Dexter Thibou has been helping realize the sonic ambitions of rappers and producers since 1993, when he first interned at the legendary D&D Studios in Manhattan. He eventually became a full-fledged engineer, and has worked with the likes of Eminem, Janet Jackson, Guru, Common, and M.O.P., to name but a few. In 1995, when he was in his early 20s, he began assisting with the recording sessions for Jay Z's debut album, Reasonable Doubt. This is what he remembers.
It was always Brooklyn and Harlem in there, straight up. It was a lot of fun at those sessions, man. Broads would fall through. Guys would bring girls to show off. Damon Dash was the same then as he is now. He’s never been a super apologetic dude, unless he has to apologize. And when he’s apologizing, he gets his point across, so he wins every time. Biggs [Kareem Burke] was super quiet. If he knew you, then he knew you and would interact with you. But if he didn’t then it was like, lemme figure you out before I start. The rest of the crew was there, too. Sauce Money, Jaz-O, Ty Ty—we used to call him Teflon back then. Clark Kent was in there, and Ski.
I remember Jay would sip slow; he'd nurse a drink. He wasn’t big time, taking shots. Biggs wasn’t doing that much drinking; I think he was more of a smoker. Dame was not smoking weed back then; he was doing a lot more drinking. He was also diabetic, though, so he knew his limits, knew when to stop. Everybody around them—the crew and anybody who would show up for sessions—they was wyling. A couple of times some guns fell out, like, what the fuck. Somebody dropped a gun on the floor—I can’t remember who it was. I don’t remember him ever coming back again, though.
There were a lot of dice games, too. Jay is a wizard with them dice, yo. I’ve seen him send people to the ATM three times in a night. He’s hot hands with that shit. I would not roll dice with Jay Z ever. He gonna take everything from you.
I never saw Jay get frustrated. Mary J. Blige showed up late one night and didn’t want to lay down her vocals [for "Can't Knock the Hustle"]—I think she was nervous because there were so many people there—and Jay didn’t get frustrated. He was more disappointed. Jay doesn’t show frustration. He’s so cool and mellow with his shit, it’s kinda unreal. I’ve never seen him get mad or yell at nobody. Like, Yo, fuck this ni—I’ve never even seen him do that shit. He’d laugh it off and I guess address it elsewhere. If he had to wild out on you, he wasn’t gonna do it in front of everybody. I’ve seen Dame wig. I’ve seen Dame do it one time too many. Even Biggs. But not Jay. It’s pretty amazing.
Twenty years have gone by and this record sounds like it just came out yesterday. That’s Jay wanting everything to be perfect. The album had to be perfect; everybody was waiting for him to fail.
A couple of guys weren’t, but it felt like Jay had distanced himself from street life [by then]. He realized that you can’t do both and be successful at both. It’s either one or the other. He focused on the music. Whatever he had made from that street shit, it all went into the music. Roc-A-Fella in the initial days, they were living a little bit above their means sometimes. Everything from the jackets that you saw them wearing in the videos to the cars and the boats in videos—they paid for all of that shit theyself. Every single thing. Even the sessions. Sometimes Jay would throw me a couple extra dollars, ‘cause sometimes they sessions would run over. We’d do about six to eight hours; they’d come in about 6 p.m. and bounce out around midnight, maybe 2 a.m. If we’d stay a couple hours late, they’d be like, “Yo, hold that. Good looking out.” They were feeding everybody.
But I didn’t get a paper check from Roc-A-Fella until the second album; they always paid in cash. Always. Dame would piss me off because he’d always pay me in fives and tens. They’d let the bill run up and it’d be like, “OK, Dex, you gotta collect $3,500 from Dame tonight.” Dame be like, “I got you,” and then he’d come back with fives and tens and ones—maybe a twenty. Then I gotta count all this money. Sometimes he’d give it to me in an envelope or a brown bag, but I remember one time he had on these cargo pants and he was pulling money outta the fucking pockets in his cargo pants, and I’m like, “What the fuck is all this?” And he’s like, “Yo, it’s all there.” I'm like, “Nah, you gotta stay here and watch me count this.” But he was never short. I’ve been shorted on a lot of bills, but never from Roc-A-Fella, never from Dame.
Now, even though those guys carried themselves like they were rap stars, I don’t think they saw how big Roc-A-Fella was gonna be, as a label, as a movement. They knew it was gonna do something, but I don’t think they saw themselves being this big with this music shit.
