50 Fascinating Facts About Jay-Z: From Marcy to Madison Square

In 1996, Jay-Z created his own label to get his debut disc, Reasonable Doubt on the shelves. Two-and-a-half decades on, we'd say any skepticism regarding his career has been fully shattered.

By Sarah Grossbart Dec 04, 2021 8:00 AMTags
Watch: How Jay-Z's Empire Went from Mediocre to Mainstream

Across his five decades on this earth, Jay-Z has adopted many descriptors. And, no, we're not just talking about his given name, Shawn Carter. 

There is Grammy winner (23 times over), president of Def Jam Recordings, founder of Roc Nation and billionaire, thanks to his stakes in companies like Armand de Brignac champagne, Tidal and Uber, his real estate and, of course, the publishing rights to his 13 no. 1 albums. 

Not to mention father to 9-year-old Blue Ivy and 4-year-old twins Rumi and Sir—and, of course, Mr. Beyoncé Knowles, the power couple's marriage now in its 13th year. And he came thisclose to becoming Sir Jay Z when Paul McCartney knighted him Sir Hova of Brooklyn (an honor Queen Elizabeth II can officially only bestow on British citizens.) 

And then there's rapper, the one that started it all with the release of his debut, Reasonable Doubt more than 20 years ago. An album that required him to create his own label Roc-A-Fella Records to get it on the shelves, it charted on the Billboard 200, was certified multi-platinum, a milestone that's pretty much standard for the 12 solo studio albums he's produced since, and was eventually named as one of Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."

Beyoncé and Jay-Z's Date Nights

Two-and-a-half decades since his coming out party, he's no doubt succeeded even his loftiest expectations. "I want to represent hip-hop culture positively," he surmised to Oprah Winfrey back in 2009. "No one in my family is wanting for a meal right now, so that part is done. Rap is what took me out of my situation, and now I must care for it. I have to leave it as I found it—or better—for the next generation of kids. Then maybe they can change their situation like I did." 


Mega-producer and frequent collaborator Swizz Beatz sees him as a "blueprint for our culture," he previously told Forbes. "A guy that looks like us, sounds like us, loves us, made it to something that we always felt that was above us. If he's a billionaire now, imagine what he's about to be. Because he's only just starting." 

The broad strokes of the Brooklyn native's rags to unfathomable riches story are well-known and documented: Despite an aptitude for language, he never finished high school, making it as a drug dealer long before he began his journey to music legend by selling albums out of his car. 

But there's so much more enthralling history than can be covered in a soundbite. Which is what happens when you jam pack a lot of living into 50+ years—nearly half of it taking place in the public eye. In honor of the rapper-producer-record exec-entrepreneur's 52nd birthday Dec. 4, here are 50 truly fascinating tidbits from a life well lived. 

1. Born in New York City's Brooklyn, Shawn Corey Carter grew up in the notorious Marcy housing projects in the borough's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

2. "It was a very intense and stressful situation," he recalled during a 2010 interview on NPR's Fresh Air. "There was playing in the Johnny-pump (an opened fire hydrant) and the ice-cream man coming around and all of these games that we'd play, and suddenly it would turn just violent and there would be shootings at 12 in the afternoon on any given day. It was a weird mix of emotions. One day, your best friend could be killed. The day before, you could be celebrating him getting a brand-new bike."

3. But he remembers some highlights. "My mom and pop had an extensive record collection," he shared of his earliest inspirations, "so Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and all of those sounds and souls of Motown filled the house."

4. He was 9 when he "started messing with my parents' record player," he told British GQ in 2005. "I guess like all kids that got into hip-hop. And there was this guy who used to freestyle around the way. He used to rap about anything, You know, 'My clothes is damp / And I like that lamp / And I am the champ,' and I was like, that's f--king cool. So I started trying it. It was a gift. I guess in the beginning I really took it for granted, it came so easy."

5. When father Adnis Reeves split when Jay was roughly 10, his mom, Gloria Carter was left to raise him and his older siblings: brother Eric Carter and sisters Andrea Carter and Michelle Carter.

