Hip-hop artists Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige

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Hip-hop mogul and the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” talk about evolving in their careers and their current U.S. Heart of the City concert tour.

Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige combined have sold over 70 million albums worldwide and won 12 Grammys. Jay-Z went from Brooklyn projects rapper to producer to major mogul. With six consecutive CDs debuting at number one on Billboard's pop charts and his concept CD, "American Gangster," he helped redefine the genre. Blige released her first album, "What's the 411"—a play on the directory assistance operator job she held before becoming a singer—to critical acclaim. Her 8th and current studio CD, "Growing Pains," reached platinum in three weeks. They are currently co-headlining the Heart of the City tour.


Tavis: I’m pleased to welcome Jay-Z and Mary J. to this program. The music superstars have teamed up for a 28-date tour that included a stop at the Hollywood Bowl here in Los Angeles. Jay-Z’s latest CD is called “American Gangster,” as if you didn’t know, which of course accompanied the film by the same name. Mary J.’s latest CD is called “Growing Pains” and still selling.

Before we get to all that, though, a look back to 1996, can’t believe it, when the two of these brilliant artists hooked up. Remember this? “Can’t Knock the Hustle.”

[Video clip]

Tavis: This tour is a long way from “Can’t Knock the Hustle” in ’96, Mary. (Laughter)

Mary J. Blige: Yeah.

Tavis: A long way, huh?

Blige: Yes, we’ve come a long, long way. I was listening to my voice just now and how horrible I sound (laughter) compared to how I sound now.

Tavis: What makes – that sounded good to me. What didn’t sound good to you?

Blige: It just sounds terrible. Compared to now, the way we do it and the way, vocally, I sound now? Like, it’s night and day. It’s terrible.

Tavis: Let me be honest, though, Mary, as many times as we’ve talked over the years I have never heard you enamored by the sound of your own voice, as good as you are. You keep selling records, but you don’t like your voice. You must be doing something right.

Blige: Well I’ve grown – I like it now because I’m doing the work and I’m doing everything it takes to take care of it. But then, I wasn’t taking care of it. So it sounded like I wasn’t taking care of it. (Laughter)

Tavis: Jay-Z, nice to have you on the program.

Jay-Z: Thank you.

Tavis: What do you make – and everybody knows this, but you marvel with it, you marvel at it when you actually focus on it, which is that both of you had difficulties back in high school. Both of you drop out of high school, and you’re sitting here on this couch now, learned, educated, rich, all that and then some. It’s moving to me to see somebody come from so little to accomplish so much. That’s how I perceive it. How do you perceive where you sit today from where you started?

Jay-Z: Well, yeah, it’s a difficult path to get here, and I don’t, by no means, want to advocate not getting your education, but for us, for me specifically, education for me was to articulate what was on my mind, right? Because I had a gift to make music, and it’s (unintelligible) for Mary as well. I had a gift to make music and a gift not only just to make songs but to share my experiences and things that I went through and the intelligence to get to the details of it.

So it’s past just being music, right? Now it’s something that people grow with, and that’s why we sit here – this is a testament to why we sit here with this Heart of the City tour and having this conversation with you. But it’s not easy. Like a lot of guys now, they think it’s easy; you get a record deal and you rich. It doesn’t work like this. This is years of pain, struggle, good times, bad times, mistakes.

Tavis: I guess the question is how you get young folk to understand that when one out of every three Black men I meet wants to be Jay-Z and your statement now is that it’s a long, hard road, it’s a struggle, it’s a process. I get that; anybody who’s ever made something gets that. But they look at you now and they don’t hone in on it. They think if I just get me a record deal, I’m going to be Jay-Z.

Jay-Z: Yeah, that’s just – well, there’s a million people with record deals, right? (Laughter)

Tavis: And you gave out some of them.

