1    |     2    |     3    |     4    |     5    |     6     |     7

The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.

                                                                       Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

1

No need to explain;
My name
Is the the only thing that matters.

Jay-Z is not his real name. It’s just what he’s called.

No one knows exactly how the name came about. Some say he got it from Jaz-O aka Big Jaz, or just Jaz. His government name was Jonathan Burks. Jay-Z and Jaz (similar, yes?) rapped together early in their careers. Another: B-High says a cat from Marcy started calling him Jazzy and Jay-Z evolved out of Jazzy when it began to sound too glitzy and it no longer represented him. Another theory is that Jay got the name from the J/Z subway lines with a stop at Marcy Avenue, Brooklyn, on the way to Queens.

Jay-Z’s government name is Shawn Corey Carter.

Jay-Z also goes by Hova, or Hov. That’s short for Jay-hovah. A string of derivatives followed: Hovi Baby, Hovito, ‘Vito, Young Hov, Young H-O, or just Young. H to the izzo, V to the izzay. Jay Guevara, a rarer one. The Black Axl Rose. Or just Jay. He is also known as Jigga, Jiggaman, S-dot, Mr. Carter, or S. Carter.

If his name is “the only thing that matters,” why does he keep changing it? Or does each name say something different, if only a little?

It is common for rappers to have many alter egos or nicknames, in addition to their original rap moniker, which is not usually their “real” name, that which is called their “government name,” i.e., the one recognized and registered with the government. In the case of Shawn Carter, a whole constellation of aliases proliferates. 

One of the most prolific name changers in rap was a man named Russell Jones who, through born in Brooklyn, the BK, represented Staten Island, or Shaolin. Born Russell Jones, he died known as Big Baby Jesus, which was what followed Dirt McGirt and Osiris. He was best known by a former nickname Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or ODB. 

The phenomenon did not begin with rappers, however. During the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s, many in the black radical community returned to traditional African names as a means to resist white power. In the case of the Black Panthers, the surname Shakur became prevalent. Tupac Amaru Shakur, better known as 2pac, was born of Panther Afeni Shakur (born Alice Faye Williams). Panther Justice Minister Hubert Gerold Brown renamed himself H. Rap Brown, then, once imprisoned by the state, Jamil Abdullah Al-AminOne could look back a little further to Malcolm X, whose surname Little was dropped in an act of protest. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali shortly before the champion boxer refused to cooperate in the United States’ war in Southeast Asia.   

To name oneself in opposition to one’s “government name” is an act of opposition and evasion vis-à-vis the State. “Government? Fuck government. Niggas politic theyselves.” There is a relationship between “government name” and the slave name, as slaves and their descendants officially bear the names of a plantation owner. While free people bore the name of the father, slaves were assigned a false father, the master. Thus, renaming oneself is to shed both the mark of slavery and the American state which permitted and perpetuated it. Since one is named at birth, this renaming is something a rebirth. At the conclusion of the last album in the In My Lifetime trilogy, Jay-Z describes a sort of rebirth which is signaled in a nomenclatorial transition: “Back to Shawn Carter the hustler; Jay-Z is dead.”

Tha Carter: “Carter” is a known slave name and a common surname among African Americans. In the film The Hurricane, based on boxer Rubin Carter’s book The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472, Carter explains his nickname: “’Hurricane’ is the professional name that I acquired later on in life. ‘Carter’ is the slave name that was given to my forefathers, who worked in the cotton fields of Alabama and Georgia. It was passed onto me.” In the ring, Rubin Carter became “The Hurricane.” Carter’s book also describes another renaming, done by the US corrections system during Carter’s false imprisonment, in which The Hurricane became a mere number.    

In addition to any political dimension, Jay-Z might be considered a name for the stage, a name that accompanies one’s public, performative existence, in relation to the name accompanying one’s private life.  

In relation to other rappers, Jay-Z is Hov, God MC.
 

