"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Wednesday, April 15, 2009,10:49 AM
Awesome capture!
How Bay Area phenomenon Flickr has managed to create a feel-good route to photographic fame and fortune (or at least a few hefty checks in the mail) and turn scores of isolated amateurs into a network of admired professionals.

By Dale Eastman, Photograph by Merkley

Flickr members warned Deborah Lattimore to be careful, that what she was heading for was the Internet equivalent of crack. With two grown sons she adores and an oral-history transcription firm she has patiently nurtured for 26 years, Lattimore, 54, seems too responsible to get caught up in an obsession. But when she hits on certain topics—politics, animals, family, and travel—her awestruck tone hints at her susceptibility to a mad passion. So it’s not a total surprise that in 2005, soon after she joined the wildly popular photo-sharing site, which now has 35 million members and more than three billion images, her life began to unspool.

Lattimore had taken photographs from an early age, but she’d never set foot in a photo class and didn’t understand things like shutter speed or aperture. But within weeks of joining Flickr, she was effortlessly wielding the digital camera one of her sons had bought her and regularly heading to the shoreline of Pacifica, where she lived, to shoot the iridescent fish that washed up onto the sand. That led her to the Serramonte farmers’ market in Daly City, where she’d arrive early to take dozens of extreme close-ups of fish eyes. She rarely left her house without her camera, and she always had backup disposables in her car. Eventually, even a casual walk became a potential source for her next photo—after which she’d rush home, upload her images, and wait anxiously to read the comments from other members. “It was an addiction, for sure,” she says now.

During two years of this intense exploration, Lattimore posted some 1,500 pictures (up to 20 per week) to her photostream. Something else was happening, too—something many amateur shooters fantasize about, but that Lattimore never consciously set out to accomplish: She was morphing into a successful photographer. Instead of just sharing pictures with family and friends, she was confidently negotiating user rights and making sales to a dozen or so companies and organizations. The largest was to Pearl Izumi, a Colorado-based sportswear company that paid her $4,000 for an image of a runner that it spotted on Flickr and then displayed on its website and on 50,000 apparel tags.

And almost from the start, Lattimore became a minor celebrity within the Flickr ranks. Whenever she uploaded a new image, she would be inundated with gushing praise from fellow members, some of whom also tried to elicit her secret. “This is genius. How did you get the idea?” asked one of nearly 15,000 viewers who eventually checked out the striking image Lattimore posted in 2005 of a bright green apple she was holding in her purple-gloved hand. Even as Lattimore was typing, “thank you!” others were signing on to ask which camera and lens she’d used to take the shot, which has become something of an icon within the Flickr universe.

Lattimore’s is not the only Cinderella story on Flickr. French member Eric Lafforgue, a 44-year-old manager of a multimedia company, had done only a little amateur photography before he joined the site in 2006. But he got such a huge response to his photos of Papua New Guinea tribesmen that he submitted them to Kubik Éditions, a French publisher that released 150 of the images in a striking coffee-table book. One of his shots even made the cover of National Geographic in Taiwan—“the dream of every photographer,” he says. Icelandic art student Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir first created a frenzy on Flickr with her self-portraits, then later with her long-exposure landscapes and her color-saturated shots of otherworldly horses. Then she won an assignment from Toyota to shoot its Prius print campaign in Iceland. There are so many other tales like these—including those of Bay Area Flickr members like the artist known as Merkley, who has earned tons of assignments and an enormous cult following for his stylized nudes, and Erin Malone, a savvy tech-head whose work was featured on KQED—that it sometimes seems as if anyone who joins Flickr will inevitably land assignments and acclaim.

Last month, the chance for that kind of success shot even higher when Getty Images, the first and largest company to sell professional photographers’ work online for commercial use (known as stock photography), began offering thousands of Flickr images to its customers—advertising agencies, magazines, newspapers, and websites—in a prominently branded section of its home page. The company even pays Flickr photographers at the same rate that it pays pros. Given Flickr members’ mostly amateur status, as well as the snapshot nature of up to 95 percent of their photos, some professionals scratched their heads when Getty announced its partnership with the site last year, which gave the company the right to mine all of Flickr’s public photographs. Several naysayers even suggested that all Getty had landed was a black hole of clichéd images, and that it would surely require millions of dollars and just as many hours to uncover the gems, if any even existed. But Getty had been watching Flickr carefully over the years, so it seems more likely that the $2.4 billion company saw something that casual visitors had missed: Alongside all those shots of cute puppies, colorful flowers, hot cars, and romantically backlit couples is an enormous reserve of fresh, good—and even great—images by a huge new pool of talented photographers.

How did this happen? How did an uncomplicated photo-sharing site become the go-to place for a new generation of commercial images and a new kind of commercial photographer? Somehow, Flickr went from being a place where everyone from soccer moms to frat boys could post shots to being a worldwide force within the photography industry. It now operates as an enormous social network where members share images and personal support—something Lattimore would come to appreciate when she was diagnosed last year with breast cancer—and as a form of art salon–cum–photo school. George Oates, Flickr’s former chief designer, says that over the years, she’s noticed many examples of people who “joined Flickr with a crappy camera phone, just taking bad photos of their mates on the couch.” But as time went on, she says, there was a transition. “Suddenly, they were looking at the light a bit differently, then maybe they bought a better camera, and eventually they turned into proper photographers. And I use those words very deliberately.”