Jay’s drive is something I’ll always admire. He was so pristine about his shit. Everything had to be right. Everything had to be right. The beats had to be right. The lines had to be right. The pronunciation had to be right. All his punchlines? If you check the way that that man rhymes from then to now, he really focuses on what he’s saying, how he’s saying it, and where the last line is gonna be. You don’t miss nothing with that. That’s something a lot of dudes was not doing back then. They were trying to be clever and witty, but you’d miss that shit because sometimes they’d mumble they verse.
But Jay was just pristine with his shit. There’s just no other way to say it. He couldn’t afford not to—it was coming out of his pocket. This was his last straw. He’d been turned down by everybody, and back then, nobody was really loving Jay. You know? They was making fun of him, calling him ugly and all this other shit. And he was doing it by himself. Odds are stacked against him and this is the last one.
The thing that really stood out to me about Jay [during the sessions] was how he could disconnect himself from a room full of people. He had the ability to—he’d be in conversation with everybody in the room, OK? And then Ski would make a beat or Primo would play something and he would automatically focus in on the music and disconnect from everybody else in the room. It was weird. Usually, [with other rappers] it’d be, Y’all gotta leave the room. Or, Y’all gotta be quiet and let me listen to this. But he would zone out. He doesn’t write nothing down but you could see him kinda formulating what he wanted to say; you could catch him mouthing the words. Sometimes he would go into the vocal booth, I’d give him headphones, and he would listen with the headphones on and be in there shadowboxing with the beat, almost. He did that a lot. But I’ve never seen the man write anything down—ever. Never. Other than maybe what he wanted to eat.
One session that I remember distinctly working on was “Brooklyn’s Finest.” When we did that initially, Jay had to go out of town, doing some promo radio somewhere else I think, and so he did his eight bars, left space for B.I.G.; then eight bars, space for B.I.G.; eight bars, space for B.I.G.
The first day B.I.G. came in, he really didn’t have nothing for it. He listened to it for two, three hours and was like, “I can't do nothing today.” Then he came in the next day and laid something down and I don’t think he really liked what he did. (I think they might’ve redone the whole thing once they got in the room together.)
The thing with B.I.G. was, he would do his verse off the top of the head, and then he’d have you play it back. If it’s not up to par, if there was something that he didn’t like, he would re-do it. If the flow was off, if there was a word he didn’t like or that didn’t make sense—fuck it, I’m doing it over. Jay was the same way. He didn’t like to do a lot of punches either. With Primo, though, it was different. Primo is a weaver, so if he was hearing something good in your delivery he wasn’t gonna let you re-do it because he might not get the same delivery. So every so often there would be a situation where Jay would have to punch-in—maybe a word. Primo would be like, I want you to say this line like this. Jay might be like, I think I can do the whole thing in one take over again. So what would we do is we’d save his original take and let him do it again, that type of thing.
There was a record that they left off of there called “Report the Bridge for Blow Up” that I personally thought was some of the dopest shit he had did. In retrospect, maybe it’s not. But the beat was dope—I think Ski did it—and Jay delivered on that shit crazy. But it didn’t make the album; I don’t think anybody has a copy of that shit. The title was like an inside joke. Basically, if you fuck up, you gonna hear about it in a major way and they’ll report the bridge for blow up. I don’t think it was a matter of Jay not liking the song, it was just that it didn’t fit. Once they started sequencing the album...you don’t want to make it too long.
Jay found a way to walk that middle line between making good radio records and making good street records—and making everybody happy with both. You know what I’m saying? Back then, it was either you were making the street records, or you were making the radio records. Period. Around '95/'96, when everybody was gettin on that shiny suit shit, Cristal’d up, he found a way to walk that middle line. Like, You’re gonna hear me on a record with Mary J. Blige but I’m talking some really eloquent street shit. And street dudes who are still out there doing they thing appreciated that. And girls appreciated it because they could dance to it. You think about Das EFX record or a Gang Starr record—you can’t dance to that. Girls dance to Jay Z records.
Sometimes when I listen to Reasonable Doubt I’m like, I can’t believe I worked on this shit 20 years ago. Twenty years have gone by and this record sounds like it just came out yesterday. That’s Jay wanting everything to be perfect. The album had to be perfect; everybody was waiting for him to fail. Waiting for him to fall on his face. They went to every label and they shut him down. When it came time to make the record, you couldn't have a thread hanging from that jacket. He had to win.