How Jay Z used his drug hustle to build a billion-dollar empire as he turns 50

Jay Z was never going to settle just being one of the greatest rappers to ever touch the mic.

Sure, he wanted to be an icon but his ambitions were far bigger than a standard rap career would allow.

Being known for his business-mind was just as important to Hov as his lyrical prowess.

‘A rapper’s life is about three albums, the average rapper. There are special cases but three to five percent of artists have a successful career. That’s crazy, right?’ a young Jay Z said in a throwback interview from the early 90s.

‘Rappers, they have a lot of power, me following all the companies that’s before us… hopefully, this is a trend,’ he added.

Clearly, Hov was always one step ahead of the game but even a 25-year-old Jay Z would probably laugh at the reality of him sitting on a $1 billion (£769 million) empire on his 50th birthday today (4 December).

‘I know about budgets. I was a drug dealer,’ Jay Z explained in a 2013 interview with Vanity Fair.

‘To be in a drug deal, you need to know what you can spend, what you need to re-up. Or if you want to start some sort of barbershop or car wash — those were the businesses back then. Things you can get in easily to get out of [that] life.

‘At some point, you have to have an exit strategy, because your window is very small. You’re going to get locked up or you’re going to die.’

Still for all his ambition, Jay Z knew reaching that first billion would be a mountain to climb.

Years later in an interview with The Guardian in 2010, he was asked who was wealthier between him and Warren Buffet, to which he humbly scoffed: ‘Are you joking? He’s a multi-billionaire. They expect me to have my first billion by 2015.’

Well, Forbes were a few years out on that one as Jay Z was announced as the world’s first billionaire rapper in June 2019.

But he still made it.

His relationship with money has played out throughout his extensive catalogue of music, going from rapping about his drug-dealing hustle and selling ‘dope’ to educating young black men on how to manage their wealth on his most mature album yet, 4:44.

In one of Jay’s most iconic verses on You Don’t Know, he raps: ‘If somebody would have told him that Hov would sell clothing? Not in my lifetime, I wasn’t in the right mind / But that’s another difference that’s between me and them, I smartened up, opened the market up.

‘One million, two million, three million, four / In 18 months, 80 million more / Now add that number up with the one I said before, You are now looking at one smart black boy / Mama ain’t raise no fool, Put me anywhere on God’s green earth, I will triple my worth…’

The business lesson gets a little deeper on Jay’s 2017 album 4:44.

He raps on The Story Of OJ: ‘You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit.’


He then goes on to tell us how ‘Jewish people own all the property in America’.

‘Financial freedom my only hope, f**k rich livin’ and dyin’ broke / I bought some artwork for one million, two years later, that s**t worth two million…

‘Few years later, that s**t worth eight million, I can’t wait to give this s**t to my children / Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine, but I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.’

Hov’s not all talk, of course. He’s proven his business acumen with his ever expanding and diverse empire of companies.

The main staple of his portfolio being Roc Nation, the successful entertainment label he co-founded in 2008 with his business partner Jay Brown.

You know, the little company responsible for Rihanna’s modest career.

But before that, Jay Z’s baby was Roc-a-Fella. In 1995, the Brooklyn, New York native used money from his deal with Payday Records to start his own imprint alongside Damon ‘Dame’ Dash and Kareem ‘Biggs’ Burke.


The label pretty much hit the ground running with the release of Jay Z’s debut album Reasonable Doubt cementing him as one of rap’s most promising stars.

Roc-a-Fella went on to produce most of Jay Z’s chart-topping albums and the majority of Kanye West’s work. When the label shut down in 2003, Roc Nation was born and the other arms of his empire soon followed.

Roc Nation Sports arrived years after, while his swanky New York City nightclub 40/40 is still going strong today. Seriously lucrative brand deals with D’Usse cognac and Armand de Brignac champagne have also helped to boost his billion-dollar fortune.

And not to forget the divisive streaming service Tidal, which he bought for a cool $56 million (£43 million) in 2015 before selling his majority share for a staggering $200 million (£154 million).

With all that in mind, there’s no denying that his relationship with pop superstar Beyonce made Jay Z seem more commercially attractive. Their marriage allowed him to escape the confines of being ‘just a rapper’, but to becoming one-half of an entertainment power couple.

They also know how to make a pretty penny from touring. The Crazy In Love hitmakers’ On The Run II Tour in 2018 grossed an eye-watering $253.5 million (£194 million).

So basically, Jay Z set the blueprint (pun very much intended).

Or as he famously once rapped: ‘I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.’

Happy 50th Birthday, Jay Z. Keep hustlin’.

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