Saturday, April 20, 2013

Spotlight: Jay-Z

"Jay-Z has sold his stake in the Brooklyn Nets -- less than one percent worth -- so that he could become an NBA player agent with his newly founded Roc Nation Sports, which is partnered with CAA. League rules specify that to represent players, there can't be a conflict of interest in owning a team. He's already signed Robinson Cano and Victor Cruz to Roc Nation Sports."
Men's Health:
Growing up, Shawn Carter was far from the likeliest candidate for this sort of mind-boggling success. He was always recognized as bright--even today, the first word anyone who meets Jay-Z invariably uses to describe him is smart--and in the sixth grade, he tested at 12th-grade levels. But the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn were overrun by drugs and violence in the '80s. His father left the family when Carter was 11, and his mother had to raise him, his older brother, and his two older sisters. When he was 12, Carter shot his brother for stealing his jewelry. (They have since reconciled.) Carter attended high school with fellow Brooklynites the Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes, but dropped out to deal drugs in a region that extended from Brooklyn to Maryland and Virginia--as he details in his music--and to dabble in the still-nascent hip-hop game.

Along with the dealers who ran the neighborhood around the Marcy Projects, Jay-Z remembers identifying sports figures as his first models of success. "Growing up where I grew up, we looked to athletes," he recalls. "They were our first heroes. They came from the same places we came from. I mean, you can't watch TV and see someone who is successful that you can really relate to. That person isn't real, he doesn't exist. But athletes traveled the world, had these big houses, and gave their families a better life. We were like, 'Wow, that's really cool.' These guys get paid millions of dollars to play the game they love."

Around the same time that he began to identify with athletes, Carter experienced another revelation: hip-hop. He began writing nonstop in notebooks, keeping his mother and siblings awake at night as he pounded the kitchen table to create beats. He hooked up with local rapper Jaz-O, who brought him to England when he toured there. Carter recorded with Jaz-O and also with Big Daddy Kane. But despite the acknowledgment of his skills (and his growing anxiety that either violence or the law would eventually catch up with him on the streets), Carter was reluctant to give up dealing. He was rolling in a Lexus and making more money, as far as he could tell, than most rappers.

Still, he decided to take the plunge, but no record company was willing to offer him a contract. So with two partners, Carter formed Roc-A-Fella Records, and, in 1996, released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, which established him as a major figure on the hip-hop scene. It was a heady moment, but Jay-Z barely realized it at the time. "I was naive," he recalls. "I made that album to impress my friends, so they would say, 'Oh, wow, look what you did!' It was my first album on the label that we owned. I was like, 'Okay, what happens now?'"

What happened was that Jay-Z left drug dealing behind and began to build his empire, moving steadily from "grams to Grammys" as he puts it in one song. But the process wasn't easy. The treachery of life on the streets, where he faced bullets at close range, turned out to be nothing compared with what he would encounter in the upper echelons of the music business. "I come from a world that's completely different from the music industry, and it wasn't recognizable to me at all," he says. "I come from a place where you had to keep your word, where people would stick with you no matter what. That's impossible in the music business, where if you're not hot, people are not talking to you. I just tried to be a man of my word."

The choice of Roc-A-Fella as his label's name would prove telling. On one hand, it's standard hip-hop braggadocio to establish a connection between a fledgling rapper and one of the richest and most powerful families in American history. But it also suggested the means through which Jay-Z would eventually establish his own business empire. The Rockefeller family and other 19th-century industrialists established a monopolistic hold on all aspects of the goods they produced. If you owned the mines that produced coal, for example, you also bought the railroads that transported it, the refineries that prepared it for market, and the utilities that provided its end product to the general population.

As Jay-Z's career has progressed in the past dozen years, he has sought to establish a similar hold on the lifestyle market for which his music provides the soundtrack, and in which he stands as the ideal model to emulate. Rather than providing anything as tangible as coal or oil, Jay-Z, through his myriad branded investments, manufactures a way of being that makes it at least theoretically possible to never leave the world of his products. You can enjoy his music while sporting Rocawear clothing (estimated as doing $700 million a year in business), wearing one of his fragrances, and sipping his Ace of Spades champagne. You can attend his concert and end the night at one of his 40/40 nightclubs. His videos, DVDs, and CD booklets provide free exposure for all of his products, all of which, in turn, enhance every other aspect of the Jay-Z brand.

Jay-Z feels comfortable in all of these realms. "I've never looked at myself and said that I need to be a certain way to be around a certain sort of people," he explains. "I've always wanted to stay true to myself, and I've managed to do that. People have to accept that. I collect art, and I drink wine . . . things that I like that I had never been exposed to. But I never said, 'I'm going to buy art to impress this crowd.' That's just ridiculous to me. I don't live my life like that, because how could you be happy with yourself?"

By selling nearly 40 million albums and building a business empire that extends far beyond music into clothing, fragrances, the Brooklyn Nets, sports bars, liquor, and hotels (to name just a few of his seemingly innumerable investments), Jay-Z has transformed himself into one of the most potent brands in the world. But that brand retains its power only if people remain convinced that the product they are purchasing somehow genuinely reflects Jay-Z and his tastes.

"Hip-hop is more about attaining wealth," he continues. "People respect success. They respect big. They don't even have to like your music. If you're big enough, people are drawn to you."

Consequently, any discussion of credibility, or keeping it real, elicits a response of disbelief from him. "That's an insecure emotion," he explains. "You make your first album, you make some money, and you feel like you still have to show face, like 'I still go to the projects.' I'm like, why? Your job is to inspire people from your neighborhood to get out. You grew up there. What makes you think it's so cool?"

Of course, Jay-Z has not been immune to those insecurities himself. In 1999, he was arrested for stabbing a record executive in a New York club, and in 2001, he was charged with possession of a loaded handgun. Against his lawyer's advice, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in the stabbing case and was sentenced to three years' probation. The gun charge was dropped.

He's far from just a figurehead or a media front man. He takes his businesses as seriously as his artistry, and he goes at both with the same level of determination. He's clear about his own views, willing to listen to others, eager to keep everybody loose and motivated, and far more interested in long-term strategy than short-term gain. Even in the current economic environment, which is challenging to say the least, he's insistent on executing his game plan rather than making changes that might not ultimately be right for his brands.

Indeed, part of the refinement Jay-Z has attained entails that big-picture vision of success. It's a vision that extends beyond business and beyond music. It's about what makes your life meaningful, and it goes beyond lifestyle to a way of life. "I'm hungry for knowledge," says Jay-Z. "The whole thing is to learn every day, to get brighter and brighter. That's what this world is about. You look at someone like Gandhi, and he glowed. Martin Luther King glowed. Muhammad Ali glows. I think that's from being bright all the time, and trying to be brighter.

"That's what you should be doing your whole time on the planet," he concludes. "Then you feel like, 'My life is worth everything. And yours is too.'"

More information:
» Men's Health: A Business, Man
» Decoded: Secrets to Entrepreneurial Success
» Forbes: Jay-Z and Warren Buffett

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