This is the second part of a two part series on music mogul Jay-Z. Pt. 1 can be read here.
Soon enough, Jay and his then business partners, Damon “Dame” Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, grew frustrated with the industry, no one more so than Hov. There’s no doubt that, on occasion, Jay’s mounting frustration inflamed into regret. After the millionth exec passed on his rhyme skills, Jay had to have second guessed his decision to quit slinging drugs in Brooklyn for slinging music in Manhattan.
Luckily, Jay’s regret would morph into something more useful than regret: resolve. Stoking his innate hustler’s spirit, Jay and his partners determined the only way to get in the game was to flip the script. If Jay couldn’t come aboard the labels, then the labels were going to come to him.
And the only way labels would come knocking, Jay surmised, was if he produced a four-letter word that starts with a “B,” in the streets. Buzz. That’s exactly what Jay set out to generate in 1996: the proverbial buzz. With this new mission in mind, Jay and Dame made copies of “In My Lifetime”, the track Jay recorded at the time.. then took the tapes to the hood and sold them directly to customers from the trunk of a Lexus.
Even in the digital era, the idea of selling actual copies of one’s music out the trunk of a car isn’t the worst idea in the world. But back in Jay’s era, when distribution was the sole responsibility of the label, moving tapes out the trunk of a car, even if that car was a Lexus – screamed “failed rapper.”
In one sense this was true: at that point one could argue Jay failed as a rapper. In another sense, the argument didn’t matter because, as fate would have it, “In My Lifetime” sold well in the streets. It became somewhat of an underground hit.
All in all, Jay’s direct-to-consumer efforts paid off. He generates the b-word around his music. Granted, the buzz around “In My Lifetime” wasn’t deafening, per se. It was, thankfully, loud enough to grab the attention of Payday Records, hip-hop label based in New York.
Naturally, Jay was excited: Labels were now knocking on his door! Okay, only one label was knocking, plus they weren’t knocking very loudly, but who cares? Jay knew what the saying “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” meant. It meant don’t wait for another deal if one is already on the table.
With that in mind, Jay set up a sit down with Payday, eager to see what the label had to offer. It’s safe to say Jay expected, at the bare minimum, a standard recording contract. But who knows, maybe Payday was going to offer him something better, juicier, like a Profit Split Record Deal or, better yet, a Distribution Deal. Why not? Jay just proved his music pretty much moved itself.
Which is why Jay damn near fell out his chair when he learned that Payday was offering a measly Single(s)-Only Deal. To understand just how paltry a Single(s)-Only Deal is, imagine a totem pole sticking out the ground. The topnotch recording contracts like Major Label Deals and Distribution Deals make up the top of the totem pole.
In the middle lies the Standard Record Deal. And all the way down at the bottom, where the pole meets the dirt, is the Single(s)-Only Recording Contract. And that’s what Payday offered: a deal that more or less said Jay may not even be worth the trouble signing.
Nevertheless, Jay wasted no time grabbing a BIC pen to signature “Shawn Corey Carter” across the dotted line. Soon as the ink dried, Jay, Dame and Biggs probably hit up the Palladium (New York’s go-to Hip Hop nightclub of the ‘90s), to pop bottles in celebration of the bullshit deal which, all things considered, was better than nothing. As corks soared over the DJ booth and bubbly flowed into champagne flutes, Jay made a toast to the Payday deal, which would turn out to be a disaster.
When Jay joined Payday’s roster, the label had already established itself as a full service hip hop recording label. Since 1992, the year Patrick Moxey founded Payday, the label had been developing artists and marketing records for quite some time. So when Jay signed in ‘96, he was 100% certain his career was in experienced hands.
But, as it turned out, those hands Jay entrusted his career with turned out to be inexperienced AF, at least according to Jay in a 2007 interview with YAHOO! MUSIC. At this point, Payday had successfully launch the careers of many MCs. But for some reason or another, when the time came to launch Jay’s career, the offices at Payday turned into amateur hour. The label, in Jay’s recollection, would send him to record shops to do in-store promos.
Jay, of course, would show up to do his part, only to figure out the shop didn’t even carry copies of the song he was supposedly there to promote. Not even a single copy. Not even half of a single copy. Not even half of a half of a…you catch my drift.
The point is: when it came to handling Jay’s career, the label wasn’t acting right. Sure enough, Jay began deliberating the case of Payday vs. Jay-Z with Dame and Biggs. It didn’t take long for them to reach a verdict: In the case of Payday versus Jay-Z, we the jury find the defendant guilty of acting shady. With the verdict in, Jay quickly set up a meeting with the Payday execs to negotiate his release.
There was a lot of back and forth, offers, counter offers, this that and a third, but ultimately, Jay secured his release from the label. He also secured something far more crucial than his exit: enough cash to bootstrap an independent rap label. And that’s exactly what Jay, Dame and Biggs did: start a label.
To start or not start a label? At the time, was it an easy decision to make? Did Jay and Dame come to a decision after an intense debate? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because, at that point, they had no other play in their playbook. What were they going to do? What was Jay going to do? Hang up the gloves and give up?
Jay tasted enough success to know quitting would be foolish. Okay, then: what else was he going to do? Go back to chasing deals? Or, worse yet, catch a deal with another label that would only do things for Jay that you could with two friends and some hustle? Forget that!
When and if the time came to sit across from a record exec to discuss business, Jay would take his seat at the table as an artist – and a boss. That’s not all: when and if a deal came their way, it had to be a partnership deal or something more, but definitely nothing less. And with their minds set to boss mode, Jay, Dame and Biggs founded would eventually become one of the greatest Hip Hop imprints of all time…Roc-a-Fella Records.
By Brandon Lawton