Jay-Z at Sean 'Puffy' Combs' birthday party, New York, November 4, 1998. (Photo by Steve Eichner/Getty Images)
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From The Block To The Boardroom: The Evolution Of Shawn Carter

Before the sold-out stadium tours, 21 Grammys, and the $900 million net worth, JAY-Z was Shawn Carter, a young kid from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects. His father abandoned his mother to raise him and his two siblings alone.

JAY-Z’s mother, Gloria Carter, struggled to raise three children but always managed to do the best she could.

“We were living in a tough situation, but my mother managed; she juggled,”  JAY told Vanity Fair in 2013. “Sometimes we’d pay the light bill, sometimes we paid the phone, sometimes the gas went off. We weren’t starving—we were eating, we were O.K. But it was things like you didn’t want to be embarrassed when you went to school; you didn’t want to have dirty sneakers or wear the same clothes over again.”

But JAY’s neighborhood was far from paradise. It was smack dab in the heart of the crack epidemic, turning young African Americans to either crack dealers or crack addicts. JAY Z admittingly chose the route of the former, however much of his life was surrounded by the latter.

“Crack was everywhere—it was inescapable. There wasn’t any place you could go for isolation or a break. You go in the hallway; [there are] crackheads in the hallway. You look out in the puddles on the curbs—crack vials are littered in the side of the curbs. You could smell it in the hallways, that putrid smell; I can’t explain it, but it’s still in my mind when I think about it.”

Before his teenage years, young Shawn Carter had already joined a gang, his older brother had already begun using crack cocaine and a 12-year-old Shawn Carter had already fired his first gun — at his brother.

“I went to someone’s crib, someone’s house, and got it. Guns were everywhere. You didn’t have to go far to get one. Just everywhere,” JAY-Z told The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone. “I thought my life was over. I thought I’d go to jail forever. It was terrible. I was a boy, a child. I was terrified.”

JAY-Z wrote about the shooting in his song “You Must Love Me.” He’s come a long long way since then.

So, how did young Shawn Corey Carter from Marcy Homes become multi-million dollar rapper and businessman JAY-Z? It’s enough to write a book about (which he already did).

During the late 80’s and early 90’s, JAY-Z found that he had a knack for rapping, thanks in part by the practice he got in while playing the boombox his mother purchased for his birthday. We all know the story by now, JAY scored some minor features on Jaz-O’s  “The Originators”,  “Hawaiian Sophie”, etc., and he was Big Daddy Kane’s unofficial hype man, freestyling alongside Positive K when Kane would go backstage to change outfits. It was the humblest of beginnings and a far cry from who Jay Z is today.

UNITED STATES – circa 1995: American rapper Jay-Z. (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)


It was around the early 90’s where Atlantic Records undеr аn executive named Rodolfo Franklin, also known as DJ Clark Kent, was taking over the hip hop game with his famous remixes, many of which he was putting a young and budding JAY Z on.

“I said it from when I first met him, when he was rhyming with Jaz, if you knew him you knew that he didn’t only rap that way,” DJ Clark Kent said in 2016. “For me, it wasn’t about the way he rapped, it was about the things he said when he rapped. If you listened to anything he said back then, it was super witty, super tricky, double entendres, triple entendres and to me, to be better, you had to be witty. Jaz was, to me, the best, and then you meet this guy (JAY-Z) and he’s just as good as Jaz but he has this other thing — a different swagger.”

In 1994, Clark Kent introduced JAY-Z to a party promoter/small-time indie label head Damon Dash. Jay wowed Dame immediately. He was the fastest rapper he hаd еvеr heard аnd JAY dіdn’t write аnуthіng dоwn, either. Not only that, but his lyrics also didn’t focus primarily on murder and crime, but on a lavish lifestyle which, as you are aware by now, is a trend JAY held on to well throughout his career.

In 1995, JAY Z, Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke founded Roc-A-Fella Records as a means of pushing JAY-Z’s early albums when record labels passed on him. JAY, like many rappers before him, was forced to sell his first album, Reasonable Doubt, out of the trunk of his car. Much like the days of pushing weight, JAY knew he had to hustle if he planned to succeed.  And he did, reaching number 23 on the Billboard 200. He eventually struck a distribution deal with Def Jam, released Vol. 1, a platinum-selling success, and Vol. 2, his first commercially successful album which went 5x platinum. Vol. 2 was also our first introduction to JAY-Z as an activist. That year, JAY-Z won a Grammy award, however, he boycotted the ceremony in protest of DMX not being nominated. It’s safe to say this may have also begun JAY’s love/hate relationship with the Grammy’s as well. Around this same time, Island Def Jam bought a 50% stake in Roc-A-Fella for $1.5 million. Biggs, Jay, and Dame were a bit richer but there was still a ways to go.

