There would be no mega-star, pop music mogul, rap icon Jay-Z without the street savvy Reasonable Doubt, which features his first single Dead Presidents produced by Ski Beatz. On royayersproject.com, we can’t mention the song Dead Presidents without acknowledging the song that it samples, which is the serene sounds of the great Lonnie Liston Smith.
Dead Presidents is most definitely a song of worthy note for a few reasons. Since this was Jay-Z’s first single off his debut album, it is obviously a more modest persona than that of the current megastar. Although Jay-Z was a known rapper even prior to this release, this particular landmark single is still overlooked by mainstream critics, but is considered a cult classic amongst Hip Hop connoisseurs, pinpointing the start of one of the most influential emcees to pick up a microphone.
What else is interesting about this particular is it had multiple versions. There is the clean video version:
There’s the seldom heard dirty video version with the same lyrics, but with swears:
and the album version, which has completely different lyrics:
The noteworthiness of these three versions is significant because all three versions were recorded separately, which is completely uncommon with today’s rap hits. Nowadays, a clean version will be the dirty version with the swears cut out, which makes for annoying blank spaces within the verse. During this time in Hip Hop, it was common for rappers to record a dirty version AND record a clean version with different lyrics to substitute the swears.
The last, most interesting thing about this song is that you can hear subtle differences in Jay-Z’s tone and swagger in each version. In the clean video version, he seems laid back, calm, subdued, telling a story of somber street life. No shouts out in the in the beginning. He just raps. In the dirty video version, he seems to have more confidence, more gusto, more arrogance. In the album version, it’s a tone of complete confidence, with the content mirroring his current state in Hip Hop, as if he was foreseeing his success. It is hard to believe that these three versions were recorded in the same timeframe. This theory makes Jay-Z’s first single a landmark song in more ways than one. Add the wonderful sample, production by Ski Beatz, and you can believe that magic was made.
Below is a video of legendary Hip Hop producer Ski Beatz, and he explains his thought process in making a song that launched the amazing career of Jay-Z.
In the video, he mentions that the drum sounds were taken from A Tribe Called Quest‘s O My God Remix, which can be heard below. The drum sounds are prominent and clean (without background instrumentals) in the beginning of the track, which is perfect for producers to reuse. He also mentions the vocal sample, which is Nas
From the production, to the lyrics, this song represents the essence of Hip Hop.