6. He told David Letterman during a 2018 appearance on his Netflix series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, that, for years, he "had a bunch of anger towards him." They later reunited at his mom's urging.

7. The first meeting she set up, he was a no-show. "I was really done, but Mom pushed for another meeting, because she's just a beautiful soul," he recalled to Oprah Winfrey in 2009. At the next, "He showed up. And I gave him the real conversation. I told him how I felt the day he left. He was saying stuff like 'Man, you knew where I was.' I'm like, 'I was a kid! Do you realize how wrong you were? It was your responsibility to see me.' He finally accepted that."

8. Reflecting back on the situation brought him some understanding. "His brother had gotten killed in the projects," he explained to Letterman. "Someone would call him and say, 'I've just seen the guy who killed your brother.' He would get up from his bed with his children, take his gun and leave the house. At some point, my mother was like, 'you have a family here.' But she didn't have the language she needed to say, 'we love you, we don't want to lose you as well.' So her fear came out like an ultimatum to him....That splintered their relationship. From there he was in deep pain, started using heroin and things like that."

9. After they reunited, Jay bought him an apartment and furniture, but he passed away months later.

10. At age 12, he shot Eric in the shoulder following an argument, an incident they were able to move on from. "We were able to get past it," he told GQ. "He was able to get past his addiction and I was able to get past my stupidity. Now we're a family."

11. Crack was so prevalent in his neighborhood that he was recruited by a bodega owner to deal drugs in Trenton, New Jersey some 70 miles away. "No one survives that," he noted to Letterman. "You were either going to jail or you were gonna get killed."

12. He narrowly missed the former thanks to a trip to London to record with onetime mentor Jaz-O. "During that time, there was a secret indictment, and they swept up and grabbed 30 of my friends, everyone," he continued. "One of my closest friends, he went to jail for 11 years."

13. In a way, he escaped death as well. "Like everyone else," he told GQ, he carried a gun. "But I never used it. Never. Ever." He was, however, shot at "from very close range," at one point: "A friend of mine, we had a misunderstanding. And at the time, all misunderstandings ended with someone getting shot. Luckily, I'm still here."

14. At the time, he shared on NPR, he was in complete survival mode. "At 14, 15 years old, you're thinking about sneakers or you're thinking about some sort of relief from all of the pain you're feeling," he said. "You're thinking about buying some food for the house. You're thinking about paying the extra light bill. So at that young age, you're not thinking about the destruction you're causing your own community."

15. He was, however, pondering a future, writing rhymes down in a green notebook or whatever he could find. "I would run into the corner store, the bodega, and just grab a paper bag or buy juice—anything just to get a paper bag," he continued. "And I'd write the words on the paper bag and stuff these ideas in my pocket until I got back. Then I would transfer them into the notebook."

16. The system had an unintended benefit: "As I got further and further away from home and my notebook, I had to memorize these rhymes—longer and longer and longer....By the time I got to record my first album, I was 26, I didn't need pen or paper—my memory had been trained just to listen to a song, think of the words, and lay them to tape."

17. To this day, he doesn't write down any of his lyrics, instead committing them to memory.

18. Still, he wouldn't recommend his method to everyone. "I've lost a couple albums' worth of great material," he admitted. "Think about when you can't remember a word and it drives you crazy. So imagine forgetting an entire rhyme. 'What's that? I said I was the greatest something?'"

19. His stage name was lifted from a myriad of inspirations: Jaz-O, who collaborated on his 1990 track "The Originators", his childhood nickname of Jazzy, and the J/Z subway line near his childhood home.

20. The hyphen placement has been varied as well. Circa 2010, he ditched it, he revealed on L.A. radio show Big Boy's Neighborhood, saying, "It's not useful anymore. I had umlauts over one of the letters; I removed that too." But with the 2017 release of 4:44, he brought it back, his rep confirming he'd be going by JAY-Z.

21. Among the other well-known faces at his George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School? Busta Rhymes and The Notorious B.I.G.