Jay-Z: Yeah, yeah. Right. So that’s not a clear indicator. There’s a million singers, there’s a million people with deals. They’re not as successful because you don’t put in the work. Like small things like that, things that the untrained ear would not hear that she hears about her voice and says I even want to perfect on what people think is perfection already. I was coming to the studio before, some of my artists last year.

Tavis: You beat them to the studio.

Jay-Z: Yeah, that’s – that type dedication and commitment, that’s what it takes.

Tavis: I’m going to ask Mary the same question in a second; let me start with you though, since you’re talking. Let me ask you to set your modesty aside for just a second. What is it, then, since there are a million folk who have record deals and you have clearly become iconic in your own time in this particular genre, to say nothing of your business acumen, inside the studio, other than the fact that you get there early, because a lot of Negroes could show up early, if that were the only – if you told a Negro come early, you’ll be Jay-Z?

Jay-Z: Right, right. (Laughter) That’s just one piece of it.

Tavis: They’d be there the day before. That’s just one piece, yeah.

Jay-Z: That’s just one piece of it, yeah.

Tavis: So I’m just asking – I’m going to the studio now, if that’s all I got to do. Get up out of here; I’m wasting my time talking to y’all. But what is it about your gift, about your skill, about your flow that made you uniquely different, you think, from the other artists?

Jay-Z: I think as I started out I was – that work ethic. I work technically at writing, right? I used to write all the time. I wrote – so I work technically at the skill of just writing and trying to do new flows and different styles and different things like that. And then you couple that, when I moved away from writing and I was, you know, the neighborhood, just me growing up, I had real life experiences.

So I had real life experiences couple with God-given ability and a work ethic, so all those three things came together.

Tavis: And Mary, for you? What is it about your gift, you think, that sets you uniquely apart as the queen of hip-hop soul?

Blige: Well, far as lyrically and sincerely, my ability to – I just don’t mind sharing with people whatever it is that I’m dealing with, because any kind of embarrassment to me, it doesn’t matter. I’m not afraid of showing people that I’m you as well. I hurt just like you, I cry just like you. Because it’s been too many terrible, hard situations in my life for me to run.

I can’t hide what I am, so I just show – let it all hang out. And so I guess that honesty is a gift to my music. My ability to say you know what? It is what it is. And that helped my music, my songs, because people relate to the lyrical content and people relate to the honesty, and I’ve been able to do that. All my life I’ve been like that, just willing to say whatever. Because everything – things have been so embarrassing.

Tavis: I sometimes wonder, every time your record comes out I rush to get it and usually, you come on the show to talk about it. And I wonder whether or not you think the time will would ever come where you will say to yourself, self, we have done enough of that. We have told enough of our business, we have been open enough, we put all this out there, and maybe it’s time to retreat just a little bit.

Or do you think that from here until the end, you’re going to be autobiographical in that way, lyrically?

Blige: I think I’ve started something that I can never retreat from, because there’s 100,000 Mary J. Bliges situations out there. And we’ve started something during the “My Life” album that I didn’t realize so many people were going through exactly what I was going through. But through different stages of growth, we have been growing together.

So I have brought all these people with me, they are growing with me. So if I stop talking to them now, we kind of, like – we’re evolving right now. So if we don’t evolve, we’ll all just die. We’ll just flatline right where we are. So I have to continue to – and there’s ways. Like, I’m not telling everybody everything that goes on in my life.

I’m just showing people the surface of what we are. This is what we go through. Okay, you got a situation? I got a situation. But I can’t go into my house, but I go basically on the surface and I give it to them, and we keep evolving because I keep saying okay, now we’re in a stage where we’re growing. And we’ve got to continue to grow, and it hurts.

It hurts to evolve, because we’re so comfortable here. But we’ve got to go here, and so I don’t think I could ever retreat from – like I’m sincerely in this until they don’t want to hear it from me anymore, I die, or I retire.

Tavis: Speaking of retirement, Jay-Z. (Laughter)

Jay-Z: Brief ones.

