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 II of a two-part series; Part I, Damon Dash Reflects on Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt On Its 15 Anniversary, ran yesterday.
Fifteen years ago, Jay-Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt, dropped on a largely unsuspecting public. For an independently produced album, it managed to debut pretty strongly on the charts (#23 on the Billboard 200), but it would still be a few years before Jay-Z’s became the household name it is today. That said, the LP now stands amongst the most highly regarded in hip-hop history and, in the timeline of Jay’s existence as both a person and an artist, represents the point in his life where he left the hustle of the streets behind and instead chose to pursue a career in music.
So, with Reasonable Doubt celebrating such an essential milestone, VH1 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. In Part II of VH1 Album-Versaries: Reasonable Doubt At 15, we’ll share with you stories Dame and Clark told us about the epic recording session of Jay and Biggie’s legendary track “Brooklyn’s Finest,” how these two feel about the gritty (and possibly unethical) themes of the album now that they have fifteen years worth of hindsight, and whether or not Jay and Dame will ever be able to repair their soured friendship.
There’s no definitive way to form a consensus for the best emcee of all-time, but anytime the question comes up, Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls) are ALWAYS part of the conversation. In fact, in an MTV survey conducted back in 2006, Jay-Z and Biggie were listed as the #1 and #3 MCs of all-time, respectively. However, back when Reasonable Doubt was being recorded, Biggie was on top of the world, while no one outside of Brooklyn really knew who Jay was. Despite this, and thanks to Biggie’s DJ and Jay’s then-producer Clark Kent, the pair were introduced in a hoodwinked fashion and eventually laid down a track together, “Brooklyn’s Finest.”
“I was on tour with Big, so I was playing Jay’s sh*t for him every day on the bus,” recalls Clark. “At that point, I had made him respect Jay’s craftsmanship.” So when Clark accidentally played the “Brooklyn’s Finest” beat in front of Biggie during a Unique Studios session with Junior M.A.F.I.A., Big heard it, and said he wanted it. “I told him it was for Jay, and he was like ‘you give Jay everything!'”
Demanding that he get on the track too, Biggie accompanied Clark to D&D Studios that night, but didn’t actually come inside. Upstairs, once Jay finished his verses for the song (that was then tentatively titled either “Once We Get Started” or “No More Mr. Nice Guy”), Clark asked if they could put Big on the record as well. Dame didn’t want to pay “Puff” (pardon, Diddy) for the feature, and Jay was hesitant because he (1) didn’t know the already-popular rapper and (2) had just finished the song, but they both agreed that if Big would do it for free, they’d be game. “I had Big in a car downstairs, waiting just in case,” explains Clark, who then told them he was going to the bathroom, and came back up with The Notorious himself. “Put them in front of each other, there was no denying what could happen.” Two months later, after Big had walked away with Jay’s re-done verses on cassette, he came back to spit his own, and the song was officially born.
And as for the result? Well, in a review of Reasonable Doubt that was included as part of their 2003 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time feature, Rolling Stone described the track as featuring “two hungry talents seemingly aware that they had no one to outduel but each other.”. We also asked Dash to shed some light on this legendary collaboration and how it finally came together and, well, let’s just say that a lot of the sticky icky-icky was involved. Watch Dame tell the light-hearted story in his own words in the video we have clipped for you below.
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Oh, and about the “co-production credit” Damon mentioned, Clark most assuredly gave us a rebuttal. “I used The Ohio Players’ ‘Ecstasy’ on a remix for Damon’s group, The Future Sound, for a song called ‘What’s A Bro To Do?’ The song is my favorite song ever, so every time I DJed a club, I played [‘Ecstasy’] at the end of the night and also would put it on tapes with old school music, and everyone in our crew would get copies of the mixtapes. I made it everybody’s favorite song.” Later, while working on Jay’s album, “[Dame] said, ‘Flip it again,’ so I flipped it again,” states Clark. “That is all. He did not say ‘Use this drum, use this hi-hat, flip it this way, do it that way’… he didn’t say anything of the sort. He just said ‘flip it again.'” But, in Dame’s defense, the legendary Brooklyn DJ also graciously concedes: “The reason why he [got] co-production on that is because a producer’s job is to know what you want to hear. I guess he did his job, and that’s that.”
REFLECTIONS ON REASONABLE DOUBT AT 15
As we mentioned in Part I of this piece, Reasonable Doubt didn’t totally connect with mainstream America the way that Jigga’s later work eventually would. Yet, with the benefit of fifteen years worth of hindsight, few would disagree with the assertion that his debut album is, indeed, his best. And when we asked his opinion of Jay’s eleven album discography, Damon too, agreed. “I don’t think there’ll ever be a time where someone who has that kind of an actual experience can actually rap that good,” he told us, adding, “Do I think [Jay-Z] is the best that ever did it? Yeah. I think when we did Reasonable Doubt, right at that moment, he was the best rapper that was ever on this planet.” As we talked with Damon a little more, he began slipping into a bit of a nostalgic haze, one in which he lauded the “purity” of the recording process, comparing it to pharmaceutical grade cocaine. It is a fascinating metaphor, and we’ve got it for you to watch:
Despite Damon’s fond (and uniquely personal) analogy, there is a part of him that recognizes that this triumph of the medium will never be praised as being a “good example” for the youth of America. “I don’t think that anyone should listen to the lyrics of Reasonable Doubt and live your life that way,” he admits. “It was probably the most productive thing we did, but also the most destructive thing we did.”
