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Moment of Clarity: An Oral History of Jay Z’s The Black Album


ON ITS 10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY, 10 JAY Z COLLABORATORS LOOK BACK ON MAKING HIS "LAST" ALBUM

The Black Album was something larger than music; it was a cultural event. In seven years, Jay Z had transitioned from full-time hustler to a hip-hop mogul and one of the world’s most powerful pop culture influencers. He sold out Madison Square Garden with the speed of a seasoned rock veteran. His love for button-down dress shirts at the time ushered in a wave of hip-hop's cohabitation with the fashion industry and inspired legions of impressionable youth to abandon the throwback sports jerseys Jay himself had championed a year prior. And yet, it was all coming to an end; leading up to its release in 2003, The Black Album was billed as Jay Z's final album, with the implication that the rapper would go on to focus on the other entrepreneurial endeavors that were beginning to define his output just as much as music had. That never happened, but it was a very real sentiment at the time, and one that largely informed the ornate, boundary-pushing production of the album. By speaking with a number of core contributors to The Black Album, we tried to capture the unwavering spirit of an icon determined to make his mark on history.

KYAMBO “HIP HOP” JOSHUA
Hip Hop Since 1978 co-founder, A&R
I started working with Jay in high school. My job was to help him be the greatest. We did Blueprint, Reasonable Doubt and everything in between. A lot of things we were trying to do all came together on The Black Album. We wanted make this great album to walk off on.

JUST BLAZE
Producer, “December 4th” and “Public Service Announcement”
When you’re in the mix of making something, you’re just trying to put your best foot forward. You never know that you’re making a classic when you’re making it. Ultimately, I’m happy that it stood the test of time. During my shows, or Jay’s shows, when “Public Service Announcement” comes on, it still rings off as if it just came out yesterday even though it’s 10 years old. The instant reaction that people get when that comes on is amazing. Especially in this day and age, when the shelf life of a record is very short.

GEE ROBERSON
Hip Hop Since 1978 co-founder, Blueprint Group CEO
Around that time, we were in Baseline Studios. Just [Blaze] and Jay would just work. Even when Just was cooking up in the B room and Jay was recording something in the A room, Just would walk over and be like, “This is crazy, what the hell.” Just is very competitive, and he would hear everything the other producers were doing. So he was like, Okay, you’re going that way, I’m going this way.

I’d been at Roc-A-Fella since 1996; I either A&R'd or co-executive produced everything, from Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Blueprint. I left Roc-A-Fella to go over to Atlantic in 2003, and The Black Album dropped in November of that year. So The Black Album was one where I was working from afar but I was still involved, getting Jay tracks from my production company. My career, my start, came from Jay, so of course I was going to keep him abreast of any and everything I thought was dope for the project. And whenever he uses a track, it’s like Christmas.



“You never know that you’re making a classic when you’re making it.”—JUST BLAZE


KYAMBO “HIP HOP” JOSHUA
We thought The Black Album was going to be his last, so the concept was, “Let’s work with the producers we've worked with, and producers we've never worked with before.” It was going to be like the ultimate wish list—Jay's list and my list. Dr. Dre was supposed to be on it. We always wanted to do something with Rick Rubin or Dr. Dre. The other shit was obvious: Kanye and Just. From that point on, we just went on trips. We went down to see Timbaland in Miami, or Pharrell in Virginia, and Rick Rubin in L.A. Ultimately, the Dre thing didn't happen and the DJ Premier thing didn't happen. It was a schedule thing. Jay had a specific song that he wanted Premier to do and I think he came with something else. That's how the 9th Wonder record [“Threat”] came about. It wasn't a replacement for Premier’s song, but it was that feel that Jay was looking for. Jay really put 9th Wonder on the spot, like, Do this. 9th knocked it out and it was incredible.

As the record’s sound was solidified, relative newcomer 9th Wonder traveled from North Carolina to NYC to contribute to the album.

9TH WONDER
Producer, “Threat”
In February 2003, through a mutual friend, I met Theron Smith, who’s a video director from Brooklyn. Theron was like, “I dig your beats. If I ever know anybody looking for beats, I’ll let you know.” In September of 2003 he contacted me out the blue and said, “Remember me? I got somebody who wants talk to you about some beats.” I’m like, Who? He said Jay Z and I’m like, “What? C’mon man.”

