As Jay-Z once famously said, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business man”, and that’s a motto that he built the foundations of his career upon back when it was in its infancy.
Hov has never been short on self-confidence and always believed that his talent combined with his business acumen meant the rapper was destined for the top. Jay puts his success down to one move on his behalf, which he humbly described as “genius”.
When Jay started, remarkably, labels didn’t want anything to do with him. The swathes of early rejections he faced made him resilient and forced the rapper to understand that he needed to take his career into his own hands.
He knew that nobody else would make it happen for him, so the rapper forged the idea of starting his own label. However, he and his business partner Damon Dash knew the most important thing was to engineer an organic base; otherwise, their grand plans would fall flat.
“In the beginning, we went to every single label and every single label shut their door on us,” Shawn Carter recalled at the Forbes 400 summit in 2010.
Rather than letting this be the end of their story, they converted the setbacks to ammunition. Jay continued: “The genius thing that we did was we didn’t give up. We used that ‘what do they know’ approach. We didn’t give up at that point.”
The first release on Roc-A-Fella was Hov’s debut, Reasonable Doubt, which didn’t initially storm the charts. Still, it created enough hype to gain the industry’s attention and shifted the bargaining powers into the rapper’s favour.
“I think that was the genius thing we did. We started selling our own CDs and built our own buzz,” he added. “Then, the record companies came back to us.”
When they got to the table with label executives, the power dynamics were all with team Roc-A-Fella, and Jay used this to broker a deal that would see it become an imprint of Def Jam in return for a $1.5million transaction.
“We had a different negotiation, it wasn’t the same artist-label relationship,” Carter added. “Now, we retained ownership in our own company, and it was the best thing for us.”
Jay’s route to success was a road less travelled, but it’s a lesson to any other artist that they don’t have to bow down to the unwritten industry rules. Hov showed there was another way to make it, and his stroke of “genius” permanently altered the fabric of the music business.