Want two VIP tickets to Jay-Z’s sold-out opening night show at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, followed by a private meeting with the hip hop don a few days later? No problem. Just buy a piece of Judaica and live in his old stash spot, the 560 State Street apartment building immortalized in "Empire State of Mind." Yes, this is a multi-culti Brooklyn hip hop tale for the ages.
At 6:30 PM on Friday, September 28, I was leaning against my apartment building, the very building Jay-Z put on the map when he name-dropped the address in his chart-topping anthem with Alicia Keys. In the song he recites his street hustler-to-rap icon story, made possible only in his hometown: "Took it to my stash spot, 560 State Street," he rhymed of his old pad, where, in the late 1990s, a young Shawn Carter sold drugs and worked on the music that would be his ticket off the streets.
That Friday I was doing what most Brooklynites in my ‘hood were doing: staring at the Barclays Center, the borough’s beautiful new arena, and imagining how dope it’d be to see Jay-Z christen it. Not two hours later I was on the VIP line, standing next to Dave Chappelle, collecting my two tickets to see the Jigga-man himself tear down the house he (sort of) built.
How did all this happen? It all started with a phone call from my brother-in-law, Nate Fish. Our exchange went like this:
Me: Hey Nate.
Nate: Yo, do you have a menorah?
Me: What? Yeah, of course. Why?
Nate: Cool. JAY-Z needs it backstage.
Nate said this like it was a normal request, like he's often involved with lending religious items to the most famous pop stars on the planet (he is, in fact, not). But, as it turns out, Nate's good pal and high school classmate John was producing the concert series at Barclays and was tasked with locating a menorah, STAT. Knowing Nate was a devout Jew, who had even played for the Israeli Baseball League (he’s the King of Jewish Baseball), John made the call.
Nate continued...: Amit, you understand why they need the menorah, right? Get it? Eight nights. Eight candles.
Let me pause to explain what a menorah is for those who may not know: It's a nine-branched candelabrum lit each night during the Jewish holiday, Hanukah. It commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple some 2,200 years ago in Jerusalem. Now Jay-Z and his team wanted to light one candle for each night of their eight-concert run, held in their own Holy Temple. So, already feeling a kinship with Hova from my chance living at his old residence, I jumped at the idea.
I told Nate to hook John and I up. I figured, Hey, maybe I wouldn’t be able to see the opening night concert, but knowing my menorah would be burning bright for Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the band backstage, warmed my heart. I was filled with joy and a certain bad-ass pride in knowing that for all eternity I could point to my shelf and say, “See that menorah? That bad-boy was lit backstage at Jay-Z’s opening show at the Barclays Center. That menorah is a legend."
I rushed home knowing only that John was going to stop by in less than an hour to pick up THE menorah. When he arrived right on time, my wife and I handed him the menorah and a few fancy Hannukah candles, both of which were wedding presents. I thought, 'If not for Jay-Z, then f--king when?'
John thanked us and told us the menorah was a blessing. "And to thank you," he said, "We’re gonna hook you up with two VIP tickets. Sound good?"
My wife and I almost pooped matching boxes of matzah.
And so with our menorah lit somewhere backstage at Barclays and Jay-Z killing it on stage, my wife and I sat in the heart of the new arena and took in the show of shows. It was truly epic (read Fuse's full concert report and see live photos).
Four days later I received an email with the words "560 State Street" in the subject line. It requested I get in touch with Radical Media Production Company right away. What the hell is this? Was hip-hop lightning striking me twice in one week? Yep. The producers for the upcoming Ron Howard-directed documentary on Jay-Z, called Made In America, were hoping to shoot footage of Jay (yes, now I call him Jay) at his old stash spot apartment. The email asked: Was I willing to sign the location release? Duh. When the universe wants you to hook Jay-Z up, you listen.
At around 4 PM on Thursday, October 4, just days before closing his Barclays run with Beyonce (buy the live EP), Jay-Z walked through the interior courtyard of my building flanked by a camera crew, producer and bodyguard, and climbed the stairs to apartment 10C. (Turns out, despite reports by New York Magazine and Village Voice claiming otherwise, Jay-Z's old apartment wasn't mine, 10B, but actually next door, 10C). There, Jay-Z knocked on the door and took the crew on a brief tour of his old place. He pointed out where he slept, how he had the place set up with music equipment and where he worked on some of his hip hop masterpieces in the late '90s. (Also, FYI, the building manager once told me that Jay-Z was a good tenant: "There were never any noise issues," he said. "He was respectful of his neighbors.")
From there, the crew went back down to the courtyard, where Hova opened up on camera and reminisced about his life and times at 560 State. He spoke about his music as a "gift"; he spoke about his genius-level talent, which he feels all people have, explaining that it's up to the individual to discover what their unique talent is and nurture it at all costs.
He went on to say that 560 State was where he first started gaining real momentum in hip hop. It's where he realized that he needed to cut out all the other sh-t in his life (read: selling drugs) and focus on his passion. Once he applied himself, and dedicated all his energy into the music (rather than the street), things started moving quickly. He remembered that in those early days, rap was a real family affair. He employed his friends to fill all the needed spots in his developing empire: If you were talented at drawing, then you were in charge of artwork. Good with logistics? Now you're booking shows.
While waiting for roof access, a few lucky residents got to chat with Jay-Z and snap a pic or two with him. His ability to normalize a rather unreal moment and focus his attention on each of us was both humbling and powerful. One hears of those rare mega-stars who possess a zen-like quality, this equilibrium of power and grace. Jay-Z has it.
While we waited, he spoke about how much 560 State had changed over the years–"these trees weren’t here," he said. None of this was. He pointed to the impressive Viking grills that now lined the back wall of the courtyard, and joked about the make-shift grills he and his boys used to set up for cookouts. He thanked a young lady for coming to his show and told her she had a beautiful energy about her. He wrapped his arm around a couple and their toddler, thanking them for allowing him into their home. He spoke gently to a precocious little boy on a scooter, telling the boy he had an old soul and intelligence about him.
During my brief exchange, I brought up the menorah and said how great the opening night show was. He thanked me and said he’d try to take a picture with the menorah backstage. I also got the above photo snapped. I’m the one on the left.
From there, Jay and the film crew finally headed to the roof for more shooting. From that vantage point, he could really take in the sheer magnitude of the Barclays Center just across the street. To the east he'd see Bed-Stuy and the Marcy Projects where he was raised. He stood there solemnly gesturing to the camera with his arms. If life is about dreaming big, never forgetting where you came from and nurturing your genius, I can’t imagine a moment more powerful for him.
Amit Wehle is a Brooklyn-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.