“I’m off the wall like Michael Jackson, these other ni–as is like Tito. Shout-out to Randy.” — Jay-Z from American Gangster.
NEW YORK — The lounge in the Roc the Mic studio is sprinkled with Jay-Z’s inspirations and signatures of success. Hanging from the walls are platinum plaques of albums and framed covers of iconic magazine issues — the Rolling Stone with Kanye West dressed as Jesus, the 1996 cover with a shirtless and proud Tupac Shakur, the XXL with Biggie on the throne and another Rolling Stone with Jay on the front. On it is Hov’s inscription to his team: “Let’s make history again.”
On Friday night, there was wine poured, cheese and crackers served and ABC Family channel playing on a flat-screen TV (don’t worry, it was changed to the Indians-Yankees playoff game) for a gaggle of journalists who were given one of the most elite invites of their careers: a chance to hear Jay-Z’s album American Gangster, weeks before it hits stores on November 6 (see “Jay-Z At Work On Concept Album Inspired By ’American Gangster’ Film” ). As an added bonus, the Jiggaman himself would be playing.
“I’m a bad muuuuuhf—a. I really made it. Al Capone, Michael Corleone, Scarface, they ain’t make it. I’m iller than all them n—as,” Jay-Z said with a grin as he manipulated the tracks from his laptop in the control room of the studio. “This is a cautionary tale, but it’s not true.”
The album is conceptual — such a movie on wax that Jay eventually wants to make it into a movie on film; a more expensive, polished, focused “Streets Is Watching,” if you will. That’s besides the fact that the album was inspired by another movie. If you’ve been keeping just an earlobe to what’s going on in pop culture, you’ll know Denzel Washington has a film called “American Gangster” coming out on November 2, directed by Ridley Scott and co-starring the RZA, T.I., Common and Russell Crowe (see “T.I. Says ’American Gangster’ Is Like An All-Star Hip-Hop Collabo” ). While the album played, the drama unfolded on a flat screen that hung above the studio console (not the bootleg where you see the back of the heads of the people in the fifth row, either; this was the I-have-juice-with-the-movie-company real deal).
Jay told the reporters that he had no plans of making an opus until a few weeks ago, when he was invited to a screening of the film, and his inner D-Boy got a wake-up call. Not that Jay had a sudden urge to skydive from the his 28th-floor president’s office and stand in front of the nearest bodega to hustle, but the film brought back memories of when Jay lived a more disreputable lifestyle. As portrayed by Washington, the movie’s real-life subject, Frank Lucas, possessed a laid-back demeanor, drive and business acumen that Hov could relate to. So, he decided to make an album that filled in some of the scenes and emotions that Jay felt he wanted to see in the film, but for one reason or another didn’t make it to the big screen.
Here’s the irony that those who live a charmed life sometimes run into: While Jay was conjuring up this idea to do a record to complement the film, Diddy was sitting on tracks that would serve as the jumping-off points of the album.
Jay talked about how P.D. had approached him about wanting to executive-produce one of his albums, but Jay has never let anyone exec-produce his LPs and wasn’t going to start now. Still, Diddy — who had no idea Jay was thinking about doing the “Gangster”-inspired album — called Hov about a month ago to Daddy’s House Studios to hear some records he had in the stash. The tracks, which were being built by producers Sean C. and LV, happened to have that soulful ’70s feel indicative of the “American Gangster” setting.
“That’s our kinda sound; that’s what we do,” LV said. “We was in the studio one day. Me, Puff and Sean, we was going through the joints; just listening, bugging out, dancing, having a good time. Puff was like, ’Let me just call this n—a right now.’ Maybe like 15, 20 minutes later, Jay walked in. This was like three or four weeks ago. We played him the first couple ones, and he felt the zone. He felt the vibe.”
Jay reacted immediately: “I was like, ’Sh–! Where did you get this music and what are you doing with it?’ ” Jay described of his initial session with Puff.
He got to work right away, and although Diddy and his producers weren’t in the studio while he was laying his vocals and making hooks, the songs were definitely collaborations.
“As soon as I would finish a record, it seemed like Puff was here in minutes,” Jay laughed.
“Jay would have the beats,” LV elaborated. “He’d do the record, and he’d send it back to us. We’d fill in the blanks as far as making them full records. From having live horns, live strings, live drummers. This percussion dude, he was coming in with bottles, banging on bottles, just sprinkles of sh–. We went all out. We brought in musicians to bring it out. Jay probably just heard a sample and some drums. Once we got the vocals back, we brought in all the extra candy.
“The first record [we got back] was the record called ’Sweet,’ ” LV continued. “When I heard it with Jay’s rhymes, I was just like, ’Jesus Christ!’ … Puff was hyped. He’d come in the studio and start bugging out, getting everybody hyped. This is still going on right now. We’re mixing records. Sometimes it’ll take us three days to mix one record.”
So far the Bad Boy production team has done “Party Life,” the aforementioned “Sweet,” “No Hook” (which takes a little from Def Jam recording artist The-Dream’s song “Shawty Is a Ten”: “I don’t need no hook for this sh–“), “Roc Boys” and “Pray.”
“That’s a real emotional record,” LV said of “Pray.” “It was tense. The record is real aggressive and has movement. When I made that beat, I was feeling a certain way that day, upset. That’s what happens.”
Jay is intoxicating on the track. He switches lanes from real-life accomplishments to speaking from the perspective of a kid about to slide head-first into dealing narcotics.
“Pray for me, I’m going in,” he raps. “Mind state of a gangster from the ’40s/ Meet the business mind of a young Berry Gordy/ Turned crack rock into a chain of 40/40s/ My jewelry so gaudy.”
He later rhymes about seeing police corruption and drug abuse from a young man’s eyes and being confused. “I’m trying to beat life ’cause I can’t cheat death … / Move Coke like Pepsi, doesn’t matter what the name brand is.”
Continue to Part 2 of this American Gangster preview , in which Jermaine Dupri, Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze and others narrate their part in the album’s creation.