Believe it or not, Jay-Z traveling to London as a 20-year-old saved his career. There's no doubt that Jay-Z sits amongst the Mount Rushmore of rappers. The New York MC's storied career took off in the '90s under the umbrella of Roc-A-Fella Records. Holding a career spanning over two decades, Jay-Z has released iconic records such as The Blueprint and The Black Album. Earning over 20 Grammys and selling over 100 million albums, he polished the classic New York style by following in the footsteps of Biggie. However, he's arguably best known for pioneering the entrepreneurship side of rap. Ironically, being rejected by numerous record labels throughout his career would catapult the once-drug dealer into a career that has seen him run successful companies in the alcoholic and athletic industries.
However, Jay-Z's career nearly came to an unfortunate end before it even started. In 1989, the then 20-year-old was looking for an outlet from the drugs, shootouts, and poverty he was surrounded by. Shawn Carter and Jonathan Burks met as kids in the Marcy Projects. Quickly bonding over the love of rhyming, the two spent years pushing each other's lyrical vocabularies. However, Jonathan "Jaz-O" Burks had the first career breakthrough. At the time, Jay-Z was parking next to hot dog stands on the streets and selling CDs of his records.
Jaz-O Took Jay-Z Under His Wing
Although Jaz-O was the first to see concrete success, he still took Jay-Z under his wing as his career took off. The two traveled to London to record Jaz-O's new album. Jaz-O had recently signed a record deal with EMI, which obligated him to work in London. The two would be there for nearly a year. Jay wrote in Decoded, "Up until that (London trip), my life could be mapped with a triangle: Brooklyn, Washington Heights, Trenton. It didn't work out because, for these guys, it wasn't about the music."
While the record deal wouldn't pan out for the two, traveling to London was yet another valuable experience for Jay-Z. He returned to the streets of New York with a new network of connections and a more expansive perspective on the potential for his career to go beyond where he'd grown up. However, it would be another six years before he gave up on signing a deal and created his own record label, Roc-A-Fella Records. He would release his debut classic album, Reasonable Doubt, under the label. The once-drug dealer would never look back, as the certified platinum record kickstarted a storied rap career.
Going To London Saved His Career
By making the trip to London, Jay-Z nearly avoided a federal raid. "During that time, there was a secret indictment that swept up and grabbed 30 of my friends. Everyone got locked up and went to jail. One of my closest friends, he went to jail for 11 years - the guy I was with every day." This federal raid was because Jay-Z and his friends were labeled as a concrete network of drug dealers. Carter's drug dealing days started at 13 years old. Selling in the back alleys of the Marcy projects, the burgeoning reason was to escape from his impoverished lifestyle. On the Oprah Winfrey Show, he admitted, "You become addicted to the feeling, the uncertainly and adrenaline and danger of that lifestyle."
Jay-Z's eventual success caused strife between himself and his once mentor, Jaz-O. By 2002, Jaz had become fed up with the lack of attention he was receiving from Jay-Z as his career began to slow down. When Jay-Z solely contributed one verse to Jaz's new album, he felt like his hospitality to been taken advantage of. In an interview with MTV in 2022, Jaz said "Everything that I did for him as far as his career, I did all of those things to be an agreeable person. The feeling just wasn't reciprocated in the way that I understood it." Fortunately, the two would eventually reconcile, performing together in 2017 at Jay-Z's 4:44 concert.
Jay-Z Permanently Changed Hip-Hop
Imagining the landscape of hip-hop without Jay-Z is anything but an easy task. Jay-Z was the definition of living what he spoke, setting the bar for other rappers from a lyrical perspective. Even more importantly, he established the idea for hip-hop artists to venture beyond music. Without his legacy, the likes of Diddy and Kanye West may have never spearheaded their diverse set of business ventures.
The story is a stark reminder of other potential talents we've lost due to similar circumstances. In 4:44's "Legacy," Jay-Z states, "We gon' start a society within a society." That's exactly what he's done. Acting as a beacon for Black independence, it's a relief that his career didn't come to a premature end back in 1989.