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August 29, 2011

Bigger Than the Game

In his rise to hip-hop moguldom, Jay-Z has gone from streetballer to team owner.

Michael Gluckstadt

Since Run-DMC donned their first pair of Adidas sneakers, hip-hop and sports have weaved through each others' histories. And so, as both spheres have grown increasingly profitable and thereby, corporatized, they've synergized to feed off each others' marketing clout. The singularly best example of this trend is rapper/mogul Jay-Z. Once a street hustler who idolized Michael Jordan, he's now a co-owner of the New Jersey Nets and the 40/40 Club (named for the exclusive list of baseball players with 40 home runs and 40 steals in a season), with his own line of Reebok sneakers to boot.

Zack O'Malley Greenburg
"His attitude toward sports only grew warmer as he became more successful."

Zack O'Malley Greenburg

Forbes reporter Zack O'Malley Greenburg charts the rise of Jay-Z to mogul status in his book Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office. In it, there are several illustrative examples of the sports-hip-hop crossover, from Jay-Z fielding a team of NBA players to participate in a Rucker Park league, to dropping lyrical references to players' numbers as a coded term for the price of drugs. In an interview conducted over email that has been edited for length and clarity, O'Malley Greenburg tells Gelf how Jay-Z fared as a streetballer; what his new collaboration with Kanye West, Watch the Throne, has in common with the Miami Heat's Big Three; and whether Jay-Z is about to become the Spike Lee of the New Jersey Nets.

Gelf Magazine: What role did sports play in Jay-Z's childhood?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: Sports played a big role in Jay-Z's youth. He grew up idolizing NBA players and playing basketball with his buddies in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects. His childhood friend and crack-selling colleague DeHaven Irby told me that Jay-Z's basketball-playing style was reflective of his personality. "He had a shot, but he wasn't, like, a ballplayer. Seemed like he'd do a lot of studying before he'd make a move. I guess that works for him now."

Gelf Magazine: Did his attitude about sports change as he became more successful?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: I would say his attitude toward sports only grew warmer as he became more successful. Listen to his lyrics and the sports references multiply as his career goes on, from virtually none in Reasonable Doubt to lines on The Blueprint like "I'm Michael, Magic and Bird all rolled in one"; on The Black Album, "I'm like a running back—get it? Cause I'm straight off the block"; on The Blueprint 3, "I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can." Along the way, he made a number of sports-related business moves, as well.

Gelf Magazine: What are his sports-related properties? How much of his worth do they add up to?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: Depends how you classify sports. His stake in the Nets isn't much (only 1% to 2%); aside from that, he co-owns the 40/40 Club, a sports-themed nightclub chain, as well as part of marketing firm Translation, which does campaigns for the Nets. If you count the latter two as sports-related assets, it's possible that they add up to 5% to 10% of his net worth.

Gelf Magazine: It's surprising to hear Jay-Z only owns 1% to 2% of the Nets. Why does it seem it like he's more involved than that?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: He's the face of the franchise. There hasn't been a superstar on that team in years, at least not a universally recognizable one, and he fills that void in many ways. And don't forget, that stake is still worth $3 million to $6 million.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think Jay-Z will become more involved with the Nets once they move to his native Brooklyn?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: He's already very involved—remember, he did get fined recently for schmoozing with college players—but when the Nets move to Brooklyn, it'll just be a lot more obvious. Something tells me he'll become the new Spike Lee with his courtside presence.

Gelf Magazine: There's a great chapter in the book about Jay-Z putting together an All-Star team of NBA talent for the Entertainers Basketball Classic at Rucker Park. How was he able to put that team together?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: Jay-Z was able to put that team together with sheer force of will. He decided that he needed to win the Rucker tournament to cement his legacy, and when he decides he needs something, he doesn't hold back—hence the heavy recruitment of NBA stars. We sometimes forget that athletes can be starstruck, too, and I think a lot of them were just so flattered that someone as famous as Jay-Z would want them to play on his team.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think it was so important to him to be the best?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: He revels in his success, but he has a hard time dealing with failure. Perhaps because he went from having so little to having so much, any type of defeat brings him back to a place emotionally that he doesn't want to be.

Gelf Magazine: As you describe it, Jay-Z and his former partner Damon Dash seemed to have an attitude of, "If we're going to be creating value, we should be creating it for ourselves"—making sure they'd only reference clothing lines and beverages they had a stake in, for example. Do you think that's at odds with the modern pro athlete, who seems to be making money for everyone else first?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: Depends on the athlete. There are a lot of players who've taken cues from hip-hop and now make as much or more doing endorsements than they make on the field or court. Just like any form of entertainment, you need a platform, and the people who own that platform will benefit the most at first. But once you reach a certain level, the fame is yours to leverage as you see fit.

Gelf Magazine: Do you see any parallel—as some do—between Jay-Z teaming up with Kanye on Watch the Throne, and the big three coming together in Miami?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: Sure, I think there are some similarities there—Jay-Z and Kanye teaming up definitely gives them an advantage over everyone else in the hip-hop game. You could even argue that they both will get less money from this album because they have to share with each other rather than keep it all for each of their selves, but then again, the synergy creates greater marketing opportunities, higher record sales, and the potential for more ambitious touring, so it's probably a wash.

Gelf Magazine: One of the more interesting sports references in Jay-Z's catalog is actually a drug reference—when he says in "Empire State of Mind," "If Jeezy's paying LeBron, I'm paying Dwyane Wade." How connected is Jay-Z to contemporary drug-dealing culture, if at all?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: On his supposed retirement album The Black Album in 2003, Jay-Z said, "I'm 10 years removed, still the vibe is in my vein/ no matter where you go, you are what you are, player." Translation: once a hustler, always a hustler. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In Jay-Z's case, it means he can keep making clever references like this one—Young Jeezy once bragged that instead of paying Kobe ($24k for a kilo of cocaine), he only pays LeBron for his cocaine ($23,000 per kilo, a discount). Jay-Z flips the narrative to display his hustler cred: Dwyane Wade ($3k, an absolute steal).

Gelf Magazine: Lil Wayne took some shots at Jay-Z in his just released album, including a mock-threat to kidnap Beyonce. Do you think Jay-Z is going to hit back or rise above it?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: He won't go directly at Wayne—it's just not his style. His attitude: he's the biggest rapper in the world, and aiming shots at anybody else is only giving them free publicity. He and Wayne have always had a playful rivalry; most recently, Jay-Z mentioned his rivals having "baby money," which many perceived as a shot at Wayne's mentor and boss Birdman aka Baby. That's the most direct I think he'll ever get.

Gelf Magazine: You seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Jay-Z's lyrics. What's your favorite sports-related lyric?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: From "Brooklyn Go Hard":

I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them
I jack, I rob, I sin
Aw man, I'm Jackie Robinson
'cept when I run base, I dodge the pen

Gelf Magazine: Like some of the famous athletes he admires, Jay-Z has retired and come back. Do you think he'll ever retire for good? Is that day soon?

Zack O'Malley Greenburg: I think that when he and Beyonce finally have kids, we'll see less of Jay-Z in the public eye. He's always talked about how he wants to be a family man and make up for his dad abandoning him, so I think he may scale back his work life a bit at that point. But I can't really see him totally giving up his career—music or business.

Front-page photo courtesy of Jose Goulao's Flickr account.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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