In the mid-1990s, Jay-Z was an up-and-coming rapper who had just founded his own label to release his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. As a Brooklyn native, Jay had the task of competing with the then-king of New York, Biggie Smalls.
However, his debut, Reasonable Doubt, which has now become a cult classic, had some exciting tracks on it and some legendary ones as well. Biggie Smalls featured on the project alongside Hov on the underground hit ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’. However, Reasonable Doubt‘s third single changed the game for Jay-Z.
Entitled ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle,’ the single featured the legendary vocalist Mary J Blige and performed relatively well. The track was not a commercial smash but landed at number seven on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs Chart. Blige was already one of the hottest new singers of the moment at the time, so it’s no surprise that Jay-Z wanted to have her featured on a song.
The single featuring Blige opened the album and was Jay’s chance to make an excellent first impression, and that he did. However, during an appearance on the Hot 97.0 show Ebro In The Morning, Blige laughed at how naive the pair were and how “hood” the recording process was.
Recalling how the collaboration came to be, Blige recollected, “It’s such a raggedy process. This was during the My Life album, and I was just straight on drugs and alcohol. And I got a call from my girlfriend, who knew [Roc-a-Fella co-founder] Dame Dash, and Dame Dash wanted to try to get in touch with me.”
She continued, “She said he has this artist by the name of Jay-Z who wants you on a record. And I said, ‘OK Let me go see what’s up,’ I went. They had the money in a brown paper bag, ten grand. I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ Went into the booth, sang the song, and was out.”
Blige laughed while reminiscing as now the two are heavy hitters in the music industry and have been for over 20 years. In reflection, the vocalist chuckled at how she went from taking money in paper bags to performing at the Super Bowl halftime show alongside fellow hip-hop greats Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem. You can listen to their collaboration below.