With no small amount of controversy, Flickr has also created a whole new career ladder for aspiring photographers. For generations, the established art world nurtured the idea of the photographer as a lone wolf, and the photograph as a singular, rarefied object produced through laborious work. But Flickr has enabled instant feedback among millions of people, regular group meet-ups, and an almost endless source of images and information about photography equipment and craft. The speed and, in some cases, perceived cheekiness of the process have startled and even offended some observers. Virginia Heffernan, of the New York Times Magazine, wrote in a piece about Flickr that San Francisco photographer Merkley “might have amounted to nothing in analog times, when elaborate deference to institutions, hard-won group shows, and expensive years spent in unnoticed toil were the only way to success.” What Heffernan seems to have missed is that now, even traditionally trained photographers—people who years ago might have raised an eyebrow at the site’s unorthodox methods—are using Flickr to get ahead.

But the site’s biggest impact has been on hobbyists like Lattimore: people who never dreamed they’d one day call themselves full-time photographers—not because they lack desire or talent, but because of all the time, networking, and money that becoming a respected photographer has generally required. Lattimore still runs her oral-history business to pay her bills, but she now considers herself primarily a photographer and loves to tell her tale to the beginners she teaches in 4-H clubs. “It’s great, because they can relate to the idea of being spontaneous, of not having a background in a subject but just forging ahead passionately and having fun. That’s what photography is all about for me, and I think Flickr is the perfect vehicle for that expression.”

It feels strange listening to Lattimore talk about having so much fun with her photography, and to hear her call it “creative expression,” especially given her commercial success. My brother Michael was a commercial photographer in Southern California in the late 1980s, and although I know he enjoyed his work, he was extremely methodical in his approach—and still wasn’t able to make it. He took thousands of images to familiarize himself with his equipment, and he spent hours in art history classes at Cal State Fullerton, and many more in the darkroom. He also interned with an established photographer after graduation. When Michael did strike out on his own, he accepted mostly smaller jobs that his peers with long-standing careers no longer needed. But when the recession of the late ’80s hit and the bigger photographers needed every client they could get, Michael’s sources of income dried up, eventually forcing him into another career.

Surely one reason Flickr photographers are able to make so much more headway than Michael did is the affordability of today’s digital technology. When Michael was working, the price tag for a digital camera was upward of $25,000; now you can buy one for less than $200 and start operating it within minutes. This new equipment has also had the unexpected effect of returning us to a more democratic definition of what a photograph can be. At the turn of the 20th century, renowned art photographer Alfred Stieglitz became so disgusted with the snapshots people were taking with the easy-to-use Kodak, the camera that unleashed photography’s first democratizing wave, that he joined the Pictorialist movement and formed the Photo-Secession group, both of which emphasized the art and the labor-intensive craft behind taking “real” photographs.

But by the time this century rolled around, the snapshot was back in vogue, even in the world of commercial photography, where images began shifting away from traditional stock shots—the slim blonde on her cell, the buff guy driving his sports car—toward authenticity. Witness Dove’s “campaign for real beauty,” which featured zaftig models, or the Liberty Mutual insurance ad that uses a series of shots—a nearly empty refrigerator, an unkempt bed, a wrinkled dress lying on an ironing board—that look like they’ve come out of someone’s personal photo album.

Flickr wasn’t the first site to take advantage of the digital-photo craze among ambitious amateurs: When video-game makers Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield launched Flickr in Canada, in 2004, Shutterfly and Snapfish were already up and running. But Flickr was much more user-friendly, thanks to an extremely efficient photo-sharing program that Fake and Butterfield brought with them from their gaming days. Flickr’s “tagging” function also made it easy for designers and editors to search the site for new work. Every picture that’s posted can be tagged with as many as 75 terms, so someone searching for an image of an “antique, blue car,” for instance, can type in those words and come up with thousands of possible images. By the time Yahoo! bought Flickr for a reported $30 to $40 million, just a year after Flickr launched and months after it moved to its new offices in Santa Clara (the company is now in San Francisco), Shutterfly and Snapfish had to rely more and more on their photo-printing services in an effort to stay competitive.

After the sale, Flickr grew like a hothouse fern, finally outdistancing even onetime archrival Fotolog, which for a period was mired in disruptive technical glitches. Kakul Srivastava, Flickr’s general manager, won’t reveal how much the company is currently worth, but during Microsoft’s Yahoo! takeover attempts last year, one tech blogger calculated Flickr’s value at as much as $4 billion. Srivastava even claims that the company has become profitable—a major achievement for a dot-com site—through a combination of prem ium fees, revenue from ads displayed on the sites to members who opt for a free account, and money from its printing services.

