Jermaine Cole, born and raised in Fayetteville, N.C., began rapping at age 12. By 15, having run out of friends who’d make beats for him, he was teaching himself to make them. Based on his starry-eyed conception of New York as an underground rap mecca where the ciphers never end, he attended St. John’s University after high school, where he focused even harder on a new side of the grind: networking.

“I tried everything, dog,” he told Complex in 2009. “I mean MySpace message, making up shirts with slogans like ‘Produce for Jay-Z or Die Trying.’” In 2007, Cole posted outside of Jay’s Roc the Mic studio with a CD full of beats. When Jay arrived, he immediately shut Cole down, scoffing “Man, I don’t want that.”

“I thought he was evil at that point,” Cole admitted to ABC News.

But in late 2008, after graduating, he returned from playing a college show in L.A.—one of the few he’d actually gotten paid for, at that point—to the news from a friend that he’d arranged a last-minute meeting with Jay, prompting Cole to walk straight out of his day job. At the meeting, he impressed Jay with “Lights Please,” a track that would ultimately end up on his sophomore mixtape, The Warm Up. Three weeks later, Cole became the first artist signed to Jay’s newly founded Roc Nation imprint.