5 Business Lessons you can learn from Hip Hop

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Today we're going to talk about the music and culture I grew up with. I can vividly remember seeing "Rapper's Delight" for the first time on Soul Train when I was still a younger. The bass line sampled from Chic’s “Good Time” provided the musical groundwork for Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank & Master Gee to catapult rap from the boroughs of NYC into the homes of millions of kids just waiting to change the world. My father thought it was pure nonsense and noise as did most adults at that time.  Add to that a the new style of dance, dress & language and it's no surprise most people took Hip Hop as a fad. Fast forward nearly 40 years later and the impact of Hip Hop on the world is undeniable.  I don't think there is a part of the globe where some component of Hip Hop isn't thriving. Hip hop has irrevocably changed the landscape when it comes to style, fashion, music and pop culture at large. But what kind of impact can Hip Hop have in the boardrooms & strategy sessions of corporate America? Let's explore:


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1).  Hip Hop is based on the culture at large, no single component is bigger than the whole thing.  The DJ's, graffiti artists, break dancers and MC's all play a part in making Hip Hop what it is today; each group brings something completely different to the party and that's what makes it work. When the culture is represented correctly, you’ll find all four of these components inspiring each other. The DJ may scratch a break beat in such a way that one of the dancers develops a new move based on the the way the break beat sounds while being scratched.

 Lesson:  Learn how to leverage the skills of your different teams for the greater good of the company.  Make sure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute and build a culture that will be larger than any one team or person. If you find that someone on your team can contribute & inspire in more than one area, give them the chance to show and prove.

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2)  The Cypher - The Cypher is equivalent to today's Hackathon.  A group of rappers / lyricists / emcees will get together and take turns coming up with most clever, inventive and slick rhymes possible - all over the same beat or song. As each one delivers a set of rhymes, it pushes everyone following to be just as good or even better in real time. The Cypher doesn’t wait. When it’s your turn, you either bring the heat or get clowned in front of everyone.

Lesson:  Do you want to find some of the best unrecognized talent available?  Instead of using the traditional recruiting methods time and time again, set up an open session where individuals can come in and showcase their skills in real time. Web designers, graphic artists, copy writers; put four of five of them in a room with a measurable end goal and specific time frame and see what a little good-natured competition brings. You never know who you might stumble upon.

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3)  Just 2 turntables and a microphone - Rap music began with no real instruments. The culture was in love with all forms of music, but you didn't have piano players, drummers, or bassists to set the tempo - that meant something else had to be done.  And the answer was rather ingenious. The DJ would essentially find the funkiest, most dance-able section of a song typically referred to as a "break beat", and they would play that section repeatedly by switching from one turntable to another. Add in some drums from you favorite keyboard or drum machine and you’ve got a record. With 2 turntables, the DJ's were able to stitch together longer versions of certain instrumental sections of music or bring together 2 completely different songs in such a way that they sounded as if they were the same song.

Lesson: You won't always have all the tools everyone else has, it doesn't mean you can't get the job done. Learn to get creative and try something no one else would think of and keep trying to until you find the tool or method that works. You know what the goal is, and unless you are limited by law from doing something, there are no rules to keep you from going way outside the box. This is where Lesson #2 can pay off as well,

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4) It ain't where you from, it's where you're at -  Hip Hop began primarily in the South Bronx in New York and migrated from there.  By the mid 90's there was virtually no place in the country that hadn't been touched by the culture and the music. The West Coast was relaying stories of life from Sir Mix a Lot up in the Pacific North West all the way down to Cali, where NWA, Ice Cube and Del the Funky Homosapien taught what is was like to ride through the LA in Impalas with nothing but beaches, women and the LAPD to contend with. Because of where the music originated, the very best talent was primarily by black and latino youth. However as Hip Hop expanded it's reach; youth of other cultures became involved.  As a result, a white kid from Detroit would become one the most prolific and respected MC's to ever touch a microphone.

Lesson: Whatever bias you may have, learn to get over them.  You can hold onto beliefs from 5 or 6 decades ago if you want - but I can guarantee you this, you will definitely miss out on some of the best talent around. Parity has always been an issue and without doubt many in the workforce were able to benefit because the social structure at the time prevented a large portion of the population from participating in the workforce. Those days are gone. Open up your lens, look for talent wherever it exists: Ivy League, Divsion III even Junior college - the talent is there, you have to commit to finding it.

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5) From Marcy to Manhattan - The entertainment world is full of stories with people from checkered pasts going on to become productive members of society.  Some turn around so far, that their past becomes the genesis of their redemption story. Hip Hop has its fair share of these stories as well - I think most people are aware of Jay's story and how we went from an early street life to become the mogul, father and husband that he is today.  What some people may not know, several years ago he partnered with Kofi Annan and the UN to help deliver water to remote villages in several African countries. More recently he’s been working behind the scenes to help several artists clear different types of legal hurdles. How do you get to that level when you come from Marcy Projects?

Lesson: Most everyone deserves a second chance.  I'm sure many of you wouldn't be where you are today if someone didn't give you another bite at the apple. We’ve all been faced with times where we were a little reckless or short sighted in our decision making. That doesn’t mean you should be marked forever.  Perfection is great in theory, but a hurdle in reality. Don't let the idea of the perfect employee with no mistakes in his or her life prevent you from hiring the person who just might turn your company into the place where everyone wants to be. There’s no better to way to lead than by example.

I’m sure if we spent more time, we could find other lessons that you could pull from the Hip Hop world, but I think this list is a great place to start. Let me know what you think, which industries could benefit the most from these lessons?

Dean McKinney