Tavis: Nice segue, Mary, thank you. Appreciate that. (Laughter) That didn’t last long, did it? Tell me about that decision. I know you’ve been asked about it a thousand times. Tell me about that decision then, but I really – once you get past that, give me a quick answer to that, I’m really interested, back to Mary’s point, about evolving, how you process, how you’ve navigated, your personal evolution.

Because you mentioned earlier, it’s not just the music. I’m talking about Live Nation deal and everything else you’ve done. But talking about your personal evolution on the business front, because that retirement thing didn’t last long.

Jay-Z: Yeah, that was – a failed retiree, right? (Laughter)

Tavis: First thing Jay-Z ever failed at – retirement.

Jay-Z: So at that point in time, try to do it real quick and wrap up both questions. In the beginning I started out as I couldn’t get a record deal. So by default I started out as a CEO / artist. So I was at the helm of Rockefeller from day one. So I thought I would make one album. Artistically, I thought I just wanted to tell my story, tell it one time, and that was it.

I thought I would retire after the first album and run the business. But then when we tried to sell the business they were like, do you have any artists? It’s you. And then reality of business set in. That was seven albums, right? But then I grew to love it, so. I didn’t love it in the beginning; I just wanted to tell my story. It was a hustle for me in the beginning. Then I grew to love it; it’s something that I grew to love.

And when you love something, you don’t ever want to take advantage of it, right? So after a minute I was releasing albums every fourth quarter, like just this frantic release schedule, and I never wanted to get to a point where I was just doing it to do it. Okay, it’s November, I have to make an album. So that was my decision to step back away from it. And anything that you love, you miss it, so you’re drawn back to it.

Tavis: What do you take most – I’m sure there are many lessons – lessons and blessings – but what do you take most from the experience of having run a record label? Because I suspect that being an artist, back to your humble beginnings, being an artist is one side of the equation. Running the record label is another side of the equation.

We hear your flow, we hear your artistry, we hear your lyrics about life, about Jay-Z. What do you take, what do you learn from having run a label on the inside of this game, the record business?

Jay-Z: Well, yeah, so many different things, right? Because it’s on so many different levels, you see so many different artists come through the door. They come through green and they don’t really understand the business, and you see they work ethic and you’re almost like their psychologist as well. So many other things.

People don’t see that part of it. There’s so many things going on in these artists’ lives, things that’s happening at home that have nothing to do with the charts, right? And you’re involved in that whole process, right? And then you also see – it’s almost like you’re getting a peek behind the curtain, right? You see how artists in any situation, how they’re being taken advantage of.

And then they flip out and you start to really understand a little bit of it. It’s just you – it’s almost like watching a play, like, from the owner’s box, right? You get to see the whole entire play developing. It’s so much – I mean, name one, right? From a personal level, emotional level, physical level, pure numbers level. It’s a lot.

Tavis: What’s it feel like – I was just talking to Chris, our producer, about the fact that you not long ago sold Rocawear. What’s it feel like to start a business? I mean, again, I’m thinking about this kid growing up in Marcy projects, and you’ve been able to do all this, and this is not even your core business now. Your core business is music.

But to your point, you get a chance to move beyond that, start another business outside of your core, and then sell that sucker for over $200 million. That feels like what? Not the money part, but starting something that becomes an enterprise and you sell for a major profit.

Jay-Z: I still run Rocawear as well.

Tavis: You still run it, yeah.

Jay-Z: But it’s really an extension of being creative, right? It’s part of the whole culture, right? When you see a Mary J. Blige, you don’t just see the music. You see the music, the fashion, the growth, the evolution – everything is part of it. I was just able to put that into a business plan, right? But it’s pretty much an extension of what I do.

Like I was wearing this brand called Iceberg, and I would go to the shows. When I went to the show, the whole crowd had on Iceberg. The entire crowd was wearing Iceberg.

Tavis: Then the light went off, huh?

