It was 15 years ago that Shawn Corey Carter first publicly introduced the world to his alter-ego whose name would forever shake and inspire the genre of Hip Hop. Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt was the debut album from the enigmatic Brooklyn emcee, released on June 25 in 1996 on Roc-A-Fella records.
For a first outing, Reasonable Doubt garnered much anticipation from fans and musicians alike, notably down to the ascension of Jay-Z and his Roc-A-Fella entourage from small time recording outlet to a potential powerhouse within the culture, a story which continues to be documented at every given moment.
Jay-Z’s story begins in Brooklyn’s Marcy projects where, as an 11 year old boy growing up without a father, rapping would not only provide an adequate hobby but also the way of life for the future legend. Shawn was christened ‘Jay-Z’ due in part to his fast, jazzy way of rhyming as well as paying homage to his mentor, friend and rapper Jaz-O.
The elder emcee’s1989 song ‘Hawaiian Sophie’ would provide Jay-Z with his first break within rap and further features on his mentor’s records would later follow. It was at this time however, that Jay-Z would begin in the selling of narcotics, even whilst pursuing a career within Hip Hop. After making appearances on fellow Brooklyn act Original Flavor on their 1994 album Beyond, (most notably ‘Can I Get Open’), Carter would grab the attention of the legendary Big Daddy Kane, with whom he toured with throughout the early ’90s.
Even after touring with Kane, featuring on Jaz-O and Original Flavor’s records, it was his guerrilla-like hustle alongside his long term friend and eventual business partner, Damon Dash that would really see Jay-Z’s career begin to take shape. Selling tapes from his car, performing at numerous hot spots in New York and battling well known rappers across the country, the height of the rapper’s hustle would come when he formed his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records alongside Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke.
Reasonable Doubt was comprised of an all star cast of rappers, singers and producers. DJ Premier, Mary J Blige, the Notorious B.I.G and more all were on hand to help in telling the enigmatic story of arguably the greatest rapper to ever pick up a microphone.
SoulCulture recently sat down with Ski Beatz, one of the influential producers on Reasonable Doubt and former member of Original Flavor, to discuss the creation of the album, the deeper meaning behind tracks as well as some of the key moments during that historic period.
“I think he [Jay] was trying to tell the story of a young hustler from the streets” says Ski, when asked what he felt Jay-Z intended to do on Reasonable Doubt. “He was trying to rise and get the only money the way he knew at the time, selling what he was selling and doing what he was doing”.
The 15-track LP was a concoction of street tales and lavish nights but all set to a mournful, somewhat sombre tone. The iconic image of Jay-Z tipping his hat on the Reasonable Doubt album cover, conjured up images of a gangsta, Mafioso type rapper, which to this day, many outside of the Hip Hop community believe the lyricist (and many other rappers) was merely about. But Ski insists that Jay-Z’s story went further than the average gangsta rapper. “If you listen to Reasonable… fully, it wasn’t a violent album; it was more delivered from a big boss perspective”.
“He was the boss who looked over everything, looking over the city. Even when recording songs before Reasonable…, he always had that mentality. I think one of his lines on the song’ In My Lifetime’ goes, my feet never touch the concrete so he always felt he was the ‘connect’ rather than the gangster.”
As previously mentioned, Ski’s most noteworthy collaboration with Jay pre-Reasonable Doubt came on the 1994 Original Flavor cut ‘Can I Get Open’. It was during that period that Jay-Z had begun planning work for his debut and brought on board the producer/rapper of the group to produce part of the score for his first outing. Ski recollects on how he became a part of Reasonable Doubt.
“Jay was actually working on the album before I even met him with a guy named Fresh Gordon out in Brooklyn and I don’t know what ever happened with the album but it never came out. Then he hooked up with us and he jumped on a couple of songs on the Original Flavor album and the most known one was ‘Can I Get Open.’
“After that, we just started working on the album, and I think Dame [Dash] and a couple other people were just talking to Jay. Originally his style was the fast, tongue-twister style and they were like, ‘Man you need to slow it down and just rap about who you are and what you do because you’re serious,’ and that’s how he became Jay-Z.”
Reasonable Doubt was one of the most highly anticipated albums of the mid ’90s; boasting superstar feature artists and established producers. It’s somewhat funny to think that back then, a rapper’s buzz could grow rapidly without the use of the Internet, forums nor a string of free downloadable mixtapes. So how did the hype grow for the enigmatic emcee’s first offering?
