In 1996, rap fans learned that perfection is indeed possible, if only for rare, four minute stretches.
It was that year some Miami kids were sitting on a sofa, snacking and taking cues from their heroes. Cues on fashion, slang, and overall panache. This is back when music television existed, when "Rap City" was around to show us the way and before Jay Z had multiple business ventures to distract him from making the purest of things. A gem we had never heard called "Dead Presidents" cracked the top 10 countdown and we lost our minds—knowing that the East Coast was poised to capitalize on the flame sparked by Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, and the Notorious B.I.G. after a long period of West Coast domination.
The first promotional single for Jay Z's debut Reasonable Doubt, "Dead Presidents" remains one of the most exalted rap recordings ever made. Though an alternate version called "Dead Presidents 2" appeared on the album, the success of the original helped establish Jay as a viable candidate for the title of King of New York. Produced by Ski Beatz, it's an exercise in minimalism and features a chopped piano lick from Lonnie Liston Smith's "A Garden of Peace", percussion from A Tribe Called Quest's "Oh My God (remix)", and is built around a vocal sample of Nas' "The World Is Yours".
While Jay had made appearances on songs with the likes of Jaz-O, Big Daddy Kane, and Big L early in his career, with "Dead Presidents" he struck a chord commercially—rightfully eclipsing the underground buzz of his first official single "In My Lifetime".