Jay-Z: Yeah, so I went – no, I actually went – it didn’t go off yet. I was thinking smaller. So I went to Iceberg and said, “Guys, you guys should really partner with me some stuff, because I think I’m starting a little movement out there with the clothing.” They was like, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, we could get the use of the jet plane?”

We went in there, started asking for astronomical things, because what we saw in the audience, they hadn’t seen yet, right? It don’t come up on the Q ratings or anything like that, so it hadn’t touched them yet. It was still early in the process, right? But we saw it, right? Physically. So we knew it was going.

Tavis: You were asking for the use of the plane, not the (unintelligible).

Jay-Z: No, we asked for a deal, but that was part of the deal. (Unintelligible) endorsement deal, we want all the money, a plane. (Laughter) And they kicked us out, right? “Get out.” “How many records you sold?” And we hadn’t sold any records at that time, like 40,000 records. They looking at the – everything indicated this was – not to do this deal.

Tavis: So when did you have this epiphany, then, that you could do more than just partner with them, but you could do your own thing?

Jay-Z: Right after that we called – we went and got some – we were so far off. We went and got – we had, like, a record company; it was, like, way smaller than this, and three sewing machines. (Laughter) That’s how we started Rocawear. We got three sewing machines and we thought we were going to sew t-shirts. We didn’t know, right?

So then we said – Russell had Phat Farm, and we called Russell and said, “How’d you do this?” And then he introduced us to the guys that we partnered up with, and we went from there.

Tavis: Although I’m confident that if you had decided you really wanted to sew, you could have done it.

Jay-Z: Not me, I was (unintelligible).

Tavis: You do everything else so well.

Jay-Z: No, but we bought the sewing – we bought it. I got to tell you, everything. We had a young lady with a credit card hook-up, and she – (laughter) – that’s really how Rocawear started.

Tavis: That’s why you got to love Black folk, you can’t fake the hustle. You can’t knock the hustle, yeah.

Jay-Z: She got us three sewing machines and we started.

Tavis: So Mary, speaking of fashion, and Jay-Z – I love this, y’all giving me both wonderful segues – speaking of fashion, how important – we see that it’s a part of, but how important for you is the fashion with the music? Because Jay-Z’s right, you’re not just an artist yourself. This fashion thing, though – Mary J. wears something, everybody else wants to wear it.

How important is the fashion for the success – the total success – of a hip-hop artist?

Blige: It’s important, but it shouldn’t consume you. It’s basically a part of what your image is, what you’re selling to your culture. They love you when they see you in certain things, and they love you when they see your hair a certain way, and they run out and they go do it. But as long – I think it’s important if you’re true to it, and it’s not consuming you, it’s a part of what and who you are.

It is – and you’ve got to kind of, like, grow into it and not, like, just jump from thing to thing, like this person’s doing this, I’m going to do it, too. It has to be an honest part of you, an extension of you, not something that people are, like, what in the world is she doing, and why is she doing it? But it has to be something people believe.

Tavis: So how often do sisters walking through an airport – well, they don’t see you in airports, you’re on private planes, but maybe, like, restaurants, maybe. Restaurants – (laughter) – can’t get to you in an airport but restaurants, hotels – how often do sisters walk up and comment on your hairdo? “I don’t like that, Mary, I really like that when you -“

Blige: People never really comment on my hairdo. I just see them in the audience, like 10 of them, with the hairdo. (Laughter) Like, and that’s how they let me know they either hate it or love it. If they hate it, you don’t see anyone with it. But if they love it, you see everybody – Black girls, White girls, old women, young women. You see it, so that’s how they let you know.

Jay-Z: What’s fascinating about the fashion statements she makes, right, there’s a part in the show where she turns her back, the lights go dark – the show happened last night, so I’m not really giving you any –

Tavis: That’s fine.

Jay-Z: And she throws on the shades and the black lipstick, right? And it’s a mood to it, right? It’s a mood to it, and immediately the crowd goes crazy. Like they recognize it, they recognize what’s about to happen.

