Jay Z is a hip-hop king with a discography full of accolades but one of his platinum-selling albums holds a particularly special place in his heart. 1996’s Reasonable Doubt — the same effort he hailed a “classic” and the best of his projects in 2013 — will turn 20 on June 25.
Drenched in soulful production, drug dealing lore and lyrical depth, the LP has come to symbolize one of rap’s greatest moments, perhaps Hov’s magnum opus. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Billboard spoke with one of the album’s executive producers, Kareem “Biggs” Burke. During the talk, Biggs — a close friend of Jay’s and a co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records — provided an insightful view into the legendary moments that helped make Hov’s classic debut and the 20th anniversary pop-up store in L.A. this week.
Take me back to 1996 and maybe even before then, to your first conversations with Jay Z about Reasonable Doubt. What were those talks like?
Back then, it was all about how we could do it ourselves, about being independent. We knew we were going to build something that would be great. We knew the statistics to look that far ahead, know how records would be broken and the impact that it would have worldwide. But early on, it was just about creating something that was going to be different, not only the music, but through marketing down to the sound and the lyrics. When Jay made the album, he was really doing it to impress his friends so it was things that we were going through and how we were living. It was really about our stories.
Is there a particular line or song that you remember that captures that type of moment for you?
Well, probably “Dead Presidents” when he’s like, “I want money like Cosby, who wouldn’t?/ It’s this kind of talk that make me think you probably ain’t got no puddin’.” That was something I used to say. I’d be like, “That guy ain’t got no puddin’. Look how he’s ballin’. He ain’t really got no puddin’.” We would talk about a lot of different things and it would end up in a song, and we’d look around and laugh at each other in the studio. He would kind of just shake his head like, “Yeah, you made it a hot line. I made it a hot song.”
People often see you as a behind-the-scenes figure but where do you see your influence on this album?
Besides finance, it was the lifestyle. The lifestyle is what was put into that album, which was the start of Jay’s career. He was introducing something that we were actually living. I think that’s why people gravitated towards what we were doing a lot more. It wasn’t fictitious. We were drinking champagne. We were living that lifestyle that we talked about. That came across in the music. When we came out, we were able to drop this album and put out quality music. The producers and the lyrics together created something that we all thought at the time was an instant classic.
You talk about seeing it as an instant classic but throughout his career, Jay has said that not everyone saw it that way. He’s rapped, “They ain’t really appreciate it until the second one came out.” Why do you think it took people time to respect Reasonable Doubt the way they do now?
I think it was over a lot of people’s heads. Jay really spoke to bosses at that time and there’s less bosses than there are workers. It was really for a top-shelf, top-tier crowd. I think that’s what [made people] gravitate towards it and it trickled down afterwards but initially they just didn’t get it. With the second and third albums, he became more mainstream so people actually got it a lot more.
I think it was just him being an open book, being vulnerable and at the same time being cool. Even the way Jay’s albums started to be sequenced and put together after that, it was always this roller coaster ride where he talked about a lot of things. People thought that it was being glorified, but he always showed the repercussions of that in [songs like] “Regrets” and “Can I Live?,” talking about the downfall of what happens after you live in this lifestyle. That’s why I think a lot of guys and a lot of fans really related to this album. It was like, “Wow. He’s not just talking about the highs. He’s also talking about the lows and what happens after you get into this type of game.” It became emotional at the time as well so people were able to empathize with it and put themselves in those shoes like, “Wow, I’ve been through that” or “I’ve seen that happen.”
Another important moment within this album was Jay Z and The Notorious B.I.G. teaming up on “Brooklyn’s Finest.” Take us into the studio the day that was going down.
Well, what I smelled was a lot of weed. Biggie actually smoked like 60 blunts that day. [Lil] Cease was doing a lot of rolling. I was seeing jars for the first time. [Laughs] When Biggie walked through, it was just a huge presence walking into the room. You felt his presence when he came in. When he walked to the board that day, it was me, Dame [Dash], Jay, and I believe [Tyran] Ty Ty [Smith], Emory [Jones], and the whole crew. This is something that we were dying to get done. Jay and Biggie were two greats in our eyes. The world hadn’t heard Jay yet but we knew what he was capable of. Dame actually gave Clark [Kent] the sample for that song. Then, when Biggie and Jay sat at the board, the engineer came and dropped a pad and a pen right in between them. Jay looks at it and then he pushes it over to Big. Big looks at it and pushes it back. That’s the time they realized that neither one of them wrote lyrics [down on paper]. It was something monumental. Jay actually went in and did everything in five minutes. He broke down the song and left all these parts [for Big]. It was a different type of beat at that time. Biggie was trying to really catch the beat and when he left, he said, “When I give you a song to rhyme on for my album, I’ma make sure it’s a regular beat so you could do a straight sixteen, not all this breakdown.” We laughed about that but it was really a great time and a great experience to work with him. Biggie was like a comedian himself.
