Global culture is shaped by US culture, which is shaped by Hip Hop.
One of the entrepreneurs Nas has invested in, Tristan Walker (founder of Walker & Co.) shared the quote above in various interviews and we see it manifest across industries from entertainment to the consumption of tech. In an interview with USA Today, Nas was asked, “why did you invest in Walker & Co.?” He started by saying how Tristan was recommended by a personal friend (like all good deals in the startup world), and Nas quoted that he loved the fact the brand was:
“……grooming. It’s haircuts. It’s the barbershop in the ‘hood.”
This cultural reference shows the importance of diversity, yet some investors skipped this opportunity, unaware of the role of barbershops in black communities where we watch football games, catch up with friends and trust the only man in the world outside our family with a blade to our head. Nas was happy to invest in someone who represented such an integral part of the under served community he grew up in. He believed in him.
Recently, Ben Horowitz, one of the most celebrated investors in startups from Silicon Valley joined Product Hunt for a LIVE Chat. Ben has many Hip Hop lyrical references in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things and during the chat he named Nas as a friend who:
“has the ability to see the world in such a radically different perspective. We can listen to the same song and he’ll hear 30 things that I didn’t.”
So why have I decided to dedicate this article to rapper, investor and entrepreneur Nas? Why do some of the most successful modern day investors respect Nas? Why is it relevant to deconstruct the story of this successful mogul?
From ‘The Bridge’ to Harvard
This article will hopefully answer all of the above, but to start with let’s take a journey to ‘The Bridge’ where it all began. Queensbridge, New York that is.
Bumping in the background whilst writing this article I had to flip my Sonos Player from Big L to Nas’ classic ‘NY State of Mind’ track from his debut album. It was the spring of ’94 where 20 year old Nas dropped his debut album illmatic which lives on till today as one of the best rap albums ever. Lyrically he was very diverse in his subject matter and this was an early indication of the diversity of thought he would go on to develop and apply to his investments. In fact in his tune, ‘Halftime’ Nas raps:
According to Genius (one of Nas’ portfolio companies), a numbers man were:
“the gambling entrepreneurs who would run the ‘numbers game’, a sort of underground lottery that was very popular, notably during the Harlem Renaissance”
A month after the album release, in an interview with YO! MTV Raps Nas said, “The projects [the largest public housing project in North America] used to be my world until I educated myself to see there’s more out there.” Similar to Nas I have experienced the benefits of ‘feeding your curiosity’ and broadening your perspective by experiencing life outside the endz (Broadwater Farm was my projects). Nas is living proof that where we are born does not determine we will become a product of our environment. After all, in 2013 the Hiphop Archive & Research Institute and the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University established the Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship. Who knew in 1994 that Nas name would transcend from Queensbridge to Harlem.
From illmatic to a16z
“Went from hangin’ with shooters and clappers. To computer hackers” -DJ Khaled, ‘Nas Album Done’
Most true Hip Hop fans will struggle not to feature Nas’ classic illmatic album in their top 10. 11 albums later and Nas is still regarded legendary as a lyricist and much more. In 2014 at SXSW, Nas interviewed rap enthusiast Ben Horowitz co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) and one of Silicon Valley’s most respected and experienced entrepreneurs. Ben had been putting rap lyrics in his blog posts for years before putting lyrics in the book Nas was interviewing him about called The Hard Thing About Hard Things (great read, hence it gets a second mention!). The power of networking is real, and Ben met Nas through Steve Stoute who is the connector between Hip Hop and brand advertising.
Later in 2015, Andreessen Horowitz hosted Nas and a small audience for the release of Time is illmatic, a film about the story of Nas. A young man from Brooklyn raised his hand, and said proudly that he was born in the 90s and Nas’ lyrics “raised us.” When asked if he has “survivor’s guilt” since leaving the Queensbridge projects, he honestly shared that he felt torn and stuck between two worlds: “Too hard for Hollywood circles and too rich for the hood that birthed you,” he joked. Too often do we feel the same conflict between our work and professional lives. This talks to the importance of why inclusion in Tech is not only something we should seek from our job but also a value that should be embedded in the companies we create. That way, we can bring ourselves to work for a mission-driven company that aligns with our culture, creating a more happy and productive workforce.
