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Jay-Z’s Rock Hall of Fame Speech Shakes the Dust Off With the ‘Audacity of Hip-Hop’

“Growing up, we didn’t think we could be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We were told that hip-hop was a fad,” rapper said

CLEVELAND, OHIO - OCTOBER 30: Inductee Jay-Z speaks onstage during the 36th Annual Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on October 30, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kevin Kane/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame )

Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Jay-Z, one of rap’s most innovative and trailblazing stars, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Saturday, Oct. 30th. 

The rapper earned his Rock Hall spot on his first year of eligibility, as his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, turned 25 in 2021. Over the past two-and-a-half decades, Jay has regularly set the standard in hip-hop and pop culture writ large, from classic albums like The Blueprint and The Black Album, to timeless hits like “Hard Knock Life,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Izzo,” “Empire State of Mind,” and “The Story of O.J.”

And while his discography is untouchable, Jay has also been a pioneer outside the music realm. He became hip-hop’s first billionaire in 2019 thanks to his dealings in fashion, sports, and music streaming. In recent years, he’s also used his platform to become one of music’s most prominent voices for criminal justice reform. 

Thank you, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, for this incredible honor. And you know, growing up, we didn’t think we could be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We were told that hip-hop was a fad. Much like punk rock, it gave us this anticulture, this subgenre, and there were heroes in it. When thinking about what I was going to say tonight, these heroes just kept coming to my mind, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One and Chuck D, and, of course, a fellow inductee, LL Cool J. I watch these guys, and they have big gold chains and leather and sometimes even the red, black, green medallions and whatever they wore, everybody would wear the next day. I was like, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be like those guys.” And so I set out on my journey. …

Shout out to Gloria Carter in the house, she bought me a green notebook. My sister, Annie, right there, she told me to say that she wrote my first rap, but I actually wrote her first rap. … She has a really nice hat on tonight and I want everyone to acknowledge that, right? Now back to rock & roll. And I would sit at the table and write all these raps and then I would go out in the street and I would try these raps out, have battles in the street and… I would go to Ty Ty and be like, “Yo, I’m the best, I’m telling you. I’m the greatest. Well, one of the greatest, I don’t want no problems, one of the greatest, one of the greatest.” And I’d go to Ty Ty and say, “Yo, I’m the greatest.” And Ty Ty would be like, “Yeah, you are the greatest.”

I look back at some of those raps and it was like… it was trash. But somehow we knew. And then I went and recorded a demo with — shoutout to Clark Kent Brooklyn DJ, legendary Clark Kent — and I recorded a demo and I went to every single record company. And you know what they say, right? “That shit is trash.” But the audacity of hip-hop, we didn’t believe them. I for not one second got depressed. For one second, I didn’t change my course. He was like, “We’re going to create our own company.” That’s hip-hop.


Shout out to Dame, I know we don’t see eye to eye, but I can never erase your accomplishments. And I appreciate you and I thank you for that.  Shout out to Biggs. He was one of the most honorable people I’ve ever met and we’ve created something that will probably never be duplicated. I appreciate you guys. Thank you for my journey. Thank you. Thank you [for your] contribution to this journey.

So we made an album, Reasonable Doubt, and we came out and we sold about no copies. We thought we made the greatest thing of all time. I actually remember at a Soul Train party, I run into LL — you know LL says “bananas” a lot — he said, “Yo, ‘Can I Live,’ that’s just bananas.” … I was like, “Wow. Like, you know, one of my heroes is like repeating this thing back.” So I knew I was on the right track.

And then we dropped the second album. Oops. It was actually a great album. … Some of those records are some of the best records I’ve made, but then I was reaching, I got too ambitious and I was doing some things that I shouldn’t have been doing. And again, those heroes helped me again. I thought back to, you know, what made them so great. And what made them great is they was a hundred percent authentic to who they were. LL, he opened up the doors for us to be vulnerable. … He’s a hardcore rapper. He also made “I’m Bad,” singing “I Need Love.” He gave us emotional intelligence.

And then KRS-One, he was a teacher. And at the time. it wasn’t even cool to be smart. Like if you had a book, they’d be like, “Look at this n-gga with a book!” He made it cool for us to have books and be smart. So I could carry my little green notebook that my mom bought me, I could carry it around the projects because of KRS-One. Rakim, Rakim gave us knowledge itself. He had a big vast vocabulary and never cursed. So I was like, “How is he saying all this rad shit without cursing?”

And Chuck D, he gave us social commentary. He gave us social commentary and that shit was slapped. All the songs were amazing. Like slappers. Like “911 Is a Joke” and “Night of the Living Baseheads.” And Big Daddy Kane, he was just like a black exploitation film walking. …  It was like the blackest person of all time. So I was like, “Oh, I got it. I got to be a hundred percent authentically myself.”

So we shot a film. We made a film called Streets Is Watching and went right back to our roots. We got to our roots and I figured it out. “OK,  I got it. My next album.” You know, we were orphans in America. That’s who he was. And in these ghettos of America, mother America had abandoned us and we were ghetto, but we were orphans, and it was like, “Oh, I have to speak. This is who I have to speak for. Ghettos all around the world. I have to speak for them.”

And we didn’t have our fathers around. So not only would I have to be an orphan, I had to be Daddy Warbucks, too. So I made a song called “Hard Knock Life.” Right. And that set the course of what I would do for the rest of my career. …

And then I got a phone call and it was like, “Hello? Jay?” I got to work on my Obama accent. And he called me and he said, “You know, it’s the fourth quarter. We’re down two. I need you to assist me, give me the ball, I’m Michael Jordan and I’ll get this done. I need you to go to Miami, Philly, Atlanta, and Ohio. And I thought like, “Man, hip hop was really an agent for change and how amazing is its reach that this man is calling me to help out when he campaigned.”

I thought, “N-gga, I’m Michael Jordan.’ That’s what I really thought. But I met him in Ohio and we won. We got it done here in Ohio. That just shows me the power of hip-hop, the power of these heroes who let me know that these things are possible. Shout out to Kendrick, who is a beautiful person. Hopefully [I’m showing the] next generation that anything is possible. I don’t know what’s next. In fact, I do know what’s next. I have to go to court. Life is about balance, but you know, tonight, I enjoyed tonight. I appreciate this honor. Sorry for this long-ass speech.

From Rolling Stone US