In March, Moguldom Media (a company that owns several brands you love in addition to consulting and creating all over the Internet media space) dropped its most ambitious project yet, a documentary entitled A Genius Leaves The Hood: The Unauthorized story of Jay Z. It purported to provide insight and commentary on the grand-old tale of Jay, whose rags to riches story is one you could have carved directly out of a Horatio Alger story.
The documentary (although unauthorized by Hov himself) got takes on the myth and the man from former associate Jaz-O, famed former head of The Source and BET Kim Osorio, and label executives Bill Adler and Chris Atlas as well as collaborators like DJ Clarke Kent, radio personality Combat Jack, and one more. A guy who happened to be employed as Roc-A-Fella’s videographer and own personal fly on the wall: Choke No Joke.
Having had the opportunity to view the fall of the house that Dame, Biggs, and Jay built from the inside, Choke holds a unique position as witness to what brought the former New York conglomerate to its knees. So, approaching the 18th anniversary of Reasonable Doubt (June 22), and in lieu of the documentary in which Choke No Joke received an associate producer credit, HipHopDX reached out to the former “Roc” employee to try and get his take on what tore apart one of the most beloved record labels in the history of Hip Hop, and maybe, even, why you can’t place blame squarely at the feet of Dame Dash.
Choke No Joke Explains His Involvement “A Genius Leaves The Hood”
HipHopDX: You guys got Jay from few different perspectives. How did you come to be involved in A Genius Leaves The Hood: The Unauthorized Story of Jay Z?
Choke No Joke: The film is done by a company called Moguldom, and they contacted me to be in the film as far as the interview process goes. Then they got me more involved seeing that I knew so much information, and that’s how I got on as a producer. Then I brought some more elements to it, and that’s how it happened.
DX: When did the process for this begin?
Choke No Joke: Last year…2013. They were working on the film, and they brought me in. It was definitely summertime, and it was shot over a course of time. I came towards where they were doing the part of the breakup of Roc-A-Fella, and when they were at that stage of it, that’s when I was brought in.
DX: From your perspective, what’s the difference between Shawn Carter and Jay Z?
Choke No Joke: We all know Jay Z, but we don’t know Shawn Carter. That’s the difference. Only one is public, and the other is a mystery.
DX: Do you think that part of Jay Z’s persona is growing out of situations (like Jaz-O), and moving on from situations that no longer push him forward?
Choke No Joke: You can be one place in your life, and then people go to another level and not see eye to eye. You’ve outgrown your friends. I’m sure there’s people that you were really tight with when you were younger and you couldn’t even see yourself hanging with them right now. Whether good or bad, for whatever reason, people and relationships change, so I wouldn’t say he necessarily left us back. Their time was their time.
DX: The breakup of Roc-A-Fella seemed to be caused by multiple sources at the time. Can you speak on what those issues were?
Choke No Joke: Mostly, money, ego, and women.
DX: Was that over a particular woman? What do you mean by that?
Choke No Joke: Several women. There’s always women involved when it comes to getting in between guys. I don’t wanna say nobody’s name in particular, but women come between guys. And if you look at it, look at pictures, you’ll see women that were around Dame and us. And you’ll see them weeks or days later in pictures with Jay. And that was at a time when they weren’t dealing with each other.
Choke No Joke Recalls The Early Days At Roc-A-Fella
DX: In the early days, it must have been quite difficult. Can you just take us back into what it was like then, and talk about what the energy was like in the room at the time?
Choke No Joke: It was great, it was a great learning message for me in business. It was like I was in a business school everyday, and I learned how to market, promote and produce. I was already producing and directing, but I learned it on a bigger level. I learned contracts. I learned negotiating with labels. All just from being around these guys and being in meetings with Kevin Liles and the Def Jam staff, I learned a lot from that. It was like going to business school, and being around Dame, he was like a teacher. It had its bad points with egos and people’s attitudes, but ultimately I went around the world, I hung out with people like Naomi Campbell, hung out and spent time in Victoria Beckham’s home out in London. I learned a lot. I learned how to deal with people from different cultures and different countries. So it was a great lesson.
