Author Zack O'Malley Greenburg Talks "Empire State of Mind How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office"
Wed, 04 May 2011 08:54:52
Business has always come first for Jay-Z.
Hip-hop's king manages to diversify and expand his brand better than most entrepreneurs, and he's built a veritable empire in the process. Of course, it started with those airtight rhymes the world loves so much, but Jay-Z is a whole lot more than a rapper—he's his very own multi-million dollar corporation. In addition to records, there's clothing, liquor, restaurants, and almost every other profitable entity under the sun somehow connected to HOV. That business savvy is really what sets Jay-Z apart, and that's the subject of Zack O'Malley Greenburg's enlightening, engaging, and excellent new book, Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office. Greenburg zeroes in on Jay-Z's ability to hustle in the studio and in the boardroom, creating a fascinating look at the businessman behind the man. In addition, he writes with a rapid-fire prose that makes Empire State of Mind flow like an novel or film, keeping pace with the rap artisan's rhymes. Greenburg has crafted a definitive study of Jay-Z…
Greenburg sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for an exclusive interview about "Empire State of Mind" and so much more…
What threads together all of Jay-Z's different business pursuits?
On the simplest level, it's money. He's got a nose for money and not just where it is but where it's going to be. He's really good at taking educated risks. First, it was getting into the clothing business and selling that at the right time. Then, it was getting onto the executive side and being chief of Def Jam. After that, it was the touring deal with Live Nation. If you look at all of these deals that he does, he seems to do them right at the peak of the market. By the time he's done with them, people think, "You could never get a deal that good ever again." Most recently, that's what happened with the Live Nation deal. He was one of the last big 360 deals to go down before the financial crash. We haven't really seen anything like that happen since.
What inspired your take on Jay-Z in Empire State of Mind?
I've been writing for Forbes in various capacities since 2005, and hip-hop became one of my focuses. After a while, I did a couple of big web packages and stories on hip-hop and the business of hip-hop in the magazine. Some editors at Penguin decided they wanted to do a book on Jay-Z so I think they just Googled "hip-hop" and "business", and my articles kept coming up. That's what really piqued their interest. When they came to me and asked if I would do it, it was really a no-brainer. I was more than happy to do it.
In order to add color, was it important for you to set the scene of your interviews and provide these personal vignettes?
Definitely! I'd never written a book before. Obviously, I've read quite a few books [Laughs]. Because we didn't have the immediacy of following Jay-Z around in person, I tried to bring the reader into the interaction by inserting myself as a narrator at some points. My aim was to bring out these guys like Fab Five Freddy, MC Serch, and Branson B. who were really colorful characters in the grand scope of the music world. I wanted to get a sense of their personalities and what they bring to the table in describing Jay-Z.
How tough was it to track down Damon Dash?
That was probably the toughest one. Quite honestly, I used the back channels to get his cell phone number, and I just called him every day for a month until he picked up. Then, he didn't want to talk to me so I kept calling him every day the next month. Finally, he was like, "Alright, I'll talk to you." He gave me some time on the phone, and he went through some of the early days with Jay-Z. It was a really valuable contribution. In a lot of ways, he was the guy who gave Jay-Z his introduction to self-promotion and the legitimate business world. I think Jay-Z learned from him really quickly to the point where he exceeded Damon. Eventually, their management styles started to clash against each other, and they both felt marginalized by the other in some ways. That's what led to the breakup. In a lot of ways, they were destined to split up because Damon is a more in-your-face guy and Jay-Z is more laidback. He'll wait for it, ask questions, and then make some sweeping point at the end of the meeting. Jay-Z has said the fights that you have on the way up are a lot different than the fights you have once you get there.
What were you listening to while writing the book?
I really tried to immerse myself in Jay-Z. I listened to other music from time to time, but it was at least 75 percent Jay-Z. Since the book is written mostly in chronological order, I tried to listen to the albums during the period I was writing about when I was working on them. If I was writing about 2002 and Jay-Z's transition, I'd listen to The Blueprint 2 which has a lot of valuable content in terms of where he was emotionally. Sound-wise, it said a lot about his journey in different ways.
Empire State of Mind flows like a novel. Do you tend to read more fiction than non-fiction?
I would say I tend to read more fiction. Growing up, I definitely read more fiction. In college, I was obligated to read mostly non-fiction. That was where I started to make the turn. When I read for pleasure now, I read fiction, but I also try to read music business-related non-fiction books. Maybe it's a vestige of my earlier reading habits.
What's your favorite Jay-Z song?
"Empire State of Mind" is the title of the book so there's a certain affinity for that song. If I had to pick one as my favorite song of his, I'd go back to Reasonable Doubt. "Can I Live" is such a classic. I absolutely love that track. He samples Isaac Hayes' "Look of Love". It's mellow, but it's got this grandeur to it. I think Jay-Z's rhymes on Reasonable Doubt were even more intricate and thought-out than even some of the stuff in the middle of his career.
What's next for you?
That's a good question! I want to do another book. I've been tossing around a couple of ideas informally, but I haven't had time to flesh them out yet. Hopefully, over the summer we'll have a chance to!
Will you be reading Empire State of Mind?
Check out the book's official web site here!