Jay-Z at Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs’ birthday party, New York, November 4, 1998. (Photo by Steve Eichner/Getty Images)


In 1999, Vol 3 sold 3 million copies, The Dynasty, 2 million, JAY Z is showing and proving that he’s consistently able to put out great bodies of work that sell very very well. JAY’s first major corporate move came shortly after. That’s right, the appointment of JAY Z as president of Def Jam and the subsequent acquisition of Roc-A-Fella by the major label.

A year after announcing his rap retirement, JAY was named CEO and president of Def Jam, which led to him, Dame and Biggs selling their remaining 50% stake in Roc-A-Fella Records to the major label. It was done. They no longer had ownership over their indie label and needless to say the deal caused a rift between the three founders. In business, sometimes you lose people along the way. For JAY, this would be that loss.

JAY’s role as president of Def Jam was shortlived. In another brilliant business move, he traded the position for ownership of the masters to Reasonable Doubt.

“So I was like, let me get Reasonable Doubt and I’ll give up [the rest of] my masters. I’ll give up Roc-A-Fella, I’ll give up president and CEO of Def Jam—everything. Just give me my baby to hold on to so 10 years down the line, I can look back and I got something—I’m not empty-handed,” said JAY. “And I was the 1 being offered everything. I thought it was more than fair… And when that was turned down, I had to make a choice. I’ll leave that for the people to say what choice they would’ve made.”

But there was still Rocawear, which JAY and Dame co-founded in 1999. In 2005, amidst Dame severing ties with his business partners, he sold his stake in the clothing brand back to them for $22.5 million.


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“Rocawear was my point of view, a Harlem swagger,” Dash told AllHipHop.com of the sale. “They gave me $30 million and 75% of Team Roc. I’m real happy with the deal. I got $22.5 million in cash and the rest in companies (like State Property, Team Roc, Pro-Keds and other entities).”

Two years later, JAY Z sold Rocawear to the Iconix Brand Group for $204 million in cash. He was also allowed to keep his stake in the Rocawear operating company and be in charge of product development, marketing and licensing. It was clear, yet again, that JAY Z was just a better businessman. But how? He owes a lot of it to his street knowledge.

“I know about budgets. I was a drug dealer,” he says. “To be in a drug deal, you need to know what you can spend, what you need to re-up. Or if you want to start some sort of barbershop or car wash — those were the businesses back then. Things you can get in easily to get out of [that] life. At some point, you have to have an exit strategy, because your window is very small; you’re going to get locked up or you’re going to die.”

His street knowledge, coupled with his ability to close great business deals, scored JAY-Z an abundance of multi-million dollar investments. Most recently, JAY broke it all down in his verse on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free” track.

I’m 50% of D’USSÉ and it’s debt free (Yeah)
100% of Ace of Spades, worth half a B (Uh)
Roc Nation, half of that, that’s my piece
Hunnid percent of TIDAL to bust it up with my Gs, uh

In 2011, JAY-Z became part owner of D’USSE as well as the company’s Head of Global Strategy. Also in 2011, JAY-Z reportedly had a stake in Armand de Brignac (Ace of Spades) champagne, which sells for at least $300 a bottle. By 2014, he purchased the remaining stake in the brand, boosting his net worth to half a billion. In March 2015, Tidal’s parent company Aspiro was acquired by JAY-Z and by 2017 it was worth $600 million. By 2018, it was reported that JAY-Z was worth roughly $900 million. He’s come a long way from selling crack cocaine in the projects.

So what’s next for JAY? It appears he has no plans of slowing down. The On The Run 2 tour, his recent joint tour with Beyonce, finished with more than $250 million.  He also uses his platform to push financial education and activism. At a time when JAY-Z could hoard the wealth of knowledge for himself, he’s been sharing the knowledge through his music — for free.

With JAY-Z as the hip hop “Blueprint”, it will be interesting to see who follows his lead.

To watch JAY-Z in “State Property” and “Backstage” visit REIGN.com today!