Interview: Young Guru Talks About Working With Jay-Z

Jigga's long-time engineer explains why Jay keeps all his music on one hard drive, why he wanted to become the President of Def Jam, and whether he's really nice at basketball.


Tonight, Jay-Z will hit the stage in Austin, Texas, at the South By Southwest Festival. Even if you won't be able to attend the show, you can still stream Jay's set on the Internet and even request songs for Jay to perform via Twitter. Needless to say, we're hyped at the chance to see Jay tear up the stage (fingers crossed for fans to vote in either "Imaginary Player" or "Come And Get Me").

All the excitement got us thinking about a conversation we had a few weeks back at the Complex offices with Young Guru. Guru has not only been Jay's engineer since The Dynasty, but he's also one of the few people who know him best. Guru's going to be down at SXSW too, discussing some hip-hop science with Texas's own Bun-B, but more on that later.

We had an in-depth discussion with Guru about all things Jigga (a discussion that we're breaking into two parts). Not only did Guru reveal the status of Jay's next album and the status of Watch The Throne 2, but he also gave us the scoop on how L.A. Reid got Jay to rush Kingdom Come, how much Jay offered his old rhyming partner Jaz-O for a record deal, and how much Hov loves watching rap battles on YouTube. So keep clicking for the first part of our epic conversation with Guru... 

As told to Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)

He Watches Every YouTube Rapper

Young Guru: “Jay-Z has probably watched every SMACK DVD, Grind Time battle, freestyle, and every battle that has ever been on YouTube. If you ever battle in any situation that has any remote type of promotion, he’s seen it. He calls me like, ‘Please come watch this battle.’ Jay watches all of them. I mean all of them. Every battle that has ever been on.

“Jay watches these dudes freestyle on YouTube. Like, if you’re a battle MC from Philly, you may not have been in a battle but you just get on YouTube and start rapping, Jay watches those religiously. It’s just the weirdest thing in the world but he really loves it to the point where I’m like, ‘Yo, turn it off.’”

Him and Beyoncé Leave Restaurants Separately

Young Guru: “Jay doesn’t lust for the limelight. He ain’t want all this nonsense of having to leave restaurants at a different time than [Beyoncé] because [the paparazzi] get more money if they snap both of them together. That’s so corny. He just wants to go and eat but he’s gotta think about dumb shit like that now. They can’t walk out the restaurant together. How dumb is that? But it’s reality.”

He’s Nice At Basketball

Young Guru: “[When we were recording The Blueprint 3] Kanye was like, ‘I just bought the crib in Hawaii. Come through, I’ll have the cook cook for us and we’ll go run ball before we hit the studio.’ We get up, me and Jay go over there, we eat breakfast, Kanye’s showing us this nice new crib, and then we go out and play ball.

“It wasn’t even like we shut down or rented a whole gym. We just rode around, found an outside court at some kid’s school, and we played ball. The kids looked outside and was like, ‘Oh shit that’s Kanye and Jay-Z playing ball on our court.’ We all went out and had a nice little exercise.

“Jay is absolutely nice at ball. He’s got a nice 12-foot jumper. He knows the game. He’s smart about the game. For Kanye and them it’s more exercise; they’re not ballers. 

“I came from playing ball; I played ball in high school and college. For me, it’s like I’m super out of shape but I can’t let Kanye and Don C. beat me in basketball. I gotta use what I know to win the game. But that game was more about getting together and brotherhood thing.”

Jay Lets Young Guru Keep All His Music

Young Guru: “That’s part of where my job extends beyond normal engineering because once Jay got comfortable with me, it was more than ‘Record and mix my albums.’ It became ‘Oversee my music.’ That means, I hold it all.

“First of all, Jay doesn’t want any of his music on any other drives but my hard drive. If it leaks, it’s on me. For Jay, it’s safer to have me as his central base versus it being scattered all over the city.

“Whether I mix them or not, I gather all the mixes. If Timbaland’s guy mixed this and Pharrell mixed this, I got all the mixes. I go present all the mixes to our mastering guy. I sit with the mastering guy doing the tweeks and EQing, doing the spacing in-between the records, all of that stuff. And we put the whole album together.

“If CBS is putting ‘Heart of the City’ in the beginning of some cop show, they’ll come to me and be like, ‘Can I get the instrumental TV track?’ because they know I hold everything. If he’s in Rocawear and we need a voice-over, call Guru. It’s those type things.

“That all falls into my responsibility. It’s gone beyond the normal thing. It’s become a gig to take care of Jay-Z’s musical world.”

His Adlibs Are Live

Young Guru: “If you hear Jay-Z say, ‘Guru, tell that girl open that Ace’ or ‘Turn the lights down,’ on a song, he’s really talking [to people in the studio]. Like on Scarface’s ‘Guess Who’s Back,’ when he’s talking in the beginning and he’s like, ‘Gu turn my headphones down, my headphones distorting,’ that’s all real.”