If technical ease is initially what drew people to Flickr, the genial and supportive atmosphere has helped keep them there. “Nobody on Fotolog would talk to me,” says John Curley, the former deputy managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who threw himself more deeply into photography when he left the paper in 2007. Curley (who has done assignments for this magazine) shoots haunting, late-night street scenes, as well as quirky images of offbeat events like the local version of Santacon, an annual gathering of people dressed like Santa Claus. But despite the accessibility and the stunning technical quality of Curley’s work, no one on Fotolog paid him any mind. “I’d leave a comment on someone’s shot, post a shot of my own, and then wonder, ‘Where are the comments?’ But there was nothing.” With Flickr, he says, “you get people who know how hard it is to take good photos looking at your work. They know what went into it, which is tremendously exciting. So it was all about the feedback—and the immediacy.”

This feedback, which also played a crucial role in Lattimore’s evolution, often takes a laughably simple form: the comment box Flickr provides under each photo that’s uploaded. This is the site’s equivalent of the rubber band or the safety pin—a practical tool that makes it easy for millions of people all over the world to share thoughts about each other’s work. Of course, anyone who reads through the Flickr comments and their litany of positive backslapping might wonder about the actual level of education going on. “Brilliant idea!,” “Great silhouette! This image reminds me of friendship,” and the oft repeated “Awesome capture!” can all be seen under Lattimore’s shots. Lattimore admits to choosing carefully which comments to take to heart, but says the “validation and generosity” they convey gave her great confidence. “I started to realize my work was really different from other people’s—that I have a unique eye.”

The comment boxes are just the beginning, though. Away from the casual observer’s view, there are tens of thousands of specialized groups in which advanced discussions of the art and technique of photography take place. When Lattimore decided to branch out from her digital camera to experiment with a Holga, a cheap plastic device that devotees love for the evocatively lit images it produces, she joined several Holga groups. That’s where she learned how to take advantage of the camera’s light leaks—and where she discovered Light Leaks magazine, which subsequently published one of her Holga photos. At one point, Lattimore belonged to 403 dif ferent groups that focused on everything from how to make use of a Polaroid to the best way to shoot cemeteries.

Much has been made of the lack of civility in online discussions—one Flickr photographer closed her account because she felt people were relentlessly pressing her for professional secrets—but Lattimore says she has never had a problem. Her work flourished from all the input she received, she says, and soon, her now famous fish-eye close-ups caught the attention of Heather Champ, Flickr’s director of community management, who asked Lattimore to show her work at a Flickr event at the Apple store in Union Square. The nervous Lat timore eagerly agreed, although at the exhibit, she wasn’t able to say much more than “I like pictures, and I like dead fish.” Even so, the show was a turning point for her: “It gave me the courage to start pushing myself in a more professional arena. Until then, I’d only shown my work in small galleries in Pacifica.”

Soon she was being approached through Flickr to take part in other shows and began actively reaching out to galleries far and wide (she’s been in at least 30 exhibits to date, from the Artist- Xchange, Calumet San Francisco, and Avenue 25 Gallery in the Bay Area to galleries in D.C., New Jersey, and Paris). Somewhere around this time, she was brought on as a contributing photographer at the Pacifica Tribune, which is where she sold a lot of her surfing shots. Thanks to Flickr’s unofficial ranking system, which puts what the site calls the “most interesting” images at the top of any search, book publishers, photography magazines, and advertising agencies also started to find her work, which she now sells for around $250 per image. People had even begun to pirate Lattimore’s images. (Flickr members can get a range of licenses to protect their work, but as the music and video industries have proven, the Internet makes it easy to circumvent such restrictions.) Eventually, she felt she had to pull her images off the site and have them professionally copyrighted before reloading them to her account.

Lattimore feels that her success was well earned, but she also concedes that much of it came about because of Flickr. “It helped me express myself and brought so many of us together in such a personal way.”

More seasoned photographers also mine Flickr for advice and support. Erin Malone, a clear, direct 45-year-old who seems to reserve her passion for her beautifully lit, painterly photographs of open fields and local wetlands, started taking pictures when she was 15. Extensive classroom work and one-on-one training followed—but Malone, who lives in San Francisco, had to cut back when she started working, although she never stopped talking and thinking about images. She used some of her own shots in her job as a web-design guru at Yahoo!, and she is now a partner in a design-consulting firm.

But in 2004, she was eager to get more creativity into her life, so she joined Flickr (before Yahoo! purchased it) and bought the first in what has become a 20-odd-camera collection. At the time, she says, she was aware of doubts within the professional photography community about whether Flickr was a place that harbored serious artists. But she forged ahead, in part because she just wanted to be able to look at a whole lot of photographs—a key, she says, to an artist’s ability to evolve. Flickr alone has billions of photos, and last year it began displaying thousands of images from photo archives all over the globe, including at the Library of Congress, Australia’s Powerhouse Museum, and the Bibliothèque de Toulouse in France. Flickr members have been slyly adding to this growing archive of world-class art and documentary photography by uploading pictures taken with their cell phones at museums and gallery exhibits.

In part because of the demands of her job, Malone was much less interested in producing work to sell than in the artistic process itself. Perhaps that’s why she turned from her digital to a pinhole camera, which forced her to move at a slower, almost meditative pace that enabled her to create her artful, impressionistic shots. With no pressure to crank out saleable work, Malone also decided to look for more specific feedback from Flickr members, which is what convinced her that the site really does attract serious photographers. She posted as many as a dozen versions of one image—a field of grass, for instance, where she was experimenting with the effects of light and wind—then watched closely to see which ones other members preferred. “If lots of people comment on a particular shot,” she says, “then I know I’m heading in the right direction.” I asked Malone if she risks aiming too much for the wisdom of the crowd at the expense of her own artistic vision, but she insists “that’s life online. Feedback makes you a better photographer.”