Who you know fresher than Hov? Riddle me that.
The rest of you know where I’m lyrically at.
Can’t none of y’all mirror me back.
Yeah, hearing me rap is like hearing G Rap in his prime.
I’m Young H.O., rap’s Grateful Dead.

Here Jay-Z refers to Hov in the third person. There is you (the listener), Hov, Jay, Young H.O., and the doubling capacity of a mirror. Leaving aside Kool G Rap and the Grateful Dead. Quite a crowd.

Giorgio Agamben points out that the Latin alter ego, contrary to its modern usage, suggests nothing less than “an otherness immanent in selfness, a becoming other of the self,” whose closest analogue is the friend. Alter egos: a multiple self, as if composed like a group of friends.

There are sometimes two Jay-Zs,” says Jay in his autobiography. Rap music, so often attacked for being “contradictory,” is precisely what allows Jay-Z to explore his twoness:

In some ways, rap was the ideal way for me to make sense of a life that was doubled, split into contradictory halves. This is one of the most powerful aspects of hip-hop as it evolved over the years. Rap is built to handle contradictions…But this is one of the things that makes rap at its best so human. It doesn’t force you to pretend to be only one thing or another, to be a saint or sinner. It recognizes that you can be true to yourself and still have unexpected dimensions and opposing ideas.

Another Brooklynite, Walt Whitman, offered in his 1855 “Song of Myself”,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Jay echoes Whitman, perhaps consciously, tying the multiple self to the matter of names: “I never had to reject Shawn Carter to become Jay-Z…those two characters come together through the rhymes, become whole again. The multitude is contained.” But Jay-Z builds upon Whitman’s multitude, making each name a “character,” suggesting a necessarily performative dimension to one’s being. Being a character doesn’t make each persona false but, rather, achieves the truth of the condition of multiplicity.  

I never had to reject Shawn Carter to become Jay-Z…those two characters come together through the rhymes, become whole again. The multitude is contained.
   



2


I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died; Real niggas just multiply. 

Jay-Z was born on December 4, 1969, only a few hours after Fred Hampton was killed. Closing the 1960s, Hampton’s death marked the de facto end of the civil rights and black power era. Meanwhile, just beginning to bubble up from the black diasporic Bronx cauldron was the birth of rap music, soon spreading to the other boroughs. “We—rappers, Djs, producers—were able to smuggle some of the magic of that dying civilization out in our music and use it to build a new world.” Smuggle, a hustle.

Contradictory halves: There are two stories of Fred Hampton, one told by the United States government and one told by the people. Each side has its own claim to validity. The government’s story is simple and short. Were the state to tell the story, which it is not eager to do, Hampton was a street thug who died at the hands of police doing their job. To the people Hampton was Chairman Fred, the embodiment of revolution, murdered by the state.

A lot of our heroes, almost by default, were people who tried to dismantle or overthrow the government—Malcolm X or the Black Panthers…The government was everywhere we looked, and we hated it.

Chairman Fred was drugged by an FBI asset acting undercover as a member of the Black Panthers. While deep in the drug-induced sleep, Hampton was slaughtered in a hail of gunfire from submachine guns and military-grade carbines. The raid was precise and overwhelming, with fourteen heavily armed agents of the state organizing the assault according to a detailed floor plan of the apartment in which Hampton was sleeping. The FBI informant who had drugged Hampton had also provided the state with information on how the apartment was laid out, who was where and how the furniture was arranged. Hampton’s bed, where he and his pregnant girlfriend were sleeping, was pinpointed. It was as much a military operation as it was a police one. By the end of the raid, the area at the head of Hampton’s bed was chewed by forty-two bullets and Hampton lay dead, riddled with holes.

The government presented a different narrative and built a replica of the raided apartment in order to stage their version of events. The state invited the cameras of journalists to film their recomposed scene, an arrangement of skeletal wall frames and studs in a warehouse. Meanwhile, the Black Panthers led citizens and journalists through Hampton’s apartment, where the blood and bullet holes told a different story.

