Music

In Defense of Jay-Z as the Most Important Person in Hip-Hop History

In light of Jay-Z being named executive producer of the NBA2K video game franchise, we look at just how far Mr. Carter has taken the boundaries of hip-hop and success.

" … But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines / Add that to the fact I went plat' a bunch of times / Times that by my influence on pop culture / I'm supposed to be number one on everybody list / We'll see what happens when I no longer exist." -- "What More Can I Say?"

What will happen when Jay-Z no longer exists? That's been a question most people haven't taken into consideration since the rapper reneged on his first try at retirement after his initial farewell record, 2003's The Black Album. The above passage came from that particular album, of course, yet before anyone could even utter the phrase, "Show me what you got," the hip-hop mogul was back at it, following his third classic album with the universally discounted Kingdom Come in 2006. American Gangster made up for that lackluster comeback in 2007, and then in September of 2009, the man born Shawn Carter officially wiped away all those retirement tears once and for all with his third Blueprint album.

To his credit, there hasn't been a peep of retirement talk since he initially came back to the rap game in 2006, and considering how hungry he seemed on last year's Watch The Throne collaboration with Kanye West, one can only assume that all those whispers about Jay-Z giving up music forever will now be laughed at from here on out. Sure, at some point, he might decide to scale back his artistic output in the future. But after watching him cry wolf with The Black Album -- and subsequently seeing him come back to dominate the hip-hop world yet again with his last few records -- any insinuation that says he may be thinking about stepping away from the mic for good would be nearly impossible to take seriously.

Still … what will happen when Jay-Z no longer exists? That's a hard question to fathom at this point, isn't it? He'll turn 43 this year. He's married now. He has 11 No. 1 solo records on the Billboard Top 200 (as he likes to remind listeners whenever the opportunity presents itself). That's a record that at this point in music history is impossible to think will ever be broken, especially considering the notion that the man himself isn't even done making music. His wife, the impossibly beautiful Beyonce Knowles, just gave birth to their first daughter. He was paid 693 gatrillion dollars to get in bed with Live Nation to begin his Roc Nation imprint in 2008 and word has it that the time is growing nearer for him to re-up with somebody, all but guaranteeing that whatever he lands next will probably bring him enough money to buy 11 countries -- one for every one of those No. 1 albums he's produced over the last two decades.

All told, it's hard to believe that someone will be able to accomplish the same things Shawn Carter has accomplished for an entire genre of music after Carter, himself, succumbs to the notion -- be it by death or tragedy -- that he can't do the rap thing anymore. No one else has ever been this good for this long when it comes to hip-hop. No one else has helped stretch the boundaries for what the rap culture was, is and will be. No one else got such an abnormally late start on the craft, only to help both mold and question it throughout all his career. No one else has been this massively successful outside the music world, what with Jay's interest in moving an entire professional basketball team to his hometown and becoming an executive producer of one of the most popular basketball video game franchises ever, as he did last week. ("Jay-Z serves as exec producer for 'NBA 2K13' game", by Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, 31 July 2012) And most importantly, no one else has consistently held this particular genre on his or her back for as long as Jigga has time and time again, whenever called upon to help save rap music from a slump.

Jay-Z doesn't just embody hip-hop. Jay-Z is hip-hop.

There's a reason why it's not insane to view him as the Greatest Rapper Ever. Sure, his lines, flow and wordplay are all mostly unparalleled by anyone else who's ever picked up a microphone or sat in a recording booth. And yeah, he has proven how he is the rare case of the hip-hop artist who can make songs that leave an impact both on one's intellectual being and a fun night out in the club ("If skills sold / Truth be told / I'd probably be / Lyrically / Talib Kweli / Truthfully / I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did five mil / I ain't been rhyming like Common since / When your sense got that much in common / And you been hosteling since / Your inception / Fuck perception / Go with what makes sense," he once rapped on "Moment of Clarity" thus forcing every single jaw that had ever been around hip-hop to shatter after it hit the floor so hard).