Unbeknownst to Malone, one of the people watching her stream closely was Russ Morris, another Flickr member and the first photographer featured on a segment about local photographers on KQED’s Quest program. Morris liked Malone’s work so much that he encouraged her to send it to KQED, which had been soliciting submissions on Flickr for a while. At first, she didn’t think she had enough worthy material, but the support she received on Flickr encouraged her to shoot some new work and to reconsider older work in her portfolio. Within days of submitting, Malone was told that she had been picked to appear on the program in a two-minute piece that aired last summer. “Quest forced me to get my shit together,” she says, “and Flickr gave me the support and exposure I needed to take that step.”

This past February, Malone’s image Jagged Beach was included in the annual Plastic Camera Exhibition at RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco, and her photograph Clouds over Mesas is being used in marketing materials for the Marfa Film Festival, which will take place in Marfa, Texas, at the end of this month. A series of her outdoor images wound up in a new book, Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web, and she now puts out a quarterly online magazine devoted to lens-free photography (WithoutLenses.com). “Flickr gets bad hype because it’s mass culture,” Malone told me toward the end of our conversation. “Gallery owners and museum curators seem to feel like they’d be stepping off their pillars of high culture if they actually went and looked at it. But if they did, I think they’d find work they liked.”

Musician and former concert promoter Merkley (who goes by his surname only, plus three question marks in his Flickr handle) wasn’t searching for community or support when he joined Flickr in 2006. “I don’t think somebody else’s ideas are going to make my work better, they are just going to make it less mine,” he says. He wanted to see what all the hype was about—and ended up with an adoring audience. For years, he has been shifting between music, painting, and digital photography, and a few months after he joined Flickr, he was well into shooting a series of 111 women, all nude and posing on different couches. By now, he claims, his photographs have received 16.5 million views, which makes him conceivably one of the most closely watched photographers not just on Flickr, but in the world. (I’m guessing the nud ity helps.) “There’s not a museum or gallery that could offer that,” he told me during one of several bring-down-the-established-art-world manifestos he delivered during our interview.

Indeed, Merkley has no use for the world of organized commercial photography, which is why he loves Flickr—and why he decided to publish his own coffee-table book of the nude shots he posts on the site. He produced only 1,111 copies of the $111 book (titled 111???); the launch party took place on January 11 last year at popular SoMa gallery 111 Minna. It was so crowded that people were turned away. For all his marketing chops, Merkley is first and foremost a showman and entertainer who is shrewdly aware of his highly crafted persona, which he constantly uses to turn situations to his advantage. This skill is evident not just in his photos, but also in the bold and uppercase type he uses; the long, in-your-face captions (Errol—Posing With 2 Apple Balls & 2 Banana Boners Rocking a Giant F T-Shirt, Hard to See Pants and Hands Almost Indicating Double Butthole, Om or OK Depending On Your Background); the quirky manifestos (“74 Things I Learned About Being Mentioned in the New York Times”); and the playfully belligerent commands to “Buy my book!” (Because of a Flickr restriction against prominent sales language, these messages were recently toned down or moved to his blog.)

In some ways, Merkley is a poster boy for all that is seductive and unsettling about the web. His nudes, for instance, are at once as off-putting as Hustler and as engaging as the work of David LaChapelle, the famous digital fashion photographer who crams so much visual information into each image that it feels like a mini-film. This all makes sense, given that Merkley doesn’t even think of himself as a photographer; rather, he uses photographs to tell “tiny, funny stories” that he hopes will steep viewers “in the creative process, because even figuring something out sometimes makes your own creativity kick in.”

This philosophy helps explain the flying cats, the monkey on the toilet, the endless litany of sandwiches, and the dinosaurs—all of which pop up in his work like uncoded fragments of surreal dreams. None of this seems like an obvious match for Flickr, a site known for its simple and even anachronistic design. Unlike personal blogs or strictly social-networking sites like MySpace, where users have free reign to embellish their small pieces of digital real estate, all Flickr pages look basically the same: mostly white with black and blue lettering. “The distinction is the work itself,” says Oates, an idea that also underlies the spare, monochromatic design of most galleries and museums. When I offer up this observation to Merkley, he scratches the wiry hairs of his Howard Hughes–like beard and announces, “Flickr isn’t anything like an art gallery. It’s like a shopping mall!”

If so, Merkley is one of its smartest entrepreneurs, having figured out how to use Flickr like his own private stock agency, even though he doesn’t need to rely on his photography to make a living. He’s taken images of bands (Bing Ji Ling, Dredg, Von Iva), writers (Michael Chabon), and products (a line of makeup in Australia), and he and his work have been featured in half a dozen European magazines. He’s so fiercely independent that he even turned down Getty’s invitation this past January to license 129 of his photographs on its site. He considered the idea, but when he learned that the contract was exclusive—meaning he wouldn’t be allowed to continue to offer those same images through Flickr—he said no. Other members felt the same way. “That’s a deal breaker for me,” announced one poster on Aphotoeditor.com, when Getty first announced its partnership with Flickr last year.

