“I was talented but not smart about my career. I was able to coast. I didn’t focus on the business. I only focused on rapping.”
These days, the label of “entrepreneur” is usually placed on tech individuals working on billion dollar ideas while having coffee with angel investors, doling out interviews for their Business Insider write-up.
Rappers, on the other hand, aren’t considered entrepreneurs in the traditional sense. But they hustle just the same to create, market and sell a product while building their own particular brand. It’s the same game just with a different name, different face.
If you know your hip hop, then you know Talib Kweli, a rapper from Brooklyn, NY who’s known as one of the top lyricists in rap history. Currently, he may not be the most mainstream name on the scene, but for the past two decades, he’s been a successful entrepreneur working on his music and brand with both critical acclaim and commercial success.
Upon entering the Memorial Sports Arena where Kweli had just finished his performance, our staff was ushered into his dressing area, where Kweli was hanging out with an entourage that included artist Busta Rhymes. We got a chance to sit down and discuss the business of music from his early days in Brooklyn to his present life in LA.
Just like billion dollar apps, making music takes a team of skilled individuals to produce a beautiful product. Early on, Kweli networked with the sickest crew in New York’s most iconic setting to help him get started. Back then, it was a little different from how people connect now via social media.
“In high school, I was blessed to hang with the artistic community in Washington Square Park with Busta Rhymes, Super Natural, Mos Def, Dave Chappelle and John Forte. Like how the internet connects people, we connected in the flesh. Without that community pushing me, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Community is very important.”
That community connected Kweli with Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def), a partnership that gave birth to their monster first album, Black Star, which climbed both the Billboard 200 and the R&B charts.
To support himself from the onset, Kweli worked at a local book store in Brooklyn called Nkiru Books, which he and Mos Def ended up buying with their album money. But they quickly found out that running a new business, even a small book store, isn’t as easy as you would think.
“We weren’t entrepreneurs and we didn’t know that business. We didn’t run it into the ground but we didn’t revive it. It went its course and we turned it into a community center and non-profit.”
20 years delivered with 14 albums and an enviable collaboration list from Jay Z to Kanye, success is the only way to describe Talib’s career.
I’m sure most of you remember one of Kweli’s biggest hits, “Get By,” which got him star recognition from mainstream media.
But speaking to him, you don’t hear an artist gloating about his past accomplishments. Instead, you catch the voice of a tireless entrepreneur who’s still looking to get financially rewarded for all his career work.
He vocalizes the frustration of not having the stability and nest egg to cruise into the future with his family, that touring is not a choice but a necessity.
“If I didn’t do these shows, I would not be a musician. The money is used to pay bills, pay for kids whatever they need, for my record label. My label is not a money-making enterprise at this juncture but it will make money in a year or two. I’m learning everyday on how to be better at it.”
Kweli still has that hunger and drive which usually dissipates over time with the majority of entrepreneurs. It’s why he’s created his own side hustles to generate income since big record deals are nonexistent to the majority of artists.
“There is no money in the biz. Money is in the fame, the celebrity and being known. But there’s no money in selling music at all. You use your music to make your brand valuable to sell other things. Shows and t-shirts.”
All businesses have to adapt to new competition, changes in consumer tastes and how they consume product in an ever-changing environment.
So to keep old fans interested while attaining new ones, Kweli keeps dropping new albums like his most recent “Indie 500” with the artist 9th Wonder and he tries to drive traffic to his own e-commerce site kweliclub.com.
The failure of the book store wasn’t a waste of time as it turned him into a present day curator, selling hard to find books as well as other goods online.
As for the music, most of the money goes to music distribution platforms like iTunes, Spotify and their partners that take a big cut of the revenue.
Kweli rakes in 50-60 percent through a distributor on iTunes and 70% if he places the music on there himself. He would like to take 100% of the profits via his own online shop, but driving traffic and sales to his online business is a skill he’s still learning to perfect.
“It’s easier to connect with the fans since the gatekeepers are gone. That’s my hustle. How do I get my fans to look at me the same way they look at iTunes and become a reliable source for you to come spend your money.”
And as most online marketers know, acquiring customers via social media platforms is still a relatively new battleground that continually changes. In his experience, Kweli tells us what how it helps him.
“Social media doesn’t translate into sales but it translates to exposure. Which creates other opportunities.”
Talib is an intellectual who’s also a talented artist. Unfortunately, talent doesn’t always translate into huge commercial success. When you’re so passionate and focused on your art, it’s tough making the correct business decisions that come along in the process.
Though he admits to making mistakes along the way, he recognizes that he wouldn’t have attained the “artistic clarity” which separates him from other rappers from the same era if he hadn’t stuck to those decisions.
Looking back at his experiences in the industry, we asked him to share some thoughts for those who are making the jump into it.
What should future musicians look out for when entering the business?
“The dishonesty when it comes to radio promotion and how the labels work. As an artist, people want to be protective or be ignorant. I didn’t understand how things worked until I put out my own music.”
And the advice he would offer.
“Have control and do it yourself. If you’re good at it and passionate about it, there’s more opportunity to make money, to be a working class artist, and to be a musician for a living.
Although he may balk at being labeled a successful entrepreneur, having the skills and legs to last this long earns him the right to be described as such.
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