Over lunch on a damp autumn day in Harlem, hip-hop pioneer Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite seems mired in an internal debate. He’s deciding whether to tell me something about Jay-Z. We’ve spent the past twenty minutes cheerfully swapping generalities, but when I ask for specifics, the pauses grow longer, his brow becomes furrowed.
“Can you tell me some kind of anecdote that shows how Jay-Z thinks?” I press. “Any moment that stands out in your mind?”
“Let me think,” he says, munching his Caesar salad.
“So . . .” I continue, stalling. “I’m trying to, you know, get . . . inside his brain.”
“I like the way they hooked this salad up,” he mutters.
Then he blinks a long blink, as though clenching his eyelids longer will dull the regret of whatever he’s about to tell me. He opens his eyes.
“I believe it was the summer of 2003 . . .”
The scene was Holcombe Rucker Playground, a hallowed slab of asphalt wedged between the Harlem River and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in upper Manhattan. Jay-Z’s task: to assemble a team to play and win the Entertainers Basketball Classic (EBC), a tournament that offered no prize money, no gilded trophy, just victory, a muse if ever Jay-Z had one.