Welcome to VH1’s new monthly series, Album-Versaries, in which we share fresh stories with you about the creation and lasting impact of some of the most important and influential albums in music history on their milestone anniversaries. Our first installment will focus on Jay-Z’s 1996 LP Reasonable Doubt, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary. This is Part I of a two-part series; Part II can be found by clicking here.
With worldwide record sales of over 30 million units, multiple successful business ventures that have lined his pockets with hundreds of millions of dollars, a best-selling book, and a happy marriage to the “hottest chick in the game,” there are seemingly few mountains for Jay-Z left to climb. However, just like any other self-made man, Jay-Z didn’t start out at the top. It’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t an all-American, endorsement-toting, “Run This Town” business man, but the truth of the matter is that during the early nineties, Jay was running with a wild crew and involved in more than his fair share of illegal activities. Fifteen years ago, Jay-Z the Icon, Jay-Z the Business Man, and Jay-Z the “Best Rapper Alive” didn’t exist; at that time, he was simply Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, a crack cocaine dealer turned rapper that, according to hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, “came from Damon [Dash]’s imagination.”
Then, on June 25, 1996, Reasonable Doubt dropped. Although it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves or spawn any Top 10 singles right off the bat, the LP now stands amongst the most highly regarded in hip-hop history and, in the timeline of Jay’s existence, symbolizes the pivotal point when his life could have conceivably gone in two wholly different directions. On the fifteenth anniversary of the album’s release, we exclusively spoke to producers Ski and Clark Kent, as well as the album’s co-executive producer and co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash, about their recollections of the recording process. Dash and Jay-Z have had a well-documented falling out in recent years, but that didn’t stop Dame from sharing some phenomenal stories with us about the brotherhood he and Hov shared during this crucial period in both of their lives, what it was like seeing Jay and the Notorious B.I.G. record their legendary track “Brooklyn’s Finest,” what he thinks of the gritty, unethical themes of Reasonable Doubt now that he’s got fifteen years worth of hindsight, and much more.
JAY-Z: THE WORST RAPPER ALIVE?
“He was one foot out the door to the street life,” recalls hip-hop producer Irv Gotti in VH1’s Classic Albums special on Jay-Z’s debut LP. Like many great artists across various mediums, Jay’s first work wasn’t initially met with universally glowing reviews out of the gate (although it would eventually earn them with the passing of time). Critical of the rapper’s flamboyant mafioso persona, a pattern of feedback emerged, praising the emcee for his articulate command of the language and conversational lyrical ability, but totally dismissing the album for its crime-ridden stories as having a “we’ve seen this before” quality to them: “Jay-Z’s street-savvy raps may seem like nothing new, but there’s a reason the Brooklyn native is topping the charts,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Dimitri Ehrlich in August of 1996, and the Los Angeles Daily News was cited as saying that his “sassy way with a lyric transcends the material.” Even The Source magazine’s hip-hop braintrust gave the album only four mics in their review (later changed to a “classic” rating of five mics).
To hear Damon Dash tell it, Jay-Z’s record industry prospects prior to the album’s release were going even worse for him than the media’s reception to his work. “I said he will be the greatest rapper of all-time at a time when everyone told me he was the worst rapper,” he explained to us about his conversations with the suits who run the record labels. “You understand? I had been shopping him, and everyone told me ‘He raps too fast.'” Feedback like this wasn’t about to dissuade the pair (alongside silent partner Kareem “Biggs” Burke), though, and they headed into studio feeling confident that they could birth the kind of record that would make their hustle’s potential turn to alchemical reality.
“Because we believed in it so much, you couldn’t even tell me that it wasn’t going to be the best album that was ever made,” Dash gushed. “And it’s funny because it became that.”
THE HOOD RALPH LAUREN
“What’s so special about Reasonable Doubt is that it’s the foundation of everything I’ve done,” Jay-Z told our VH1 Classic Albums producers when Reasonable Doubt celebrated its tenth anniversary. “It’s the foundation of me leaving one life to another life. The foundation of my life, my career as a recording artist… it was the foundation [on] which everything was built.”
