Jay-Z’s Grammy-Nominated ‘Empire State Of Mind’: How Did It Happen?

Music exec 'Big' Jon Platt explains how he slipped the song to Jay and convinced Alicia Keys to get onboard for Record of the Year nominee.

For EMI Music Publishing executive “Big” Jon Platt, his most special #1 record started with an empty stomach. “I happened to be at the right place at the right time and wanted some good barbecue,” Platt told MTV News, laughing.

The music-industry vet is largely responsible for helping Jay-Z notch his first career solo #1 with “Empire State of Mind.” The track is also up for Record of the Year at this year’s Grammys.

Platt, a Denver native and Los Angeles resident, was in New York two years ago to see Beyoncé kick off the North American leg of her tour. The show was scheduled for Sunday night, but Platt arrived the day before, against his better judgment.

“My weekends in New York are the worst, because all the people I work with do their own thing or go out of the city, so I’m bored out of my mind,” he said.

He called two songwriters signed to EMI — Brooklynites Angela Hunte and Jane’t “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic — who invited Platt to dinner. They ate, chatted and eventually listened to music the duo had composed. After a few songs, they played one particular track produced by Al Shux that was a rough demo of an R&B-tinged track dedicated to their hometown.

Platt recalled calmly asking them to play the number again. “I keep my feelings close to my chest,” he said. ” ‘Cause sometimes you can hear a song and it’s special the first time you hear it, but then you hear it three or four more times and it’s not.”

But after hearing it again, Platt asked the pair to play it once more. “Something was clicking, but there was something I couldn’t get,” he said. “Then that hook came in, and I was like, ‘Wow, that hook is huge.’ The same hook that made it to the finished version. When it came in again, God just came to me, and I dialed in on what it was saying in the chorus, and I was like, ‘This is a Jay-Z song.’ ”

He asked Hunte and Sewell-Ulepic if he could have the song without their verses. They hesitated until they all listened to it yet again and agreed it was a Jay-Z song waiting to happen. Platt asked them to e-mail him the record later that night.

The file arrived the next morning in his inbox, and he immediately shot a message off to Jay while preparing to go to the gym. “Hey, man, I think I got an idea for you that could be big,” he recalled writing about the record, which he couldn’t obtain an instrumental of right away. “Check this out. … Disregard the verses. Pay attention to the track and the hook.”

Platt hit the gym for an hour, and when he returned, Jay-Z already responded. He wanted the file immediately, Platt remembered. But Platt thought to himself that the rapper must have read the message through a BlackBerry or iPhone and didn’t see that he sent the attachment. So he replied that he already sent the file. No, Jay replied. He wanted the proper file. He planned to record the song the next day.
Platt went into a frenzy requesting the instrumental from the songwriters. Hours later, he ran into Jay-Z at Beyoncé’s Madison Square Garden concert. The rapper shot Platt a glance and told him he already put the song together.

“This is 10 hours later,” the music exec said. “I’m like, ‘How could you write it already? There’s lyrics on there and verses on there already.’ ”

It didn’t matter. The rapper said he looped a portion of the song over and over again and put his verses together while in his kitchen. “That part might have been five seconds,” Platt said.

The two continued to discuss the record, and Jay mentioned a few singers he had in mind for the chorus. Platt heard the names, and they triggered another in his mind. Putting songs in artists’ hands is his job, but suggesting features is outside of his spectrum, he acknowledged.

“But it sparked an idea in me that I thought I should share,” he said, and when he suggested Alicia Keys, they both agreed.

Days later in Los Angeles, Keys’ manager called when he heard about the song from Jay-Z. Platt thought of another idea: What if Keys cut her own version for her album that leaned more in the direction of the original penned by Hunte and Sewell-Ulepic? Keys’ manger, Jeff Robinson, told Platt that if he could do that, then the singer would do it.

Uh-oh.

“I was mortified when he said that,” Platt explained. ” ‘Cause I thought I screwed up the whole play. I came up with an idea that now it hinges on her doing this song. And she would have did it anyway eventually. I blew it.”

It took Platt two days to call Jay-Z, he said. The two talked, and he relayed the idea to Jay.

“She’s trying to take my song,” Platt recalled the rapper saying.
Platt admitted it was his idea. Jay went silent on the other end of the line. “All right, I’ll do it,” he told Platt after a pause.

The rapper knew he had a huge hit on his hands, according to Keys.
“I always figured that we would do some type of collaboration, and finally, it came together with this,” she told MTV News in 2009 . “He reached out to me and said, ‘I have this big New York record. I feel it’s right for us to do it together. It has this big Frank Sinatra, take-it-there feeling. I feel like you could really do something with it.’ ”

It took Keys some time to eventually lay her vocals after she wrote the song’s iconic bridge.

Platt kept hearing about the record and realized he hadn’t heard any part of it. He had been playing the demo still thinking about what could be.

A couple of months passed, and he and Jay traded e-mail messages. “Man, I haven’t heard the song yet. The first time I’m gonna hear it is when it’s on the radio,” Platt recalled writing to the rapper, as a hint to send the song his way.

“Ain’t that a beautiful thing,” Jay wrote back, according to Platt, drawing a laugh from him.

Eventually, Platt heard the song a week prior to the release of The Blueprint 3 when the album leaked online.
“It’s special,” he remembered thinking. “The way it took over the world, it’s an incredible feeling.”

For Platt, who has been working with Jay-Z since his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, it took on an even greater meaning when the song became the rapper’s first solo chart-topper.

“It became very special for me to watch this song race up the charts,” he said. “And to see the planets align for all the songwriters that contributed to this song.

“None of this was planned out,” Platt added. “It just happened. And they took it to the moon.”

Are you rooting for “Empire State of Mind” to win Record of the Year at the Grammys? Let us know in the comments!