“It was everything, word of mouth, battling, live shows, everything” Ski recollects.
“Jay would battle anybody on site, go to different places and just battle. He battled DMX, had a battle with Big L, he had a battle with LL Cool J. He did a lot of local shows and every time he did the show, the buzz was getting bigger and bigger because he was the best lyricist that anyone had heard and his stage presence was crazy; everything about him just transcended on stage. The word got out that Jay-Z was coming, and then he dropped ‘Dead Presidents’ followed by ‘Ain’t No Nigga’ and that’s when it took off.”
The first single released to promote the album was ‘Dead Presidents’ back in 1996. However, the version which appears on the Reasonable Doubt album differs to the original version which came with an Abdul Malik Abbott directed video. Entitled ‘Dead Presidents II,’ the album version kept the same Ski production but this time with new verses.
Ski breaks down why the album had fresh verses; “The new verses on Dead Presidents II were to give people more of him. Back then, we didn’t really do remixes so for an emcee to give you an extra verse was just a bonus for you.”
The song, which would be brought up in later years during the Nas/Jay-Z lyrical beef, is still considered one of the greatest Hip Hop songs ever produced. Not only did it sample the timeless Lonnie Liston Smith piece ‘A Garden of Peace’ but its chorus sampled a section from Nas’ ‘The World Is Yours’ taken from his 1994 album Illmatic. Whilst the snippet would be used as verbal ammunition by the Marcy MC against his Queensbridge counterpart, Ski Beatz felt at the time the borrowed piece wasn’t as significant as it stands today.
“For me, when I made the ‘Dead Presidents’ beat, I first heard the Nas record [‘The World Is Yours’]. I was inspired by the music,” he says. “I was like, ‘Yo this is dope!’ so I just went into the crates and tried to find something which made me feel like that and I found the Lonnie Liston sample and I threw Nas’ sample on top as a tribute because I loved the song so much. Jay heard it and he was like, ‘this is dope,’ and went on to write ‘Dead Presidents’.”
When talking about recording sessions with the rapper, Ski Beatz also makes reference to the ‘urban myth’ about Jay-Z seemingly never penning any verse down on paper. “Studio sessions were really cool, laid back atmosphere, just the crew in there, a lot of jokes a lot of laughing it was fun. As far as him writing, when I met him, he would write but it wouldn’t be words, it would be in funny hieroglyphics, chicken scratch shit, and it would make up one line but everything else was from his head.”
The second single from Reasonable Doubt was the Jaz-O produced ‘Ain’t No Nigga,’ which featured a young Foxy Brown and reaching the number 50 position in the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Whilst Big Jaz had always been the mentor behind the up and coming Jiggaman, Ski believes it was at this time when the young protégé was beginning to move from out of the elder statesmen’s shadow and become his own man.
Ski says, “Jaz-O was still the older brother around that time but you got the feeling that Jay was growing into his own and he was making his moves. I don’t what happened with the falling out between them later on, but around the time Jaz-O was still the big brother, he was always around, in the studio. But Jay just exploded”.
Although the Originator Big Jaz would play only a small role on his friend’s album (he also had a guest verse on the track ‘Bring It On’ alongside Sauce Money) two of Jay-Z longest friends and business partners Damon Dash and Kareem Burke would have a massive hand on the success of Reasonable Doubt.
“Dame basically was the mastermind, the planner. He was the asshole, he would go in and fight all the battles for everyone” Ski recalls. “He’d scream until people were like ‘alright whatever you need for the album we’ll give you’. Biggs’ role was more the financial backer. Biggs brought in a lot of the money which that made a lot of the shit happen for Roc-A-Fella, paying for the videos, studio sessions and so forth.”
Ski Beatz was the producer behind the track “22 Two’s” where Jay-Z would somewhat ‘freestyle’ in front of a live audience, and be interviewed by a woman named Maria Davis. The beatmaker goes into detail behind some of the elements within the song.
“The woman talking on ’22 Two’s’ was Maria Davis and she had an event that Jay would go to every Wednesday and perform. She was a big part of his career too because a lot of people would go and see him perform there. So we decided to use her at the beginning of the skit. The whole ‘Mad Wednesdays’ event was a big thing in New York City at the time.”