22. In fact, he and Busta "actually had a rap battle in the lunch room," he shared with Jimmy Kimmel in 2016. And to hear the "Break Ya Neck" rapper tell it, he might want a rematch. "I knew Jay Z was rhyming 'cause me and Jay Z battled in school, speed rapping," he shared on Fuse's Skee TV that same year. "He had finessed the speed rapping phenomenally at that time and I was new with the speed rapping, but losing that battle to Jay in speed rapping is what made me one of the most dangerous speed rappers today…Jay know he can't see me in no speed rapping today."

23. Really, he just has a way with words. His sixth grade teacher Renee Rosenblum-Lowden gushed to The Washington Post, "The thing I remember about Shawn is he took the reading test and he scored 12th grade in the sixth grade."

24. The admiration was mutual. Speaking with Letterman, the musician said, "I had a sixth-grade teacher. Her name was Ms. Lowden, and I just loved the class so much. Like reading the dictionary, and my love of words—I just connected with her. She took us to her house on a field trip. She had ice in her refrigerator way back when no one had it. I thought, 'Oh man. I might be an English teacher.'"

25. Aside from the dictionary, his favorite reads include Homer's The Odyssey, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Seth Godin's Purple Cow and Gary Zukav's The Seat of the Soul, one of two books he told Oprah.com "that I absolutely live my life by."

26. As for movies, his picks include True Romance and The Godfather Part II. "Cliché, but really great," he tweeted in 2013.

27. His tastes are quite refined all around, with his art collection including Basquiat's "Mecca", perhaps the "Basquiat in my kitchen corner" mentioned in 2013's "Picasso Baby".

28. He's called his first album, Reasonable Doubt "my favorite, because all the emotions and experiences of 26 years came out in it. That was the record I had 26 years to make."

29. Getting his first hit—1998's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)"—required him to do some trickery. When his request to sample the iconic Annie track was rejected, "I made up this story about how when I was a seventh grader in Bed-Stuy, our teacher held an essay contest and the three best papers won the write a trip to the city to see Annie," he wrote in his 2011 memoir, Decoded. "A lie. I wrote that as kids in Brooklyn we hardly ever came into the city. True. I wrote that from the moment the curtain came up I felt like I understood honey's story. Of course, I'd never been to see Annie on Broadway. But I had seen the movie on TV. Anyway, they bought it, cleared it, and I had one of my biggest hits."

30. And it was based in reality. When that televised version came out, "I was drawn to it," he's said. "It was the struggle of this poor kid in this environment and how her life changed…It immediately resonated."

31. He tricked his mom into lending her voice to "December 4th" off 2003's The Black Album. "I told her to meet me down at the studio and we were going to go to lunch," he wrote in Decoded. "She came down to the studio, and I just brought the track up and I said, 'I just want you to talk on it.' Because I knew if I told her [she was going to be on the song], she'd get really nervous. [She said], 'What do you want me to say?' And the rest is history."

32. He announced his (ultimately temporary) retirement with a 2003 concert at Madison Square Garden, featuring the Roots, Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams. All proceeds went to charity.

33. His next act began with the sale of Roc-A-Fella and being named the president of Def Jam Records.

34. His far-reaching empire includes clothing (retailer Rocawear), liquor brands (Armand de Brignac champagne and D'Ussé cognac), a stake in the Brooklyn Nets, streaming service Tidal and Roc Nation, which represents top names in entertainment (read: Rihanna) and sports (Kevin Durant, Todd Gurley).

35. The musician has also inked lucrative endorsement deals with Reebok, Budweiser and watchmaker Audemars-Piguet.

36. His latest partnership is with the NFL with Roc Nation signing a deal to provide entertainment for Super Bowl halftime shows and help assist their Inspire Change initiative

37. No less than billionaire Warren Buffett has been shilling for him since 2010, when he told Forbes, "Jay is teaching in a lot bigger classroom than I'll ever teach in. For a young person growing up, he's the guy to learn from."

