It’s generally agreed in the hip-hop world that, at 35, most artists are way over the hill. That makes Shawn Carter (alias Jay-Z, J Hova, the Jigga Man or Mr Beyonce Knowles), whose comeback tour is now playing Europe to ecstatic audiences, a fairly remarkable performer, says Fortune. But what really marks Carter out from the crowd is his day job. In possibly “the most intriguing corner-office experiment yet seen”, he is combining his rap career with a decidedly corporate role as president and chief executive of Def Jam recordings, the pre-eminent hip-hop label owned by Universal.
The self-proclaimed “chief executive of hip-hop” is a “curious figure”, says FT Magazine. “Think Jack Welch meets Frank Sinatra and you’ll have an idea of his business acumen, musical reach and style.” While many black US musicians have shown entrepreneurial skill, “Carter has proved exceptionally astute, both lyrically and financially”. As head of Def Jam, he earns a reported $8m-$10m a year. He also runs his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records; a clothing line, Rocawear, which grossed more than $300m in 2004; part owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team; and has a string of nightclubs. At 36, he is said to be worth $320m, amassed in little more than ten years.
A former drug dealer from New York, Carter has such a talent for rhymes that he has been described as “America’s urban Shakespeare”. Born in Brooklyn’s infamous Marcy Projects, he grew up surrounded by drugs, violence and black-market money. “We had our fun,” he says. “But every day was filled with tension… I was nine years old when I saw someone get shot for the first time.” He left the drugs trade after narrowly escaping a bullet himself. Carter began rapping on street corners in his teens and in his mid-20s he got lucky, meeting with Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Damon Dash, who put up the cash to record his songs. When a deal didn’t arrive, Dash began pressing discs himself and selling them from his car. Jay-Z’s first album, Reasonable Doubt, released in 1996, went platinum. He eventually sold 34 million albums globally.
During these formative years it was Dash, not Carter, who established the Roc-A-Fella empire, says The Independent on Sunday. “But even happy couples aren’t immune to divorce” and “in two swift strokes of Jay-Z’s pen”, they came asunder. The first came when Def Jam, which had owned half of Roc-A-Fella since 1997, bought the label outright and offered Carter the corporate job everyone assumed would go to Dash. Last year, Carter bought Dash out of Rocawear. Damon Dash – once hip-hop’s most powerful man – was left with “the intellectual-property equivalent of a lump of coal”. The bulk of Roc-A-Fella’s artists followed Carter to remain on the label.
You can’t blame the artists, says Fortune. Carter’s hip-hop credibility is unmatched. “In our industry, they want to be like Jay,” says London-based DJ Semtex. “He’s the best lyricist [and] he’s taken control of his career.” These days, Carter is “as far from the stereotypical gangsta rappa as you could get. More Hamptons than Harlem” – until he gets on stage and becomes Jay-Z. It may be too early to tell whether he will sink or soar as a big executive, says The New York Times, but many want him to succeed. “If he pulls this off, he’s the modern-day bootlegger, turned president, dating a movie star,” says one industry veteran. “He is the American dream.”
Why rappers make good entrepreneurs
This year’s Mobo awards ceremony – held in London in September – was Europe’s biggest celebration dedicated to urban music, says the FT. But it’s surely only a matter of time before the organisers introduce new award categories, such as “Best Entrepreneur” or “Best Business Deal” to celebrate the growing links between hip-hop and entrepreneurship. The ability of rap stars to move markets in the luxury goods and drinks industries was established long ago (Sean “P. Diddy” Combes’ “Pass the Courvoisier” is regarded by many as a watershed moment).
But artists are increasingly following in the Rocawear tradition, launching their own celebrity-endorsed lines in fashion, film and television. “The mindset of a rapper who represents a challenge to the system, seeks opportunities, takes risks and innovates is exactly the profile of a good entrepreneur,” says Mobo head, Kanya King. She should know. Having remortaged her house to fund the event ten years go, she is now considered one of the most powerful women in the music business.
It would also be foolhardy to underestimate the ability of rap stars to make or break other people’s brands, says The Guardian. Jay-Z is a case in point. He helped rescue Reebok from oblivion by frontlining the fastest-selling trainer in its history – to the tune of $100m in sales. Now the champagne-maker, Cristal, is feeling the force of his anger, after its chief executive made a series of remarks he judged “racist comments”. Not only has Jay-Z withdrawn the champagne from his chain of 40/40 bars, but he’s also encouraging a wider boycott. “Imagine Jamie Oliver telling someone to stop shopping at Sainsbury’s and you get the idea.”