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Decoded: Jay-Z in Conversation with Cornel West

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The Five Best Stories Jay-Z Told Last Night at the New York Public Library

In conjunction with the release of his first book, Decoded, Jay-Z was the guest of honor at last night’s edition of the Live at the NYPL series. Co-hosts Cornel West and NYPL director Paul Holdengräber were really excited, so they’d often gush and ramble, sometimes about the contents ofDecoded but often about some other, tangentially related issue (at one point, West really went after Oprah). Seeing Holdengräber, who admittedly had not heard Jay-Z’s music until three weeks ago, be that genuinely enthusiastic was particularly entertaining, especially because his Belgian accent seemed to amuse Jay. And in between all that, Jay-Z told some great stories. After the jump, five of them. (Also, you can watch the whole talk here.)

On convincing composer Charles Strouse to let him sample Annie for “Hard Knock Life”:
“I told him that we had an essay [contest] at school and I won the essay and we went to see Annieon Broadway and how it affected my life. The truth is — that last part was true, it did affect my life. My sister Andrea, we call her Annie, so when it came on TV I was immediately drawn to it. I was like, this is about us. This is how we feel. So years later, when I was on tour and Kid Capri had played this instrumental that the 45 King had made, it stopped me in my tracks. I was walking offstage after performing, and he played the song as an intermission before the next act went on, and I heard this sound, with these drums, and I told everybody around me, ‘Wait a minute.’ I went around to the D.J. booth, like, what is that? [45 King] is notoriously hard to find. We found him in Maryland somewhere. I recorded the record.”

On recording “This Can’t Be Life” with Scarface:
“We’re sitting in the front room, talking, and his phone rings, and he’s like, ‘Nah, man,’ and you can see something’s happening on the other line. And then he gets on the phone again, and he calls his wife and checks on his children. And then he got off the phone and he told me that one of his friends’ kid was in a house fire. And I’m like, ‘Aw, man, I’m so sorry to hear that, we can do this another time.” And he says, nah, and he sat in the corner, and he wrote this song about the whole experience. He took this very sad experience and [made] this powerful art. It almost had me embarrassed about my verse.”

On Biggie:
“He wasn’t a troublemaker at all — he was just a funny, charismatic guy. For him to die so senselessly… I spoke to him that night, and he was so happy to be in L.A., after the whole East Coast-West Coast thing. He felt like he finally was back in L.A. and everything was where it was supposed to be. He loved being in L.A.. And we see this happen in movies — when everything is just fine, and we hung up the phone, and one hour later, he’s no longer with us.”

On the lessons he’s learned from BFF Ty Ty, of “still sipping Mai Tais” fame:
“My friend Ty Ty, he let his son [come] to a very important event with a costume on. It was the groundbreaking ceremony for the Nets, he was sitting in front of me, it was very distracting, with this Batman suit on. I was thinking, That’s quite odd. But that’s just the strength in his conviction. His son, that’s what he wanted to wear — and he’s not going out telling him, you can’t do that. He’s letting him figure it out on his own. I’m sure when he sees the pictures, it’s not going to be a bright spot for him.”

And, okay, not so much a story as it is an amusing exchange, but still:
Jay-Z: “I don’t have prejudices when it comes to music. I just like good music and bad music. Everything from Thom Yorke to Ol’ Dirty Bastard …”
Holdengräber: “You will lose me at times.” [Laughter.] “I approached part of this with the euphoria of ignorance. I, Jay-Z, I just was not ready to be bowled over the way I am, partly because I grew up listening to various versions of The Magic Flute.” [Laughter.] “I grew up with, ‘Is Wilma Lipp the best?’”
Jay-Z: “Right. [Pause.] You will lose me at times.” [Uproarious laughter.]

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