Forbes Writer Details Jay-Z’s Life in Unauthorized Biography ‘Empire State of Mind’
There’s no question that Jay-Z‘s rise from drug dealer to successful multi-millionaire deserves recognition, however the steps behind his climb to the top remains somewhat of a mystery in hip-hop history. ‘Empire State of Mind,’ an unauthorized biography of the rapper penned by longtime Forbes writer Zach O’Malley Greenburg, is positioned to fill in many of the blanks surrounding the rapper’s business dealings, pulling from interviews with some of Hov’s colleagues and business partners willing to dish the dirt on how he rose to fame and fortune.
Greenburg, who was approached by publishing company Penguin Books, set out to tell a story that straddles the fence in its portrayal of Jay, thus leaving it up to the reader to make the final judgment. Working on the book from 2009 through the better half of 2010, the seasoned journalist spoke with the likes of Roots drummer Questlove, former friend Jaz-O, Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman and Jay’s most outspoken former business partner Dame Dash to fill the pages of his book.
“I think he’s just tired of talking about [his relationship with Jay-Z] honestly,” Greenburg told the BoomBox of Dash. “The air he had about him was just kind of like, ‘I’m sad this didn’t work out.’ Of course he’s angry but I think he’s weary, because all anybody ever asks him about is Jay-Z. Jaz-O for example got a little more into it, and he really directly said, ‘I’ve known Jay-Z since he was 14. This is what happened here and here, and Jay-Z has become maniacal and obsessed with money.'”
Among the most revealing topics in the book include the 41-year-old’s failed business deals, of which Greenburg says have been swept under the rug. “At this point he’s such a household name and he has such an invincible image that people kind of assume that everything he touches turns to gold,” the writer explains. “One of the fun things about this being an unauthorized biography [is that] I got to get into some of the stuff that didn’t work out … how he reacts under pressure good and bad.”
Although Jay is aware of the book’s release, according to Greenburg, he refused to take part in the project without a promise of personal financial gain. “My first action when I wrote the book was to go to [Jay-Z’s manager] John Meneilly,” he states. “I wanted to get them on board and I went in and I thought it would be a slam dunk. Here I am writing this business book, this biography, a Forbes writer writing about Jay-Z, he’s got so much invested in his image as a businessman [that] I thought it would be a great opportunity that he would want to be involved in. I pitched the book, the response that I got was, ‘What’s in it for us?’ The more you look at it, that’s how Jay-Z operates, he doesn’t do anything unless he’s getting something out of it.”
Greenburg also notes that Jay’s camp may have sped up the release date of his part memoir, part lyrical explanation guide ‘Decoded’ in an attempt to curb the press behind the ‘Empire State of Mind’ biography. “As the thing was moving along I kept emailing his publicist saying, ‘Do you want me to send you an advanced copy?” Greenburg discloses. “I didn’t hear anything back. A couple weeks before it came out she said, ‘Please can you messenger over a couple copies,’ and since then I’ve heard from a couple of mutual acquaintances that they’ve talked to Jay-Z at parties and he’s certainly aware of it. The last person that I talked to about it says he denies having read it, but this person thinks he has in fact read it and just doesn’t want to tell anybody.”
Regardless of the salacious implications behind the use of the word “unauthorized,” Greenburg hopes that the book will enlighten readers to previously undiscussed topics around Jay-Z’s life and career. As a writer for Forbes, Greenburg is the man behind their yearly Hip-Hop Cash Kings list, of which Jay-Z has appeared on since its inception in 2007, and continues to work as an editor and journalist in the hip-hop community.
“I set out to write it in as balanced a way possible,” he explained. “First and foremost, this is a great American rags to riches story that Jay-Z has come from having absolutely nothing to absolutely everything. I don’t think that you can knock him too much regardless of what you’re thinking just based on the sheer volume of what he’s accomplished. That said, he’s really cut out a lot of people along the way and whether or not he was justified in doing so, I try to leave that up to the reader.”
‘Empire State of Mind’ is in stores now. Read an excerpt from Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s book below.
Excerpted from ‘EMPIRE STATE OF MIND: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office’ by Zack O’Malley Greenburg by arrangement with Portfolio/Penguin, Copyright © Zack O’Malley Greenburg, 2011.
Clearly, Jay-Z and Beyoncé haven’t allowed marriage to get in the way of their rigorous touring and recording schedules. Being able to afford private jets is helpful, but even when they’re on the road to see each other perform in concert work comes first. On one occasion in early 2008, Beyoncé flew to Miami for a Jay-Z show but made sure to schedule some time in the recording studio beforehand with James “Jim Jonsin” Scheffer, a Grammy-winning producer based in South Florida.
“Beyoncé was coming into Miami to just listen to some music and meet us,” Jonsin explains at an interview atop a Hollywood hotel on the eve of the 2010 Grammy awards. “It was this whole process, you had to meet the A&R [artists and repertoire specialist], you had to meet her father. It was almost a big background-check thing.”
Beyoncé’s usual quality control measures were put into effect despite the fact that her sister, singer Solange, was the one who recommended Jonsin. Once he was cleared, Beyoncé set up a time to come to Jonsin’s studio and listen to a few tracks he’d cooked up, including the one that eventually became ‘Sweet Dreams,’ a hit single. “We made the track, and she comes by around four or five o’clock to listen to it; she’s going to go to Jay-Z’s concert at six,” recalls Jonsin. “So we play some music for her. That particular song, she went nuts. She loved it. She insisted on going in the vocal booth and recording it right then and there, so she started cutting it, and she was late to Jay-Z’s concert.”
Jonsin wasn’t surprised. “I think their careers blossomed together,” he says. “They’re the president and first lady of the music industry, they run s— . . . By marrying Beyoncé, he attached himself to all her fans, and then they went and got into his stuff. The same goes for her, she got a bunch of new fans from him.”