Whilst the concept was one of the identifiable features of the song, another would be the tone in which Jay-Z would rap; lyrically taking aim at unnamed rappers and haters alike. Would Ski Beatz be able to shed light as to whom Jay-Z’s bars were aimed at?
“I couldn’t tell you what was going on in his head when he wrote ’22 Two’s.’ I just know the picture he painted was vivid and clear.”
Although it remains unclear whether Jay was involved in beef on ’22 Two’s,’ what was clear was that during the creation of Reasonable Doubt, there was serious beef brewing within Hip Hop, commonly known as the East Coast v West Coast war. Historically, whilst Jay-Z’s name had often been omitted from the list of rappers involved, Ski Beatz reveals how one legendary emcee may almost have provoked Jigga into sending barbs their way.
“Reasonable Doubt was more Jay’s project. He didn’t really get too involved in the whole East Coast/West Coast conflict which was going on. I think 2Pac may have said something about him on a record and Jay might have said something back. As a matter of fact he had a record that he was gonna put out going against ‘Pac but he never did. It never got that far”
One rapper who mentioned the late Tupac Shakur’s name on a Reasonable Doubt record was the late, great friend of Jay-Z the Notorious B.I.G. on their collaborative effort ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’. Produced by DJ Clark Kent, the charismatic performances of the two emcees stands as one of the best collaborations to date. The excitement which was generated by the duo coming together came as no surprise of Ski.
“Jay and BIG were best friends, both were from Brooklyn, both dope lyricists and it was inevitable that they were gonna do a track together because they were the top guys. BIG was the larger guy at the time but Jay was on his tail so the word was out as being ‘Biggie’s dope but Jay-Zs crazy’. They did the song and it just made total sense”
Ski Beatz would also produce two more songs on the album The Source magazine awarded five mics to in the year 2002 – ‘Politics As Usual’ and ‘Feelin’ It.’ Ski tells the story of how he and fellow producer Clark Kent ended up almost producing the same song for Jay-Z.
“I was driving in the car and I heard the sample which I would use for ‘Politics As Usual’ on the radio [Hurry Up This Way Again by The Stylistics]. I found the CD, took it home chopped it up and I think DJ Clark Kent had sampled the same record too but I gave my beat to Jay first and he was like ‘I wanna use yours’. I think a week later Clark played a beat which used the same sample and Jay was like ‘Yo Ski already sampled that beat for me’”.
“Politics As Usual”:
The single, ‘Feelin’ It,’ which featured vocalist Mecca and sampled jazz musician Ahmad Jamal’s “Pastures” originally began as a song by Ski Beatz himself for his own album. Ski remembers how it went from his possession to the Marcy emcee’s material and also sheds some light on the relatively unknown female singer.
“I was introduced to Mecca by my homie Geechi Suede from Camp Lo. The song ‘Feelin’ It’ was my song originally and was for my album which would have had had Suede on it rapping with me and I wrote the hook which Mecca was to sing. I took the record to Dame and Jay was there and I was like ‘check out this song it’s gonna be dope’ and I played it for Jay and he was like ‘I want that. You’re gonna have to give that up, I need that song.’ He kept the hook and even took the same way I rhymed on it and rhymed with the same flow, but he told me he would do so.”
Producer Ski Beatz highlights the importance of Reasonable Doubt to Hip Hop’s future; “Reasonable Doubt was a game changer. Roc-A-Fella along with Bad Boy and a couple other labels were responsible for the whole ‘Get Money’ era of Hip Hop. They started the whole cristal era, Jay-Z was the first one to talk about Cristal in a rhyme and he sparked that whole movement. Whenever we went to New York all we saw were Versace and Coogi sweaters and Cristal bottles and Lexuses and Benzes. Everybody was on that whole money love.”
To this day, Reasonable Doubt is continually referenced by old and new rappers, producers, music critics and more as one of the greatest Hip Hop albums produced. With a mixture of gritty, remorseful rhymes, set to a slow burning, jazzy score, Jay-Z’s first outing would set a new standard for debut albums, much like the Nas debut Illmatic. Although only certified platinum in 2002, the qualities which the album encompasses far surpasses the sales of the record and stands as a reference point for all who wish to discover the greatest releases from the genre.