Everything you need for a long and fruitful career can be learned from hip-hop

Even the genius asks his questions.
Even the genius asks his questions.
Image: Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP
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Hip-hop has officially displaced rock. It has spawned the anthems of the millennial generation and spurred a whole new wave of television and film. It’s wormed into the mainstream so deeply at this point that it may even be nearing a nostalgia revival cycle.

The genre—so raw and rough-edged in rap’s homegrown early years in the 1970s, rattling around block parties in the Bronx—didn’t cheat or hack its way to where it is now. Its ascent is a remarkable tale of collaborative, and relentless, elbows-deep-in-dirt work.

It knows it, too. From Jay-Z’s oft-cited “I’m not a businessman / I’m a business, man” bit on a Kanye West song to trademark bragging by rappers like Diddy and Dr. Dre about their hustle, the rap world is inundated with stories about its own wild, wild success. The teachers are wise, humble when necessary, and resilient. It’s one of hip-hop’s greatest feats that its students need not be limited to young, aspiring rappers. Rather, the genre offers lessons in success to anybody who cares to listen.

Lesson one: The status quo is not static

Hip-hop was born out of rebellion against an established system—perhaps all established systems—and then became one itself: a better, less bureaucratic, and more streamlined version of what it tore down. Such creative destruction is a familiar trajectory in many industries, and increasingly so as the gig economy razes its path across everything from automobiles to housing. One difference between Biggie Smalls and Uber, however: Rap’s origin story didn’t involve trying to undercut an existing genre for profit. It started out as straight commentary on other people’s works, before growing big enough to sustain an ecosystem of its own.

Rap is, at its heart, about carving out a space for oneself in a public realm. From the start, it questioned and pushed against roadblocks until a resistent society gave way. Today, rap beef between groups makes major media headlines, and Kendrick Lamar may be, at least according to data, the best musician of the 21st century. Hip-hop is mainstream now. Its concerns are now the concerns of entertainment and culture writ large.

There is no greater triumph than taking something over because you can do it better.

Lesson two: Get together

Rap is a business of frenetic evolution and iteration—no rapper is singularly responsible for his or her own success. The music is full of sampling (sound bytes lifted off of previous hip-hop tracks or other recorded works like speeches) and collaboration is core to the genre. The writers’ tabs on song credits are often crammed with names. Older artists will team up with newer ones on singles to boost overall visibility, and the list of successful rappers who fervently cite direct mentors who guided them along the route to fame is longer than the list of successful rappers who don’t.

Rappers are often minorities in more ways than one, and they recognize that sticking together brings returns to everyone involved—a tactic, as it turns out, that’s well supported by data in management research.

Lesson three: Name friends, but not enemies

Dominating the recent media buzz over David Letterman’s Netflix interview with Jay-Z was what the rapper revealed about his relationship with Beyoncé. But the real highlights of the hour-long show were the insights we got into the musician-mogul career—his decades of savvy maneuvering and smart bets, culminating in the purchase of digital music-streaming service Tidal, which is owned jointly by a starry list of Jay-Z’s friends and fellow artists. He drops a litany of names when asked about his inspirations, his idols. That’s par for the course in interviews with musicians; it’s nothing particular to rap.

But at one point, Letterman asks whether there are “guys [in rap] who are successful that are not good.” Jay’s patient answer: “Of course. All the time. It’s like everybody else.”

Letterman probes for names. Like who, he asks? Any examples? Jay fires back: “How ’bout this—who’s on TV in late night right now that’s not even remotely funny?”

Aspiring politicians—or anybody aiming for a career that involves jiving with others, which is just about everyone nowadays—could learn a thing or two from the unspoken respect radiating through the community of hip-hop. Rap’s biggest names may not always be close-knit (see: brutal infighting and the killing of Tupac) but they generally defend their own against outsiders. An insult to one is taken as an insult to all.

Lesson four: Just do it

Quartz at Work writer Khe Hy mused last week on four key lessons he took away from rap that shaped his own career and entrepreneurship.

One of them is as simple as it sounds: Just start. Now. Start even without backing, or the right academic or professional credentials, or experience, because there might not be any other way. (Quoth Jay-Z: “Far from a Harvard student / just had the balls to do it.”)

Rap is more self-starting than any other music genre, a legacy of its counterculture roots. Even now, at a time when it’s gone mainstream and established support systems of its own, many rap artists choose to go their own way, because it’s in the building-out of that first track or album or business move when truly dedicated people discover the real extent of their creative prowess.

Lesson five: Remember the hustle

One of the reasons the genre of rock and roll fell so far in recent years is that it failed to keep up with the speed of the world. CD and tape sales were down, digital downloads were down, and streaming—that newfangled model of an all-you-can-listen subscription—was about to take over. Rock stars shrugged their shoulders and kept plugging away.

Rappers stayed in tune with the innovations coming their way. Mixtapes like Drake’s were made and molded specifically for the tastes of the impatient, insatiable streaming era. Chance the Rapper won an unprecedented Grammy Award without selling physical copies of his music. Kanye West’s last album was still being tweaked long after it was released, both enticing listeners to come back and taking complete advantage of an evolving set of tech tools. Accordingly, leaders in the music-streaming space like Spotify and Apple Music reached out to work with the genre, rolling out spotlighted rap playlists and video content.

Today, Spotify is a public company valued higher than Hewlett-Packard, and aging rock stars are going back on tour just to pay the bills.