But for many, the Getty deal is a godsend. Cindy Loughridge, a busy, 44-year-old pharmaceutical analyst in San Jose, had been shooting for years, mostly on evenings and weekends. But when she joined Flickr in 2006, she stepped things up considerably; at one point, she belonged to as many as 700 groups. Her images, taken mostly of what she calls “small moments,” possess much of the comforting familiarity of stock shots, though flawlessly executed: a woman riding down the street on her bike, a couple chatting on a bus, a pensive young man looking off into the distance from his perch on some crumbling stone stairs.

Until recently, Loughridge’s biggest thrill (and largest sale) was selling an image of her 14-year-old daughter to an advertising agency that found her on Flickr while looking for an image for a Wal-Mart campaign. Then, last December, Getty invited her to contribute more than 100 of her images. She was so excited that she accidentally deleted the message from her email and had to ask Getty to resend it. She can hardly believe her good luck. “Without doing anything,” she says, “I’m now in Getty’s stable of photographers. It’s incredible!”

Lattimore hasn’t heard from Getty yet, but says that may be just as well for now. Last September, she discovered that a painful spot on her right breast was actually a cancerous tumor. Within weeks, she had to undergo a double mastectomy. She was devastated by the news—but instead of falling apart, she instinctively turned to Flickr. There, she found several photostreams by women who had documented their own harrowing bouts with the disease in images that were both startlingly graphic and devas­tatingly poignant. The bravery they embodied worked on Lattimore like a tonic.

“Looking at those photos changed my entire mindset,” she says, and allowed her anger and resistance to her upcoming surgery to fall away. For months afterward, she chronicled every step of her diagnosis, surgery, and follow-up therapy, including the day she had all her hair cut off, the moment when she was wheeled into surgery, and every chemotherapy treatment she received. Perhaps the most shocking images are the full-frontal shots of her scarred chest after the bandages were removed. “If it was going to help people see what cancer and chemotherapy are like, I posted it,” she says.

Her posts prompted hundreds of emails from Flickr members all over the world. Some simply wished her well, but many came from women eager to share their own terrible experiences with cancer, or to thank her for awakening them to the need to get regular mammograms. Lattimore’s visual story gained even more impact when she linked it to her blog—Love, Cancer, etc. (ddlatt.blogspot.com)—a nearly day-by-day chronicle of the medical and emotional ups and downs of her treatment. By recording it all, she says, she was able to transform a bizarre and frightening situation into “something good that could help other people.”

The experience may have also enabled Lattimore to become a better photographer. Not only has she been bled of much of her self-consciousness—the death knell of any good art—but even at the height of her illness, she says, the public airing of her story gave her uncommon energy and drive. “Suddenly confronted with my own mortality, I realized more than ever how important it is to capture every single moment. I don’t want to forget anything, and I want to leave my son a long trail of visual memories.”
Dale Eastman's last feature for San Francisco was "A Collector's Guide to the Exploding Art Market," in the January 2008 issue


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Wednesday, March 25, 2009,11:33 PM
Jay-Z's Secrets To Personal Success
With nearly 40 million albums sold and a business empire that includes clothing, fragrances, the New Jersey Nets, sports bars, liquor, and hotels, Jay-Z has transformed himself into one of the most potent brands in the world

By: Anthony DeCurtis

"With education comes refinement," Jay-Z observes late one Friday afternoon. He's lounging on a couch in a studio at the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment complex on the far west side of Manhattan and speaking between nibbles of a takeout salad in a plastic container and sips from a bottle of water. In his everyday speech, as in his raps, Jay-Z is inclined toward aphorisms, the compressed expression of complicated ideas, delivered with rhetorical flair. It's hard-earned wisdom, graced by a poet's touch.

He is relaxing after a typically jam-packed day that included a photo shoot, an interview, and a meeting about his potential involvement in a forthcoming video game. He celebrated his 39th birthday the night before with the staff of his Rocawear clothing line, so a mild fatigue has set in. Slender and six feet three inches tall, Jay-Z is an imposing figure, even in relative repose. He's wearing distressed jeans that hang loosely from the middle of his hips, black sneakers, and a long-sleeved black T-shirt that has replaced the pristine short-sleeved white one he wore before changing for his photo shoot. The look is studiously casual...until you glance at his left wrist and notice a diamond watch so thick it could pass for a weight band.

The winter sky is growing gray in the bank of windows behind him as the sun sets over the Hudson River. Jay-Z returns to the narrative of what, in the 19th century, would have been called his sentimental education, the education of his emotional life. That journey to refinement began in the rugged Marcy Projects in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant district, and now continues in arenas and boardrooms, in posh homes and VIP hideaways, around the world.

Jay-Z feels comfortable in all of these realms. "I've never looked at myself and said that I need to be a certain way to be around a certain sort of people," he explains. "I've always wanted to stay true to myself, and I've managed to do that. People have to accept that. I collect art, and I drink wine...things that I like that I had never been exposed to. But I never said, 'I'm going to buy art to impress this crowd.' That's just ridiculous to me. I don't live my life like that, because how could you be happy with yourself?"

