Five Things You Can Learn From The Titans Of Rap

What you need to know is this: rap is great music. If you haven’t at least tried to listen, you should. As the last true cultural phenomenon in American music, the hip-hop movement faced issues that are still relevant, and you can possibly learn more from rap than any other genre.

1. Entrepreneurship — Make great content, and advertise it yourself Dan Charnas’s book, The Big Payback, provides an excellent portrait of the characters that ran the rap world behind-the-scenes: a dubious collection of gangsters and malcontents who would do anything for the almighty dollar. Even with the more decent executives, when rappers were signed to a record label, they were either a flavor-of-the-month pawn or a personal project. Signed artists typically had very little or no creative control. In addition, a record deal was no guarantee that an artist’s work would be promoted at all. There is quite literally a graveyard of broken dreams spurned by record executives, musicians of great talent who might have become superstars.

If you plan to become a professional musician, you should read this book. This isn’t to suggest that the relationship between musicians and record labels is a zero-sum game, but the incentives for the two parties are usually not the same. You need to understand how this business operates, and decide whether or not you can fit into their plans.

The alternative route is entrepreneurship. At it’s simplest, it’s just a two-step process: make and sell great products, and then advertise them in every way you can.

When Jay-Z decided to commit to the rap game, he knew immediately from his personal experience that entrepreneurship was the way to go. Putting yourself under the thumb of a boss leaves you vulnerable to their demands and locks your creative control, which ultimately is what you bring to the table as an artist, not musical talent. He set up a label with his friends/partners, and they immediately wrote out a step-by-step business plan, not just making a general outline in their heads. They brought their money together and recorded singles and a music video as cheaply as possible. Using the finished products as bait, they negotiated a distribution deal, which eventually led to a full album, and found avenues to reach a broader public, such as the radio, music stores, and clubs.

Jay-Z writes in his autobiography, Decoded:

“I’m… lucky never to have needed the approval of the gatekeepers in the industry because from the start we came into the game as entrepreneurs. That gave me the freedom to just be myself, which is the secret to any long-term success, but that’s hard to see when you’re young and desperate just to get put on.”

2. Surround yourself with good people
The corollary to entrepreneurship is that it is not a go-it-alone, all-for-yourself game. Each person may have quite a bit of talent, but a group of people always has more skills than any individual, and better-developed ones. In order to bring your artistic productions up to snuff, you will have to work with many people for recordings, tours, promotions, etc. The difference is that as an entrepreneur, you get to choose who they are.

But what qualities should you look for? There is no definite answer for each and every situation. Whether you value positivity, honesty, kindness, business acumen, healthy living, dedication, or some aggregate measure, just know this — the character of the people that you work with is a huge predictor of your success, anecdotally at least.

Eminem is the perfect example of this. As a somewhat depressive, uneducated guy, he chose to surround himself with two people of high character to help him in those areas. The rapper Proof, his best friend and collaborator in D12, was a very upbeat and motivating person, encouraging Eminem to continue rapping and releasing songs even when the chips were down. Paul Rosenberg, a stable and successful lawyer, was able to show Eminem the ropes in the music industry.

3. Interesting people have an interesting history
During his brief career, Tupac Shakur was known for his willingness to tackle the toughest issues in the African-American community. Tupac was able to discuss complicated problems in large part because he was born in prison, had experienced crushing poverty, was well-read, and had seen many different communities. His raps were more interesting than other rappers’ because he was more interesting than other rappers, having done more with his time.

There isn’t a single musical great who isn’t experienced, diversified. Your childhood, out of your control, will play a large part in your past as an artist, as most do their best work young. However, there’s no reason why the interesting things in your life have to end when you come of age. Working, traveling, and making friends with unusual people are good ways to give yourself more writing topics. Also, as they say, shit happens, as long as we live.

4. Music (and art) is context-dependent
The nadir of the hip-hop movement was March 1997; about a year after Tupac’s death, the other titan of rap, the Notorious B.I.G., was shot to death leaving a Los Angeles nightclub. The motive behind B.I.G.’s shooting is still unclear, but many fans believe today that it was a result of the “war” between East and West Coast hip-hop, and revenge for Tupac’s death. This rift was so deep-seated that many people from the East Coast actually refused to listen to music from the West, and vice versa, no matter how bangin’ some of that music was. It just goes to show that music (and all art) is not holy, not special; it is merely a product of our circumstances, and totally dependent on the rest of our lives.

This isn’t a “lesson” in the way that the other four things on this list are. It can’t really help anyone get better, or do something new. It’s just important to remember sometimes that our greatest achievements are dust in the wind even when they are happening, and that we should focus on some form of motivation other than everlasting fame.

5. Do your research
In order to write just this article, I read several books, listened constantly to music, and watched hours of video. It was weeks of work, but well worth it. Before, I thought I knew a decent bit about rap, but now it’s clear that I know next to nothing.

This list just scratches the surface. Reading biographies helps you understand why people fail, which is more important than learning why they succeed. It introduces you to new music: the people who weren’t the “winners” but helped shape them. It helps you understand what the defining forces behind the art were, and shows you that music cuts way deeper than just being sounds people make in their spare time.

Do your own research projects. Do them a lot. It’s the best way to keep pushing yourself, trying new techniques, and just generally staying fresh. If you need any further convincing, the “titans” these books are written about — they started by doing research projects like this as well.*

The Big Payback by Dan Charnas
Decoded by Jay-Z
The Way I Am by Eminem and Sacha Jenkins
Holler If You Hear Me: Searching For Tupac Shakur by Michael Eric Dyson
The Life, Death, And Afterlife Of The Notorious B.I.G. by Cheo Hodari Coker

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*Eminem says in The Way I Am: “All of these rappers and groups were my teachers, and I was a full-time student of hip-hop.” Jay-Z’s autobiography, Decoded, is full of rap history and analysis.

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