He Does One Take Because He Memorizes His Raps

Young Guru: “Jay memorizes his raps before he gets in the booth. That’s all it is. Too many MCs write their raps in the booth. Jay [doesn’t write his rhymes] down, but he memorizes and says the rap 50,000 times before he even thinks about stepping in the booth.

“By the time he steps in the booth, he’s said it so many times he already memorized the record and he’s been so particular about the bounce and the flow that it’s not hard for him to do it in one take.

“He writes and critiques his records more than any other MC that I’ve ever seen and goes line for line: ‘Is this too complicated or not complicated enough? Am I over-rapping it? Am I not giving them enough tricks?’

“All while we’re out here kicking it, smoking, doing whatever we’re doing, he’s saying to you, ‘This is the record. This is what I’m gonna say Gu,’ and he says it 80,000 times. When he taps you and goes, ‘Yo, I’m ready,’ he’s really ready.

“It saves so much time. It’s about memorizing your raps. I tell everybody, you can write your records at home, you can write your records in a car, you can write your rhymes anywhere. You shouldn’t be spending $150 an hour to be writing a song. The studio is to record music.”

He Occasionally Needs To “Download” His Rhymes

Young Guru: “Jay writes in his head, so we have times where he goes, ‘I need to download.’ He doesn’t call it that, but that’s what I call it. There’s so much stuff in his head that sometimes he just raps to a hi-hat or to a click or to nothing because he’s writing songs and he needs to remember them so he’ll record them. So it’s like, take that out the brain until I need it again. I can put it back in there when I need to say it.

“After we got home from the Watch the Throne tour, Jay was writing and when the New Year started not only did we knock out the song ‘Glory’ for Blue Ivy Carter, but it’s just like, ‘Okay, download. Just put up any beat or give me a click and let me just say these raps so I can just have them. I need to get them out of my mind because I’ve been holding them for two months.’ He does that a lot. He just started going in and it’s like every other day we’d end up with new records.”

He Once Offered Jaz-O A Record Deal

Young Guru: “If you ever notice, when people complain about Jay they never say, ‘He did something to me.’ They always say what he didn’t do for them.

“It’s the Jaz-O thing where it’s like, ‘I brought you into this.’ Jay is like, ‘Yeah, I’m here and you’re here. If you just play your part...’ But it don’t happen like that, it’s the, ‘You’re my son and you’re supposed to...’ But Jay is like, ‘Nah that’s not what happened. Now I’m here and I run all of this.’

“Jay tried to give Jaz a deal. But when he was trying to give him a deal, they were just starting Roc-A-Fella. They gave him a $300,000 deal and Jaz laughed at it. They couldn’t afford to give you a major deal, so Jaz went with a major company. It’s not Jay’s fault.

“Jay is like, ‘We offered you a deal, that’s how much we could afford to give you. $300,000 was a lot for you back then, you didn’t roll with it. You fucked up. It’s not my fault. What do you want me to do?’

“No matter what I do it’s not going to be enough. Jaz-O came to Jay and was like, ‘You have to be on my album.’ OK, he gives you a verse, that’s easy. But then you decide to shoot your video on this day and Jay already got something planned. Now Jaz-O is mad at Jay because he didn’t come to the video. And Jay is like, ‘I didn’t do anything to you, it’s what I’m not doing.’”

Young Guru Convinced Jay-Z To Make Blueprint 2 A Double Disc

Young Guru: “It wasn’t the same quality as The Blueprint. If I had not pushed this double album concept and just made it 12 songs, it would’ve been an incredible album. I had 25 records from Jay so I’m like, ‘We gotta do a double album.’

“Jay was like, ‘Nah, I don’t need no double album.’ I’m like, ‘Nah B, all the greats like 2Pac and Biggie did double disks. To put you in that league, [you have to do one.]

“It was a serious campaign. Me and Hip Hop were the ones that were seriously arguing [to do a double disc]. We look at Jay’s career from the outside, so we’re like in order to be on the same level as Big and Pac, [you have to do a double disc]. They both had double albums that were like perfection, especially Big’s.

“When you’re doing a double album, and you really only have 17 songs, you start to do filler records. Then we do songs like ‘As One.’ We should’ve never did that.

“We were close. That was really my fault. Hip Hop had a little bit to do with it too. It was a mistake, you learn from your mistakes. It was my bad. There’s gems on there but it has a lot of filler too.”

He Wanted To Be The President of Def Jam For “The Culture”

Young Guru: “I asked Jay if he really wanted to be the president of Def Jam. I knew him and his personality and I knew that job and what it would take. Do you really want that headache?

“There are certain jobs that I look at like, ‘This is cool but it’s not for me.’ I work close to the shit that they do as managers, calling people and booking hotels. I don’t want to do that shit. It’s not for me. It’s not my thing to have meetings all day.

