One of the most triumphant moments in hip-hop is documented in the final scene of Fade to Black, Jay-Z’s 2004 concert film. Ending what was meant to be his farewell performance before retirement, Jay paces the Madison Square Garden stage in an oversized Nets jersey, unaware of what that franchise would mean to him and his city in a decade’s time.
“I don’t wanna party with y’all, I wanna vibe with y’all,” he explains to the crowd, before Just Blaze drops the exultant “December 4” instrumental. “I’m just scratching the surface, cause what’s buried under there / was a kid torn apart once his pop disappeared,” he raps immaculately, with perfect breath control and a bare naked tone to his delivery.
After the first verse, the film cuts to a smaller, more intimate setting. About a dozen champagne glasses are raised in a studio packed with Jay-Z’s friends, family and colleagues, as a toast is being made.
“Everything I do is inspired by life. So, of course, it’s inspired by the people closest to me,” Jay confesses to the room. “I couldn’t be where I’m at without y’all. I love all y’all.”
Back on stage at the Garden, the hometown hero spits, “I’m getting ahead of myself, by the way I can rap / but that came second to me moving this crack / give me a second, I swear / I would say about my rap career / til ‘96 came, niggas I’m here, goodbye.”
“Way back in the day, when Jay first started rapping, I used to take him to certain places in the hood, and he’d battle niggas and destroy them,” Jay’s best friend Ty Ty explains back at the toast. “And I used to be the only one that could hear the rhymes that he said,” he continues. “Now, the whole world gets a chance to hear it.”
Today (12/4) is Jay-Z’s 50th birthday, and the third day of BET’s week-long celebration of his legacy. With hopes of recreating a fraction of the magic present the night of Jay’s premature adieu, today we hear from his collaborators and contemporaries. From fellow creatives such as Bink and Cipha Sounds, to media veterans like Datwon Thomas and Angela Yee, the following tributes are from people who either contributed to Jay-Z’s greatness, or bore witness to it.
Because of Jay-Z… I had a hand in changing how hip-hop sounded. I met Jay-Z through dealing with Jay Brown 20 years ago. It was always a dream to work with him. So, Jay Brown introduced me to him, and it gave me a chance to score the intro to The Hard Knock Life Tour. I did it, and they loved it… and the rest was history.
We used to do “keep it real Thursdays” at Baseline. Every producer would come from all walks of life playing Jay beats, trying to get on the album. He had a boombox in the front lobby of Baseline, and they would play the beat on that first. If he liked it, then they would take it back to the A-Room to play on the big speakers.
Picture this: the night I came to play my beats [for The Blueprint], Jay-Z is already in the A-Room with all his people. [OG] Juan, Ty Ty, Lenny S, Beans, [Memphis] Bleek—the whole Roc-A-Fella. And he’s playing the album. He played about six or seven records. And after he does that, he turns to me and says, “Aight, you know you’re not supposed to be back here yet, so don’t make an ass out of me.”
So, I played five beats, and three of them ended up on The Blueprint. I opened and closed [the album]. That was my most proud moment in hip-hop—just knowing that everybody was anticipating the album so much, and the first thing they heard was me.
My message to him right now, because I never had a chance to do it, is just to say thank you. I’ll always be grateful for him taking that chance on me, and allowing me to speak through him with my music. On his 50th birthday, I just want to tell him thank you.
Because of Jay-Z… I learned the true definition of snitching. Someone had snitched on someone at the time, and me and [Peter] Rosenberg were on the radio talking about it. And Jay-Z called us at 5AM and gave us the actual definition of snitching. So, he’s like, “If there’s a weird child molestor in your building, then you should definitely call the police. But if you do a crime with somebody and you get caught, and you snitch on them to save your own ass, that’s snitching.”
And we were like, “Why are you calling us?” [laughs]. He goes, “I’m on my way to the clearport—wheels up!” He fucking private jet stunted on us.
The dude is funny. I told this story on the Juan Ep podcast. The first time I met Jay-Z, I was DJing for Lil Kim in London at Notting Hill Carnival. I believe Clark Kent couldn’t get through customs, or missed his flight—for some reason, he wasn’t there. So Dame Dash comes over to Lil Kim’s people and was like, “Hey, our DJ can’t get through. Can we use your DJ? We’re only doing two songs.”
The DJ before me was a reggae DJ, so they were playing on 45 inch turntables. We were in a rush, so I run up there and put on “Ain’t No,” and the turntable is still on 45, so the record was mad fast [laughs]. So, I fix it, and Jay comes on stage and says some real slick Brooklyn shit like, “Oh, you just gon’ fuck up my show?”
[Years later], I played the first Tidal concert. It was me and another DJ opening up. We were just supposed to be playing music while people were walking into The Barclays Center. Something happened toward the end of the show, and I think Nicki Minaj or Beyoncé needed a little more time, so they throw me on to stall—and it was the most monumental ten minutes of my life.
I was on this 15 foot platform, raised up into the sky. It lowers back down, and somebody grabs me and they were like, “You gotta go to the back right now, Jay-Z wants to talk to you.” And I’m on a high, because the energy was so crazy, but also I thought I was in trouble.
