Guest Star: "Jay-Z's Not Gonna Give Up Personal Stuff That He [Doesn't] Want To" -Mark Binelli
Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 3:50PM
I'm a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine and they typically come to me with story ideas and I can also pitch stuff too, but usually when it's a big celebrity story, editors at magazines know what they want to cover.
For example, they might come to me and ask, "Hey, do you want to write about Lady Gaga?" and I can say yes or no and so with Jay-Z, they asked me if I wanted to do a feature on him and I said yes right away. I think he's one of the more interesting people who is sort of big enough to actually end up on the cover of the magazine and that's the problem with a lot of cover stories. People who are popular enough to be on a cover, sometimes but not often, aren't always the most interesting to interview as a writer so you're kinda like, "Well, it's the cover, but, I really don't care about this person." But in the case of Jay-Z, he was somebody that I was very interested in trying to learn more about and really getting readers into what his life is like, especially with him because he's so private.
I spoke with him very briefly years ago, probably about four or five years ago and I think he had just taken the gig as president of Def Jam and that band The Killers had just come out. They were playing a show in Central Park. I was sort of in the backstage area and Jay had showed up with Lyor Cohen from Universal and they both had rode over on their bicycles which was really kinda a trip. So I talked to him really briefly and just asked him what he thought of Killers but I had never done a real interview with him.
When it comes to covers, you really have to negotiate as much time as possible which is what an editor does and so this was over a couple of days in New York. The first part of the interview took place right after his photo shoot, I met him at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. We rode over to this restaurant in the Village and did the first part of the interview there and the second part was when I met him in his office where we went to this watch auction and then we had dinner afterwards. For me I found it is usually good if you can negotiate enough time which is the nice thing about Rolling Stone, people are usually willing to give you more time. If you try to do a sit-down interview all in one session, that's like an hour to an hour and a half, you're kinda tired as an interviewer and the person talking is tired of talking about themselves. It's nice if you can break it up and come back the next time and then you can look at your notes and see a million things you forgot to ask.
In person, he's one of those celebrities where if you hang out with him, he's actually the way you'd expect him to be. He has this extraordinary level of confidence and he kinda controls the room just because he is so at ease with himself. He puts everyone else at ease but he also has a very commanding presence, it was really easy to hang out with him. He also seems like a very sweet guy and generous with his time but also, there's very much a wall. At first, before he began to feel more comfortable with me, you can tell he's kinda doling out only so much information. He's been doing this for a while, he's not gonna give up personal stuff that he's not gonna want to give up. And that's pretty fair enough.
As far as what to ask Jay-Z, there are certain things like the tour and new record that you sort of have to ask to them, what everybody is talking about, and stuff about his relationship with Beyonce, it's just well-known he won't talk about it. I sort of got stuff out of him in a round about way, I think that's how I was able to do it but I didn't even bother to ask him head-on like, "So, what's your marriage like?" When you look back at past interviews and you see he did "Oprah" and Oprah wasn't able to get anything out of him about Beyonce, that's just like there's no way he's gonna say these things to me. For stuff like that, when I was talking to him about his art collection, it's just a natural question for me to ask, "Oh, what does your wife think about your taste in art?" I think by that point, we hung out enough that I wasn't trying to trick him or anything or sneak in questions that would make him uncomfortable, it was just a very natural question.
I was very happy with the way the Rolling Stone piece turned out. I think the whole thing turned out really well with Jay and him talking about Kelsey Grammer was funny and it was just a funny night and from my perspective, I was really happy with the way it turned out and I've gotten a lot of good feedback from people so I think it was a good one.
Mark Binelli is a writer and contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine. His new Jay-Z Rolling Stone cover story is currently on newsstands.