Staying true to yourself might stand as a succinct summary of Jay-Z's philosophy of success. The notion goes back to Shakespeare's "To thine own self be true," and further back than that to the Greeks. But for Jay-Z, it has an urgently contemporary meaning. Even, or perhaps, especially, in recessionary times, amid the thousands of entertainment and lifestyle choices consumers have available to them, what separates winners from losers is a commitment to a single proposition: You are the product. If people believe in you, they will believe in what you create. Jay-Z understands this and is down with it.

By selling nearly 40 million albums and building a business empire that extends far beyond music into clothing, fragrances, the New Jersey Nets, sports bars, liquor, and hotels (to name just a few of his seemingly innumerable investments), Jay-Z has transformed himself into one of the most potent brands in the world. But that brand retains its power only if people remain convinced that the product they are purchasing somehow genuinely reflects Jay-Z and his tastes. As he famously put it in one of his raps, "I'm not a businessman/I'm a business, man."

"My brands are an extension of me," he says. "They're close to me. It's not like running GM, where there's no emotional attachment." The reference is apt, given the government's ongoing potential bailout of two major automobile companies. Jay-Z notes that resonance with a pause and a chuckle.

"My thing is related to who I am as a person," he says. "The clothes are an extension of me. The music is an extension of me. All my businesses are part of the culture, so I have to stay true to whatever I'm feeling at the time, whatever direction I'm heading in. And hopefully, everyone follows."

In conversation, Jay-Z's speech is slower, calmer, and more deliberate than in the propulsive, deep-voiced, and often incendiary raps that have made him a titan in the world of hip-hop, a man whose sales and staying power have elevated him above all but a handful of potential rivals. He's an engaged and animated speaker, quick to touch you in a friendly way to emphasize a point.

But as laid-back and accessible as he seems, he also exudes a calm air of confidence. He doesn't need to be aggressive or impose his will in a ham-fisted manner. Half a dozen people are floating around the studio, ready to read any sign of need or impatience on his part. He's cooperative and congenial in the way that only someone who knows he can immediately put an end to any experience that moves in an unpleasant direction can be. "Jay-Hova," he has called himself, echoing the name of the mighty, vengeful God of the Hebrew Bible. He has anointed himself the "God MC."

But he has also rapped that he "never prayed to God/I prayed to Gotti." Perhaps there is a distinction to be drawn between Jay-Z, the battle MC who to this day engages in raw exchanges with younger rappers looking to take him down, and Shawn Corey Carter, the far-sighted businessman who cofounded his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records, in 1996; who served as president and CEO of Def Jam Records from 2005 to early 2008 and helped launch the careers of Kanye West, Young Jeezy, and Rihanna; who sold his Rocawear clothing line in 2007 for $204 million, while retaining a major stake in the company; and who, following a path blazed by Madonna and U2, forged a $150 million deal last year with the concert-promotion firm Live Nation.

Last summer, Forbes ranked Jay-Z seventh on its "Celebrity 100" list of the ultrafamous and ultrapowerful. The magazine estimated his annual income at $82 million, and other sources have reported his net worth at $350 million. If that doesn't seem enviable enough, last year Jay-Z married Beyonce Knowles, one of the world's most desirable women. It is part of his attitude of ultimate cool that he never publicly talks about her.

Jay-Z moves in exclusive circles of all types. Musicians, actors, designers, politicians, captains of industry, and athletes all want to get next to him. He has developed an easygoing manner that enables him to cross these cultural boundaries in ways that make him seem accessible but still dignified, always aware of who he is. "I'm a mirror," he says. "If you're cool with me, I'm cool with you, and the exchange starts. What you see is what you reflect. If you don't like what you see, then you've done something. If I'm standoffish, that's because you are."

Occasionally, stereotypes rear their heads and uncomfortable situations arise. "It's hilarious a lot of times," he says. "You have a conversation with someone, and he's like, 'You speak so well!' I'm like, 'What do you mean? Do you understand that's an insult?' "

Growing up, however, Shawn Carter was far from the likeliest candidate for this sort of mind-boggling success. He was always recognized as bright--even today, the first word anyone who meets Jay-Z invariably uses to describe him is smart--and in the sixth grade, he tested at 12th-grade levels. But the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn were overrun by drugs and violence in the '80s. His father left the family when Carter was 11, and his mother had to raise him, his older brother, and his two older sisters. When he was 12, Carter shot his brother for stealing his jewelry. (They have since reconciled.) Carter attended high school with fellow Brooklynites the Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes, but dropped out to deal drugs in a region that extended from Brooklyn to Maryland and Virginia--as he details in his music--and to dabble in the still-nascent hip-hop game.

Along with the dealers who ran the neighborhood around the Marcy Projects, Jay-Z remembers identifying sports figures as his first models of success. "Growing up where I grew up, we looked to athletes," he recalls. "They were our first heroes. They came from the same places we came from. I mean, you can't watch TV and see someone who is successful that you can really relate to. That person isn't real, he doesn't exist. But athletes traveled the world, had these big houses, and gave their families a better life. We were like, 'Wow, that's really cool.' These guys get paid millions of dollars to play the game they love."

