Oprah: Was it a dysfunctional household?

Jay-Z: Looking back, I guess it was quite dysfunctional. But I didn't have that feeling until I got into my early teen years, when we were living in the Marcy projects. That's when crack hit my neighborhood hard and I started getting into mischief.

Oprah: How were you in school? I've heard that when you were in sixth grade, you tested at a 12th-grade level.

Jay-Z: I was bored and distracted.

Oprah: Did you like anything about school?

Jay-Z: I loved English.

Oprah: I know you love to read now. Were books part of your childhood?

Jay-Z: No. I don't remember that.

Oprah: And I thought we had so much in common! 

Jay-Z: I just daydreamed a lot.

Oprah: What about?

Jay-Z: Performing or playing baseball and basketball. I took my mind out of my environment, to the point where I wasn't paying attention to what was happening around me. I still do that now.

Oprah: You didn't listen in class, you didn't read books—and you still tested as a 12th grader. You must have a naturally high IQ.

Jay-Z: Or I'm an idiot savant.

Oprah: So when did you start rapping?

Jay-Z: I probably started around 9—but I was just playing around.

Oprah: Were the rappers in your neighborhood your role models?

Jay-Z: The drug dealers were my role models. Rappers weren't successful yet. I remember the first time I saw the Sugarhill Gang on Soul Train. I was 11 or 12. I was like, "What's going on? How did those guys get on national TV?" And then, when I was a little older, a rapper from the neighborhood got a record deal. I was shocked. "They're giving you money to do that?" Because by this time, the music had taken hold of the entire neighborhood. Just like crack had before, now this music had taken hold. Everyone was either DJ-ing or rapping.

Oprah: And rapping came naturally for you?

Jay-Z: It was a gift. I had a notebook full of material. It was just a makeshift thing—someone found some papers, put a paper clip on them, and made me a notebook.

Oprah: Please tell me you still have that notebook.

Jay-Z: I wish.

Oprah: When did you realize that rapping was a career possibility—after you saw Sugarhill on TV?

Jay-Z: Yeah—but I still didn't really think it was a possibility for me. It wasn't until Jaz got a contract that I was like, "Wow, this stuff is going to happen." [Jonathan Burks, a.k.a. Jaz-O or Jaz, was Jay-Z's musical mentor.] And Jaz went to London to make an album, and took me with him. I was a kid from Marcy projects, and I spent two months in a London flat.

Oprah: So tell me how you got into the drug dealing.

Jay-Z: It was natural....

Oprah: Because drug dealers were your role models. There wasn't a teacher or a lawyer or a nurse or a doctor or an accountant in the neighborhood?

Jay-Z: Well, we were living in Marcy by then, so, no. And if anyone did become something like that, they moved out. They never came back to share the wisdom of how they made it. If anyone made it, you never knew it. That's why I've always said that if I became successful, I'd come back here, grab somebody, and show him how it can be done.

Oprah: So you didn't have even one positive black role model?

Jay-Z: Just my mom. She worked two jobs and did whatever she had to do for us.


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