NEW YORK — It's one of the most fabled stories in hip-hop history: Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. meeting in the studio to collaborate on what would become the scorching track "Brooklyn's Finest," from Jay's classic debut, Reasonable Doubt.
One top-class MC pitted against a rising blue-chip MC, and when Jay passed Biggie a notebook to jot down words for his verse, the Bad Boy rapper passed it back and responded that he doesn't write down his lyrics. Jay said that he didn't either, and the lyrical showdown began.
The result was undeniable, but if you're wondering why Jay doesn't have more great stories behind his numerous collaborations, it's because that recording session was one of the few where he and the guest artist knew prior to the song being complete that they'd be working together.
And with the advent of technology and artists being able to e-mail audio files to producers and engineers, a guest like Lil Wayne doesn't even get to hear the completed version of his song with Jay — "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" from American Gangster — basically until the general population does.
"It ruins the spirit," Jay admitted to MTV News. "You wanna know the conversation and the camaraderie and how'd you come up with that [idea]. That part is lost through the technology, but that's just the day and age that we live in. Technology makes it convenient to be in two different cities and make one song. There's a million stories that came out of that one session that me and Big was in — even the most important: us finding out that we didn't write. You couldn't get that, and that's just classic."
According to Jay, most of his collaborations happen after he's recorded a song. He'll listen to the track and think about who would make a good addition to the song. In fact, that's how Nas came onboard for American Gangster's "Success."
Jay was playing records for a number of people, from LeBron James to Usher, and when he played "Success" for Nas, the Queensbridge MC liked what he heard and Jay told him to get busy.
" 'Black Republican,' we knew what we were gonna do," Jay explained. "I didn't really do 'Black Republican' for it to be a song, to be perfectly honest with you. That was like the first time we had been in the studio together. And I just went in there to set the mood, get everything started, like, 'This is what he gonna do.' But then he kept the song, and you know when you keep the song you start falling in love with it. I'm like, 'Yo, I'm telling you, we got to do a record, let's do a different record. That song is great, I like it, but let's do it again.' But he fell in love with the record, so we never cut another record.
"The difference between 'Black Republican' and 'Success' is that 'Success' wasn't supposed to be a collaboration," Jay added. "He was just in the studio one day, and I was just playing him a bunch of records and he was vibing with the records, and when that came on he loved it so much, I was like, 'Take it, do something.' It just happened. Where as 'Black Republican' was more set up that we were gonna do a record."
Jay said he wishes more artists would come together naturally for songs. He admitted that in hip-hop, the spirit of competition naturally drives fans to decide who outdid whom, rather than it "just being about the good of the song" — or for collaborations to be more about the pairing than the actual song.
But Jay said he takes it so seriously that it's a pet peeve of his when the right person and the right record aren't connected. He revealed a phone call he once made to an artist when he felt their song should have been given to him instead.
"I remember long time ago, I called [the Fugees'] Praswell — he had 'Ghetto Superstar'; him and Mya was on the record — and I'm like, 'Why wouldn't you give me that record?' This was '97 too. I was super-hustlered out," Jay said, laughing. "I'm the ghetto superstar — why wouldn't you give me that? It was his record, though, and I'm calling him. But we cool. I know that was probably one of the weirdest phone calls he ever got. Like, 'You call me about my record and why I didn't give you my record?'
"That's a lot of nerve," Jay continued, laughing again. "But I love the art as a whole. It could have been anybody. It doesn't have to be me. Just give the right record to the right person, and you got magic."
Check out the first two parts of the series: