Oprah: What did you feel the first time you heard Mary J. Blige?
Sean: Goose bumps. Her voice was so raw. It was a little uncomfortable.
Oprah: When it comes to lyrics, do you think your sense of responsibility has increased over the years?
Sean: People judge the lyrics without understanding the intention or background of rap. It started as a statement about young black life in the inner city. Rap was a way for artists to tell the world about how much danger we're really in—physically and emotionally. It was a way for us to speak out. But if someone hears the lyrics without understanding the impulse behind the music, they might see it solely as a glorification of violence. Tupac spoke the truth. He felt like millions of young men and women. And rap has evolved: From Biggie [Notorious B.I.G.] and Lauryn Hill to Wyclef Jean and Mos Def, rap is about what's really going on. But some people like to run away from the uncut truth.
Oprah: You know, I'm open to understanding where rap comes from. But my question to you is the same one I asked Jay-Z a month ago: Is it possible to have rap music without lyrics that demean women? Can we rap without calling women bitches or using the N word?
Sean: Yes, it is possible. Like every art form, hip-hop has to grow up, and in some ways, it is changing. The women in the hip-hop community have made sure we've noticed how disrespectful the lyrics are. And yet there are certain things that are happening in life: People are calling people bitches and hos. But hip-hop isn't just that.
Oprah: I understand that it's more. I'm asking about the parts that still demean women.
Sean: Demeaning women is not right. Violence is not right. Evil is not right. I'm not saying that hip-hop has been totally cleaned up, but I think some artists' lyrics have gotten better. As a medium, hip-hop still has a lot of evolving to do. Yet it has empowered young people, it has created jobs—from clothing lines to the movies—and it has given our youth more joy and hope and a better form of release than almost anything out there. Yes, there are negatives. But hip-hop has saved lives.
Oprah: When you're producing an album, is there ever any discussion about the lyrics?
Sean: Yes, I talk to my artists. I lost my best friend, Biggie. He was shot. His albums were called Ready to Die and Life After Death. One of his album covers was shot in a cemetery. Anything I've ever put in a record, I've seen it come true. So I try to teach the artists. I might ask, "Is that really worth saying?"
Oprah: So your sense of responsibility has evolved.
Sean: Yes, and I think a lot of our senses have. Don't forget: Rap is still an early and imperfect art. If you put a magnifying glass on everything most of us did at age 18, not a lot of us would be proud. To grow up, hip-hop needs help from its elders. It's best to keep the conversation open. We come from a generation of children who weren't really talked to. We were just thrown out there.
Oprah: I agree. I feel that my generation of black people really failed our children. We didn't teach you to appreciate the price that had been paid for our freedom.
Sean: I have to say we feel that. And we're not mad or bitter about it....