014, he purchased the Armand de Brignac champagne brand, which is known primarily for being sold in gold bottles. In 2003, he opened the 40/40 Club, which he envisioned as an upscale sports bar, in New York City. There is now a second location in the Atlanta airport.
The Sports Investor
Jay-Z purchased a share in the NBA team, the New Jersey Nets (now known as the Brooklyn Nets), in 2004, and was an active proponent of its move to Brooklyn, New York in the 2012–2013 season. He also owned less than one-fifth of one percent of the Barclays Center, where the Nets play. He sold his stake in both the Nets and the Barclays Center in 2013 when he launched his own sports agency, Roc Nation Sports. He is certified as an NBA and MLB sports agent.
Def Jam Records
In 2004, Jay-Z and his partner Dash clashed over the direction of Roc-A-Fella Records. Jay-Z resolved the situation by agreeing to become the president of Def Jam Records. In doing so, he sold his stake in Roc-A-Fella Records, negotiating the return of the master recordings of his own albums. Some estimate that the rights to those master recordings are worth more than $50 million. That payout was in addition to Jay-Z’s annual salary at Def Jam, which was just under $10 million a year, according to accounts at the time.
Meanwhile, the public falling out between Jay-Z and Dash also resulted in changes to the corporate hierarchy at Rocawear. In 2006, Jay-Z bought out Dash’s stake, before selling Rocawear to Iconix Brand Group for $204 million in 2007.
At Def Jam, Jay-Z launched the careers of many hip-hop artists who would go on to become successful, including Young Jeezy, Ne-Yo, and Rihanna. He also helped to revive Mariah Carey's career and signed his former enemy Nas, whose first Def Jam album opened at the top of the charts.
Jay-Z announced his departure from Def Jam in 2009. He signed a deal with Live Nation for a reported $150 million. Under the deal, Jay-Z started Roc Nation, a record label, talent management agency, and music publishing company. One report estimated that $50 million of the Live Nation deal went straight into Jay-Z’s bank account.
Another Branch of Business
Not long after, Jay-Z branched out once again, partnering with Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith to produce the musical Fela!, about the work of the Nigerian star Fela Kuti. In between producing hits for Roc Nation, Jay-Z launched a lifestyle website called Life+Times in 2011, which offers editorial content on music, fashion, technology, and sports.
As Jay-Z prepared to release his 12th studio album, "Magna Carta Holy Grail" in 2013, he decided to try something new. Online file-sharing had weakened the music industry, and streaming music seemed poised to all but kill album sales.
"First of all, we're in a dying business, everybody sees that. So what am I supposed to do, just sit here and wait until it gets to zero before I do something?" Jay-Z asked in an interview at the time.
In response, Jay-Z struck a deal with Samsung to give "Magna Carta Holy Grail" to a million users of Samsung smartphones a full three days before it released to the general public.
Bringing In New Revenue
“I'm like, let's figure out how to bring new revenue streams into the business. So I went out on my own and I made a deal. To me, if you're not with the changing times, you're irrelevant to me, we're gonna move on. We're not trying to trick the system; I wasn't looking for a No. 1 album.”
The deal reportedly netted Jay-Z $5 million before the album was even released.
In 2015, Jay-Z purchased Aspiro, which operates a subscription music streaming service called Tidal. He paid $56 million for the service, which had been in operation since October 2014. With a combination of lossless audio and high-definition music videos, Jay-Z hopes it will be a way to pay artists more for the music that listeners stream. After a $200 million investment from Sprint in early 2017, Tidal is now reportedly worth $600 million.
In June 2017, Jay-Z released an album titled "4:44," which became his 14th No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 Chart.
Starting in 2003, Jay-Z became involved in a number of philanthropic activities. Since its inception, his Shawn Carter Foundation has paid more than $4 million to help underprivileged kids with GPAs of 2.7 or below get through college.