9th Wonder’s ThinkPad and triple platinum plaque for The Black Album

When he called, Theron was working on the Fade to Black movie and sitting beside Young Guru. He put Young Guru on the phone with me, and he was like, “Could you come up here?” That was on a Wednesday, and I got to New York on Saturday. I played beats for Jay at Baseline Studios. I had like four beat CDs with me. I was playing one CD and about to switch to another another, and Jay was like “Nah, keep that CD in.” Then he was like, “Can you stay here ‘til Monday?” He’d already done “What More Can I Say,” “Encore,” “Lucifer,” “December 4th,” “Allure” and “Change Clothes.” That’s what I was coming in behind. But Jay was like, “You have to fit in this somewhere.” He said, “I got this sample, R. Kelly, ‘A Woman's Threat.’ See what you can do with that.” He did the first verse—he stands in the corner and writes his rhymes without paper, just saying it over and over and over, mumbling to himself. Then he left me with the sample and my ThinkPad and said, “I want you to produce the record while I’m gone.” I had 25 minutes to make the beat. Jay came back, put the headphones on, and that was it. That ThinkPad hasn’t worked since. It’s the only beat I ever made on it. Looking back, that was really a monumental time. Just to be a part of all of that, just to be in the room with him talking, just the people that I met throughout that time. It was crazy.

KYAMBO “HIP HOP” JOSHUA
Jay in the studio is as professional as you get. Not to say we don't have fun, but when we go in there, he's going to finish the song. He does it in one take, but it's also written on the spot. It's really coming from his head, to under his breath, and then on the mic, and everybody hears it. The process goes so fast. This album was done real fast.

GEE ROBERSON
I’ve always been amazed with Jay writing in his head. Like, what in the world’s going on there? Him hearing a track and mumbling, and those mumbles becoming verses that he could recite and remember as if he wrote them down on a piece of paper or a Blackberry or something. It was like watching magic. I’m just completely in awe of that. It’s an incredible gift.




CHAD HUGO
Co-producer, “Changes Clothes” and “Allure”
Jay Z has always been a genius. He was always the one to watch. He always knew how to make the song sound right. His tone, his attitude—everything would always get you up, get people dancing or motivated. It seemed like he was his own campaign manager. His team called me in at the last minute for The Black Album, and I was honored. When Jay's in the room there was no fucking around. I was in there like a beast pressing the record button, stopping, pausing, forwarding, and rewinding. I was keeping it straight ahead like, “Let’s finish this tune and make it sound right.”

KYAMBO “HIP HOP” JOSHUA
Those sessions had a lot of urgency and a lot of ideas. Everyone came in with their best. Instead of it being about this producer or that producer, it was more of, This is the last album.

CHAD HUGO
It was like we were a part of a security team. I would be like, “What can I do? What skills can I bring?” If Jay’s vocals are kicking beyond the threshold, turn the compression down. If there's a lot of ground noise, let's throw a gate on it. That snare sounds flat, let’s make it crunchy and percussive, almost like a gunshot to your heart. Being in tune with your surroundings—that shit actually paid off.

KYAMBO “HIP HOP” JOSHUA
DJ Quik came in because Jay wanted to fill that West Coast void. Kanye came with his thing. Sometimes I would hand Jay the tape and he would listen to it and Kanye'd be like, "I wish I was there. I could have told him to do this or do that." Pharrell came around, we went to Virginia and did some stuff, including one song that didn't make the album.

GEE ROBERSON

I remember the moment of Kanye selling “Encore” to Jay, performing it like, Yo, this is the one. Kanye is a genius at really knowing the depth of a track. He’s hands down the best producer I’ve ever seen in my life that can paint the whole picture of a track and give the vision of it how it could be performed onstage and pierce the fans’ hearts. “Lucifer,” for Kanye, was about how it would sound in the car or how kids will react hearing that beat and hearing Jay rap on it, as far as the hood. For me those are the most memorable moments of that project, being in there when Kanye would paint his picture.

Kanye West in the studio, recording "Lucifer"

I introduced Jay to Kanye and Just Blaze, back in 1998. It was personal thing for me that I wanted to get one new producer on The Black Album. When I heard that Aqua track [“My 1st Song”] I was like, This is a no brainer. Jay cut it and he ended up keeping it. I felt great about getting a new guy a look.