Nas echoes the importance of this as he shared towards the end of that evening the benefits of bringing tech into low-income, inner-city neighborhood schools to create more opportunity from a young age.
From a16z to QBVP
“I never asked to be top of rap’s elite, Just a ghetto child tryna learn the traps of the streets” -Nas, ‘You’re Da Man’
The quest for self-learning (autodidact) for Nas never ends as nowadays he has reinvented himself as a successful investor ‘geeking’ out on Tech he never even thought about before 2010. These lyrics from Nas’ Stillmatic album emphasis the importance of being mission-driven. Beyond the ambition of merely financial reward or ‘rap’s elite’ is the goal of continuous learning to better ones self. This is something I value personally and adhere to when making belief-based decisions whilst learning constantly. This was one of Ben’s favourite lyrics, and it is no accident that the two investors connected through Steve Stoute. This is an example of why we must always learn to foster and maintain relationships, as Steve and Nas have been friends for almost 20 years. Steve came to Queensbridge, literally to the blocks (and he weren’t from these parts), because he wanted to manage Nas and help him blow up. Nas was caught between leaving the projects and following Steve’s vision as shown by the lyric shared above. You never know what doors relationships will open.
If we take a look at Queensbridge Venture Partners (QBVP), again we see strength in the relationships Nas kept. Anthony Saleh earned a spot on Forbes 30 under 30 in music in 2015 as the CEO of Emagen Entertainment Group. In his roster along with hip hop legend Nas, he looked after YG and Future. Nas took a leap of faith on 23 year old Anthony who had zero years experience and was over 10 years younger than him, whilst Nas had been in the game for over 15 years at that point. The gamble paid off as Anthony is one of Nas General Partners at QBVP now, and it was Nas dream combined with Anthony’s work ethic that propelled Nas into Venture Capital in 2010. Today the firm invests in everything from bitcoin through to healthcare startups, in billion dollar companies from Lyft through to Dropbox. QBVP has invested in over 100 startups since inception, and is pitched to by more than 100 companies per month.
Hip Hop music in the 90s helped shape the culture of how we grew up. Imagine how having rappers such as Nas as an investor can reach new audiences through tech and influence kids in under represented communities how music touched us. Tech entrepreneurs are the new rockstars, it is great to see QBVP providing minority ethnics in low-income communities with scholarships teaching them to code. It would be great in the UK if we could increase participation to help others up the ladder as we rise collectively. I am optimistic about the future of the tech world being more diverse, and we all have our part to play.
“I’d like to push [tech] more in the community I am from. It’s the new thing for the hustlers in the ‘hood.” -Nas, USA Today
At the start of the article I referred to Tristan Walker who Nas invested in. Tristan was an Entrepreneur in Residence at a16z where he went through 7 months of generating ideas that fell by the waste-side before things really took off with Walker & Co. Tristan went on to create code2040, which creates access, awareness and opportunities for top Black and Latino engineering talent to ensure future leadership in tech. The friend that introduced Tristan to Nas was Ben. Next in the series I will deconstruct the story of Tristan Walker, from New York to Startup.
2018 RESULTS UPDATE:
- Nas invests in PillPack (through his VC company)
- Nas invests in Dropbox
- Nas invests in Ring
- Amazon buys Ring & PillPack (paying $1 billion for each)
- Dropbox IPO (valuation of $11.03 billion at IPO)
Thanks for hitting the 💙 if you enjoyed this article. This will tell me to write more of it!
PS. Other musicians I could have included as active investors include Snoop Dogg, will.i.am, Chamillionaire (successfully exited from Maker Studio investment to Disney for $500m), John Legend, Troy Carter, Will Smith and Jay-Z