RAPPER: Jay-Z likened resistance to his performing at Glastonbury to segregation. (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)
Reporting from New York — The plan was to rock the mike, not cause an identity crisis.
In 2008, when Jay-Z was named as a headlining act for Britain's fiercely rock-centric Glastonbury Festival -- a first for any hip-hop performer, let alone one of rap's epochal superstars -- the island nation erupted in furious debate. They're giving a rapper domain over one of rock's elite events? Critics derided the decision as "a disaster" and "tragic," assailing Glastonbury itself as "contaminated." No less an eminence than Noel Gallagher of the Brit-pop quintet Oasis provided an antagonistic voice of dissent. "I'm sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance," Gallagher said in an interview with the BBC, citing the festival's "history of guitar music."
To Jay (birth name: Shawn Corey Carter), the situation smacked of segregation. "That was the old guard standing in the way, saying, 'This is rock music. This is sacred,' " he said, seated in his wood-lined corner office, a stone's throw from Times Square. "It was one of those hurdles we had to break down."
B-boy braggadocio is one thing, but a certain performance anxiety set in when the rapper first laid eyes on Glastonbury's heaving masses: nearly a quarter-million festival-goers camped out in a vast tent city surrounding the outdoor venue in the British countryside. Around 70,000 of them -- some openly hostile -- awaited his set.
"It felt like we were invading a country," Jay said. " 'Whoa. There's a lot of people out there.' I had never played before that many people in my life. 'What did we just do? This had better work.' "
Not only did he manage to win over the crowd -- thanks, in part, to his opening number, a cheeky cover of Oasis' biggest hit, "Wonderwall" -- but the artist known variously as Jigga Man and Young Hova in the process established a whole new enterprise. With what he calls his Glastonbury "game-changer," Jay-Z suddenly became the most internationally popular live performer in hip-hop history.
As a measure of his post-Glastonbury clout, this year Jay will take his show on the road to such top-tier summer music fests as Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan and Germany's Rock Am Ring, among others. And come Friday, Jay-Z arrives as the first straight-up rapper to claim a headlining berth at Southern California's crowning musical event: the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio. Others have graced the lineup -- Jurassic 5, Kool Keith, MURS, Kanye West and Aesop Rock, to name a few -- but none have done it at the top of the ticket.
"In hip-hop, there's not many great performers," Jay-Z acknowledged. "I look outside the genre, measuring myself against others. I look at Madonna's production and envy that. Daft Punk's set, I'm like, what the. . . . And I look at the way U2 can command an audience. Bono's a performer pretty much like I am. He's not a dancer; he's not jumping around. He's having a conversation. He's using his stillness as movement."
To be sure, such platinum-anointed MCs as 50 Cent and Lil Wayne can book arena tours and rock stadiums while never entirely crossing beyond their "urban" core audiences. Eminem remains a huge international draw but has until very recently resisted the lure of the festival stage. And West enraged fans when he headlined Bonnaroo 2008 by refusing to take the stage until just before sunrise.
But as Coachella's founder and operational mastermind Paul Tollett points out, Jay-Z is the only rhyme-spitter in the game today with enough big hits, street cred, Twitter-worthy showmanship and mass appeal to connect with the desert festival's discerning audience. "I don't think there's any other hip-hop artist who could headline Coachella right now," Tollett said.
Moreover, at a precarious time in the live music biz, organizers are looking to Hovi Baby as a solution.
"Jay-Z is more than a rapper," said Ebro Darden, programming director of New York's influential urban radio station Hot 97 FM. "People forget he has a platinum rock album -- the mash-up thing he did with Linkin Park. He has done songs with Chris Martin and performed with Coldplay many times. Then add in [Jay's] high profile and the big intangible: People believe what he's saying in his music. He's authentic."
Time was when it was enough for Jay-Z, 40, to flex his drawing power in ways that didn't necessarily put him in dramatic confrontation with the rock 'n' roll firmament.