Twenty years ago we were introduced to a name that would become synonymous with hip-hop royalty. On February 20th, 1996 Jay Z released the first single for Reasonable Doubt: Dead Presidents. Dead Presidents was our official introduction to Jay-Z, I say “official” because prior to that Jay had singles floating around but none on a project his own. He was featured on songs with Jaz-O, Big Daddy Kane, and even released a couple of singles by himself, but none of these songs either belonged to Jay or were attached to a Jay-Z album.
That all changed in 1996 with the release of Dead Presidents. By now we all know the story of how Roc-A-Fella records began. With the help of Dame Dash, Kareem “Biggs” Burke, and the US government, Jay and his team were able to use drug money to start up their own record label. A record label that would go on to create history began in 1996 with Jay’s debut album and his lead single Dead Presidents.
In all actuality, the impact of Dead Presidents is usually understated. The song and accompanying video created several important hip-hop moments. Directed by Abdul Malik Abbott, the video is extremely eerie in hindsight. Displaying several NYC staples that are no longer with us, the video for Dead Presidents serves as the ideal representation for how things can change. Jay Z rapping in a pre-gentrified Dumbo Brooklyn as the World Trade Center provides his backdrop is only one example of how the video illustrates change when viewed in 2016. In addition to a Monopoly game full of the best rappers of yesteryear – not to mention what could have been a slight Tupac jab by The Notorious BIG – and the bond between Jay, Dame, and Kareem, the video unintentionally displays how through all the changes NYC rap has experienced, the one thing that has lasted is Jay Z.
But it would be criminal not to talk about Dead Presidents without mentioning one of it’s most important facts: it being the catalyst for the Jay Z and Nas feud. Prior to Jay calling out Nas on the Takeover, the two allegedly sent subliminal shots at each other for years. Whether it was Jay on Mind Right or Nas on The Message, lyrical jabs were here and there before it all came to a head on Takeover where Jay states: “Yeah I sampled your voice, you were using it wrong/ you made it a hot line I made it a hot song”, the line of course being a reference to Jay sampling one of Nas’ lines throughout all of Dead Presidents. Furthermore on Takeover Jay would go on to describe how Nas made little to no money off of him using a Nas lyric to create Dead Presidents.
After Takeover the story is all too familiar at this point. Nas would reply back with Ether and Jay with Super Ugly and the battle quietly died down after that. The two went their separate ways as the battle faded away. Finally, in 2006 the legendary rap feud had its final chapter during Jay Z’s I Declare War concert. Ironically, despite its name, no war was created at this concert but instead peace. Jay brought out Nas as the two embraced at Madison Square Garden and then performed – what else – Dead Presidents.
The original Dead Presidents did not go on to make Reasonable Doubt instead a second version did, nonetheless our true introduction to Jay Z began here. In 1996 we met a guy who not only wowed us with his lyrical prowess, but would go on to accurately predict all of the braggadocios raps he stated within Dead Presidents. The song’s chorus states: “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me”, judging by his current net worth of over half a billion dollars he was right. A lot has changed since 1996 but we can take comfort knowing that the man we were introduced to is still here doing everything he said would.