Behind the Name: How Jay-Z Got His Musical Moniker

It all starts with Jazz. But in this case, that means the stage name, not the musical genre, per se. More the sonic quality of the word. Yes, that’s where the origin story of Jay-Z and, especially, his stage moniker begins. Let’s dive in.

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Shawn Carter

Born Shawn Corey Carter on December 4, 1969, Carter is known by a few names, including Hova, Mr. Carter, and, yes, Jay-Z.

The New York City-born artist famously turned to selling drugs early in his life and later found music. He founded Roc Nation, was later CEO of Def Jam Recordings, and has helped to grow the careers of artists like Kanye West, Rihanna, and J. Cole, among others.

His debut album, Reasonable Doubt, was released in 1996. Later, the 2001 LP, The Blueprint, helped make him one of the most famous artists in hip-hop. His 2003 album, The Black Album, solidified that fact. Jay Z was the first solo living rapper to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And today, he is married to Beyoncé and has three kids.

[RELATED: 10 Songs You Didn’t know Jay-Z Wrote for Other Artists]

The Origins of His Name

Raised in the Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn by his mother, Gloria Carter, times were tough for the young rapper who tried to be tougher. For example, he claims that he shot his older brother at age 12 for stealing his jewelry. He also says, while selling drugs, he was shot three times, himself.

As a young, aspiring musician, Carter was friends with rapper AZ. He was also close with rappers The Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes, who all went to the same high school, Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School.

But music would never leave his mind. As a young person, Carter would wake his family up at night as he banged drum beats on the kitchen table. So, for his birthday, his mother bought him a boombox, with which he used to freestyle rap and listen to songs. His writing days began—though, famously, he never writes lyrics down, only memorizing them in his head.

Growing up, with music on his mind, people in the neighborhood used to call him “Jazzy.” This led to Carter taking on the moniker, Jay-Z, which was a nod to his nickname and to his rapping mentor, Jaz-O. Also likely a nod to his friend AZ. In fact, the first songs to include Jay-Z were released by Jaz-O, including “Hawaiian Sophie.”

[RELATED: Jay-Z Responds to Criticism of His Wealth – “We Killed Ourselves to Get to This Space”]

Later, Jay-Z would connect with legendary rapper Big Daddy Kane, known as Kane’s hype man. “When I would leave the stage to go change outfits, I would bring out Jay-Z and Positive K and let them freestyle until I came back to the stage,” Kane told Unkut.

So, from a troubled kid in a troubled world to a hype man for Big Daddy Kane to a billionaire, it seems as if the name worked out just fine.

Photo by Kevin Kane/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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