But what some hip-hop fans may fail to realize sometimes is the enormous hand print he has left on a type of music that has miraculously worked its way from nothing into something. Take Nas, for example. The MC who some consider the greatest lyricst to ever touch a microphone -- and who, it's also worth noting, went back and forth with Jay in one of the most historic battles ever put on wax -- said something back in March that still rings as pointedly true nearly five months later. "Hip-hop has to thank God for Jay-Z," he said in an interview with Peter Rosenberg. "The fact that he’s doing what he’s doing is an awakening call for all of the Gods and Earths to wake up and understand that this generation is bigger than what we can even fathom. He is one of the only ones out of the whole community that we grew up in, from the Run DMC days, who’s taken this shit seriously, taken this shit very seriously musically and businesses wise. That’s powerful. So you've gotta respect him.” ("Nas Says "Hip Hop Has To Thank God For Jay-Z"", by Andres Vasquez, Hip Hop DX, 28 March 2012)

Herein lies the crux of why it's so troubling to think about where the music may go once Jay-Z has to bow out for good. From 1996's classic Reasonable Doubt, to 2001's classic Blueprint, and all the way up to 2003's aforementioned classic The Black Album, Jay-Z has made it a point to talk about evolution -- not just the growth of him personally, but also the expansion of hip-hop as an art, and the types of other-worldly accomplishments one can achieve by thinking outside the traditional realm of rap music. "Look scrapper / I got nephews to look after / I'm not looking at you dudes / I'm looking past you / I thought I told you characters I'm not a rapper / Can I live? / I told you in '96 that I came to take this shit and I did," he proclaimed on The Blueprint's "Heart Of The City (Ain't No Love)". Keep in mind, this was 2001 when he said that. We are now halfway through 2012, and he's still the guy people go to in order to see what's next. Who's the hot producer the world has yet to hear? Who is that unknown vixen that can sing a type of sweet-sounding hook that has become synonymous with popular hip-hop? Which anonymous rapper does he allow a verse on one of his album tracks that can help expose an up-and-comer to people who may not have discovered him otherwise?

I mean, my God -- the man took down an entire pop music fad when he released "DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune)" from The Blueprint 3. Who else has done that in recent memory? While the entire world of popular music was huddling around one cheap and simple vocal manipulation tool, Jay-Z came out and reminded hip-hop lovers why they loved hip-hop to begin with. Not only was it the fatal blow to an over-used Top 40 technique, but it also helped keep hip-hop on track to be the type of subversively brilliant medium it has grown into. It brought a sense of authenticity and realness back to the art, and it also established him as someone who will seemingly never allow thoughtless pop music flavors to creep into the world of hip-hop enough that its future would be in question.

Thus, it must be asked: Who in the history of the genre could one possibly claim is more important to the evolution of rap music than Jay-Z? The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac are constantly in the conversation as greatest-ever hip-hop artist, but they didn't stick around long enough to have the ability to expand on how great they once were. Eminem blew up the rap world when he burst on the scene, but even the most passionate of Marshall Mathers fans have to admit that his bigger singles have become too silly to stomach at times. Common, Rakim, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and many others of their kind are all master wordsmiths, but when did any of them actually cross over into the mainstream with an inordinate amount of success?

The same could probably even be applied to Nas, though he has showcased an ability to sell large amounts of records from time to time, albeit not nearly as consistently as HOVA, himself. LL Cool J was a body more than a rapper, and now he just wants to be an actor. You always have to consider going back to the Ice-Ts and Chuck Ds and Big Daddy Kanes and KRS Ones and Easy-Es, but they essentially helped build the groundwork for what the genre has become today -- they never really had the time to expand it and take it to places that people never thought it could go. Sure, there is always something to be said for the forefathers of an entire culture, but the reality is that the music wasn't in a place that allowed the artist to dissect other aspects of what the culture could be. They just wanted to be noticed -- they had no idea that someday one of their colleagues would be able to own basketball teams or be named on best-dressed lists from Vanity Fair.

But that's precisely what has happened. Rap music has proven itself as a conduit for artists to not only get rich, but also to have a significant and lasting impact on popular culture as we know it today. No one has proven that more than Mr. Carter. Even more so, no one has taken that notion to the type of heights Jay-Z has, dining with the president of the United States of America and having said president brag that he knows of -- and enjoys -- some of his music. You can debate who is the best rapper ever if you want -- it's a barroom/barbershop conversation that will always be a lot of fun to explore. And hell, you can even debate who the greatest rapper alive is, which always seems to be an argument that changes with every passing season.

But the one thing you can't argue at this point is the amount of impact Jay-Z has had on the hip-hop world as an artist, as an entrepreneur, as a hit-maker, as a cultural icon or as a trendsetter. What will happen to rap music when he is forced to hang up the gloves for good? It's a pretty important question that should probably be tossed around more than it is. Here's hoping Blue Ivy doesn't want to become a NASCAR driver when she grows up. After all, she may very well be hip-hop's last hope.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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