Rap isn't just about the mean streets, anymore. The message is more about the bottom line than the racial line and the audience is overwhemingly white. Rap has now surpassed country music as the nation's second-most popular genre after rock and roll.
Jay-Z is clearly the reigning king of rap. He owns his own record label, clothing line and movie production company, generating almost half a billion dollars a year in sales. It's no coincidence that he named his record label Rocafella.
It's an amazing achievement for a man who grew up in one of New York's toughest housing projects. He's living the 21st Century version of the American dream, straight out of the 'hood.
Fifteen years ago, Jay-Z says, he had no idea that he would be a wealthy superstar. He was just surviving. "I had no aspirations, no plans, no goals, no back-up goals. Now, at 33, Jay-Z has already sold over 15 million albums and his personal fortune is above $50 million.
He's making much of that money by bringing hip hop to the heartland. Jay-Z's breakthrough hit was a bizarre mixture of rap and the Broadway musical "Annie." It sold more than 5 million copies.
According to Lyor Cohen, who distributes Jay-Z's CDs, more than 80 percent of those sales were to suburban white kids. As the chairman of Island Def Jam records, Cohen has made hundreds of millions of dollars selling rap music to suburbia.
"Sixty-five percent, maybe 70 percent of all of rap music sales are purchased by white people," says Cohen.
At 33, Jay-Z has already sold over 15 million albums; his personal fortune is more than $50 million. When Simon first met Jay-Z at his studio, he was sitting alone, humming to himself. That's how he writes songs.
Jay-Z has produced a new album every eight months for the last six years. He doesn't write down any of his lyrics before he records a song. It's a feat of memorization that came from necessity.
"I used to get ideas and I used to be running around, I used to be outside. I wasn't nowhere where I could write. Sometimes I used to run in the store, write 'em on a paper bag, put it in my pocket. But you only can put so many paper bags in your pocket, you know - and so I had to start memorizing," he says.
Many say Jay-Z has the best lyrical flow of any rapper – that is, his ability to match his words to the music.
Can anyone else do it the way he does? "I haven't heard no one do that," he says.
No one combines art and commerce quite like Jay-Z. On his summer tour, it was clear how he promotes all his products: the other artists on his label, his clothing line and his movie production company - all on stage. It was one giant commercial.
First, he previewed his new movie "Paid In Full." Then he promoted all the rappers on his label. For the finale, company president Damon Dash demoed their newest product, Armadale vodka - Rocafella is now in the liquor business. It's not just selling music; it's selling a lifestyle.
According to Dash, Rocafella Records makes between $50 and $100 million a year. Rocafella Films made between $50 and $100 million last year. Rocawear clothes made more than $100 million last year, and will make $300 million this year, he says. Dash wants more: "I want to be a $1 billion company."
One day recently, Jay-Z boarded a corporate jet to Albany, N. Y. Being a corporate chieftain means performing for a completely different audience. This time, it's the suits at a company called Transworld, which owns and operates nearly 1,000 record stores across the country, including the Strawberries, Coconuts and Camelot chains. The mean streets have come to Main Street. The two cultures have a compelling common cause: making money.
Jay-Z wanted to generate excitement about his new album, which is called "Blueprint II: The Gift and the Curse." How did the middle-aged retail execs respond to Jay-Z's latest? They tapped their fingers, and at the end of the song, they applauded.
Life wasn't always so sweet for Jay-Z. He was born Shawn Corey Carter in 1969. He spent his childhood in the Marcy projects of Brooklyn. His father left him when he was 11. He was raised by his mother, Gloria Carter, who recently came back and gave Simon a tour of the old neighborhood. She retired from a clerical job a few weeks ago. She never told her colleagues she was Jay-Z's mom.
She says she never suspected that her son would be a superstar? She only realized how successful he was at a concert two years ago.
"Little girls were fainting at Jay-Z and they were screaming and I just stood there and I was, like, 'He's really a star.' And of course some of my friends was there also and they was like, 'Duh,'" she says.
She says she likes most of his music, but she wishes there was less profanity. Hearing this, Jay-Z laughs.
"But that's a reality, that's a reality," she adds. "And that's the kind of society that we live in as far as these people, these kids, are concerned."
At one point when he was growing up, she says, she was really worried about him, because of "the elements."
The elements she's talking about were crack and crime. During the 1980s, the Marcy projects were among the most dangerous places in America. Jay-Z often writes songs about his time there, including the day he shot his older brother in the shoulder for stealing his jewelry. He was 12 years old.
The lyrics to that song say: "Saw the devil in your eyes, high off more than weed, confused, I just closed my young eyes and squeezed, what a sound, opened my eyes just in time to see you stumbling to the ground."
Simon asked him to talk about it. "I wouldn't feel comfortable talking about that on TV, it's not cool. That's a bit over the line," Jay-Z said.
The height of the crack epidemic was a rough time, Jay-Z says.
"Pretty rough time for everyone, like, especially in that neighborhood, it was a, it was a plague in that neighborhood, it was just everywhere, everywhere you look. In the hallways. You could smell it in the hallways."
"Back then, it was like, I would say it was, like, two things, like, it was either you'z doin' it or you was movin' it," he says.
"And you was moving it?" Simon asked.
"I was – yeah ? I would, what, what you consider a hustler," Jay-Z said.
"Drug dealer?," Simon said.
"That's a harsh word, yeah, yeah," Jay-Z said.
"Did your mom know you were dealing crack?" Simon asked.
"No. She had a lot of trust in me, she gave me a long leash, and she let me, you know, learn on my own," he says.
"The story goes that when you got to the end of the leash, and you were dealing drugs, somebody tried to kill you. Is that right, or is that" Simon asked.
"Yeah, I was shot at before," Jay-Z said.
In fact, he was shot at three times, from just six feet away. Miraculously, none of the bullets hit him. It was then when Jay-Z traded in the crack game for the rap game. It was nothing new to him. He'd been rapping since he was a kid. In fact, he was the neighborhood champ. But nobody would sign him. So together with Damon Dash and some friends, Jay-Z started selling CDs out of his car. That's when he started Rocafella records. The rest is history.
Some have said that the success of Rocafella comes from its hustler mentality. Dash agrees: "Entrepreneurial, hustler, say it whatever you want to say it, just that hunger to make money, and to make your situation better."
But just as Jay-Z was beginning to be recognized as an entrepreneur, he fell back into his old hustler ways. In 1999, he stabbed record executive Lance Rivera at a nightclub. Police say he thought Rivera was bootlegging his music. He was sentenced to three years of probation.
Jay-Z says the incident was a wakeup call, "let me know like it could just all go down the drain, like it could all be taken away from you." He says something like that will "never" happen again. Since the stabbing, Jay-Z went on to make four more successful albums.
Before Simon left, Jay-Z asked his engineer, Guru, to play us one last song, to let us know how far he had come. It was a rap that sampled and reworked Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
"That really is good stuff," Simon said when the song had ended.
"It makes sense, it's not just hippity-boppity-skee-bop," Jay-Z said as Simon laughed.