Kareem “Biggs” Burke on How ‘The Black Album’ Made His Brother Immortal
JAY-Z’s The Black Album was supposed to be his last before retiring from the rap game. And so, in late 2003, he laced his musical retirement party with hip-hop production royalty and a singular idea: one producer, one song.
But they weren’t just any producers: for his 14 gems, JAY tapped an unrivaled roster of all-stars — the Neptunes, Just Blaze, Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Rick Rubin, Swizz Beatz, Kanye West, Trackmasters, Eminem, DJ Quik, Ski and Timbaland — while adding newcomers 9th Wonder, the Buchanans, Aqua, and Joe “3H” Weinberger to the mix.
On his 8th — and what he purported to be his final — album, JAY-Z wasn’t taking any chances in his quest to leave at the top of his game. (Thankfully, the retirement was short-lived.)
November 14, 2018 is The Black Album’s 15th anniversary. It has been and continues to be a game changer in hip-hop, with JAY sharing his most introspective songs to date — and spitting his bars with a razor-sharp delivery.
For Kareem “Biggs” Burke, a co-executive producer on the album and one of the co-founders of Roc-A-Fella Records, the album’s release was a bittersweet moment. Just two months prior to the album’s release, Biggs learned his older brother Robert ”Bobalob” Burke was murdered in the Bronx, forcing him to remove himself from early recording sessions to cope with the loss. Realizing how high the stakes were, Biggs returned near the album’s completion.
TIDAL recently met up with Biggs at the Classic Car Club in Manhattan to share his thoughts on The Black Album. Wearing Paper Planes and Pumas, Biggs was reserved as he spoke about the recording process and how a verse dedicated to his brother in JAY-Z’s “Lucifer” made him feel — then and now.
Do you remember the last time you played The Black Album in full?
Honestly, I think I was in prison at the time. I was able to sit with a lot of the music that we created and look at it from a different standpoint. So it was more reflective.
I was a lot removed from the industry at the time, so I got to enjoy it again. And listening to the music now, it puts me back into all those different memories of creating these projects. It’s a lot of fun memories.
Looking back at the producers, it’s a star-studded line-up. What do you remember about getting beats from the likes of Just Blaze and Kanye West?
Well, Just Blaze and Kanye were people he worked with through the years. Timbaland and Pharrell as well. And Bink! These were probably the five that rotated the most with any of the Roc-A-Fella music period. You got a good relationship with these producers and a good formula.
And at that time, those producers know what JAY likes. They know the cadence they want him locked in. They know what’s going to get him to be most creative, and also push him at the same time. When JAY is pushed, he usually comes out with great music.
As the co-executive producer, what did you help JAY with? Your brother Kyambo ‘Hip-Hop’ Joshua once said that his job was to help JAY be the greatest. What was your job?
I think to help the company be the greatest. So once JAY releases these projects, it was how to market it and how to cross-market it across all the other brands that we had to make sure it was successful outside of just music.
What was the marketing strategy at the time?
We were trying to do something a little different. Some of the stuff didn’t get used, but I remember us doing something like a globe CD. Like it was going to be round, like the casing, but we couldn’t get those to sit inside of retailers. But it was something that you kind of twist and open up and there’s a disc inside.
We had a lot of ideas. I don’t remember the full deck [of ideas], but I seen it about a year ago. Our company actually did it. We had a marketing company called Native, and we actually came up with a lot of those ideas.
What’s a song off The Black Album that really moved you?
The song that I was probably most moved by was ‘Lucifer.’ I wasn’t around the whole time of The Black Album because my brother just got killed. ‘Lucifer,’ the last verse, it was actually about my brother Bob.
It’s so funny because a lot of people today say that’s one of their favorite songs, but they don’t understand who he is talking about. They love the beat, and they love how JAY is flowing on it, but I don’t know if they really understand the lyrics.
At that time, it actually angered me because just coming in the studio and hearing that… And now that the album has aged, I am able to appreciate it and I love the fact that he kept my brother’s memory alive.
Were you angry because it was a sensitive subject for you?
It was definitely a sensitive subject. I remember they played that song last for me. They wasn’t sure whether I wanted to hear it or not. I was like, ‘Just play it.’ I remember walking out the studio not in the best feeling. But it’s been quite a long time that I definitely appreciated JAY did what he did for my brother.
Was there a lot of urgency in creating this album?
Yeah, because we were trying to hit that fourth quarter for the date. I mean creatively, when Hip-Hop and JAY is in the studio, you almost know it is going to be a classic. When Hip-Hop brought the concept, and bringing ‘99 Problems’ and Rick Rubin to the table, which is his all-time favorite producer. I think he was the one who came up with that idea to have that collab happen. But at the same time, I’m sure Hip-Hop probably picked out 80 percent of those tracks that was on the album.
Rick Rubin was an interesting choice for JAY. When you first heard ‘99 Problems,’ how did you react?
Again, those are the things that push JAY. So, it brought him back to that Beasties Boys type of era and him playing two characters on the song. But that matched so evenly. I thought it was genius what he did. Even now, when I see him perform the song, it’s just like, ‘Wow.’
