How A Village Voice Reporter Helped Write the Second Verse of Jay-Z's "Public Service Announcement"
In 2003, this paper sent the writer Elizabeth Mendez Berry to profile Jay-Z on the eve of the release of what was then supposed to be his retirement record, The Black Album. Toward the end of the piece, which was published almost exactly seven years ago, Berry transcribes an interaction she had with Jay:
When I met with him, I gave him a copy of a critical--and I do mean critical--essay on Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, and The Blueprint that I contributed to the book Classic Material. The following day, he called to tell me that it provoked him to write a new second verse for "Public Service Announcement." He said that what he appreciated most about the piece was its honesty, and invited me to come to Baseline and hear the cut.
She hears it, eventually, but is left--along with the reader--guessing somewhat as to what role she played in the writing of the verse. Not anymore. On November 16, Spiegel & Grau will publish Decoded, the much anticipated "narrative journey through the lyrics and life" of Jay-Z, written by the rapper with the former Source editor (and occasional Voice contributor) Dream Hampton. In the book, Jay finally tells his side of the story as far as what happened between him and Berry, and how she influenced the writing of one of the great Jay-Z songs. We took the liberty of excerpting that part, below. Enjoy:
Just Blaze was one of the house producers at Roc-A-Fella Records, the company I co-founded with Kareem Burke and Damon Dash. He's a remarkable producer, one of the best of his generation. As much as anyone, he helped craft the Roc-A-Fella sound when the label was at its peak: manipulated soul samples and original drum tracks, punctuated by horn stabs or big organ chords. It was dramatic music: It had emotion and nostalgia and a street edge, but he combined those elements into something original. His best tracks were stories in themselves. With his genius for creating drama and story in music, it made sense that Just was also deep into video games. He'd written soundtracks for them. He played them. He collected them. He was even a character in one game. If he could've gotten bodily sucked into a video game, like that guy in Tron did, he would've been happy forever. I was recording The Black Album and wanted Just to give me one last song for the album, which was supposed to be my last, but he was distracted by his video-game work. He'd already given me one song, "December 4th," for the album--but I was still looking for one more. He was coming up empty and we were running up against our deadlines for getting the album done and mastered.
At the same time, the promotion was already starting, which isn't my favorite part of the process. I'm still a guarded person when I'm not in the booth or onstage or with my oldest friends, and I'm particularly wary of the media. Part of the pre-release promotion for the album was a listening session in the studio with a reporter from The Village Voice, a young writer named Elizabeth Mendez Berry. I was playing the album unfinished; I felt like it needed maybe two more songs to be complete. After we listened to the album the reporter came up to me and said the strangest thing: "You don't feel funny?" I was like, Huh?, because I knew she meant funny as in weird, and I was thinking, Actually, I feel real comfortable; this is one of the best albums of my career. . . . But then she said it again: "You don't feel funny? You're wearing that Che T-shirt and you have--" she gestured dramatically at the chain around my neck. "I couldn't even concentrate on the music," she said. "All I could think of is that big chain bouncing off of Che's forehead." The chain was a Jesus piece--the Jesus piece that Biggie used to wear, in fact. It's part of my ritual when I record an album: I wear the Jesus piece and let my hair grow till I'm done.
This wasn't the first time I'd worn a Che T-shirt--I'd worn a different one during my taping of an MTV Unplugged show, which I'd taped with the Roots. I didn't really think much of it. Her question--don't you feel funny?--caught me off guard and I didn't have an answer for her. The conversation moved on, but before she left she gave me a copy of an essay she wrote about me for a book about classic albums. The essay was about three of my albums: Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter, and The Blueprint. That night I went home and read it. Here are some highlights:
On "Dope Man" he calls himself, "the soul of Mumia" in this modern-day time. I don't think so.
Jay-Z is convincing. When he raps, "I'm representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat / where Malcolm X was shot / where Martin Luther was popped" on "The Ruler's Back," you almost believe him.
And, referring to my MTV Unplugged show:
When he rocks his Guevara shirt and a do-rag, squint and you see a revolutionary. But open your eyes to the platinum chain around his neck: Jay-Z is a hustler.
Wow. I could've dismissed her as a hater; I remember her going on about "bling-bling," which was just too easy, and, honestly, even after reading her essays I was mostly thinking, "It's a T-shirt. You're buggin." But I was fascinated by the piece and thought some more about what she was saying. It stuck with me and that night I turned it around in my head.