Blige: Right, it’s from the “Not Gonna Cry” video. And everyone remembers that because all the chicks ran out and bought the black lipstick, and we were all running around with black lipstick and black glasses, and it was a movement and they remember it. And so, yeah.

Jay-Z: But it was a conversation. It was, like, the mood of the song and the feeling, like, I’m going through something – I don’t want you to see my eyes. My eyes is – I’ve been crying, and the lipstick is dark and it’s black, so it’s a mood. It’s not really like I have on some (unintelligible) shades. It’s beyond that.

Blige: Right.

Tavis: Speaking of the tour, how did this come to be, the two of you together?

Jay-Z: We just long collaborators, right? And we was just always around; I was always asking favors of Mary like come to this show, come to that show. And I had another tour that didn’t really go all the way to be the number two grossing tour.

Tavis: We ain’t going to talk about that, though.

Jay-Z: And then we did shows there, and everybody was, like, that is the tour. That’s the tour. So it was always right in front of us. And then the timing was right – she had an album come out, then my album came out in November sometime, and a little while after that it debuted number one and fantastic, and it was just the right time.

Blige: Right, right. I believe – and I said this to Jay – I believe it’s always been something bigger than what we know and not just for us. This is not for us, this is for those people out there, those guys with their hat tilt to the side, rhyming word for word with Jay-Z, and then he throws up – he does his thing, I don’t want to give it away.

And it’s inspiring to those people out there that don’t know anything about politics. You understand what I’m saying? So it’s inspiring to those – and there’s a part – there’s a lot that we do in our show that’s uplifting our race, and that’s why it’s bigger than us, because our race has been in trouble for a very long time, and that’s why the Heart of the City is very, very important.

Because we had the courage to do the things – he has the courage to go from a jersey to a button-down and have all men change their jerseys. I had the courage to say you know what? I’m going to stop blaming myself and everybody else for what happened to me and complete myself with my mate. And now women are like, Mary, you’re married; now I’m married.

And it’s bigger than just a high-grossing tour, it’s more of we’re doing our spiritual job towards our destiny.

Tavis: Speaking of (unintelligible) the audience and seeing people follow Jay-Z line for line, word for word, we all have our little secret fantasies when we’re at home, we’re in the shower – I ain’t talking about me. But what does it feel like to look out at thousands of people and they are following you, Jay, every word, every line, every lyric? What’s, like, the – it’ll never happen for me, so just tell me – I want to live vicariously through you. What’s it feel like?

Jay-Z: It’s an indescribable feeling, right, because you make these things, and they come out of nowhere, they come from the air, right? And it could be your personal thoughts. Sometimes you go to the left. I did that a couple times. (Unintelligible) like what are you talking about? (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah.

Jay-Z: But when you connect with people and then you go to play the show and people are singing back to you – and it’s more than just singing. I watch people. Like, every night, that’s part of my job, is to pay attention to details, and I watch people every night and they’re (unintelligible) buddy and like, “Yo, he’s crazy.” (Laughter) And it just is an indescribable feeling, yeah.

Tavis: How important – I think you hit the nail on the head. How important are the details to making the success work for you?

Jay-Z: The devil’s in the detail, right? That’s what they say, that makes – that separates good people from great people, right? Because the closer you get to the detail and the more honest you could be and the more courage you have to – right, the courage that Mary had to make her album called “The Breakthrough” where people loved the Mary in pain from “4-1-1,” to make an album called “The Breakthrough” and I’m happy now sometimes, right?

The courage to do that type of thing, those are the details that separate you from anyone else. From everyone else.

Tavis: Well, if you can get a ticket – I’m praying for you on that – if you can get a ticket, it’s absolutely worth seeing. They are iconic figures in their own time and I revel in the humanity found in so much of their music – both of them – and I’m honored to have you on the program.

Jay-Z: Thank you.

Blige: Thanks for having us.

Tavis: Jay and Mary, good to see you. Catch them out on the road somewhere, if you can.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm