Business Lessons I’ve Learned From Hip Hop Artist Jay Z

I’ve never seen a genre so influential yet misunderstood as Hip Hop. From the Grammys not understanding how to categorize Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’, to it constantly being perceived as a source for crime. But to Hip Hop fans, you’ll see it influencing creatives, providing life changing opportunities, and producing anthems, from artists like Kendrick Lamar, that unite communities worldwide.

I have found Hip Hop to be the influence and source of motivation for my own entrepreneurial journey. Matter of fact, two things I love to talk about is business and Hip Hop. That’s why you’ll find episodes of The Profit, Shark Tank, The Joe Budden Podcast, and the Breakfast Club in my
queue at all times.

HOUSTON, TX – SEPTEMBER 15: Jay-Z performs onstage during the “On the Run II” Tour at NRG Stadium on September 15, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Kevin Winter/PW18/Getty Images for Parkwood Entertainment)

After hours of studying and talking about both interchangeably, I’ve noticed myself using examples I see in Hip Hop to explain my business advice to my clients. So, to contribute something new to the culture, I infused two of my interests together to write a series about business lessons I’ve learned from Hip Hop.

Today’s lessons come from one of my favorite artists, Jay Z. Born Sean Carter, Jay Z used Hip Hop as an escape from poverty, making his first appearance in ‘Yo MTV Raps’ in 1989. Since then, he has sold millions of records, started his own record label, an entertainment company, sports agency, and even built a streaming service rivaling Spotify and Apple Music.

I can literally spend days talking about lessons I’ve learned from Jay Z’s music, but let me give you my Top 3.

1) ‘Moment of Clarity’: A hip hop lesson on aligning yourself with your goals

Jay Z’s is one of the best in Hip Hop and using rhymes to share how he rose to the top. Songs like ‘Moment of Clarity’ are packed with the lessons that can apply to other aspects of life. In the second verse of Moment of Clarity from the Black Album, Jay Z says:

“Music business hate me ‘cause the industry ain’t make me
Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be making
I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”
If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since (wooo!)
When your cents got that much in common
And you been hustling since your inception
F**k perception! Go with what makes sense
Since I know what I’m up against
We as rappers must decide what’s most important
And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win/win
So next time you see the homie and his rims spin
Just know my mind is working just like them (rims, that is)”

Jay Z is talking about the big debate that still goes on to this day the J Coles and Conscious Rap vs the Drakes and making hits. Today we talk about the J Coles of the world versus the Drakes. In this song, Hov is comparing his style of rap to the Common, who the Hip Hop community knows can rap but has not received the same level of commercial success or mainstream recognition.

Jay teaches us the importance of knowing your goals and your audience. He felt he could write songs that touched the mind on a deeper level but that would not align with his goals. As he mentioned, “Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense, But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.”

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – JUNE 09: Jay-Z performs on stage during the “On the Run II” Tour with Beyonce at Hampden Park on June 9, 2018 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images For Parkwood Entertainment)

How This Applies to Business

Every successful business starts out with a business plan. A business defines what your business is, the goals of the business, and how you achieve those goals. Many people just starting off often put this aside but don’t realize that this can hurt them in the long run. As a leader, you are constantly met with choices and opportunities for your business. Some have the impact of derailing the business while others will lead you to profitability. Having a detailed plan you revisit helps to make tough decisions when your business is at a crossroads.

“And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win/win”

So in Jay Z’s case, he knew that he could create music similar to Common but he also understood that album sales would align with his business goals. He knew that reaching these goals would put him in a better position to make a difference in other people’s lives. So he made the decision that would help him reach his business goals. 14 years after Moment of Clarity was released, you can find Jay Z in a position where he can make albums like 4:44, with the style he referenced in Moment of Clarity and not having to worry about record sales.

2) ‘U Don’t Know’: A hip hop lesson on diversifying our revenue streams

Now I could spend eons talking about Jay Z business moves and lyrics but let’s just focus on this verse.