You’re celebrating the album through fashion, too. How do you plan on commemorating it for the 20th anniversary?
The pop-up shop is something that I thought was really cool because it’s [at a Los Angeles store called] APT. 4B, which was Jay’s old apartment, having that old New York City style and feel and introducing the 20th anniversary, which will turn into a Reasonable Doubt line afterwards. I thought this was the perfect time to have that introduction. Then, some cool merch is gonna be there, playing around the album and the tracklisting, and keeping it consistent with the black and white theme on Reasonable Doubt. At the same time, we’re connecting that with Fourth of November, which is the new fashion line that I’m doing now. It’s just some really cool collabs that we’re doing. We’re having a 20th anniversary New Era hat that’s gonna be a giveaway. We have something special too that probably only 100 people will be able to get to kind of show the imprint that Reasonable Doubt had on the industry.
You’re also throwing an event too.
We’re gonna celebrate the 20th year [starting June 25]. The pop-up shop is gonna be open for 30 days at APT. 4B on Fairfax in L.A. We’ll be selling cassettes, t-shirts, hats and exclusive pictures that have never really been seen, pre-Reasonable Doubt. We’re also doing it in an interactive way with these kiosks through Metroclick so people will be able to tie it back to social and they’ll have Reasonable Doubt emojis that they’ll be able to take pictures with as well. The [store front] window is going to be themed around an old record store so it’ll be like Reasonable Doubt is dropping [that day].
Some people, including Jay, think Reasonable Doubt is his best album. How would you rank Jay’s top three albums and why?
Reasonable Doubt probably, and then American Gangster at number 2, and probably The Dynasty at number 3. Reasonable Doubt was the genesis. American Gangster kind of brought me back to that moment. It was the perfect marriage — him using the theme from the movie [American Gangster] was just perfect for him to go back, relive those times and discuss those certain subjects. Then, what he did on The Dynasty: Roc La Familia was just amazing. For him to drive Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek and make them really step up their game to be on the album with him and match wits was great too. The producers and the lyrics made that a classic album as well.
When you look back at where Jay was in the mid ‘90s when he was recording the album and where he is now, how has he changed and stayed the same within those 20 years?
I think the biggest change is how he’s living. With Jay, every album is themed around what’s going on in his life around that time so each album changed because his lifestyle had changed. He doesn’t compromise his integrity for anything. Jay tries not to go outside the box too much and kind of stays with what he’s comfortable doing. Jay isn’t a guy who’s gonna do something for more record sales. He’s just gonna make the music that he makes to stay on a level plane. I think that’s why he still has those same fans and why he’s still relevant 20 years later. In hip-hop, that’s a big feat in itself. No one is usually relevant after three or four albums. There are a handful of people that’s doing it but to stay relevant 20 years later, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Speaking of that, Jay just dropped a couple of verses on Pusha T’s “Drug Dealers Anonymous” and Fat Joe’s “All the Way Up (Remix).” Is there more material or a proper album on the way?
Jay’s usually driven by competition. There’s been some music. [Kanye West’s] The Life of Pablo, I think, is a great album. Things like that, I know, drive him so I can see him now, working. Once he gets in a groove and if any producer brings him something that will start that creative process, he usually works very fast.
Going back to Reasonable Doubt, what’s a story from that time that you haven’t been able to share too often but really stands out in your mind as representative of that time period?
Wow. I think a bit of that was [a trip to Las] Vegas and going to that first [Mike] Tyson fight when Tyson had just got out of jail, fighting [Peter] McNeeley [on August 19, 1995]. We were ringside. Right behind us was Dr. Dre and we didn’t know him at the time. We hadn’t dropped an album or anything. Then, Emory, who’s now Vegas Jones, became Vegas Jones on that trip, with the lifestyle that we were talking about. We went to a bar at the at the MGM casino and Emory bought out the whole bar, maybe 30 or 40 bottles. They closed it off and it became a party. We were telling security to let certain guys in and people were looking at us like, “Yo, who the hell are these guys?” I think that was one of our first footprints that we were laying down to show the lifestyle that we were living. That was something monumental for us.
Jay has called you “the smart one, on the low like Dean Martin.” What’s the legacy that you want people to remember you by?
I’ve always been a guy who’s been a leader in the past but now I’ve turned into a guy who likes to serve. I just want to be known as somebody who’s aspirational, who was able to start something that created a movement, that changed the fabric and culture of society worldwide, using Reasonable Doubt as a platform to launch 10 different businesses and to change the scope, the way business is done in music, fashion, films, and technology. I also want to be known for just being a guy who was always able to look ahead, do things differently, and not compromise integrity.