So, I’m walking from the middle of the arena to the backstage area. I get back there, and Jay has the biggest smile on his face. He’s like, “What the fuck was that?! You killed it! You murdered it! How did you do that?”
But in my mind, that’s what I do. That’s what I would do in a nightclub on the regular, but he never saw me like that. He only knows [my work] on the radio. He’s never been to some random club I’ve been at. His face was like that of a proud dad. Also, I’m funny when I’m DJing, so he saw my personality shine through, controlling the crowd. That moment right there was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Because of Jay-Z… A lot of us young black men are inspired to be entrepreneurs beyond just music. A lot of us young black men see ourselves as more than just athletes, rappers and singers—and black women as well.
That’s my mentor, but even before I signed to him, that was my favorite rapper. And I consider him a close friend. When my cousin passed away, I had a real bad mental breakdown. I was really inconsolable. He hit me, and he gave me some words about spirituality, and I just never saw it coming from him. That’s by far the number one [interaction] I’ll always hold onto.
[Another one] was when he told me he was leaving Def Jam [laughs]. When I was considering signing to Def Jam, he told me not to go there because he wasn’t staying. That was a good lil heads up right there.
[He’s shown us] how hip-hop can evolve and mature. We never had a Rolling Stones or an elder statesman, legend, active rapper. His tours aren’t “best of” tours. That’s admirable at the tender age of 50. He’s our legend. He’s our GOAT.
Because of Jay-Z… “I will not lose!” What I find most impressive about Jay-Z is how he’s been able to adapt with the times. He’s been doing this for close to 30 years and shows no signs of slowing down. While most of his peers have plateaued, Jay continues to find new ways to innovate. From the beginning, Jay has empowered himself. When he couldn’t get a record deal, he went the independent route. Years later, he bet on himself again and formed Roc Nation. Success used to be settling for whatever was offered to you, but now it’s all about ownership and equity.
What sticks out to me [about Jay’s story] is that you don’t have to be a victim of your circumstances. Here’s a guy who despite his obstacles, used his talent to better his situation. We all have unique abilities and the capacity to do the same.
Because of Jay-Z… You gotta show love and respect. Because he acknowledges everyone. He told me years ago, “It takes a special nigga to grind.” He’s told me many things over the years, but that stuck with me. That applies to rap, and it also applies to regular life. You gotta grind for what you want. Hov’s up there just from his accomplishments and what he’s done for the culture… he’s definitely the cream of the crop.
Because of Jay-Z… I am where I am right now. Jay-Z helped me out early in my career, and it was early in his career. The first music video I did with Hype Williams was “Can’t Knock The Hustle.” It was Jay’s first video. I also executive produced Streets Is Watching. He gave me that opportunity with my production company. So, I am forever grateful. I love him, and would always do anything he needs.
Because of Jay-Z… I was able to cut the song “Keep It Real.” I got the chance to work with Jay-Z in 1998. It was a song on the Hav Plenty soundtrack featuring Coko from SWV. He was incredible to work with. But even more incredible was, even with as much success as he had at the time, he still had that humility. He’ll just vibe out with you. I like that—someone who could be that successful and that down-to-earth as well. So, big up Jigga Man. Happy 50th.
Because of Jay-Z… Brooklyn is always poppin’ [laughs]. If I could thank Jay-Z for one contribution he’s made to the culture, it’d be for helping to make marriage cool for people. That was a big contribution. Being able to admit the mistakes that you’ve made, and to have an amazing wife like Beyoncé and show the strength of a power couple—and to show how amazing it is to raise a family in the public eye. It’s just nice to see someone cherish and celebrate love.
Because of Jay-Z… I’m aware of my worth within hip-hop culture. What he’s been able to do in being a self-made businessman—I won’t even go into the amount of money he’s made, because that doesn’t necessarily matter. But just being a self-made businessman who comes from the gutter, the street, the real grimy side of everything, but who is also supremely talented… it makes you wonder, “Where does someone like that get that from?”
He makes you feel like if he can do that, I can do that too. When I have really big meetings—when I know it’s something that could change the course of my career—I throw on Jay.
Because of Jay-Z… We’ve seen how hip-hop can age. As much as I love his early work and his early albums, I love this latest era. With hip-hop being so young, we never knew how rappers were going to age. We didn’t know we’d watch a 50-year-old on stage still rapping, and how that would look.
Also, I do want to be on record saying that Jay-Z has been an underrated lyricist. What makes him so good is that he can say the most complex thing in such an easy way. He can say one sentence and “dumb it down” so it’s very palatable and easy to understand, but there’s so much packed into that one line. He never had to use 90,000 bars to get his point across. There’s some amazing lyrical ability in getting your whole point across in such a small space.
I think people get him f**ked up a little because of the party records. I think the meaning behind so many of his lyrics is way more complex than people give him credit for. I know some people say Nas is more lyrical, but I’d make the case that they’re neck-and-neck.
“December 4” always hit on a personal level for me. I was 12 or 13 when The Black Album came out. Hearing those lines about his insecurities, his demons, him being quiet in school and having teachers shun him, and that stuff sort of making him wild the fuck out—I always connected to that record.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Rory Farrell that was originally given by Kamaiyah.