Posted on June 27 2016
ROC-A-FELLA CO-FOUNDER KAREEM "BIGGS" BURKE SHARES THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND JAY Z'S 'REASONABLE DOUBT'
The Roc's silent partner recalls "95 South," "Hot" and other songs that didn't make the classic album's final tracklist.
Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt wasn’t instantly crowned a rap classic when it was released 20 years ago on June 25, 1996—it took some time. But now, Hov’s debut album is widely considered one of hip-hop’s greatest works.
At the helm was Jay Z himself, and his partners Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke. Together they started Roc-A-Fella Records, the independent label where Hov released Reasonable Doubt and set the foundation for a two-decade-long career that includes just as many rap accolades as it does business benchmarks.
“It was actually supposed to be Jay’s last album,” Burke tells Genius ofReasonable Doubt.
Now, he runs a new clothing line called Fourth of November and is celebrating the anniversary of Roc-A-Fella’s maiden album withReasonable Doubt-themed pop-up shops and commemorative album merch. He invited Genius to his showroom to give the backstory to a true rap classic.
Biggs met Jay through Dame, but it took some time for him to become a fan. “I actually didn’t really like Jay’s music at that time,” says Biggs. “I wasn’t impressed.” That would quickly change.
Before RD, Jay mostly rhymed with a fast, tongue-twisting rap style. It may sound strange today, but it was a popular rap style in the early 1990s thanks to groups like Das Efx and Fu-Schnickens. “It probably wasn’t until I heard ‘In My Lifetime’ that I knew he was that guy,” Biggs says.
At first Jay and Dame shopped around for a record deal, but didn’t find any takers in the major label system. That’s when they approached Biggs to start their own Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995. “They was like, ‘Look, we’ve been trying to get this deal but we think the better play is to do it ourselves,’” he remembers. “I gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse and we put it together.”
After establishing the Roc, Jay and company inked a distribution deal with Freeze Records through Priority, then started working on the LP.
Hov was in a zone lyrically, laying tightly woven street raps over soulful samples chopped by producers like Ski, Clark Kent and DJ Premier. Tracks like “Can I Live,” “Feelin’ It” and “Cashmere Thoughts” painted a picture of an opulent lifestyle with rhymes about high-end fashion, expensive cars and platinum jewelry. Much of the glitz was a reflection of Biggs’ influence.
“I was the one wearing Iceberg clothing,” Biggs says. “Before we droppedReasonable Doubt I actually bought a platinum rolex and a Range Rover that same week.”
There were specific lyrics that Burke influenced as well, like on “Can I Live” when Jay rapped: “We don’t lease, we buy the whole car as you should.”
“I used to say that all the time and then Jay took it and put it in there,” Biggs says. “I wouldn’t say I wrote for Jay or anything like that but he took some slick talk we were saying and put it [in the music]. That was our influence on each other.”
Now, 20 years later Burke reflects proudly on the influence that Jay Z and his Roc-A-Fella crew left on the world.
“Making that album, it was just the here and now. We knew we were making a great piece of work… but we didn’t know that album was going to have the impact that it did. And it was going to branch out the way it did and be the beginning of something that was going to make history,” he says.
“It branches off to Kanye West who now has G.O.O.D. Music. If we didn’t have Kanye West, there would be no John Legend and Big Sean andDesiigner, who’s relevant today. So this album kind of stretched out in all these different facades is now reaching the millennials.”