Around the same time that he began to identify with athletes, Carter experienced another revelation: hip-hop. He began writing nonstop in notebooks, keeping his mother and siblings awake at night as he pounded the kitchen table to create beats. He hooked up with local rapper Jaz-O, who brought him to England when he toured there. Carter recorded with Jaz-O and also with Big Daddy Kane. But despite the acknowledgment of his skills (and his growing anxiety that either violence or the law would eventually catch up with him on the streets), Carter was reluctant to give up dealing. He was rolling in a Lexus and making more money, as far as he could tell, than most rappers.

Still, he decided to take the plunge, but no record company was willing to offer him a contract. So with two partners, Carter formed Roc-A-Fella Records, and, in 1996, released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, which established him as a major figure on the hip-hop scene. It was a heady moment, but Jay-Z barely realized it at the time. "I was naive," he recalls. "I made that album to impress my friends, so they would say, 'Oh, wow, look what you did!' It was my first album on the label that we owned. I was like, 'Okay, what happens now?' "

What happened was that Jay-Z left drug dealing behind and began to build his empire, moving steadily from "grams to Grammys" as he puts it in one song. But the process wasn't easy. The treachery of life on the streets, where he faced bullets at close range, turned out to be nothing compared with what he would encounter in the upper echelons of the music business. "I come from a world that's completely different from the music industry, and it wasn't recognizable to me at all," he says. "I come from a place where you had to keep your word, where people would stick with you no matter what. That's impossible in the music business, where if you're not hot, people are not talking to you. I just tried to be a man of my word."

The choice of Roc-A-Fella as his label's name would prove telling. On one hand, it's standard hip-hop braggadocio to establish a connection between a fledgling rapper and one of the richest and most powerful families in American history. But it also suggested the means through which Jay-Z would eventually establish his own business empire. The Rockefeller family and other 19th-century industrialists established a monopolistic hold on all aspects of the goods they produced. If you owned the mines that produced coal, for example, you also bought the railroads that transported it, the refineries that prepared it for market, and the utilities that provided its end product to the general population.

As Jay-Z's career has progressed in the past dozen years, he has sought to establish a similar hold on the lifestyle market for which his music provides the soundtrack, and in which he stands as the ideal model to emulate. Rather than providing anything as tangible as coal or oil, Jay-Z, through his myriad branded investments, manufactures a way of being that makes it at least theoretically possible to never leave the world of his products. You can enjoy his music while sporting Rocawear clothing (estimated as doing $700 million a year in business), wearing one of his fragrances, and sipping his Ace of Spades champagne. You can attend his concert and end the night at one of his 40/40 nightclubs. His videos, DVDs, and CD booklets provide free exposure for all of his products, all of which, in turn, enhance every other aspect of the Jay-Z brand.

The question then becomes how, with all this marketing and glossy brand extension, does Jay-Z maintain the credibility in the hip-hop world that made him such a marketable star in the first place? "We are excited to partner with an industry giant such as Elizabeth Arden," Jay-Z declared in the press release announcing his fragrance line, which made its debut last year. No matter how deeply you've absorbed the potency of Jay-Z's mainstream reach, that sentence still makes you do a double take. This is the man who took the film American Gangster as the inspiration for his most recent album? Jigga what?

But Jay-Z believes deeply in the aspirational power of hip-hop, the notion that the music's truest fans want to see their heroes succeed and want to emulate them. He draws a sharp distinction between hip-hop and rock 'n' roll, whose stars have often expressed disdain for business and success. "I noticed that difference early on, like if you were successful in rock 'n' roll, that was a really bad thing," Jay-Z says with a laugh. "You almost had to hide it. You had these guys selling 200 million records with dirty T-shirts on. I was like, 'Come on, man. Come on. We know you're successful.'

"Hip-hop is more about attaining wealth," he continues. "People respect success. They respect big. They don't even have to like your music. If you're big enough, people are drawn to you."

Consequently, any discussion of credibility, or keeping it real, elicits a response of disbelief from him. "That's an insecure emotion," he explains. "You make your first album, you make some money, and you feel like you still have to show face, like 'I still go to the projects.' I'm like, why? Your job is to inspire people from your neighborhood to get out. You grew up there. What makes you think it's so cool?"

Of course, Jay-Z has not been immune to those insecurities himself. In 1999, he was arrested for stabbing a record executive in a New York club, and in 2001, he was charged with possession of a loaded handgun. Against his lawyer's advice, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in the stabbing case and was sentenced to three years' probation. The gun charge was dropped.

It's generally thought that those brushes with potential incarceration cured Jay-Z of the need to prove that he could still live the thug life. He has rapped about both of those arrests ("Put that knife in ya/Take a little bit of life from ya/Am I frightenin' ya?"), but has shown no further inclination to transform his words into deeds that would put an end to the extraordinary life he has created for himself. In fact, quite the opposite. He has been baited relentlessly by other rappers--Nas, to cite just one example, taunted "Gay-Z" for his "dick-suckin' lips"--and has responded in kind, but only in song. In real life, he has taken steps to ease those rivalries and ensure that tragedies such as the killings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. never happen again.