JOE “3H” WEINBERGER
Co-producer, “My 1st Song”
I had formed a really close relationship with Jay's team: Gee Roberson and Hip Hop. When The Black Album was coming, they did this series of ads in the hip-hop magazines. "The Black Album: Jay Z's final album." The ad listed off 12 of the greatest producers on Earth. But I was like, Fuck that. Every album Jay brings in at least one or two new kids. I was the most relentless crazy person ever. I would stroll over to Aqua's house—he was more of a structural producer. He would come in on the drums, chop the sample, he would come up with something more playable. I needed something to fill a void in Jay's body of work or strike a chord with him. It was less about the hot beat and more about how do we outsmart the other young producers. I knew that one good beat didn't mean shit. I would go see Gee and Hip Hop every week and play them beats. I was never like, This is for Jay, but I always would come in with one or two ideas that I thought could work.

AQUA
Co-producer, “My 1st Song”
I was an intern at MTV News, and had access to their entire library of videos. I could use an internal Google search and look for whatever I wanted. I snuck in on the weekend, and decided, it would be cool to get some unreleased Biggie and 2Ppac stuff to be able to bring home to my friends in L.A. So I check out all these data tapes and I dubbed them over to VHS. One of them was this unreleased—bits of it had been released—interview with Biggie and Puff.

After I made the “My First Song” beat, I was sitting in my parents’ basement, feeling like the intro could use a little something. I got the idea of running some dialogue over it to set a tone or set a theme for a song. I decided to pull out that VHS, and I snagged that little bit of Biggie dialogue which everybody now knows as the intro to “My First Song.” I wasn’t in the room when Jay heard it, but I would imagine that that intro had a lot to do with sparking an instant idea about what he could do with that beat.

Kanye West, Joe “3H” Weinberger and Gee Roberson in 2004.

JOE “3H” WEINBERGER
After Jay heard our beat there was like four months of waiting. They were being very quiet and secretive. Then Jay and 50 Cent were out in Vegas and I was out there working with Whoo Kid and Gee. Gee snuck me and Aqua backstage to go meet Jay Z for the first time. We were both 20 years old or some shit. He was like, "I love the beat. I can't say more than that.”

Kanye was an unsigned artist when Aqua and I were getting our beats together. Aqua’s talents were novice but he was my boy, so he got to meet Just Blaze and Kanye. They went record shopping together, and Just and Kanye were super stoked for Aqua as a producer and for me. It was a cool community thing. I feel grateful and humble to be a part of it. Sometimes that song comes on randomly in a playlist and I'm like, "Nah, I'm not in the mood to listen to that shit." It's so emotion provoking.

LUIS RESTO
Co-producer, “Moment of Clarity”
I worked on the “Moment of Clarity” beat with Marshall [Mathers]. Marshall and I got along. I was classically trained in the piano and always gravitated towards strings. That’s where we got a common ground, that I brought that classical element. When I hear the “Moment of Clarity” lick, I can feel it in my fingers. It's a pretty sparse track, but that left room for Jay to do his thing and Marshall knew that. They came back to me and said, Jay likes this, so we have to mix it. How significant the album is or was didn’t register with me at that time. It was just work that we did. Now, I feel so blessed to work with Marshall and to have done work that Jay Z loved.

WIZ BUCHANAN
Producer, “What More Can I Say”
We were working with Lupe Fiasco. The guy that he owned Lupe’s label, him and Jay were really good friends. It came up that Jay was working on his last album and we might be able to get him some music. I sent him one record with the hook, intro, and everything in it already. They called back like, “Yo, send the files.” Then Jay called like, “Tell your peoples I think I bodied this beat. Tell them to come to the studio.” It was surreal. We just sent one beat. That was our first placement ever. I wasn’t even really a producer, I was in a rap crew. The kid that sang on the hook lived across the street from me in the projects. We recorded the hook in my house. The beat was maybe a year or two old before I even sent it to him. I had played it for a couple people and they didn’t get it. Certain tracks are just meant for certain artists. Jay said, “What if I hadn’t liked that beat?” I was like, “If you didn’t like that you wouldn’t have liked anything.”

You listen to the bravado on Jay’s records, so you would assume that he would be very full of himself. But in the studio he came in and just embraced us, talking to us like he knew us for years. He’s a real funny guy. He’s hilarious. He was easy to talk to. It wasn’t like standing there in front of Jay Z. It was just like dude from the block. His ego wasn’t to the point where he would get crazy. He would take criticism and respond. He’s a real smart dude. A lot of times you have sessions and there’s a nervous energy in the room, but there was none of that at all. It was fun.



Still from Fade to Black.



The album was complete, but after Just Blaze made a final instrumental while Jay Z was previewing the album to reporters, the presses were stopped in order to include it.