You know, when you don’t rap, you look at, ‘How did these guys come up with these ways to make these songs?’ But not only that, but to come up with different characters and change their voice at the same time. Creatively, I think that was one of JAY’s best songs that he has ever done.
Recently, DJ Premier said he was supposed to produce the whole album but it never panned out.
I know JAY always wanted to do something with one producer. I’m not sure if Premier was the one. We know Premier, he only comes in the 23rd hour. So Premier wants to hear the whole album done, hear what the other producers did, and then when you have 36 hours to turn the album in, Premier will give you the beat at the 34th hour and you gotta call your lyrics [laughs], rush to get all the retailers and all this shit. And send the music out.
At that time, we were sending A&Rs to all the plants around the country because of the bootlegging that was going on. That was my job to try to cut down the time that the bootleggers were getting the music. I decided to send A&Rs all across the country to each plant. We probably saved – two weeks [moving the release date] – about $30 million in bootlegging.
On ‘My 1st Song,’ JAY shouts you out about going to St. Thomas: ‘Biggs, whassup?/Member we went to St. Thomas and uh/Your dog peed on homie leg and shit.’ What happened?
Our second video ‘In My Lifetime,’ when we went to St. Thomas, this guy who had the house where we shot the video at, he came out to show off with these big Rottweilers. The whole time he is trying to show off. His parents house, and that was the boat we also used in the video.
He came out with this huge Rottweiler. He was like, ‘You see this? You see this?’ And the dog peed on his leg. Everybody just fell out laughing hysterically. That’s what JAY was referring to, when the dog peed on homie’s leg.
What’s your favorite song right now from the album?
My favorite song on that album is ‘Allure.’ The picture that he painted with that was so authentic and so real. You know, sometimes JAY paints a complicated picture, where you gotta put the puzzle together. But that one, I think it was something that spoke to everybody and every neighborhood no matter where they was living. ‘Cause sometimes JAY talks over people’s heads. But that one was so level playing [field] that it kind of struck the heart. And the track was the Neptunes – from the track and everything Jay said on it, that was the one that stood the test of time. That’s a lot of people’s favorite.
I can’t imagine a world where this album is JAY’s final album. Where would hip-hop be if we didn’t get 4:44, American Gangster, Magna Carta…Holy Grail, among others?
Wow. I think 4:44 was definitely a classic. We are going to know where it stands probably in a few more years. That’s when you really know when these things stand the test of time. You know, years later if you’re still gravitating toward listening to it. But American Gangster is definitely, for me, arguably No. 1.
I would say Reasonable Doubt and American Gangster. I actually say Reasonable Gangster. You know what I mean? I got a playlist and I put them together. That’s tough. Or Watch the Throne, that collaborative album with [Kanye West]. Dude still put out three classics after that. I don’t know where hip-hop would be. It would be an empty feeling.
How do you feel about JAY working with new legends like Drake and J. Cole?
I’d like to see more of it. Even though he’s younger than JAY, I would love to see him with Kendrick [Lamar]. I would love to see JAY with Saint JHN. I would love to see him with Anderson.Paak. He’s dope. Sheck Wes. I love Saint JHN. I think he’s the best new artist of 2018. Shout out to you Saint JHN, the clipper!
You’ve been a part of this landmark album and made history. Can you tell me your biggest takeaway from it?
I think the song on the album, the takeaway was ‘Encore.’ It was a song that when you heard it and you realize this could be his last album, it almost brought tears to everybody’s eyes. It was done so masterfully. The lyrics, what he said on it, and what it meant to hip-hop.
Again, as he performs that now, you just kind of feel it. It’s that rock & roll song that I think that’s going to live forever. Just like any of the Bob Marley classics. ‘Encore’ is the takeaway for me. Kanye did an excellent job on it too.
I also think the producers knew they had to bring their A-game.
Yeah. It’s the same thing. When you put JAY with other artists, everybody has to bring their A-game. When JAY rapped with Beanie Sigel, he always knew he had to step it up. And they always knew they had to match wits.
It’s the same thing with producers. When they know the other guys got tracks on the album – and trust me, producers always want to come in and say, ‘Yo, let me hear what you got’ – and they hearing the other producers with all these fucking crazy beats. So they have no choice but to step it up. But at the same time, these are all primetime producers. This is what they live for. Swizz [Beatz] didn’t make it on there? I’m surprised. That’s probably the only other one that could have been in the pocket on that album too.
How did the album change your life?
At this point, now I am able to listen to something and that would bring me back to every good memory I had of my brother. Although there are some sour ones too, like when JAY says, ‘I got dreams of holding a nine milla to Bob’s killer.’ I could see myself in that role too. I’m at a place of forgiveness right now. So it also reminds of that and that I gave my life to the lord. So there’s a bittersweet ending to that song but I think it is more sweet than bitter.
Why do you think The Black Album is still an inspiration in hip-hop today?
It’s an album that stood the test of time. And at the time, it was supposed to be JAY’s last album. It was actually the last album that I executive produced with him. He put everything into that album knowing that he was leaving.
You know, it’s that shot with Jordan against Utah [Jazz] when we thought it was the last one and he crossed him over and hit the shot. He’s leaving the game on top. That’s the feeling it gave us with The Black Album.
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