At first Jay-Z insisted he didn't want a party for his new album. Then, about a week and a half ago, one of the world's biggest-selling rappers suddenly changed his mind, and by last Wednesday night his people had made it happen: rented New York City's Irving Plaza nightclub; lined up a deejay and background vocalists for Jay-Z's performance; printed up personalized tickets for such guests as Puffy Combs, Busta Rhymes, Eve, Russell Simmons and Lil' Kim. Great party. The host, in baggy jeans, Phat Farm shirt and a blinding diamond necklace, did snippets of some slamming songs from the album "Vol. 3--The Life and Times of Shawn Carter" (his real name), to be released on Dec. 28, and the beats bumped loud enough to rattle the champagne glasses. "There was no commotion, and the performance was off the hook," recalls the rapper Juvenile. But there was this one thing. Damon Dash, co-owner of Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella Records, grabbed the mike, yelled "F--k the bootleggers" and exhorted the crowd to raise a collective finger. "It was an odd moment," says one guest. "It sort of came out of nowhere."
At least one member of the hip-hop aristocracy hadn't been invited: Lance (Un) Rivera, head of Untertainment Records, whose big star is the platinum-selling Lil' Kim. Rap insiders say he's not everybody's favorite guy, and his luck seemed to be turning bad. A distribution deal with Epic Records was falling apart, and Lil' Kim's much-anticipated second album kept getting delayed. "He was definitely struggling to get things done," says one source. "You could say times were hard." Still, since Un coproduced one track on Jay-Z's new album, his omission from the guest list looked curious. Insiders, though, suspected there was bad blood between them. Some believe Un felt threatened by Jay-Z's success. "Everybody is caught up in the hype of Jay-Z," Un said in a recent NEWSWEEK interview. "The music business says that if you aren't selling 500,000 copies the first week, then you're a failure." And Jay-Z, sources say, suspected Un or his associates of sabotaging his CD's release by leaking an unfinished bootleg tape to New York radio stations.
When the Jay-Z party broke up, around midnight, a caravan of SUVs rolled uptown to a party at the Kit Kat Club near Times Square celebrating the release of Q-Tip's new album, and there Jay-Z and Un came face to face. "It was clear something was about to go down," a female rapper who was in the posse told NEWSWEEK, "because J's attitude totally changed when he saw Un. They started arguing, and I know these guys all too well--I got the hell out of the way." What happened next will get straightened out--if it ever does--in court. One newspaper account says that Jay-Z delivered a line straight out of "The Godfather Part 2"--"Lance, you broke my heart"--pulled a knife and stabbed him. Another eyewitness, a famous East Coast rapper who's a close friend of Jay-Z's, told NEWSWEEK this story: "Jay-Z approached him, they had a few words, they became loud, and then this big commotion began. One guy I couldn't see hit Un with a bottle and then Jay-Z pushed something in his back and in his stomach, and Un began to sort of bend over and people started yelling." By the time the police showed up, Jay-Z was gone.
The rest of the story--to date--takes less time to tell. Rivera was hospitalized for stab wounds and released Thursday afternoon; Jay-Z, who's been charged with assault, showed up at a police station with his lawyer on Thursday evening and was freed on $50,000 bail. By Saturday two other people had come forward, charging that on previous occasions Jay-Z had hit them over the head with bottles. His lawyer couldn't be reached for comment, but Island/Def Jam, which distributes his records, released a statement saying it was "confident he was not involved in any way." And though he's admitted to drug-dealing in the past, he has no criminal record. Lyor Cohen, Island/Def Jam co-president, points out that Jay-Z "hasn't been convicted. He's accused."
There's a lot about this story that's still mysterious, in part because neither Jay-Z nor Un would return NEWSWEEK's calls. Why would Un leak Jay-Z's unfinished music? "He knows how much bootlegging hurts hip-hop," says a close associate, "so why would he do it to someone else? He's not that ruthless." But if he was, he'd have known somebody would pirate the music off the radio and cost Jay-Z a ton of money. As for Jay-Z, if he wanted some getback, why would he pull a knife in a roomful of witnesses instead of calling his lawyer--or getting the hired help do a "Michael Corleone says hello" number?
What we do know is that people in the music business react to bootlegging the way movie cowboys react to cattle-rustling. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) estimates that bootleg CDs cost the industry some $300 million a year in the United States alone, and such measures as the CD Rewards program, which offers cash to call-in tipsters, aren't cutting it. "What's a kid going to do if he sees my album on the corner for five bucks?" asks Snoop Dogg. "Buy it or call an 800 number?" Def Jam's Cohen suspects there are at least 100,000 illegal copies of Jay-Z's "Vol. 3--The Life and Times of Shawn Carter" on the streets, which could have meant $1 million in legitimate profits. "It's an extreme problem," he says. "I've had the Feds and the RIAA dealing with this for the last nine days." But it's not just about the Benjamins. "Bootlegging is like taking something you hold very close, like your family, and having it stolen away from you," says Dr. Dre. "You don't want your s--t on the corner selling for $5. That's an insult to the craft."
And we also know a little about Jay-Z's mood. About a week before the alleged stabbing, he and his Roc-a-Fella partner Dash played the new album for a NEWSWEEK reporter--in a closed room, with a half dozen various employees in attendance to make sure the tape left the premises with the person who brought it in. And he had much to say about jealousy, hostility and intrigue in the hip-hop world. "It's probably the most competitive business there is," Jay-Z said. "You can't tell nobody nothin' and nobody really wants to help you. Somebody will be like, 'What's up, homey?' in your face, and then, in the same breath, 'Who that n----r think he is?' Everybody's on some backstabbing s--t." It's probably not the expression he'd choose today.