Inversely, only a short time before, the Panthers had created a mock trial of Hampton to double the actual trial of Hampton being brought by the state. The state accused Hampton of robbing an ice cream truck and handing out the ice cream to neighborhood children. The state was very much afraid of the young, charismatic leader and jumped on any opportunity to eliminate his influence, even bringing back the ice cream salesman from Vietnam to testify in court. In the Panthers’ mock trial, or what they called a “people’s tribunal,” Hampton represented himself and was judged not guilty. The trial brought by the state, however, resulted in a guilty verdict.

Shortly before his assassination, Chairman Fred gave a speech at Chicago’s Olivet Church about how he flipped the script. 

“Get your hands up against the wall. We’re gonna do what they call a citizen’s arrest.”

This fool don’t know what this is. I said, “Now you be just as calm as you can and don’t make too many quick moves, cause we don’t wanna have to hit you.”

And I told him like he always told us, I told him, “Well, I’m here to protect you. Don’t worry about a thing, I’m here for your benefit.” So I sent another brother to call the pigs. You gotta do that in a citizen’s arrest. He called the pigs. Here come the pigs with carbines and shotguns, walkin’ out there. They came out there talking about how they’re gonna arrest Chairman Fred.

And I said, “No fool. This is the man you got to arrest. He’s the one that broke the law.” And what did they do? They bugged their eyes, and they couldn’t stand it. You know what they did? They were so mad, they were so angry that they told me to leave.

And what happened? All those people were out there on 63rd Street. What did they do? They were around there laughing and talking with me while I was making the arrest. They looked at me while I was rapping and heard me while I was rapping.

Hampton, too, was a rapper, it seems. Real niggas just multiply.

3

Home and away: Shawn Carter was born to Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves who made love under a sycamore tree.
 
Early on Shawn lived with his parents, his three siblings and others in his grandmother’s brownstone on Lexington Ave in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Or Bed-stuy, as it’s also called. Bed-stuy is named for that which passes through it, Bedford Avenue and Stuyvesant Avenue.
 
Those early years were happy ones for Shawn. Though things were a little crowded with three generations packed into the row house, the family enjoyed several fine years and the pooled resources meant there was a little extra money around. The house was alive with music, as Gloria and Adnis’ record collection was the jewel of the home. Shawn had a ten-speed.
 
A boat lost from sea could be found in Shawn’s neighborhood. The waves gone shaves of grass feathered through the concrete and brushed against the hull. Shawn would play on the boat every day.     
 
In 1975, Gloria and Adnis moved the family into Bed-Stuy’s Marcy Houses. Though only a short distance away from the Lexington Ave home, Marcy was worlds apart in most ways that mattered. It was huge, for one. More buildings than the eye could take in at once. 27 towers in total. Existing on the 30 acres set off by Marcy, Myrtle, Flushing and Nostrand Avenues, Marcy Houses was, in a way, closed off from the world, even the rest of Brooklyn. Paths of escape were difficult to imagine.
 
The brownstone on Lexington was a memory. The family moved into the massive complex just in time to watch the crack cocaine era begin. Shawn was 6 years old.

4

You know why they call the projects a project?
Because it’s a project,
An experiment, wherein it, only it’s objects.
And the object for us, to explore our prospects;
Sidestep the cops on the way to the top, yes!

In the middle it’s only a series of tunnels and trails, “full of concrete corners to turn, dark hallways to explore. The shadowy bench-lined inner pathways that connected the twenty-seven six-story buildings of Marcy Houses were like tunnels we kids burrowed through. Housing projects can seem like labyrinths to outsiders, as complicated and intimidating as a Moroccan bazaar. But we knew our way around.”

Faced with immeasurable odds,
Still I gave straight bets;
Cough up a lung, where I’m from,
Marcy, son.