DX: Dame recently cast a wide net in calling out people who he feels aren’t supporting Kareem “Biggs” Burke. Was that also a direct reference to Jay?
Choke No Joke: There’s so many people that that could be directed at, because they know a lot of people. It could be directed at Jay, it could not. It could be directed at anyone, maybe Emory, or some of the other guys, but who knows? He should’ve just said it. But ultimately, nobody owes Biggs shit, because for one, Biggs is a grown man. He knew what he was doing. He knew he was doing illegal activities, if he’s guilty of it and… Jay’s not in the streets hustling anymore. Dame’s not in the streets hustling anymore. And even those who are out there, if he out there getting money on his own, and he gets pinched for it, then he gotta man up, do his time, and come out. He can’t expect nothing from nobody. Unless they was a part of his operation. If they ain’t a part of his criminal activities, then he shouldn’t expect nothing from nobody. I don’t even know why Dame’s doing that like he’s a political prisoner or something. He went to jail for doing something illegal. People got love for him, but nobody owe him nothing. He’s got to do his punishment for the crime that he did. I don’t condone praising people that go to jail for illegal things, like they did something good, and then when they come out, people are waving a flag and cheering for them like, “Oh, they came home. Yo, my man home.” You went to jail for something wrong, why are you praising him? Hopefully he won’t go back. Just rehabilitate and learned his lesson.
How Jay Z Emerged As A Business, Man
DX: Do you honestly believe that a lot of the characteristics that make Jay who he is started with him dealing drugs?
Choke No Joke: Yeah, definitely without a doubt.
DX: Why do you think that?
Choke No Joke: Because I’m from the street, and I have the same characteristics. I know the things that we learned from the streets applies to the business as well. And, the only thing is we have the street savvy part that those who don’t… We’re able to read people quicker in and see situations quicker because we have to always be on our toes. So, yeah, that’s a way that his street savvy is definitely part of his business savvy.
DX: How do you think he’s been able to stay satisfied with everything he’s already accomplished so far?
Choke No Joke: Because, you can see he always wants to be number one. He always wanted to do things that other people weren’t doing. And, to do that, you gotta have more than what the average person has. So you already seen he had the Cristal when people were drinking Moet back in the day. They had yacht’s in their video when other people still didn’t probably even leave the block yet. So, he already got that ambition. We all know that.
DX: Jay Z is a mogul, legendary rapper, and an extremely shrewd business man, but who do you think knows the real Shawn Carter?
Choke No Joke: Ah, Beyonce. His mom, his family. I mean, Dame used to know him. Now he’s probably not that same guy. John Meneilly. There’s a few of ‘em. There’s a few of ‘em that really knows him like that. Ty-Ty. These people really know him like that.
DX: Jay comes off as cold-hearted, but from talking to you it seems as though the people around him almost make his decisions for him. What would you say about that? Do you think the flack he’s gotten is justified?
Choke No Joke: Yeah. I mean, a lot of the stuff is justified to me. Like I said I had an incident with him and it didn’t turn out right but it wasn’t his fault. It was Dame’s fault. So, his actions were justified in one way. It might have come out wrong, but I couldn’t be mad at him.
DX: Can you just provide some insight into what the relationship between those two were?
Choke No Joke: Dame is very business savvy. A lot of the daily operations of Roc-A-Fella or Rocawear were run by Dame. Jay Z really controlled Jay Z business, and I’m sure that he had to sign off on certain things after a certain period of time. But it was really Dame that was running everything. That’s why when they split, even though Jay had Kanye, or Kanye was successful in his own right, Rihanna, and a few others that were successful, the Roc-A-Fella brand itself diminished. The main part of the machine, which was Dame, wasn’t there anymore. And a lot of the artists ran with Jay because he’s a celebrity, the star power and money. But If they were smart, they would’ve went with Dame, because he was more there for the daily operations and making sure their projects worked. Other artists, they learned the hard way by going with Jay and seeing that it wasn’t getting that same manpower that they was getting from Dame. Dame was the dude that was sitting there shoveling the coal into the oven, and Jay was always doing his thing. When it came to the daily operations of Roc-A-Fella Records, Rocawear clothing line, even the film companies, Roc-A-Fella films, Dash films, Dame was the heart behind it. That’s why you see everybody fell to the wayside once that split happened, because Dame got blackballed. So anything that touched Dame, or came through Dame wasn’t going to work anyway. And those who were with Jay saw that they weren’t getting the attention that they were getting from Dame. Jay learned a lot of business from watching Dame.
