4/13/11 - the education of jay-z

In today's excerpt - thirteen-year-old Jay-Z -- now an extraordinarily successful hip hop artist and entrepreneur with an estimated net worth of $450 million, thirteen Grammy Awards, and 50 million albums sold worldwide -- found hope in hip-hop and a way out by hustling crack. Here he encounters the hip-hop rhymes of a New York neighborhood kid named Slate:

"His name was Slate and he was a kid I used to see around the neighborhood, an older kid who barely made an impression. In the circle, though, he was transformed, like the church ladies touched by the spirit, and everyone was mesmerized. He was rhyming, throwing out couplet after couplet like he was in a trance, for a crazy long time -- thirty minutes straight off the top of his head, never losing the beat, riding the handclaps. He rhymed about nothing --he sidewalk, the benches -- or he'd go in on the kids who were standing around listening to him, call out someone's leaning sneakers or dirty Lee jeans. And then he'd go in on how clean he was, how nice he was with the ball, how all our girls loved him. Then he'd just start rhyming about the rhymes themselves, how good they were, how much better they were than yours, how he was the best that ever did it, in all five boroughs and beyond.  He never stopped moving, not dancing, just rotating in the center of the circle, looking for his next target. The sun started to set, the crowd moved in closer, the next clap kept coming, and he kept meeting it with another rhyme. It was like watching some kind of combat, but he was alone in the center. All he had were his eyes, taking in everything, and the words inside him. I was dazzled. That's some cool shit was the first thing I thought. Then: I could do that.

"That night, I started writing rhymes in my spiral notebook. From the beginning it was easy, a constant flow. For days I filled page after page. Then I'd bang a beat out on the table, my bedroom window, whatever had a flat surface, and practice from the time I woke in the morning until I went to sleep. My mom would think I was up watching TV, but I'd be in the kitchen pounding on the table, rhyming. One day she brought a three-ring binder home from work for me to write in. The paper in the binder was unlined, and I filled every blank space on every page. My rhymes looked real chaotic, crowded against one another, some vertical, some slanting into the corners, but when I looked at them the order was clear....

"Everywhere I went I'd write. If I was crossing a street with my friends and a rhyme came to me, I'd break out my binder, spread it on a mailbox or lamppost and write the rhyme before I crossed the street. I didn't care if my friends left me at the light, I had to get it out. Even back then, I thought I was the best. ... I'd spend my free time reading the dictionary, building my vocabulary for battles ...

"No one hired a skywriter and announced crack's arrival. But when it landed in your hood, it was a total takeover.  ... It wasn't a generational shift but a generational split. ... Guys my age, fed up with watching their moms struggle on a single income, were paying utility bills with money from hustling. So how could those same mothers sit them down about a truant report? Outside, in Marcy's courtyards and across the country, teenagers wore automatic weapons like they were sneakers. Broad-daylight shoot-outs had our grandmothers afraid to leave the house, and had neighbors who'd known us since we were toddlers forming Neighborhood Watches against us. There was a separation of style, too. Hip-hop was already moving fashion out of the disco clubs and popularizing rugged streetwear, but we'd take it even further: baggy jeans and puffy coats to stash work and weapons, construction boots to survive cold winter nights working on the streets. ...

"One day [my friend] Hill told me he was selling crack he was getting from a guy named Dee Dee. I told him I wanted to be down and he took me to meet the dude. I remember Dee Dee talking to us in a professional tone, taking his time so we'd really understand him. He explained that hustling was a business but it also had certain obvious, inherent risks, so we had to be disciplined. He knew that, like him, neither of us even smoked weed, so he wasn't worried that we'd get high off of the work, but he wanted to stress how real the game was, that as a hustle it required vision and dedication. We thought we had both. Plus, my friend had a cousin in Trenton, New Jersey, doing the same thing. All we needed were Metroliner tickets to join him. ...

"I was still rhyming, but now it took a backseat to hustling. It was all moving so fast, it was hard to make sense of it or see the big picture. Kids like me, the new hustlers, were going through something strange and twisted and had a crazy story to tell. And we needed to hear our story told back to us, so maybe we could start to understand ourselves. ...

"My life after childhood has two main stories: the story of the hustler and the story of the rapper, and the two overlap as much as they diverge.  I was on the streets for more than half my life from the time I was thirteen years old.  People sometimes say that now I'm so far away from that life -- now that I've got businesses and Grammys and magazine covers -- that I have no right to rap about it.  But how distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?  The feelings I had during that part of my life were burned into me like a brand.  It was life during wartime.

"I lost people I loved, was betrayed by people I trusted; felt the breeze of bullets flying by my head.  I saw crack addiction destroy families -- it almost destroyed mine -- but I sold it, too.  I stood on cold corners far from home in the middle of the night serving crack fiends and then balled [partied] ridiculously in Vegas; I went dead broke and got hood rich on those streets.  I hated it.  I was addicted to it.  It nearly killed me.  ...  I was part of a generation of kids who saw something special about what it means to be human -- something bloody and dramatic and scandalous that happened right here in America -- and hip-hop was our way of reporting that story, telling it to ourselves and the world."






Spiegel and Grau, a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2010 by Shawn Carter


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