Nourished by a self-imposed Darwinian attitude and a strong desire to make music his new hustle, Jay shifted his energy into transitioning from drug-dealer to respected, bona fide emcee. Raised on his parents’ soul records, the early-twenties hustler also began conditioning himself to memorize rhymes without writing them down. His close-knit circle of equally ambitious associates — a group that Damon Dash explained envisioned themselves as “the hood Ralph Lauren” because they were always showing “how much more taste we had than everyone else” — believed in his witty rhyming skills and analogy-thick lyrical prowess, but it was Jay’s experiences serving and surviving in the street that ultimately allowed him to creatively blur the lines between art and life. Sustained by the brotherhood he shared with Dame and Biggs, traction for their movement began building.
“Back then, there wasn’t any money that had been presented to us,” Damon explained to us about the time before the politics of big business entered their world. “Like, that test had never presented itself. It was just pure ‘I’d jump in front of a bullet for you.’ Or, ‘Anybody mess with you, they mess with me.’ … That’s what kept us going; the fact that we were friends, brothers and we were making good music.”
THE COMMITMENT TO FUN
Recorded mainly in hip hop mecca D&D Studios in Manhattan, the album featured the already-popular Mary J. Blige and Notorious B.I.G., newbie artists Mephis Bleek and Foxy Brown, and boasted a roster of producers that are now considered legendary. DJ Premier, Ski Beatz, DJ Clark Kent and Irv Gotti were creating the score for a special era in hip-hop, and they all contributed to a majority of the album’s cinematic sonic backdrop. “With these guys,” notes Jay, “it wasn’t just a collaboration, it was a relationship also.” Reciprocity that genuine breeds greatness, and just last week, Ski, producer of four of the album’s tailor-made tracks agreed, telling us “we all believed in him, and we all knew that Jay was the best rapper that we ever heard… no one was touching him.”
Rich samples from soul and gospel records he listened to growing up —acts like Isaac Hayes, Lonnie Liston Smith, The Four Tops, and The Stylistics— met unconventional, somewhat-naïve song structure, creating a raw and honest sound that is now considered impossible to replicate. “I was begging him, ‘Please, you need to rap’,” said Clark Kent in an exclusive interview with us about the days leading up to the album’s recording, “‘People need to hear that you rap, that you get busy.'”
Refusing to pay for studio time and commit to the new path at first, Jay was eventually worn down by Clark’s persuasion. “He’s the reason I had recording equipment in my house. Because of Jay-Z, I probably never would have bought recording equipment to record artists, I would have just bought equipment to record music.” Between Clark and Ski, there were around thirty tracks created before Jay was officially convinced that it was time to make the album.
Contrary to some of the gritty lyrical themes that make the record what it is, the importance of having fun —both as an artistic release and as a business plan (of sorts)— was never lost on Damon Dash. “At a young age, we figured out we can make money just talkin’ about havin’ fun,” he regaled. “And we can make MORE money by having fun … I just remember, in my mind, making a commitment to fun, and having more fun than everyone in the room at all times. And selling that.” That said, their mindsets were a bit different; Brooklyn-tough Jay and Harlem-playful Dame had to ultimately find a balance and “play at a moderate level.”
Part of that “fun” aspect came through on wax via Reasonable Doubt‘s mafioso-inspired skits, something that Jay wasn’t crazy about but Damon pushed for. “I was always the guy that was like, ‘Let’s do skits, we gotta do skits,'” he recalled. “Because Death Row [Records, the most powerful rap label of that era], they used to do skits. Their skits were so dope. Like, [Dr. Dre’s album] The Chronic? They had the best skits. That was a time when we were listening to not singles, but whole albums. You had to have a full body of work.”
—Lacey Seidman, with additional work by Mark Graham
Part II of our VH1 Album-Versaries: Reasonable Doubt feature is now live: VH1 ALBUM-VERSARIES: Damon Dash And Clark Kent Wax Nostalgic On Reasonable Doubt At 15 includes insights on the riotous recording sessions for Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G.’s collaboration, “Brooklyn’s Finest,” some never-before-seen photos from Clark Kent’s personal collection, as well as how Damon Dash and Clark Kent feel about the album and its impact after fifteen years have passed.
[Photo Credits: XXL (Top Left); The rest are courtesy of Getty Images]