Although we often don’t think of it as such, hip hop is a business. CUSH and CORE organized an event last Friday to invite us to think of it as such. We were intrigued, so we sent our hippest hopper, Eric Wimer, to check it out. Here’s his report:
It’s not often enough that you can sit down at a panel of business professionals and ask them about Talib Kweli, Curren$y, or Kendrick Lamar, but if you listened to the one at Lerner on Friday, you may have left thinking that it should be more common. I was at a panel on Business and Hip Hop, strategies to succeed from A-Money to Jay-Z. Zach Schwartz, a CC’16 editor for Rap Genius, organized the panel, which was co-sponsored by CUSH and CORE, and as moderator he asked them to describe what they had learned about business from hip-hop. James Lopez, a cofounder of venture company Phat Startup, pointed to “that hustle mentality” and the practice of blowing up your accomplishments. “Jay-Z owned less than 1% of the Nets, but with the way he acted you would have thought that he owned over 50%.”
Lopez, raised in the Bronx, described how he “didn’t play the hand he was dealt,” to quote his favorite Kanye verse. Growing up he saw “dealers driving Rolls-Royces and decided that I wanted their money, so I took out my books and started studying.” He met Anthony Fraiser, a Newark native and co-founder of the gaming site TheKoalition.com, and the two founded Phat Startup. Fraiser was a big fan of artist Joe Button, a one hit wonder who aggressively produced mix tapes and built on his reputation through a strong social media presence.
Shawn Setaro, editor-in-chief of Rap Genius, praised the “mogul model” of artists like Diddy “who never sleeps…or the way whenever Jay-Z comes into a room, he starts asking questions and tries to learn everything there is to know about the situation he’s in.” “But I’d rather be Talib [Kweli] than Jay-Z” co-founder Mahbod Moghadm added in response to a question on why more socially conscious artists like Kweli didn’t pull in the big bucks. Jay-Z doesn’t smoke or drink. “I mean how many Bentleys does one man need?” Moghadm opined. Setaro pointed to narrowing of commercially successful personalities as another major reason, though he believes that this is opening up.
Setaro worried that he would have to choose between his love of music and journalism in high school, but Rap Genius provided him a way to do both. Moghadm, who noted that he’d finally managed to get inside Columbia despite being rejected as a high school senior, beckoned us to join him, proudly claiming that “we’re connected with a lot of the illuminati in your administration.” Rap Genius, he told us, evolved from the “blogs we used to write to try and impress high school girls” into a crowd-source lyrics database with over 15 million unique views a month.
Corentin Villemeur, new media director for G-Unit records and manager of Thisis50.com, reiterated a point told to him by 50-Cent: “who you know determines if you get in, what you know determines how long you stay.” His philosophy was that “behind every successful man is a very good team,” and he encouraged us to “surround yourself with people smarter than you.” He came from France, believing the dream of rich lives that rapped in mix tapes everywhere, but got acquainted with the truth of rappers with nothing grinding out tapes. The beefs however were very real. During a Rick Ross’s fight he “slept in the office for three months…everyone was telling each other, watch out, the streets are dangerous.”
In response to a question on why the rap genre is so dominated by men (there were no women on the panel), Frasier asserted that sadly, “the Queen Latifah’s have died out. Sex sells, so most women that are left are sex symbols, but women buy most of the records by female artists, so they have the power to start supporting better ones.”
Many of the panelists just followed hip-hop in their spare time, and they encouraged students to think about using the hobbies they really enjoyed professionally. “What do you do in your spare time?” Setaro asked. “Examine that.”
Hip hop money via Shutterstock