The American housing project is a technology of power. Oddly ignored by Foucault, the housing project is another disciplining enclosure, like the prison. It is common, in fact, to find a repeating transit between the two, the project and the prison. The system is arranged to operate in this manner. There are two dimensions (at least) of its operation: an internal operation acting upon the interior, and one operating upon the outside. The Plan proceeds from within to without; the exterior is a result of the interior.”

Contradictory halves, halve-nots: Projects like Marcy Houses were built partially out of goodwill and partially as a bargained concession to maintain the capitalist order. Speaking of the projects, Richard Plunz notes that Nelson Rockefeller and those “within the highest circle of economic and political power” embraced “this new architectural expression…as an affirmation of the potential for renewal of the capitalist system along liberal humanitarian lines.” The frequent crises of capitalism—and the permanent crisis for African Americans in the capitalist system—could be mollified by state welfare programs. Here’s an apartment, don’t revolt.

A raven from the ashes: The father of the American project was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, to Swiss watchmakers. The year was 1887. It was a world of streets, lanes and unintended alleyways. The towns and villages of old world Europe were messy and unplanned, lumpy aggregates that knew only addition. After the first world war, now calling himself “Le Corbusier,” Jeanneret was imagining a world of industrial order, precise and geometrical environments, royal gardens of right angles and freeways like industrial canals. The first war of mechanized death was followed by a vision of mechanized living. Le Corbusier means “the Raven-like One,” but the death-obsessed Corbusier imagined the life in architecture and urban planning. 

The problem of the house has not yet been stated.
The house is a machine for living in.

The architecture and order of the city could be planned so that the life within it thrived and reached fullness, not only within the home but outside in the spaces created by walls. The overarching order of the design would facilitate the flows of industrial capitalism. It was to make the city a sort of factory. This was Le Corbusier’s project. But it was a factory of man, by man. The production of man by man.
 
Architecture was, to Le Corbusier, able to become part of life itself by meeting life at all its turns. “Arrangement is the gradation of aims, classifications of intentions.” It was left to the architect-planner to anticipate the lived experience in the built environment. 

The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; by forms and shapes he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movement of our heart and our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.

NYC public housing projects like Marcy Houses began being built in the post-war years, relying on Le Corbusier’s ideas, spoken through Robert Moses. Now social relations were carved in the permanence of concrete and brick. “The projects are like gentrification firewalls,” acting as a barrier upon the inside and out. Myths of upward mobility notwithstanding, the residents of Marcy Houses were not intended to join the center of power in Manhattan. By what most outlandish theory of the thoroughly racist American mid-century would poor African Americans (or poor whites, for that matter) integrate into the power structure? The built environment cemented, quite literally, that lack of social imagination. “Housing projects are a great metaphor for the government’s relationship to poor folks: these huge islands built mostly in the middle of nowhere, designed to warehouse lives.” 

Marcy sat on top of the G train, which connects Brooklyn to Queens, but not to the city. I’m from New York, but I didn’t know that at nine. The street signs for Flushing, Marcy, Nostrand, and Myrtle Avenues seemed like metal flags to me: Bed-Stuy was my country, Brooklyn my planet.

The Carters were cut off from Manhattan in most ways that mattered. If Whitman was American first and a Brooklynite second, Shawn was from Brooklyn first and America second. “Mentally been many places but I’m Brooklyn’s own.” The famed battle of Jay-Z and DMX, government name Earl Simmons, representing Uptown, was something of an international summit meeting among the boroughs’ ambassadors, albeit one that took place in a Bronx (the Boogie Down) pool hall under a torrential rain, and on top of a pool table, like a boxing match. It certainly garnered more attention in the hood than what took place in the United Nations building across the river.
 
