Q&A With Jay-Z, Michael Jackson Biographer Zack O’Malley Greenburg

Empire State of Mind author talks Jay-Z's thoughts on his book, what, 'I will not lose - ever,' means and a forthcoming biz-centered bio on MJ

What did you find are some of the business implications to his marriage to Beyonce?

People I talked to that know them thinks they have a normal, loving marriage. With that said, it’s also a pretty good business arrangement for both of them. For example, they’re probably always going to be in the front row of any awards show that they go to together, regardless of whether or not one of them has a big hit out. It’s become virtually impossible for either one of them to become irrelevant … they would both have to become irrelevant.

From a business perspective, they don’t do endorsements together. But if one of them does an endorsement, there’s kind of this implicit sign-off from the other one. You know that Jay-Z is not going to endorse Budweiser or Hublot if Beyonce doesn’t like it or disapproves of it. You don’t really get two for the price of one, but you definitely get more than one.

And what about the baby?

I think he sees the business in everything, and when it comes to Blue Ivy he can’t not see some business potential there. They tried to trademark the name and I don’t think they were able to do all they wanted to … but they haven’t really tried to exploit it. If you ever notice when they’re out in public he covers her face so that there are no unauthorized pictures. The only ones I’ve seen have been the ones they released. That totally fits with his M.O. of, “I’m not letting somebody else profit off of something that I could be profiting off.”

Some people I talked to say they actually named her Blue Ivy because it was the kind of name that you could trademark. If her name were, like, Mary Carter, you couldn’t trademark that. But who knows what the motivation was? My guess is he felt it would be wise to leave the door open to profit off his child’s name … and it could be that he wanted her to be able to profit off her own name. Imagine in twenty years, Blue Ivy is going to the Tisch School and designing her own clothing line. That’s kind of a cool name for a clothing line.

I hope we can talk a little bit about your Michael Jackson book.

Sure.

Did you go to Simon and Schuster or did they go to you?

I pitched the book. If you told me three years ago my next book would be about Michael Jackson I wouldn’t believe you because I thought that everything that had been written was it. But in the past few years covering the business of his estate and immersing myself more in that and his life, I realized that there was a story here that nobody had written. And we all know that he was successful, but what a lot of people don’t realize was that it was his own business savvy that in many ways drove much of his success. That’s what gradually dawned on me organically. I thought, here was a counter-intuitive hypothesis on the most famous person since Jesus Christ, and I have to tell this story. I had amassed a pretty good collection of sources already telling me things that were really resourceful, and so I had enough to get started.

What are you finding most interesting about Michael over the course of your research?

Aww, man. Where to begin? [Laughs.] Interestingly, one of the main traits that made him successful as a businessman is one that made Jay-Z successful, and that’s their thirst for knowledge. Everybody I talk to tells me that he was a voracious reader. He studied the greats in music, art and history, and read biographies on everyone from Thomas Edison to Elvis. He wanted to study the greats of every profession and take ideas and make them into his own; and fit into his way of operating. I think maybe a lot of people heard of his acquisition of the ATV catalogue in 1985. But all of the different deals he pursued and how he was able to succeed in doing some things … I don’t want to give it away; but let’s just say that there are a lot of things over the past 10-15 years, guys like Jay-Z and Diddy have been lauded for, that Michael was into in the eighties. He was so far ahead of his time, and it’s been cool to dig into some of those deals and talk to the people who worked with him on it.

It seemed like he just came of age in the perfect environment at exactly the right time.

Well just as Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are the first true superstars born of the social media age, you could say that Michael was the first of the 24-hour news cycle and MTV era. It wasn’t easy, because MTV only wanted to play stuff by white people until Michael Jackson came along and basically forced them to play his stuff. Not only did he have a role in developing MTV as a medium but he’d opened it to all genres and races. Before it was just rock. He wouldn’t call them videos — he would call them short films. In the process, he really revolutionized the music video as an art form.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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