How hip-hop millionaires rise from the margins

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As artists including Dr Dre and Jay Z build fortunes, the same entrepreneurial potential can be seen at street level. Why do some rap artists take so readily to the boardroom, asked an article last week about the rise of hip-hop millionaires? And there was certainly evidence of that transition. Dr Dre is the top-dog rap mogul with a fortune – estimated by Forbes – of $620m in 2014. Jay Z and P Diddy had $60m on this count, fortunes built on music and spin-off merchandising. You never know who the gods will smile upon. I have the first Dr Dre album I am aware of – with NWA – on vinyl in a box in the loft. It wasn’t that great.

What do we know of these street culture billionaires? Dre got his first leg up from Eric Wright, a drug dealer who bailed him out of jail with a proviso that he worked thereafter for his music label. Jay Z was a drug dealer in New York. P Diddy’s father was an associate of Frank Lucas, the heroin dealer immortalised in the Denzel Washington movie American Gangster. None rose through the old boys network.

Why do they take to the boardroom? Why not? For there’s entrepreneurial potential among many marginalised young people with no hope of going to business school.

I recall a summer’s afternoon in a project in Nottingham. A black teenager was messing around with a keyboard. Those in charge were keen to see him messing around with the keyboard, because on other days he was a gofer for a local drug baron. He was painfully diffident. Hated school. Especially maths. He definitely couldn’t do maths. But in fact, he could. Tell us how it works with the drugs, said the project worker by way of prompting. Well we buy this quantity, he said, suddenly animated. We divide it up and we sell for this amount, so there is a good profit. His were maths lessons conducted away from the classroom, away from the gaze of Her Majesty’s Customs; but very much in the sights of the police and other hustlers who kill and maim for trading advantage.

I left thinking that if many a hustler had access to official products in legitimate businesses with respectable connections – and without the street-level risks – they would quickly make their fortunes. The hip-hop millionaires bear that out. As for the drugs mathematician in Nottingham, I hope he had some luck and made the break.

By Hugh Muir


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