JUST BLAZE
The album was finished, cases were already made. Then, while I was mixing something else, at the last-minute, I made the beat for “PSA.” Jay was doing press at a studio around the corner. All the different outlets were coming to listenings. In the midst of that, I ran back to the studio where Jay was and was like, Dude, listen to this. He liked it but he was like, “We’re already done.” I’m like, “We’re not done until this song is finished.” So before each press listening session, he’d run back into my room, write four bars down, go back and do another round of press, come back to me. We did that all night. There’s some records that have great stories and there’s other records that you have a two-second genius moment. I just happened to be around the corner from Jay. All those stars lined up. To get “PSA” on the album, we literally stopped the CDs and records from being manufactured, stopped all the artwork from being printed. We ended up pulling a song called “Looking at My S Dots” from the album to put “PSA” on, literally in the eleventh hour. Just two or three weeks later, we were at the Madison Square Garden show and when “PSA” came on everybody already knew every word of the song and the place exploded. It was an amazing feeling.

Black Moon had a record out that I wasn’t aware of, with the same sample as “PSA,” the came out a few weeks before The Black Album. I had bought the Black Moon album, but I hadn’t opened it up yet. While we were finishing up “PSA,” one of the assistants who worked in the studio was listening to the Black Moon CD in his office. I walked out of the control room past the office and I heard the song playing that has the same sample, and I’m like, “Yo, what the hell is this.” Then it was this big thing going around for a while that I had stolen Black Moon’s masters, or that I had beef with them and had used their sample on purpose. It’s funny, the people that had the loudest mouths opinions are the ones farthest removed from the situation. It was frustrating for a little while. It kind of took away from me enjoying the moment so to speak. But looking back, it just hit me a couple days ago that we’re at 10 years. It actually hit me while I was on stage playing it and I was like, “There’s a whole generation that’s passed. I’m at a show with kids who were like seven, eight years old when that record came out, but now they’re like 18, 19 and they’re coming to these shows and they know every word. It’s awesome.



“He’s hilarious. He was easy to talk to. It wasn’t like standing there in front of Jay Z. It was just like dude from the block.” —Wiz Buchanan

KYAMBO “HIP HOP” JOSHUA
Jay usually handed albums in early, with a bow on top. That’s the way he operated—there wasn’t a lot of indecisiveness. You hear stories of people doing like 50, 60 songs and picking 12. We never got to that point.

JUST BLAZE
Sometimes, [making music] is like work. But when you have familiarity and history, it’s easy. If I don’t like something, I can just tell Jay. If he doesn’t like something, he can just tell me. It’s not a big political thing. I was confident in what we were doing. The only pressure you have in a situation like that is not necessarily trying to maintain that history, but how do you top what you’ve done last. The records we did had such an impact that they became major reference points for us. He’d be like, “Is this better than ‘U Don’t Know’? Is this better than ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’?” And I’m like, It doesn’t matter if it’s better. If it’s good, it’s good. Whether or not the record comes out being regarded better than your last hit is really up to the public.

JUST BLAZE
What deems a record classic is not just the music on it, but the moment that surrounds that music. At that time, Jay was achieving this new level of superstardom and retiring. The sounds of hip-hop were changing, fashion was changing, the record industry climate was changing. Jay could have put that album out five years later or five years before, but it might not have had the same impact. We had great timing.


In order to combat an Internet leak, the release date was moved up from Black Friday to Friday, November 14. The artists who contributed began to hear it in the wild.

WIZ BUCHANAN
Angie Martinez played [“What More Can I Say”] on some afternoon show. Even though everything had been finalized, I still hadn’t been paid. There were still some sample clearance issues with my Gladiator sample. So when it came across the radio, I heard the sample, and I’m in the kitchen making a sandwich, and I’m like, Oh! I went and checked my equipment to see if something started playing or not. I just felt numb. They just kept playing it over and over again. Maybe 20 minutes later, the kid that I’d gotten to sing on the hook comes running down the block screaming: Yoooo! Yooooo! Yooooo! Losing his mind. When we went in the studio and heard the end result, it was pretty emotional. To hear Jay on the last verse—he didn’t really care about making a radio record. I’d rather have produced a record that Jay Z thew caution to the wind on, a dope rap record, than a commercial or club record.

My friends didn’t even believe I really did the beat until the album came out. Everybody thought I was lying. We were pretty young, we were just starting college. Our parents saw us doing this work like, “I hope it pans out, but what are the odds?” To have a first placement with somebody major like that, I was able to go to my mother and be like, “Look, it paid off.”

