Exclusive: The artist and Def Jam prez on his label's 26 Grammy nods and his ongoing contract negotiations

By Simon Vozick-Levinson
Updated December 11, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Lester Cohen Archive/WireImage.com

Shawn ”Jay-Z” Carter is in a great mood. And why shouldn’t he be? He just got back from celebrating his 38th birthday in Paris; he recently had a chance to catch up on the collected cinematic works of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow (”The guys that made Knocked Up, Superbad — those guys are really on fire right now!”); and best of all, he just found out last week that Def Jam, where he serves as president and CEO, raked in 26 Grammy nominations. Not bad for a dreary winter week. Of course, Jay does have some less fun things on his mind — like his contract negotiations at Def Jam, where his current term is about to expire. The multihyphenate gave EW.com a call to talk it all out.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you guys got 26 Grammy nominations for Def Jam — 13 for Roc-A-Fella specifically. How are you feeling about that?
I feel fantastic. I mean, it’s consistent with what we’ve said, man. Everybody’s complaining and talking about the quality of music in the business and everything like that. And I’ve always said, if you just make great music, it’ll all figure itself out somehow, some way. Just make great music — let’s just stay consistent with that. And these nominations, to me, are like a nod that it’s true.

Tell me what you think this says for the specific artists involved. We could start with Kanye West, who’s leading the whole pack with eight nominations.
That shows that he has the most passion out of everybody, of wanting to make the best music for only that reason. You know, it’s a great thing for the music business, because people emulate that type of success. If you’re gonna emulate Kanye, that means you have to put your heart and soul into the music.

Kanye’s made it known in the past when he thinks awards committees don’t recognize him properly. Do you think this number of nominations will be enough to satisfy him?
[Instantly] No. He’s never, ever — and I hope he never gets satisfied. I think that’s the steam that keeps his train running.

Rihanna got four nominations, Ne-Yo got five. As someone who’s overseen those projects from start to finish, how do you feel about that?
You don’t even understand how great I feel about that. Because that’s something that was from the ground up. When we walked into the building [to run Def Jam in 2004], neither one of them had one album out. And it was a concerted effort to turn them both into superstars. I mean, I remember the conversations very vividly. So to see it all come to fruition in three years is just an amazing feeling.

Have you talked to them since hearing about the nominations?
Yeah, everyone’s stoked. Rihanna’s out of her mind. Everyone’s just very excited.

NEXT PAGE: Jay-Z on his negotiations for a new Def Jam contract: ”It’s not about money! I mean, you couldn’t pay me enough. And I don’t mean that in a cocky way.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Turning to your own nominations, you got five overall — three for ”Umbrella” with Rihanna, two for your own work.
JAY-Z: I mean, that’s great. It was unexpected. I knew ”Umbrella” would get a lot of nominations, [but] I didn’t know the total would be five altogether. It’s a fantastic thing to still be getting those type of nominations, every year. I’m never jaded about the whole thing.

You’ve talked to me before about how Kingdom Come might not have been what some people wanted to hear, might have gone over some people’s heads. Is it vindicating for you to see the album recognized come Grammy time?
I’ve always known — and I still know this to be true — that it would be an album that would be appreciated over time. I absolutely believe that. And I don’t think this is the vindication. I think there’s more to follow in the years to come, when people start discovering the records that’s on this album.

Now that the nomination phase is done, what’s your next step as a label head? Do you start lobbying Academy members to get to those wins?
[Laughs] Nah. For me, I’m gonna sit back and hope that this whole process works the way it’s supposed to work: The best records, without lobbying, get the wins. And I believe that we have pretty good records in the category.

So I gotta ask you: It’s December now. How are you feeling about your contract at Def Jam? That’s coming up soon.
You know, it’s active. We’ll see how it turns out. I mean, we’re close. So we’ll know in the next couple of weeks how it turns out.

The New York Daily News said last week that talks were stalling because you made some big demands. Is there any truth to that?

So from your perspective, do you think you’ll be at Def Jam next year?
Yeah, I think — I don’t know. Let me not even say that. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes. But seriously, it’s not about money. That’s really the last thing. Of course, as a person that does these type of things and puts his heart and soul into it — and it’s effective, as the Grammys would indicate — you want to be compensated for what you do. But it’s really not about money. It’s really about the future of the music business, and not wasting anyone’s time. I don’t ever want to sit in a seat just to sit in a seat. I could be off doing something else that’s beneficial to the future of the music business as well as myself. So it’s not about money! I mean, you couldn’t pay me enough. And I don’t mean that in a cocky way.

Does something like these Grammy nominations change that equation for you at all? Does that make you excited about staying in this position?
Nah. I always knew what we were doing. Even if the outside world didn’t know what we were doing, I knew the plan was to make great music and we’ll get through all adversities, all the trouble of the music business, with great music. ‘Cause great music gon’ win at the end of the day. Not gimmicks, not fads. Just great music.