What's the Demo: Revisiting JAY-Z's Original Demo

The barrier of entry into Hip-Hop is much easier than it was in the '80s and '90s —thanks to both the Internet and technology — which can turn a living room, into a studio. As a result, newer artists haven't been forced to craft demos to catch the attention of A&R's who still prove to be the gate keepers to success in many situations

As part of a recurring series that explores the demo tapes that took MC's from unknowns to superstars, we continue with none other than JAY-Z.


An exploration of JAY-Z's early history usually involves his connections to JAZ-O and his appearance in the music video for "Hawaiian Sophie." However, JAY-Z was recording songs before his time with JAZ. In fact, some of his earliest work finds his partnered up with Sauce Money who would go onto appear on JAY-Z's debut, Reasonable Doubt, on the DJ Premier-produced "Bring it On."  In My Lifetime, Vol. 1's "Face Off", and  Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, on the track "Reservoir Dogs" with The LOX and Beanie Sigel.

His early songs see him honing a quasi-double-time rhyme scheme that would figure in his Reasonable Doubt days and slowly disappear from his style all together. From a conceptual standpoint, "What's In a Name" is quite inventive as he used the name of popular rap groups like Nice and Smooth, Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, and more to build out a narrative. It's indicative of songs with a similar approach that came afterwards like Masta Ace's "Soda and Soap."

I'm struck by just how effortless a young JAY-Z can rap. It's both laid back, and frenetic. There are countless bars where he takes his sweet time building toward the rhyming stanza, then he rushes it at the last moment to put a little extra seasoning on the top. Some have jokingly referred to this style as, "figgity-figgity”-style flows.

"Broken English and Drug Sellin' — built upon A sample of the Boogie Down Productions’s song "My Philosophy" — is unquestionably the demos highlight. While it's unclear if this song pre-dates Biggie's "10 Crack Commandments," it's unquestionably cut from the same cloth where selling drugs can be viewed through a business-minded lens.

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