38. Becoming a billionaire hasn't changed his core beliefs. "I don't have that sort of thing, like, I want to vote Republican just to save more money," he said in his 2017 New York Times interview with journalist Dean Baquet. "That's not the endgame. It's not about who got more money and who got more houses. Yes, you know, you've earned it, buy what you want….But don't forget what's important. Without people, being rich would be very boring."

39. He's been influenced by "so many great people," he told Letterman, "Biggie Smalls of course, Tupac [Shakur] of course…Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick."

40. But he's not about to call out those he finds lacking. Asked by the legendary TV host, "Are there guys who are successful that are not good?", he answered, "Of course. All the time—it's like everything else." Prodded to elaborate, he shrewdly responded, "How 'bout this? Who's on TV in late night, right now, that's not even remotely funny?"

41. "Very few" people knew about his 2008 wedding, he revealed to Oprah of the New York-based nuptials attended by roughly 30 guests. "The sad part is that we offended some. But people who love you understand. Because at the end of the day, it's your day."

42. Especially attuned, he realized his mother was gay early on, "Let's call it teenage years," he said in the New York Times. "We never spoke about it. We—it just exist. It was there. Everyone knew."

43. He sobbed when his mother finally came out to him. "Imagine having to live your life as someone else and you think you're protecting your kids," he shared with Letterman. "For my mother to have to live as someone she wasn't, hide and protect her kids...for all this time, for her to sit in front of me and tell me, 'I think I love someone,' I really cried...I was so happy for her that she was free...I knew [that that she was gay], but this was the first time we had the conversation, the first time I heard her say she loved her partner. She said, 'I feel like I love somebody.' She held that little bit back still—she didn't say, 'I'm in love'...And I just started crying."

44. Now, he said in the Times, he feels their relationship has vastly improved: "We were always good friends but now we're really great friends. You know. And we were just talking as friends."

45. He credits Beyoncé with keeping their marriage together after his infidelity (depicted in detail on 4:44). "I have a beautiful wife who's understanding and knew that I'm not the worst of what I've done. And we did the hard work of going to therapy. We love each other. We put in the work," he told Letterman. "This music that I'm making now is a result of things that have happened earlier. Like you, I like to believe that we're in a better place today, but still working, still communicating and growing. I'm proud of the father and the husband I am today because of all of the work that I've done."

46. His takeaway from his time in therapy: "I grew so much from the experience," he shared in the New York Times. "But I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a...you're at such an advantage.

47. The most vital lesson he feels he need to impart on kids Blue, Sir and Rumi, is to "have compassion for others," he told Baquet, "and to identify with everyone's struggle and to know these people made these sacrifices for us to be where we are and to push that forward—for us. I believe that's the most important thing to show them, because they don't have to know things that I knew growing up. Like being tough."

48. To him, longtime friend and collaborator Kanye West is family. "He's my brother. I love Kanye. I do," he said to Baquet. "It's a complicated relationship with us." With West entering the business on his label, "I've always been like his big brother. And we're both entertainers. It's always been like a little underlying competition with your big brother. And we both love and respect each other's art, too. So it's like, we both—everyone wants to be the greatest in the world. You know what I'm saying? And then there's like a lot of other factors that play in it. But it's gonna, we gonna always be good."

49. As for their brief 2016 dispute, mostly forgotten. "Hopefully when we're 89 we look at this six months or whatever time and we laugh at that. You know what I'm saying?"

50. He truly is just getting started. Calling rap "the gift of discovery" with audiences getting excited over every hot new artist, he said in the Times, "That white-hot space—people think it's the biggest thing, but it's really small. It's almost like a trend. Would you rather be a trend, or you rather be Ralph Lauren? You know what I mean; like, you rather be a trend, or you rather be forever? I'm the person that looked at the Mona Lisa and be like, Man, that's gonna be cool in 40 years. I play forever. And so my whole thing is to identify with the truth. Not to be the youngest, hottest, new, trendy thing."

(Originally published Dec. 4, 2019 at 3 a.m. PT)