“Jay said, [he wanted to be the president] because of what that meant for the culture. It was a good look for him. I understand it from the point of ‘I went from being an artist to the president.’ It’s a great stat.”

L.A. Reid Forced Him To Rush Kingdom Come

[Ed. note—According to Guru, Def Jam had no releases in first quarter of 2006, followed by huge push in second quarter. After a number of albums flopped because of illegal downloading, which they refused to aknowledge, the company was in dire shape. Coupled with that was the fact the label no longer had big stars like DMX moving units for them, so the situation worsened.]

Young Guru: “Now, everything rides on this Jay-Z album. Jay goes on a world tour and goes to Africa to do his Water for Life thing. He’s doing all this stuff and L.A. Reid is looking at me, like, ‘We need the Jay album by the end of the year.’

“I’m like, ‘We’re not ready. I have some songs but it’s not done and he’s in Africa.’ They’re like ‘If this shit doesn’t come out, people are getting fired. I can’t pay my bills, this record has to come out at this time.’

“I’m begging, ‘Can I please push this back? He’s in Africa’ and they’re like, ‘Alright get on a plane.’ I ended up meeting Jay in Taipei, Taiwan and we didn’t really get to record until we got to Australia. But it’s like, you’re in the middle of a world tour doing soccer arenas that hold 60,000, to 100,000 people.

“He’s doing a show with 70,000 people and then I’m asking him to go to the studio right after that; his voice is gone. We’re in a foreign place trying to catch a vibe so it’s like double work. Not only did you have to memorize and do a two-hour show, now I’m asking you to be creative. This is why you get Kingdom Come.”

He’s Aware of His Inconsistent Albums

He’s Aware of His Inconsistent Albums

Young Guru: “There’s a line on ‘Addicted To The Game’ where Jay says, ‘Sorta like a Rubik's Cube is/Every albums' a color/But I fuck up the other/Color,’ meaning he would put out this incredible album and the next one would be cool. We were kind of going in that pattern for a while.

“You get Hard Knock and then you get Dynasty, which is not Hard Knock but it’s not wack. Then you get a Blueprint which is immaculate, and then a Blueprint 2. Then you come back again with Black Album but then we give you Kingdom Come.. So it’s like, I fuck up the other color. [Laughs.] That’s what that line means.”

It Was Kanye’s Idea To Do “D.O.A.”

Young Guru: “[While recording Blueprint 3, we were in the studio talking] and that turned out to be a two-hour conversation about what’s going on in hip-hop and what we need to be doing.

"Soulja Boy’s record was popping at the time. He becomes the antithesis to what we’re talking about, so we’re referencing him. We’re not saying Soulja Boy is wack but we’re like, ‘Jay is 40. This is what’s going on in hip-hop right now. We can’t do this.’

“That’s how ‘D.O.A.’ came about because Kanye was getting on his rant. People think Jay did that, but Kanye was the person that told him to do that. Kanye was like, ‘No, Jay, you’re 40-something, you need to be the anti to all this other shit that’s going on. You need to be like, ‘No, fuck Auto-Tune and all of that.’”

He Purposefully Fell Back On Watch The Throne

Young Guru:Watch the Throne, that was Jay’s way of going, ‘Here, here’s the whole project for you to do. I’m gonna fall back and just interject my lines and here and there.’ The concept of that album was wholly directed by Kanye. That’s probably the first time that Jay ever did that but it was on purpose.

“Jay has been wanting to put people out, like, ‘Here, I’m giving you your start.’ But he’s not gonna do the groundwork for you, he’s not gonna run around and make the meetings for you. You’re gonna have to do all that yourself.

“Kanye was the first person that took it, ran with it, and it’s outside of Jay. He loves that so it’s a thing of where now we can both share this responsibility of being hot.

“With Watch the Throne, Kanye put his foot in it. He definitely brought a new style, pushed Jay in terms of styling and where they wanted to go. I think he also just hit the nail on the head by accepting tracks from outside producers that he found was hot.

“Between that and the visual presentation—Kanye is super visual, so having the two stages with the things rising up and down and the lights is Kanye’s vision. When it came to the tour, Jay was like, ‘Nah Guru, let they camp do it.’

“I think that’s why Jay allowed him to do that—and it also allows him to fall back a little bit and have a baby. [Laughs.]”

Jay's Already Working On His Next Album...

Young Guru: “There are maybe four songs so far and most of them are spill over. I don’t wanna say spill-over like they’re throw-aways from Watch The Throne. It’s an incredible beat coming on and Jay being like, ‘No that’s for my album. Hold that one, it’s for me.’ So the ones that were made so far, the beats were made during the Watch The Throne time.

“Now we’re adding on to it, but we haven’t gone back in. We had all this touring stuff. It was the end of the year and we were doing shows. Then the baby came. We literally went in to do the song for Blue Ivy and he hasn’t been back since. He’s definitely enjoying daddy mode right now.”

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