While his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, was a critical darling and his sophomore, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, went platinum, it wasn’t until his third album, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, that Jay-Z became Jay-Z.
Back in ’98, Jay-Z was a successful New York rapper, but he hadn’t broken through into superstardom yet. Meaning, he wasn’t on Puffy’s multi-multi-platinum level of success yet. Which explains why he was on the No Way Out tour, opening up for the Bad Boy head honcho. Joining him on the tour was also one DJ Kid Capri, who happened to have an instrumental recently produced by The 45 King.
“When I came out for my second set of the night on the No Way Out tour, I would start with [the instrumental version of] “Hard Knock Life,” Kid Capri told Grantland. “Fans were running up saying, “How did you get the Annie song behind the drums?” It was mostly white people coming up to me. I knew from the reaction I was getting that it was really working. By the third or fourth show, Jay Z rolled up and asked me where I got that from.”
Pairing a sample of “It’s the Hard Knock Life” from the 1977 musical Annie with a bouncy baseline, the instrumental instantly caught Jay’s ear and he had to have it. Kid Capri linked him up with The 45 King and the two knocked up the record real quick.
“That’s one of the songs that was always like a conversation for me,” Jay-Z recalled in 2014. “It’s not anything to think about. The chorus already dictates where the song should go, what should be said. I probably did that song in maybe five minutes.”
With the record done and dusted, there was only one thing left to do – clear the sample. To make sure it all went through smoothly, Hov wrote an embellished letter to the musical’s composers about how much the song meant to him.
Jay Z: I decided to write the company a letter myself. 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 writer a trip to the city to see Annie. 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.The Oral History of Jay Z’s ‘Annie’ Anthem, ‘Hard Knock Life’ | Grantland
“Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” ended up becoming the biggest hit of Hov’s career to date, and it powered the album into a multi-platinum seller. With over 5 million copies sold, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life remains Jay-Z’s best-selling album of all time, and it’s all thanks to that letter.
“Jay found a chemistry with a mainstream sample that allowed him to be Jay Z,” former Def Jam executive Kevin Liles said. “The song made him accessible from Brooklyn to Arkansas to Paris to London to Germany to the world. It brought a more diverse audience and provided the platform for further acceptance to his greatness. He became more than our culture’s best-kept secret.”