AQUA
Me and 3H were at a friend of ours’ place in Manhattan. The album had leaked a couple days before. I think we got on the radio, and we heard [“My 1st Song’], and we only caught the tail-end at first, and we were tripping. I was a little worried. I was like, “I hope it’s not only an outro.” Because I only caught the outro on the first listen.

We went up to Times Square and bought like some kind of radio boombox situation, and had to go through some leaps and bounds to have one of our friends be able to find it, to burn the CD so we could listen. We were staying at the W Hotel in Union Square at the time. When we first heard it that night, it was completely surreal, but I think it’s really now, 10 years later looking back, that the magnitude of it, and really understanding how young I was then, really sinks in.

JOE “3H” WEINBERGER
I knew we were on the record, because I also managed us and I had to do the producer agreement with the lawyer, but that still meant that it might not go down. Maybe they were just doing it for precaution. This was still super early in the internet piracy days. It wasn't like you could get a record a month out. So on Sunday night, two nights before the album is coming out, it hit Limewire or something. I thought we were going to hear a crappy version of the song or a loop or whatever, but it was the song.

JONATHAN MANNION
Photographer
It’s a little-known fact, but the cover shot was actually a test of a shot that they wanted to achieve. It was from that session done as a mock-up. Jay didn’t really want to do a photo shoot for The Black Album. At the time everybody knew that this was gonna be the last statement from him, so I wanted to achieve some images that were associated with this, because I had done basically every album cover but one, and had made contributions to every single album. I wanted to be included and say, “This is your last statement. This is my last statement. It’s been an incredible run.” We tried to recreate it, but that shot became so attached to it, the black on black, that position of the hat. It became one of those iconic pictures right away.

Once he saw that image, it really hit the mark. He was confident that the image was strong and subtle, and it was an image of him without it being like a big face on the cover. It became an image versus like a portrait, and I think that really resonated with what was happening at the time. Because of the confidence that he had in that cover, he didn’t really feel like a session needed to happen. He was like, “Nah, I got it, I’m good.” That’s where I stepped in like, “Let me have a closing statement. I know you don’t really wanna do this but they’re gonna need press shots, so let’s just come up with some things.” After some negotiation, we worked it out.

9TH WONDER
I’ll be tied to those people forever. After The Black Album, Jay called me personally and said, “I want you to do records for Destiny’s Child,” and I was like, “This is getting out of hand right now. This is really getting out of hand. This is a story I can tell my grandkids.” Everybody says that and it’s cliché, but I can really sit around as an old man and tell my grandkids about the time I worked with Jay Z. My career could end tomorrow, but I can say I’m on one of the most important records that’s ever been recorded of all time. Nobody can take that away from me even if they tried. I’m a part of a landmark album, arguably Jay Z’s best.

JOE “3H” WEINBERGER
I was in Paris recently, and I heard “My 1st Song” in a nightclub, and kids were going crazy to it. That means that it transcended the moment, which is super hard to do. Jay's flow on it and the sultriness of the beat was unique and stood out. 10 years later is crazy, because it goes by so quickly. It makes me think what can we create music today that people will still listen to 10 years from now. I think a couple times I’ve said to Jay that I wish he would perform it live or I wish there had been a video for it. Other than that, I just keep my mouth shut.

GEE ROBERSON
I’ve obviously been blessed being part of Jay’s career. Period. Adding my little contribution to such a timeless piece that obviously will go down as one of his great albums and a time capsule as far as that time in music—it’s one of his greatest collections. To me, on a personal level, the best thing for me is just to have contributed.

KYAMBO “HIP HOP” JOSHUA
I remember that album being real personal, because of stuff Jay was saying on it. For instance, verse two of "Lucifer" is about my brother who had just died. "December 4th" and everything kind of was emotional. One of the reasons I don't listen to the album a lot was because it was real heavy. It kind of felt like a completion. You had the Fade to Black show at the Garden, with the album coming out. It felt like we may have not accomplished what we wanted in the beginning but we got even further as far as what the real intention was. I was definitely as proud of that album as any other album I worked on.

JOE “3H” WEINBERGER
More than anything, it was a humbling experience. Jay Z is the biggest. Then Kanye, who we had worked on The College Dropout with, had become a star as well. There was so much rightness in hip-hop between the older generation and the newer generation. To be knee-deep in that in New York at the time was like a hurricane. It was overwhelming but super dope. I think my friends and family understood what was going on better than we did. You're so present, you're so in it, you're so hungry that you probably don't appreciate it as much until 10 years later.

Additional transcription by Tim Larew and Brian Padilla.


Moment of Clarity: An Oral History of Jay Z’s The Black Album