Corbusier’s vision rigidified the social relations of mid-century American capitalism and racism, most notably in New York City. It was, however, seen in nearly every North American city, this industrial planning of cities to manage the lower classes. In Atlanta, the interstate highways were placed in such a way as to dam black sections of town. Huge multi-lane rivers of concrete made permanent the social relations of mid-century Atlanta. Eventually, so-called “white flight” and deindustrialization would create in the North American inner-city another country, independent by both expulsion and secession. The old industrial model of Corbusier and Moses, a paternal model, began to break down. The jobs left. White flight was a removal of urban capital to the suburbs and exurbs. The hoods of most cities increasingly operated with independent economies and autonomous political spheres.  
 

5

Papa raised me with chess moves.
 
Shawn’s father left when Shawn was nine. But not before, even in those short years, instilling in his son a means of measuring and managing life.

My pop taught me chess, but more than that, he taught me that life was like a giant chessboard where you had to be completely aware of the moment, but also thinking a few moves ahead. By the time he left he’d already given me a lot of what I’d need to survive.”

A strategy for survival, for living. So useful a metaphor that it’s kept in the wallet of one’s life, always there to be pulled out. Then he’s gone.  
 
Chess is a game of strict boundaries and geometric imperatives. All the action must take place in the square. The square of squares. The confines are the game. Life’s confines are, of course, fate. Not fate in the sense of destiny but the negative, the limits creating the space of life. That which is beyond one’s power. If chess is like life, it’s because life is lived in a relationship with fate. I am inside. My fate is outside of me. Make a move. Life as chess.

Carrying his father’s lesson into adulthood, Jay-Z calls himself the “Bobby Fischer of rap,” after the chess prodigy. Fischer’s success was, as is all success in chess, his ability to bring about a becoming-infinite of the potentialities within the confines.

With Adnis gone, Shawn faced a new fate. Just a few years earlier, the Carters had moved into the dangerous Marcy Houses from the relative safety of Lexington Avenue. Now the Carter kids were fatherless, with Gloria left to raise them in the deteriorating conditions in Marcy. The sorts of difficulties that Reagan’s regime would begin to bring to the wider United States had already begun to be felt in New York City. The city was forced by the banking elite—the one which would eventually take the entire country hostage in 2008—to cut back severely on its services and place the burden on the poor and working class.
 
CUNY professor David Harvey:

The management of the New York fiscal crisis pioneered the way for neoliberal practices both domestically under Reagan and internationally through the IMF in the 1980s. It established the principle that in the event of a conflict between the integrity of financial institutions and bondholders’ returns, on the one hand, and the well-being of the citizens on the other, the former was to be privileged. It emphasized that the role of government was to create a good business climate rather than look to the needs and well-being of the population at large.

Families like the Carters were getting a sneak peek at what would befall other populations until a culmination late in the first decade of the 21st century.

This was Shawn’s chess board.

Was not the public housing conceived by Le Corbusier only a system of squares within squares? A giant chessboard? The block? The corner? “Nervous, confined to a corner.” The architecture of Marcy, seen from the sky, looks like a strange chess board, an utterly precise system of squares bounded by Marcy, Myrtle, Flushing and Nostrand. The Raven-like One spoke so often of “regulating lines” which served as a “guarantee against willfulness” when he imagined places like Marcy. His designs grew out of a wish to impose boundaries. Limits in stone and concrete. Micro-fates. Even Shawn’s immediate environment spoke of limits and boundaries, lines of regulation against willfulness. 

6

Chess-boxing.
 
The harsh reality of being fatherless during the coming years led Shawn to replace—or augment—chess with another game of the square, the ring. “Boxing is like a religion to hustlers.” Chess pieces stand in for the actors of war. But boxing is not that sort of symbolic battle. Boxing is actual battle. Brutality contained and explored. What they call a martial art.  
 