“Could make 40 off a brick, but one rhyme could beat that
And if somebody woulda told ’em that Hov’ would sell clothing
Not in this lifetime, wasn’t in my right mind
That’s another difference that’s between me and them
I smarten up, open the market up
One million, two million, three million, four
In eighteen months, eighty million more
Now add that number up with the one I said before
You are now lookin’ at one smart black boy”

Jay Z established himself as one of Hip Hop’s elite and didn’t even have to look at other revenue streams. Based on the lyrics of ‘U Don’t Know’, he didn’t want to. Even though he didn’t originally have an interest in apparel, He and his team researched the fashion industry and ended up launching Rocawear. “The clothing company went from three employees stitching the logo onto shirts to grossing $80 million in sales in just eighteen months.” – ‘Genius’ contributor

How This Applies to Business

Lesson I learned. Seriously consider and analyze EVERY opportunity that comes your way. You may not like it but I’m sure you’d like $80,000 in sales.

3) It’s a Hard Knock Life: A hip hop lesson on Intellectual Property

The lesson in Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” differs from the other two lessons we covered. While there is a bar about how he’s made money from investing in others, the lesson lies in how he cleared the sample.

In music, sampling is the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or element of a new recording. Sampling is a true art form of itself and is what artists like Kanye West, J Cole, DJ Premiere, Lil Wayne, Drake and others have used to produce amazing songs. The process of clearing a sample is a lengthy process and often results in lawsuits.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – AUGUST 14: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay Z at the Roc Nation and NFL Partnership Announcement at Roc Nation on August 14, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation)

It involves getting legal permission, compensating the original artists, and is ultimately up to the original artists decision. This results in songs not making it to the fans, like the missing Lil Wayne and Drake collab from the Carter V. Some artists get into legal trouble even after samples are cleared based on the original artist’s perception of it. Recently, Juice Wrld’s producer stated that Sting threatened a lawsuit relating for improper sample use of one of Juice Wrld’s own songs. 

Jay Z knew he had a hit record when he heard how the beat for Hard Knock Life sampled the  Annie chorus. In his book “Decoded” Jay Z shares that they denied his initial request to use the sample. Now what happened next is what set’s Jay Z aside from other artists who’ve gotten in trouble with sampling. He wrote a letter and sent it to the company who owned the rights to the song. In the letter, he told a story of how when he was in 7th grade, he won tickets to ‘Annie the Musical’ from an essay contest at his school.

“This was, as he writes in Decoded, ‘A lie… I wrote that from the moment the curtain came up I felt like I understood honey’s story.’ The company bought the story and cleared the sample.” – Genius

The letter was in no way illegal and ended up in an agreement that not only allowed Jay Z to use the sample, it also allowed any other Hip Hop artist to use the sample without having to go through the same process. The Breakfast Club discovered this from a 2018 interview with Nipsey Hussle, a fellow businessman and Hip-Hop artist. Nipsey Hussle published his song, with an Annie sample, without having to go through the same trouble Jay Z experienced. All he had to do was clear the sample with Jay Z.

How This Applies to Business

Sampling and Intellectual Property in the music industry is not so different from the use of Copyrights and Patents for entrepreneurs. While composers hold the rights to who can use their songs, patents protect entrepreneurs who invent something. Any business that wants to use an invention, must get permission and compensate the inventor.

MIAMI, FL – NOVEMBER 12: Jay Z performs at the American Airlines Arena on November 12, 2017 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

That’s why it’s so important to protect your work in any way possible. Look into trademarks, copyrighting your work, and patents. You may not need all three, but make sure you’re in a position of ownership so that you are in control.

That concludes today’s lesson on business lessons from Hip Hop. Like I said, I could talk about this for hours but If you really study the game, you’ll see there are lessons all around you. I encourage you to take what you learned today and apply it to what you are working on. Whether
you’re a musician, painter, or founder of a new startup, you can begin applying these lessons by asking the following questions:

  1. What are your long term business goals?
  2. Do you have a business plan?
  3. Who owns your brand, work, or content? You or Instagram?
  4. Can you find another way to make money from what you’re already doing?

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