In 2013, it was revealed that Jay-Z had secretly set up a trust fund for the children of Sean Bell, who was shot to death by NYPD officers in a tragic incident in 2006. He is also said to have spent tens of thousands of dollars on bail for Ferguson, Missouri protesters after a police officer shot and killed teenager Michael Brown.
Jay-Z in the News
He made headlines in May 2018 when the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a subpoena seeking testimony from Carter surrounding the sale of Rocawear, his former clothing label, to Iconix Brand (ICON) in 2007. He was reportedly asked by a New York judge why he ignored a previous SEC subpoena that had been issued in February 2018.
Jay-Z also filed a lawsuit in May 2018 against The Weinstein Company, claiming unpaid dues. In October 2017, it was reported that Jay-Z wanted to buy the company that is facing bankruptcy after the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal. Even as Jay-Z's interest in buying Weinstein's shares waned, the lawsuit reportedly held up the sale of the firm.
Jay-Z has said many thoughtful and influential things as he rose to stardom and immense personal wealth. Here are some of his most famous and influential.
Jay-Z on Free Speech and Thought
"We change people through conversation, not through censorship.”—Jay-Z on the profanity in hip-hop lyrics and how society should view them
“Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people, distracted by the blur of life, might miss. Just sharing that truth can be a very powerful thing.”—Jay-Z on the basic and important value that artists bring to life
“It's always been most important for me to figure out ‘my space’ rather than trying to check out what everyone else is up to, minute by minute. Technology is making it easier to connect to other people, but maybe harder to keep connected to yourself - and that's essential for any artist, I think.”—Jay-Z on how modern technology can destroy one’s ability to think clearly, to create original art or music, as well as how it erodes a fundamental sense of self
Jay-Z on Fame
“Kurt Cobain OD'd on heroin before committing suicide, but he also OD'd on fame. Cobain was like Basquiat: They both wanted to be famous and were brilliant enough to make it happen. But then what? Drug addicts kill themselves trying to get that feeling they got from their first high, looking for an experience they'll never get again. In his suicide note, Cobain asked himself, ‘Why don't you just enjoy it?’ and then answered, ‘I don't know!’ It's amazing how much of a mindf--- success can be.”—Jay-Z on how attaining fame and fortune does not end one’s story, solve all of one’s problems, and can be a life-destroying disappointment
“Identity is a prison you can never escape, but the way to redeem your past is not to run from it, but to try to understand it, and use it as a foundation to grow.”—Jay-Z on how to approach one’s self
"My brands are an extension of me. They're close to me. It's not like running GM, where there's no emotional attachment."—Jay-Z on the blurred lines between his personality and his businesses.
"You make your first album, you make some money, and you feel like you still have to show face, like 'I still go to the projects.' I'm like, ‘Why? Your job is to inspire people from your neighborhood to get out. You grew up there. What makes you think it's so cool?’"—Jay-Z on his relationship with his humble upbringing
"Successful people have a bigger fear of failure than people who've never done anything because if you haven't been successful, then you don't know how it feels to lose it all."—Jay-Z on what differentiates successful people from others
"I'm a mirror. If you're cool with me, I'm cool with you, and the exchange starts. What you see is what you reflect. If you don't like what you see, then you've done something. If I'm standoffish, that's because you are."—Jay-Z on interpersonal relationships.
Jay-Z on the Finer Things
"I collect art, and I drink wine... things that I like that I had never been exposed to. But I never said, 'I'm going to buy art to impress this crowd.' That's just ridiculous to me. I don't live my life like that, because how could you be happy with yourself?"—Jay-Z on authenticity
"One of the reasons inequality gets so deep in this country is that everyone wants to be rich. That's the American ideal. Poor people don't like talking about poverty because even though they might live in the projects surrounded by other poor people and have, like, $10 in the bank, they don't like to think of themselves as poor."—Jay-Z on inequality and the deep reluctance of people of all classes to begin to acknowledge their situations