There’s little doubt that the “destructive” element he mentions not only refers to the lyrical content of the record, but also to what ended up happening to the “brother” he told us he would’ve caught a bullet for. At this point, it’s worth mentioning plainly that Damon and Jay’s relationship has dissolved to the point where they no longer speak to each other. Their once unbreakable bond and now non-existent alliance stood as an elephant-in-the-room during our conversation in his apartment, an animal that Damon was hesitant to directly address but stemmed from business decisions Jay-Z started making in 2004, when he sold Roc-A-Fella to Def Jam, bought Dash out of the Rocawear clothing line they founded, and tried to obtain the full rights to the seminal record they made together, Reasonable Doubt. That, plus a number of other reasons we may never be privy to, flushed ten years of solidarity down the toilet.
Despite this bitter break, it’s clear that Dash still feels extremely proud of what he was able to accomplish fifteen years ago. But even though his tone in our interview was primarily celebratory (“We’ve already made the Hall of Fame!”), you can also see discomfort in Dame’s face in the final clip we have for you below. There’s karmic remorse, too. His days of pouring champagne on women, having public temper tantrums, and competing with his boys about who has the most expensive Rolex are over; as he candidly admitted to us, “I’m way too old to be doing any kind of hip-hop [now]. I don’t know what a 15 year-old wants to hear.”
At age 40, he’s grown and matured to the point where he’s embarrassed of past transgressions, and has set his scope on differently-geared projects, like his DD172 brand and 2009’s Black Keys collaboration album, BlakRoc, among others. That said, he still confesses to missing “those days” — the days before grown-up complications like money and the intricate politics of big business entered his life. But does he miss Jay?
In 2006, when Reasonable Doubt hit its ten-year anniversary, Jay-Z told XXL that he felt like he was making the album over his entire lifetime. Twenty-six at the time, he had literally poured a quarter-century’s worth of tribulations and savoire-faire into the music, leaving his subsequent ten albums with (roughly) only a year and a half’s worth of effort in them, each. Ironically, in that same interview, he also expressed some strikingly similar sentiments to what Dame discussed with us, reflecting on who he (Shawn) was in 1996: “To be honest, it’s not right, but I loved that guy. I’m still that person, but the thinking on how to handle situations was different.” Growth and evolution? Our eyes widened and our ears perked up. And then, in our VH1 Classic Albums special, he, to that same point, again recalled how Reasonable Doubt was initially received: “I don’t think everyone understood it or got the emotion behind what was being said in the beginning. That hustler who’s doing these reckless things in his own community becomes reflective… he knows the damage that he’s doing.”
From bricks to Billboards, grams to Grammys; imagine how celebrated reconciliation would be, both for hip-hop, and for these two men who so clearly, at one point, shared a dream and a friendship. If Damon and Jay have the same mentality regarding hindsight being 20-20, is it possible that the last five, six years of separation can repair the wounds that once tore them apart, or does capitalism and hurt feelings reign supreme? “Damon saw the fact that Jay was the best, and that fueled his fire to do whatever possible to make sure that everyone else knew that he was the best,” testifies Clark Kent. “Did Jay-Z come from Dame’s imagination? No. Might some of the business ideas have come from Dame’s imagination? Absolutely. Marketing became everything to Damon, so it was ‘Market Jay.’” But when we asked Clark if he could ever see the two men bury the hatchet, both of which he introduced and is still close with, the DJ/producer —who not-so coincidentally borrows his name from Superman— became more pensive: “I believe in my heart everything is possible.”
He went on. “Who else mattered besides Roc-A-Fella?… They did so much together that changed the landscape of what hip-hop is and what it keeps becoming and turning into daily,” Clark said, harking back to the time when glory was all they knew. Then, as if talking directly to Jay and Dame, he asks, “Did it not mean something to you that y’all meant so much [to the people] that you can’t say ‘Okay, we’ve had our differences, we should still be able to be cool. We don’t have to be in business to be friends.‘” And that’s just it; like the architect he is, he arranged his words like elements within a hit song, and landed on the bulls-eye. “You can tell me whatever you want, it’s just hard to see [their dissolved relationship] and understand it to be that… They did so much, how are they not friends?”
—Lacey Seidman, with additional work by Mark Graham
RELATED: In case you missed it, here’s Part I of this two-part series: http://blog.vh1.com/2011-07-07/vh1-album-versaries-damon-dash-reflects-on-jay-zs-reasonable-doubt-on-its-15-anniversary/
[Photo Credits: Top picture courtesy of Clark Kent; the rest are from Getty Images]