This is weird. I was at the laundromat waiting on my clothes to dry when next thing I know the local Fox affiliate station is teasing a documentary about Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt. I thought I misheard the news anchor until 10:30 struck and I’m hearing “Dead Presidents” blasting through the small television speakers anchored above the washing machines. I’m thinking this must be the Tidal documentary released over the summer because we’re four months past the official 20th anniversary of Jay’s first magnum opus. I mean, there’s no way Fox 5 NY is airing a brand new Reasonable Doubt documentary on a random Wednesday night in October. But that’s what the station did and boy was it full of interesting little factoids about Jay Z’s debut for any stan.
Reasonable Doubt: 20 Years Later is the brainchild of Hot 97’s Megan Ryte, who wanted to do something special for the 20th anniversary of her favorite album. So she got in touch with a couple of people who had a hand in creating Jay Z’s 1996 album. DJ Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Emory Jones, Kareem “Biggs” Burke and even Dame Dash, who was notably absent from Jay’s Tidal documentary, appear and share previously unheard stories on the making of the album. One of of the many gems dropped in the 20-minute mini documentary was how Jay Z influenced The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya,” which in turn influenced a few of Jay’s most classic records.
It all started when DJ Clark Kent was on the road with Big. The legendary producer said for months he would obnoxiously talk Big’s ears off with just how much better Jay Z was than the Bad Boy rapper. “My man’s the illest! You good, Big. You know I think you good. You my man,” Kent recalls telling his friend. “I wouldn’t be out on the road with you, but [Jay Z] is that deal.” With Kent constantly ranking Jay above him, Big went in the studio wanting to prove the producer wrong. Jay Z be damned, he was the nicest out. The rapper later returned with one of his hardest verses ever.
I seen the light excite all the freaks
Stack mad chips, spread love with my peeps
N*ggas wanna creep, gotta watch my back
Think the Cognac and indo sack make me slack?
I switches all that, c*cksucker G’s up
One false move, get Swiss cheesed up
Clip to TEC, respect I demand it
Slip and break the 11th Commandment
Thou shalt not f*ck with nor see Poppa
Feel a thousand deaths when I drop ya
I feel for you, like Chaka, Khan I’m the don
P*ssy when I want, Rolex on the arm
You’ll die slow but calm
Recognize my face, so there won’t be no mistake
So you know where to tell Jake, lame n*gga
Brave n*gga, turned front page n*gga
Puff Daddy flips daily
I smoke the blunts he sips on the Baileys
On the rocks, tote Glocks at christenings
Hammer cock, in the fire position and…
“We go back to the airport the next morning to get back on the road and he has the big boombox and he’s playing [the second “Who Shot Ya” verse] and goes, “I’m not the illest?!” And I’m like, ‘Woooow!’ But I was like, ‘Dog, that might be the hardest rhymes. You’re harder than [Jay-Z]… you’re not nicer than [Jay Z].”
Big spitting GOAT-esque verses on “Who Shot Ya” compelled a 26-year-old Jay Z to also bring his A game. After all, iron sharpens iron. Especially at a time when the city was buzzing with talent ready to snatch the King of New York crown..
Kareem “Biggs” Burke got a hold of the Bed-Stuy rapper’s song and was so blown away that he immediately called Jay Z and told him that he had to hear the Hitmen-produced song ASAP. “We met on 125th street and 2nd Avenue [in Harlem] and he got in the car,” remembers Biggs in the documentary. “I played the song and we listened to it and Jay just put his head against the headrest and we played it five times. And Jay was like, ‘I gotta take this tape.’ He was like, ‘I need this.’”
Jay was right. He did.
With the vicious “Who Shot Ya” as a powerful motivator, the songs that came next from the Marcy project hallway loiter would end up being some of his and rap’s greatest records since Wonder Mike up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie the beat. “He took [the tape] and days later [Jay Z] had ‘D’Evils,’ ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle,’ and I believe, ‘Can I Live.’ Like, that’s what inspired him to make those songs,” Burke candidly revealed.
The friendly, competitive fire that each MC inspired in the other wound up birthing what would later be considered classic material. In a rap world where Hova’s stood at the peak untouched, it makes perfect sense that only “Brooklyn’s Finest” rapper could inspire Jay to make his best work.