When you think of Jay-Z, there are a few things that come to mind. GOAT. 17 platinum albums. 14 number one albums. Tidal. Beyonce. “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man”.
But what a lot of rap fans don’t know is that Jay started off as an unsigned artist, and his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, was released independently by Roc-A-Fella Records via a distribution deal with Priority Records. That’s right, Jay-Z, who is now a hip hop billionaire and the culture’s symbol for wealth, started out hustling tapes out of the trunk of his car.
It's like '93, '94, 'bout the year That Big and Mack dropped and Illmatic rocked Outta every rag drop, and the West had it locked Everybody doing them, I'm still stretching on the block Like "Damn, I'ma be a failure" Jay-Z - "This Can’t Be Life" (2000)
During the late ’80s to the mid 90s, Jay was grinding his way through life, one foot in the drug game and the other foot trying to work its way into the music industry. But while other New York artists like Nas and Big were getting signed and starting to blow up, Hov had trouble convincing label heads that he was the next big thing.
After countless meetings and rejections, Jay decided to go the independent route, linking up with Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, to form their own independent label, Roc-A-Fella Records. They inked a distribution deal with Priority Records shortly after and released Reasonable Doubt on June 25, 1996.
During a year that saw huge rap releases from 2Pac, Nas, Snoop Dogg and the Fugees, Reasonable Doubt was a modest commercial success, peaking at number 23 on the Billboard 200 and selling just 43,000 units in its first week. But the album’s second single, “Ain’t No Nigga”, was a hit and created a lot of buzz for the upstart label.
Not long after, Def Jam came calling and offered Roc-A-Fella a 50-50 partnership and distribution deal. Hov’s sophomore album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, became his first major label release and fare much better commercially than his debut, selling 138,000 copies in its first week and going platinum in a little over a year.
Kareem “Biggs” Burke: 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.Jay Z’s ‘Reasonable Doubt’ Turns 20: Kareem ‘Biggs’ Burke Reflects On the Hip-Hop Classic | Billboard