That's because too much is at stake now, far more than money or bling. At 39, Jay-Z is old enough to think about the cultural impact that hip-hop has already had, and the critical role he has played in it. "Hip-hop has done so much for racial relations, and I don't think it's given the proper credit," he says. "It has changed America immensely. I'm going to make a very bold statement: Hip-hop has done more than any leader, politician, or anyone to improve race relations.

"I'll explain why I say that," he continues. "Racism is taught in the home. We agree on that? Well, it's very hard to teach racism to a teenager who's listening to rap music and who idolizes, say, Snoop Dogg. It's hard to say, 'That guy is less than you.' The kid is like, 'I like that guy, he's cool. How is he less than me?' That's why this generation is the least racist generation ever. You see it all the time. Go to any club. People are intermingling, hanging out, having fun, enjoying the same music. Hip-hop is not just in the Bronx anymore. It's worldwide. Everywhere you go, people are listening to hip-hop and partying together. Hip-hop has done that." He pauses, as if marveling at the idea, and then repeats it for emphasis: "Hip-hop has done that."

Something else that hip-hop has done, in Jay-Z's view, is help to elect Barack Obama. "Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk, and Martin walked so Obama could run," Jay-Z told a concert audience in the crucial swing state of Ohio shortly before the November election. "Obama is running so we all can fly, so let's fly." He recorded a get-out-the-vote message for robo calls to African-American voters during the primaries. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, after a particularly heated primary debate, Obama brushed off Hillary Clinton's attacks with a gesture of wiping lint off the shoulders of his suit, and hip observers recognized an unmistakable reference to Jay-Z's song, "Dirt Off Your Shoulder."

Jay-Z's eyes widen as he recalls that moment. "I felt like, man, what time are we living in, where a presidential nominee is making reference to a rapper?" he says. "What a beautiful place we've come to. Growing up, politics never trickled down to the areas we come from. But people from Obama's camp, and Obama himself, reached out to me and asked for my help on the campaign. We've sat and had dinner, and we've spoken on the phone. He's a very sharp guy. Very charming. Very cool.

"It's surreal," continues Jay-Z. "I couldn't imagine anything like that could happen. I didn't vote until I was an older adult. I didn't think I would ever vote, because it didn't matter who was in office. The situation never changed where we lived. Our voices weren't heard."

Jay-Z walks idly around the studio as crew members break down the set for his photo shoot. He's rapping along with a hip-hop track that's blasting in the room. When the sound system abruptly shuts off, Jay-Z continues rapping and moving to the music, like Wile E. Coyote in the moment before he looks down and realizes that he has run off the cliff. Jay-Z catches himself, looks around the room in mock surprise, and laughs. It's the sort of self-deprecating gesture he's good at, acknowledging that all eyes are on him, but humorously taking the edge off whatever intimidation factor his presence might have.

That's a quality he brings into the boardroom as well. He's far from just a figurehead or a media front man. He takes his businesses as seriously as his artistry, and he goes at both with the same level of determination. He's clear about his own views, willing to listen to others, eager to keep everybody loose and motivated, and far more interested in long-term strategy than short-term gain. Even in the current economic environment, which is challenging to say the least, he's insistent on executing his game plan rather than making changes that might not ultimately be right for his brands.

"He's smart as hell," says Neil Cole, chairman and CEO of the Iconix Brand Group, the company that bought Rocawear two years ago for more than $200 million. "He understands himself as a brand, and it's incredibly well thought out. We meet every week, and there's nothing impulsive about him. He's very consistent, and he won't settle. If something's not right, he's not going to do it for more money. He'll wait to get it right. He has a wonderful taste level about where he wants to take the brand. . .and himself."

Michael Rapino, the president and CEO of Live Nation, echoes Cole's assessment of Jay-Z. "In meeting with superstars about potential deals, there are some who spit out 'How much can I get?' and the meeting is over, because you know you're starting out on the wrong basis," he says. "When we sat down with Jay-Z, 'How much money are you going to pay me?' came up in maybe the seventh conversation. The first conversation was, 'Can we change the business together?'

"Right there, we knew we had a common agenda," continues Rapino. "It was like, 'I'm hungry. The business is changing. I'm a change agent, and I have a lot of years left.' Then the creativity flows. You don't become the best in the world at what you do, and then flip the off switch. Jay-Z wants to win. And for him it's also about the integrity of the win. He's a true partner, always looking for the win-win. He's asking, 'How do we win together?' "

Indeed, part of the refinement Jay-Z has attained entails that big-picture vision of success. It's a vision that extends beyond business and beyond music. It's about what makes your life meaningful, and it goes beyond lifestyle to a way of life. "I'm hungry for knowledge," says Jay-Z. "The whole thing is to learn every day, to get brighter and brighter. That's what this world is about. You look at someone like Gandhi, and he glowed. Martin Luther King glowed. Muhammad Ali glows. I think that's from being bright all the time, and trying to be brighter.

"That's what you should be doing your whole time on the planet," he concludes. "Then you feel like, 'My life is worth everything. And yours is too.' "

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