U.S. News

Using Rap to Teach Pithy Lessons in Business

Claire Cain Miller|The New York Times

Silicon Valley, where engineers in khakis write software code, might not at first glance have much to do with the world of rap music, where artists in sagging pants write irreverent lyrics.

Silicon Valley, California
VisionsofAmerica | Joe Sohm | Getty Images

But Ben Horowitz, a prominent venture capital investor here, says rap holds a trove of lessons for tech entrepreneurs. Throw business classes and books out the window, Mr. Horowitz says, and listen to rap lyrics instead.

He applies his theory on his blog, where he has attracted a following of tech readers and other executives by offering business lessons, almost all of them preceded by a rap lyric that summarizes a moral, and with recordings from Grooveshark, the music site.

In the process, he has linked two cultures in Silicon Valley, which is not exactly known for its racial or cultural diversity.

Entrepreneurs may do well to listen to Mr. Horowitz’s advice. He started the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz with Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape, and the firm made vast amounts of money on investments in companies like Groupon and Skype, and stands to make more on Facebook’s initial public offering.

Late last month, the firm announced that it had raised its third fund in three years, $1.5 billion in fresh capital, a large amount even in Silicon Valley. The two men previously started Opsware, a data center software company, and sold it to Hewlett-Packard in 2007.

Mr. Horowitz uses rap as an introduction as he philosophizes about business challenges like how to fire executives, why founders run their companies better than outside chief executives and how to stand up to difficult board members.

“All the management books are like, ‘This is how you set objectives, this is how you set up an org chart,’ but that’s all the easy part of management,” Mr. Horowitz said in an interview in his spacious office here on Sand Hill Road, the epicenter of tech investing. “The hard part is how you feel. Rap helps me connect emotionally.”

How to deal, for instance, with the stress of the 11th-hour, late-night auditing mishap that almost stymied the $1.6 billion sale of Opsware?

Listen to the Kanye West song “Stronger”: “Now that that don’t kill me/Can only make me stronger/I need you to hurry up now/’Cause I can’t wait much longer/I know I got to be right now/’Cause I can’t get much wronger.”

Much of rap is about business, whether the drug business, the music industry or work ethic, said Adam Bradley, an associate professor specializing in African-American literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder who wrote “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop” and co-edited “The Anthology of Rap.”

“It comes out of the fact that rap is such a direct mode of expression, maybe more so than any other music lyric, because of the emphasis on language, of words above melody or harmony,” Mr. Bradley said.

People think of rap lyrics as being only about money, women, status and cocaine, he said, but more pervasive themes are leadership, collaboration and the vulnerability beneath the swagger — all relevant in business.

Mr. Horowitz said he made that discovery in the early 1980s, when he was introduced to rap as one of few white players on the Berkeley High School football team.

He began using lyrics to make his points when he became a chief executive.

Recently, for instance, one of the entrepreneurs that Andreessen Horowitz financed clashed with a disparaging board member. Mr. Horowitz advised the executive that he was being too deferential and needed to show his strength.

He said he sent the executive “Scream on Em,” a rap song by The Game, because its “superaggressive” lyrics — so aggressive that none can be printed in a family newspaper.

“I couldn’t have explained what I was talking about quite right, but he called and said, ‘I’ve been listening to that song every day, and everything is better,’ ” Mr. Horowitz said.

When he explained on his blog why his venture firm favored founding chief executives, as opposed to those hired to run companies, he had trouble explaining one of the more subtle reasons — people care more about something they started, while outsiders care more about money.

Then he remembered a lyric by Rakim from the song “Follow the Leader:” “You’re just a rent-a-rapper, your rhymes are minute-maid/I’ll be here when it fade to watch you flip like a renegade.”

Mr. Horowitz said, “Because it’s Rakim, and he’s like the greatest rapper of all time, he could fit into two sentences what it took me three pages to explain.”

He has a similar response to those who say Silicon Valley is in the midst of another bubble, including those who have criticized his firm’s large investments as having played a role in inflating the bubble. It’s LL Cool J’s song “Going Back to Cali:” “I’m going back to Cali ... hmm, I don’t think so.”

“It’s totally about the way he said it — ‘Hmm, I don’t think so’ — which is how I was feeling about the bubble talk,” Mr. Horowitz said.

Mr. Horowitz’s use of rap connects two cultures that are rarely linked. African-Americans hold only 6.7 percent of computer jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and their representation among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is even smaller.

Last fall, Mr. Horowitz’s posts led to an appearance before the Congressional Black Caucus. He talked to the group about how the Internet brings different cultures together and about the role African-Americans have played in social media and mobile technologies.

Silicon Valley “can leave a lot of people on the outside looking in,” said Jason Lee, a follower of the blog who helped organize the panel and is the son of Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat and a caucus member.

“The fact that he begins with a relevant hip hop lyric immediately contextualizes the narrative into something familiar and accessible to people from a wide variety of experiences,” Mr. Lee said. “To the extent that more people read his blog, relate to his posts and can place themselves in the situations he describes, I think more people will feel like Silicon Valley has room for them as well.”