It’s hard to remember a time before the name JAY Z connoted an empire. Over the last two decades, he’s grown from rapper to business mogul, with his hand in music, art, culture, fashion, sports, and more. But just over 20 years ago, Shawn “JAY Z” Carter was an undiscovered talent who formed an independent label called Roc-A-Fella Records along with his friends, Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Damon Dash. In 1996, the release of his debut record, Reasonable Doubt, put JAY Z on the map, as the world discovered his gritty, raw, and powerful lyrics.
With their sights set beyond music from day one, JAY Z and his partners Biggs and Emory Jones launched a lifestyle platform called Roc96 the same year that Reasonable Doubt came out. Having recently celebrated its 20-year milestone, Roc96 has teamed up with innovative L.A.-based fashion designer Blaine Halvorson to create a capsule that pays homage to JAY Z and Reasonable Doubt’s powerful legacy. The debut collection (the collaboration will be an on-going series between the two brands) features bombers, majorette jackets, sweatshirts, T-shirts, and more.
Below, we chat with Blaine and Biggs about the collaboration, and the exclusive video above provides insights into not only their creative process and scenes from Blaine’s incredible L.A. studio, but also never before seen footage of a young JAY Z.
How did you two first get to know each other?
Kareem “Biggs” Burke: We had a mutual friend who knew what I was trying to do in the space, and he told me Blaine would be the perfect person to take the ideas and bring them to fruition—to the next level of fashion. At first, it was about fostering a relationship with Blaine to see what could work, but then I saw the talent and creativity that he brought to the table, and it was a no brainer.
What was it that made you know the partnership was right?
KB: I was really attracted to the timeless aspect that Blaine brings to his garments. At Roc96, we don’t like to follow trends or the here-today-gone-tomorrow. Blaine focuses on pieces you could have worn 10 years ago, today, and 10 years from now. I’m always thinking about the past, present, and future. This partnership just made sense in terms of the collection we were trying to put together.
Blaine, were you familiar with Reasonable Doubt or Biggs before you were approached? Why did this feel right?
Blaine Halvorson: I was familiar with the album but didn’t know Biggs prior to meeting him. By the time he came out to L.A. to meet, we had spent quite a bit of time talking on the phone discussing the path to take this on and my approach to collaboration. I think we really built an understanding of one another prior to meeting. When we met, it felt like kindred spirits, and both of us really understood what we wanted to do with this. It was important not to make it quick or fast. It was about telling the story from 1996 when it started to now. What did that 20 years look like? It was about mapping that world out. I played the music a bunch to pull things from it and get into the mindset. It was a little out of my wheelhouse, but I like that and it made it fun to take on. Now I feel like I’m getting my wings on this one. Biggs comes here a lot, and we’re developing new stuff every day. We’re always striving to make new pieces and to make it better. At the end of the day, I like to create these keepsake things that tell a story and aren’t so trendy.
How did you approach mapping it out? You must have taken a deep dive back into the album…
BH: Yeah, it took me a little bit of time. I’ve worked a lot with musicians, but usually in the rock world—never in this realm before. A lot of times, you don’t have access to use song titles or lyrics because the record companies own them. But that wasn’t the case here, so I really started by exploring the song titles and lyrics, which are really powerful. I didn’t want it to be imagery that screamed JAY Z or Reasonable Doubt—I wanted to portray the words, too. I built the graphics around the song titles, which mean a lot of different things politically and socially. That was appealing to me.
Biggs, I can imagine it was powerful to see this coming to life.
KB: Just to see the lyrics and titles be brought to life through Blaine’s graphics and timeless pieces was so amazing. I think both Reasonable Doubt and Roc-A-Fella Records deserve that. The fact that we have had over 20 years of being relevant in the music business is remarkable. Blaine was talking about how he usually works in the rock realm, and those musicians perform and are relevant for 30 plus years. Nobody has been as relevant as long as we have in hip-hop music. JAY has been in the industry over 20 years and just went into the songwriters’ hall of fame. He has more number 1 albums than Elvis Presley. What we did is bigger than something that you can put a label on. That’s what Blaine brought to the capsule—he made it broad. Even though this first collection is focused on Reasonable Doubt, we want to pay homage to Roc-A-Fella and JAY Z’s career, both past and present.
Do you think kids today who aren’t as familiar with the history of Reasonable Doubt and Roc-A-Fella will connect with the collection?
KB: I think so, because these same kids are wearing Rolling Stones shirts—even hip-hop kids. Maybe you’re not familiar with the music but you’re familiar with quality garments. These pieces are quality, and we are telling the story around it. I think that will make people want to dive in.
How do you guys approach delivering a nostalgic message in a modern, accessible way?
BH: I kept it kind of black and white and graphic. But there’s also a lot of subtlety to it. With rock tees, there’s often one big logo front and center, but this was more subtle than that. It’s a lot about the process too. There’s a lot of applique—we physically hand-applied over 18,000 patches—Biggs witnessed it! A lot of people won’t know that or understand that because people just assume it’s pumped out in a factory. That’s not what we do here. We create things that can’t be replicated so easily in a factory. There’s no two pieces alike.
Biggs, has fashion always been important to you?
KB: I’m from Harlem, and a lot of trends and fashion came out of there. As a kid, we always wanted to stay fresh. My partner Emory has taken the lead on fashion from the Roc96 standpoint. He was a friend of Jay’s, and I met him when I was 16 years old. We’d go to Soho every single weekend to go shopping. We built a relationship around fashion. In everything we do, we try to be first and push the envelope. To me, bringing this stuff to life is amazing. Bringing this genre to a place like Barneys—the leader in fashion retail—is really pushing the envelope.
What have you learned from Blaine?
KB: It’s been amazing trying to match Blaine’s enthusiasm, work ethic, and the stamina that he brings to the table. It’s so rare to find someone who works as hard as I do! Blaine is there with scissors, putting patches on—working non-stop to get it right. I am trying to bring that same level to the content, branding, and assets that I’m providing him, so that he can keep creating.
What does the 20th anniversary of Reasonable Doubt mean to you?
KB: The most important thing is Reasonable Doubt and celebrating that specifically, because it meant so much to all of us—it was the first album. Usually you spend your whole life making that first album. When JAY did it, he put everything into it. He made it for his friends, but it ended up having this global impact. It ended up being a platform, which we’ve used to jump into fashion, film, tech, and sports. To see the family tree sprout out of that is so special to me because, not only were we made from it, but also so many careers beyond us: Cam’ron, Kanye West, Rihanna, J. Cole—and we’re always still pushing. This 20 years is special because we’ve done so much and are still relevant today.