Boom Boom. Boom Boom. The beat thumps through the speakers. Four seconds in, the words of a man with a Colombian Scarface accent sets the tone with his threats.
“Ah shit, okay, okay, alright. Big man! You wanna make some big bucks, huh? Let’s see how tough you are. You know something about cocaine? Be a man!”
Transitioning smoothly into the laid back sounds of the Knobody produced piece as a young Mary J. Blige starts harmonizing through the beat. “Can’t Knock The Hustle” becomes the theme of an album accurately named Reasonable Doubt.
“I’m pretty sure at first people will listen to that song and go, ‘Okay, he’s talkin’ about hustlin’ — whatever, whatever,’ Jay-Z said. “But I’m not. [It was written] at a time when hustlin’ was my life. So rap was the real hustle for me — a means of goin’ outside of my realm. I’m tellin’ all the hustlers, ‘Don’t knock my hustle. Let me do this rap thing. That’s my way out. Just let me go.’” -Vibe
The year was 1996. Hip Hop is in a fragile, yet special space at this time. Death Row Records was currently on top of the genre following the release of 2Pac’s first album on the label, with the double disc LP, All Eyez On Me. We’re right in the middle of the famed east coast/west coast beef, three months before 2Pac is gunned down in Las Vegas.
It was a special year up to this point. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony had just reached the #1 spot with their smash hit single “Tha Crossroads,” and its classic video, which paid respects to the recently passed Eazy-E, and others. As for the east coast, Busta Rhymes had released his first solo album since the messy and infamous break up with Leaders Of The New School led by the single “Woo Hah, I Got You All In Check.” Meanwhile, The Fugees were standing on top with their classic album, The Score as hip hop fans anticipated the sophomore release of Queensbridge’s own Nas as he geared up for the follow up to a classic album of his own in Illmatic to release It Was Written.
Somewhere in between the shadows was an MC from Brooklyn named Jay-Z. You know, that guy with the Hawaiian shirt in the music video with his (former) friend Jaz-O. That skinny guy with the big lips and low haircut who hangs out with Notorious B.I.G. Known in the streets for his freestyling ability, he, Dame Dash, and Kareem “Biggs” Burke decided to rebel from trying to be accepted by major record labels and instead do things on their own by creating Roc-A-Fella records. An album named Reasonable Doubt would be the first project to be released after scoring a distribution deal with Priority.
“Roc-A-Fella came about out of frustration. Through shopping deals [unsuccessfully I realized], A&R’s can’t really feel what I feel. My music wasn’t something really simple. It was something people had to really sit down and listen to. So with the record company being the bridge to reach the people, I was like ‘Man, you know, we gonna build our own bridge.’”-Vibe
The rollout for the project, originally named Heir To The Throne, began in February of 1996 as the buzz in the streets began growing with the release of “Dead Presidents.” Using Lonnie Liston Smith’s “A Garden of Peace,” Ski Beatz took Nas’ lyrics on “The World Is Yours,” and created a classic.
“For me, when I made the ‘Dead Presidents’ beat, I first heard the Nas record [‘The World Is Yours’]. I was inspired by the music,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yo this is dope!’ so I just went into the crates and tried to find something which made me feel like that and I found the Lonnie Liston sample and I threw Nas’ sample on top as a tribute because I loved the song so much. Jay heard it and he was like, ‘this is dope,’ and went on to write ‘Dead Presidents’.”-Ski Beatz.
It was a song that helped allow Notorious B.I.G. to give his co-sign.
DJ Clark Kent spoke on having the first and second versions of “Dead Presidents” on repeat while touring with The Notorious B.I.G. Singing Hova’s praises, Big and the rest of the tour bus were sick of hearing Kent say that Jay could out rap the King of New York. When Big finally gave a listen to the aforementioned tracks, he changed his tune. “After Big heard that, this is before they met to do ‘Brooklyn’s Finest,’ he was like, ‘Clark, that dude got it. He got it. He got it.’ That let me know that I wasn’t crazy.”-Clark Kent
While “Dead Presidents” had the streets buzzing, his second single “Ain’t No Nigga” became the radio friendly single he needed. He recruited a then 15-year-old girl named Inga Marchand who will later become Foxy Brown to rap on the track. It would appear on the soundtrack of The Nutty Professor and help facilitate a deal with Def Jam Records who later bought 1/3 of Roc-A-Fella records for $1.5 million.
“I produced that whole song. Like I wanted to do “Seven Minutes of Funk.” “Ain’t No Woman,” I had crazy problems with Jobete, which is Berry Gordy’s [publishing], over the lyrics. But I just put that song together in my mind. I didn’t know anything about making a hit. I thought they would play “Dead Presidents.” “Dead Presidents” was the A-side! That goes to show how much I know. The B-side was the one that made it to the soundtrack.”-Jay Z
With an A & B side as perfect as that, it was time to release the project. On June 25, 1996, Jay-Z released his first album Reasonable Doubt.
It’s original tracklist looking like this:
The original Reasonable Doubt tracklist. Ima need to hear some of these tracks that didn’t make it. pic.twitter.com/8QI6hsCKgh
— Keyser Soze (@insightbar4bar) January 19, 2014
As much as the project is cherished today, the feelings weren’t as mutual over 20 years ago. Critics did seem to like the project, but it wasn’t as critically acclaimed as it is today. The Source initially gave the project four mics (before going back and changing it years later). Writer Charlie Braxton wrote:
“Overall, Reasonable Doubt is a very solid LP. And while many around the country may want to indict Jay-Z for his gender politics and violent content, I seriously doubt if any of them would have a chance of convicting the brother for dropping a wack album”-The Source
Meanwhile Vibe wrote at this time in 1996:
“Reasonable Doubt, may arguably be the most misunderstood album in hip hop, its critics cannot deny its classic presence.”
Within a crowded jungle of artists, which included superstars such as 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, amongst many other was a hidden gem from a skinny kid who had grown up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn named Jay Z.
Reasonable Doubt didn’t receive the love it deserved until 1998, when Hova became one of the biggest names in the genre following the release of Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life. His debut album reached number 23 on the Billboard 200 and charted for 18 weeks. It sold 43,000 copies the first week, and didn’t get certified platinum until February 7, 2002, proving that it isn’t all about numbers.
“When I said Reasonable Doubt was going to be my first and only album, I meant it. ‘He made one album then, puff, he’s gone with the wind.’ I feel like I was saying something that was ahead of its time…The (metaphors) that I hid in there-people still come up to me and say, ‘I just realized what you said.’ Coming off the streets, you got Reasonable Doubt. That album was just carefree.”-Jay-Z
Let’s be grateful that never happened. Happy anniversary Reasonable Doubt.