Why Choke No Joke Says Dame Dash Forced Jay Z’s Hand
DX: So you think Jay Z was justified for doing what he did?
Choke No Joke: Yeah.
DX: And you think people who have a problem with what he did are also justified?
Choke No Joke: Oh, well, like you said a lot of people are looking at it from the outside in. They don’t know the real dealings. So, in some situations he came off wrong. It’s like if a person is standing in front of me and you and I steal his wallet. Just by either one of our appearances, they would say that one of us did it. If you standing behind with the hoodie on, and I got the suit on, right off top the person is gonna think you did it. And, say if it’s a female and she just turned around and smacked you in the face. Is it justified? Was she wrong for smacking you [laughs]?
DX: As far as the split, didn’t Dame see the handwriting on the wall?
Choke No Joke: Not at first. Because he was too caught up in himself during that time. Like Jay said something in “Lost Ones.” “Shoulda stayed at food and beverage / Too much flossing, too much Sam Rothstein.” Dame went from the office to wanting to be in front of the spotlight. His ego got out of control, and he kinda lost focus. He was a CEO and not the artist. He wanted to become the artist.
DX: Do you think being CEO of Def Jam was Jay’s plan to go his own way all along? Or, do you think the beef with Dame necessitated that action?
Choke No Joke: Nah, I think that the situation forced his hand. He had to start thinking about himself and his career. And, get out of that homeboy—you know, keeping it real with my homies from back in the day attitude—because you outgrow people. So, I think, once he started seeing… He was looked at it as a group, and that wasn’t his personal characteristics that he had to the side and start thinking for himself.
DX: Hov’ has taken pains to change his image over the years. How do you feel about that?
Choke No Joke: When you do better, you know better. And when you know, better you do better. Why would he be still doing the same thing?
DX: Do you think that image change was also part of his plan?
Choke No Joke: Of course, because a lot of people in this industry are intimidated by the perception of what they know of somebody that came from the streets. So, you’re better off walking into their office in a suit and tie than in a hoodie and jeans. They’re gonna be more intimidated—thinking you got a gun on you, as opposed to you just come in there to do business. You gotta put these people in a comfort zone, and they’re not comfortable with our image of being street guys. And, what comes with that image is guns, shooting, drugs… That’s all Hip Hop was, especially back in that era. So, Jay is this guy from the projects and they’re gonna expect a project nigga to walk up in there. He gotta throw ‘em off. He’s gotta let them know that they can speak to him. They can shake his hand and not be scared. They can speak freely and not be intimidated. And, how you do that is you put the suit on. You put the costume on. Look at Dame, Dame still dresses…
DX: Dame still dresses urban. Why do you think he didn’t make the switch as well?
Choke No Joke: He may look at it as being corny. You know, he ain’t gotta do that for people to accept him. He don’t have to be a sell out. He don’t have to dress like that everyday for people to accept him because he’s talented. But, you get further with honey than shit.
Choke No Joke Claims Beyonce “Upgraded” Jay Z
DX: Do you think in some way Jay Z has sold out?
Choke No Joke: Nah he didn’t sell out, he grew up. That ain’t sellin’ out, it’s growing up. Do you think that’s sellin’ out?
DX: No, I don’t.
Choke No Joke: The dude is 45-years-old or older. You really expect him to be walking around with Nike Air’s on and his jean saggin’? I don’t dress like that.