With his father gone, Shawn would begin looking for viable options for bread-winning. Hustling presented itself early and often as a way to provide for Shawn and his family. Hustling might be like chess, but it was also like boxing. “Boxing is a glorious sport…In a lot of ways, hustling is the same.” Perhaps it’s that boxing offers an immediacy, a fluidity that chess resists. Chess in contemplative. Boxing is physical. Seen one way, the two are separated by an almost Cartesian divide. Strategy in boxing is deployed against the immediate disruption by one’s opponent. Hustlers’ number one opponent is the State, which became militarized—a war on drugs—during Jay’s years. The successful hustler had to bob and weave, dodge, sidestep the cops. Graceful evasions. But other ambitious hustlers and stick up kids were also opponents. One with the strategic mind for chess and the tactical mind for boxing fared better in the game.
 
Jay-Z was not alone in finding chess and boxing useful metaphors for life and hustling. Across the river, New York contemporaries, Shaolin’s the Wu-tang Clan, released the anthem “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” the video of which alternated scenes of the rappers placed on a chess board and in tight urban spaces. “A man vexed, is what the projects made me.”

Just a few months before Jay-Z’s first album hit the streets, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest articulated another hybrid of chess and boxing. Relying on a different set of circumstances, Wallace described tennis as the true hybrid of chess and boxing, in how mastery was achieved within the confines. “Real tennis [is] no more reducible to delimited factors or probability curves than chess or boxing, the two games of which it’s a hybrid.”

Tennis, like its two progenitors, speaks of limits. But Wallace, either optimistically or pessimistically—it’s tough to tell—, describes an internalization of them (the limits) and the prospect of transcendence. Within the fates of tennis, “the true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself…Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise…: you seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.

David Foster Wallace committed suicide while writing a novel about the United States tax code.

Wallace—one of Wallace’s characters, rather—continues. Tennis: “beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self.

7

Summer 1978. Shawn is 9 years old. His father has left. Hip hop is being born.

I saw the circle before I saw the kid in the middle. 


The circle was the cipher, a ring of kids rapping, each taking turns stepping into the middle and issuing rhymes. Hip hop culture, not yet known in the white suburbs and centers of power, was emerging in America’s forgotten urban corners. Left with less and less in the increasingly post-industrial city (and of which there was little in the first place), a youth movement was making art and life out of what was at hand, what was lying around. They were, according to Brown University’s Tricia Rose, “attempts to seize the shifting urban terrain, to make it work on behalf of the dispossessed.”

Parents’ turntables and soul records were re-purposed. Even disco records, mined for the few seconds of decent instrumental breaks. When recorded music couldn’t be supplied, handclaps and mouthsounds could keep rhythm. Simple spray paint turned Le Corbusier’s walls into canvasses and markers of new forms of territory. B-boys danced on flattened cardboard boxes instead of in mirrored Manhattan studios.
 
Even speech was wrested from the hands of power and re-purposed: rapping. A secession through speech. Or a rebellion? An art, certainly. No longer a mere carrier of meaning, rap made speech into resistance, an act. But if Chairman Fred’s “rapping” had been a stylized speech aimed like a weapon toward white capitalist power, this new rapping ricocheted within the beat, going in many directions.
 
Shawn saw the circle first because rap is never just one person. Well, it is and it isn’t. The participant in the cipher is both audience and performer in alternation, subject and object, hero and hanger on. To rap, whether in a cipher or at Madison Square, is to be a subject and an object. To be both oneself and outside oneself. It is, then, to increase the self, to decenter and expand.
 
But rapping is both communal and solitary, isn’t it? Rap is sometimes a solitary endeavor, a quiet thing. After coming upon that first cipher, Shawn went home and began writing raps. He would stay up late, softly banging out rhythms on the kitchen table to meter his rhymes. “Used to rap to the raindrops off my window pane.” His mother thought he was asleep or watching television, but he was inward-turned, practicing, playing, making the shapes of words. Later, while hustling, Shawn would return to this rhymes when he could, playing them in his head so often that he no longer needed to write them down. There was a room in his mind where the rhymes resided.

Search
Navigate
Archive

Text, photographs, quotes, links, conversations, audio and visual material preserved for future reference.