In 1993, then 26-year-old DJ Clark Kent worked on an album called Beyond Flavor with a New York group called Original Flavor. The one hit single from the album, “Can I Get Open,” featured a then-unknown (and unsigned) rapper by the name of Jay Z. The pair connected, and a few years later, Clark convinced him to record an entire album. That album was Reasonable Doubt.
When I started to work at Atlantic I went and found him. And it was like, “Now we gotta do this.” And he was like, “Yeah...nah.” The streets was working too well. He looked at rappers like they were clowns, and because of that, it wasn’t that serious to him. He was more about the cake than about the rapping. But I was like, “You’re too good not to do it.”
When I got him back to rapping, I knew it was gonna happen; I knew what would happen. The record that probably changed the trajectory of the way the album was gonna sound would be—I would say two records: the second version of “95 South” and “Reach the Top.” There was something different with those two. It was, “Ohhh, wow.” You could see and feel it differently. When you heard “95 South” you actually understood how you traveled from New York to Virginia to hustle. It made the outside listener who might have never heard of anything in the street understand what he was saying. And it also made the guys who were around us that also participated go, “Yeah! That’s it!” Because you’re telling their story. What made his rhymes special to me was 1) they were above all, but 2) they were actual. If you’re lookin’ from outside, you’re just like, “Oh, those rhymes are dope” but if you’re inside and you know, “Oh, yeah he did that. Yeah, he did that. He did that, too,” and there’s no fiction? That’s kinda crazy.
In the beginning, it was really, “Make this one album, we gonna have some fun, we gonna shit on everybody 'cause they wouldn’t sign us. And that’s that—we’re gonna slide off.” There wasn’t a part two, there wasn’t a longer plan. It was, “We’re gonna put this album out and we’re gonna laugh at all the clown rappers and all the executives because they were dumb for not signing us, and then we’re gonna ride off in the sunshine with all this paper.” That was it. It was no thought past it—and then, it just....it was unreasonable.
Jay and B.I.G. met each other when I brought B.I.G. to the studio. It was tricky, because I left B.I.G. downstairs, and I said, “Wait until I come and get you or call you up.” I recorded the beat, recorded Jay’s verses, and then after all his verses were there, the whole song was done, I go, “Hey, you should put this guy on.” And of course, we’re doing our thing and they’re doing their thing, so it becomes, “Yeah...nah, ‘cause we ain’t payin’ Puff no fuckin’ money.” That was the first answer, and then it was, “Well, we don’t know him.” But I was like, “Well, I do, 'cause I’m on the road, I’m doing the shows—I know him.” Then it became, “Well, if you can make it happen, it’s all good. We’ll see what happens.” So I went downstairs and got him, and I got the “bro, you a funny nigga” look. That’s the first thing everybody said when I came back in the room. Dame was like, “Oh, you a funny nigga!” And it’s like they gave each other a pound and then just started laughing, They became friends instantly.
That was the day B.I.G. saw Jay rhyme without putting anything on paper. When I used to tell B.I.G. that, he thought it was crazy. But the day that he saw it was the last time B.I.G. wrote rhymes. When it happened in front of him, he was like, “How did he do that?” And I told him the theory and he stopped writing.
Jay sequenced Reasonable Doubt like a tale. That’s why “Regrets” is at the end. The funny part is we didn’t know the order for “Brooklyn’s Finest” because “Brooklyn’s Finest” got done and finished the hour before mastering. So it could’ve not made the album. “Brooklyn’s Finest” wouldn’t have gotten made if I didn’t write a hook, because they weren’t giving a hook. We didn’t really have a name, it didn’t have a title. And then there’s another song called “Tell Me How It Feels” where we couldn’t find the DAT, so it didn’t make the album.
“Cashmere Thoughts” is my favorite. The first two bars are the reason I felt Jay was the one. And it was super fun and ridiculous that we were talking on the record like pimps. Absolutely ridiculous. He said, “I talk jewels and spit diamonds/I’m all cherry like a hymen.” A cherry hymen is one that hasn’t been fucked with. When he’s rhyming with remarkable timing—when it comes to the rhymes, I’m the one who has it that you can’t fuck with. I’m all cherry, and all cherries go on top. That means I’m on top when I’m rhyming with remarkable timing. I am unfucked with when I’m rhyming with remarkable timing. That’s why I thought he was the guy. There’s other songs that have a feeling and an understanding, but that’s the most clear statement. I rhyme better than all of you dudes, and that’s the reason why I fucked with him, because he rhymes better than everybody—I thought he rhymed better than everybody. And I wasn’t wrong. So I won. [Laughs.] I made everybody look stupid.
There’s about 30 songs I have that never released. There’s tons of verses—just verses—that he did that didn’t get anywhere, or verses on other people’s stuff or records that he wrote for other people. I probably wouldn’t release any of it, respectfully. If he don’t want it out, why put it out? And I probably have more than everybody. 'Cause practically everything got made in my house.
Even now, we still have rap conversations, about rhymes. We’re almost about to be 50, but we talk about lines and bars. Because I hear it. I hear it, and people don’t. So we have to talk about this so he can know that someone heard it.