DX: From an African American perspective, it’s important you change that perception of yourself. Yet Steve Jobs walked around in jeans and sneakers…
Choke No Joke: There’s a whole bunch of people that’s rich like that and do that because that’s just their lifestyle. Like, they got it, so they don’t have to show it. You know, like me. I drive a nice car, but it ain’t a Benz or a BMW because I don’t like to breed jealousy and envy because of where I’m from. So I’ll drive something that’s expensive, but it’s not something they think is expensive. What do you expect for a man in his 40’s to be dressing like? And you’ll still catch him in Timbs and jeans, but on a business level, who do you want walking in representing you? Do you want omebody dressed like Dame or somebody dressed like Jay? And if his success is him selling out, I don’t see where he sold out. He didn’t put no dress on yet. He ain’t got no lipstick on. You know, that’s selling out to me. Kevin Hart gettin’ on SNL and putting on a dress is selling out to me. Jay Z becoming a grown man, wearing suits and doing grown man shit is not selling out to me.
DX: A lot of people think Beyonce legitimized Jay Z in the mainstream culture…
Choke No Joke: Yeah, she did. Jay Z isn’t the Jay Z he is now without Beyonce. She upgraded him. She took him to the next level, and she made him more pop. Standing next to her… If she’s the biggest thing, and he’s next to her, it’s only going to benefit him. It probably hurt her a little bit. But being that he turned out to be a good guy and people like them together, you know, it worked out for him. And that’s part of the reason that he had to change his image…because he had to stand next to her. He couldn’t be looking like Tupac on some thug shit next to this person that they perceive as a princess.
Choke No Joke Speaks On What Jay Z Means For Hip Hop
DX: Can you sum up how hard it was for to Jay to be that genius that leaves the hood?
Choke No Joke: Just him getting out of the streets is a great accomplishment in itself. For the doors to be slammed on him constantly as far as getting a deal. Nobody wanted to sign him. But he found ways of going independent and then getting a major deal to having a successful label as an artist and as a CEO. To branch off into different ventures and be so influential in his career and his image that he could do anything, then go off and leave… not leave the music but branch off from the music and get into other ventures as far as technology like with the Samsung thing and sports management… It don’t make him like a genius genius, but to overcome all that adversity, what else could it be? He was a genius for leaving the streets because look where it took him.
DX: Do you think Jay Z is a genius?
Choke No Joke: No, not in the way of someone that’s very, very very intelligent like an Einstein or someone that can play 40 different instruments…not that kind of genius. But a genius in the way that he made all the right decisions to get up to where he’s at to where he may even see a billion dollars one day. As far as getting out of the projects, come on, you gotta give him something no matter how he did it.
DX: It’s a rags-to-riches story, man. It’s an American dream story.
Choke No Joke: Yeah, definitely that.
DX: Do you think Jay Z is the best rapper of all time?
Choke No Joke: No. He stole from too many artists to say that. He is the artist to have the longest… He’s the definition of longevity. For somebody that has rapped, you know… You knew him from the ‘80s to be where he’s at now and still be on the charts and have a song like “Holy Grail” with Justin Timberlake… That’s a big record. He’s definitely one of the best when it comes to longevity, but I don’t think he’s the best rapper of all time.
DX: For you, who is the best rapper of all time?
Choke No Joke: To me? I would say Biggie, to me. Even though his time was short, I would say his wordplay, his originality, his concepts. Him not staying away from other rappers. The double album. So he has to be definitely one of my greatest. The other would be Eminem.
DX: How far do you think Jay Z can go, and what do you think Jay Z means for Hip Hop?
Choke No Joke: I think he can go really far. He’s opening more doors and making it more acceptable for us. Getting into sports management opened the door for other people like him. Hov can go as far as he can go to open doors for people to accept us in different arenas. The sky’s the limit now, and I think he’s got a lot more in him, and he’s going to come with more things that are going to shock us.
DX: What do you think Jay Z means for Hip Hop?
Choke No Joke: A blueprint for independence.
DX: Do you think he and Dame will ever work together again?
Choke No Joke: No.
Choke No Joke: They had their time and he’s been successfully without working with him. So, one day maybe they’ll be cool, but there’s no need to do business.