Why Dr. Dre, Ice Cube Succeeded And NWA Did Not

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The unforgettable, yet unforgivable impact of America’s first gangsta rap group is the stuff of legend.  NWA is responsible for prophetic songs like “F*ck the Police,” which told the world about LAPD brutality before the Rodney King incident, but they are also responsible for injecting hip-hop with a dose of toxic violence from which it has yet to recover (I’ve written about that problem too).

But putting the social impact to the side for a second, I was asked to give my thoughts on NWA this week for a BET documentary on the impact of Hip-Hop on Black culture.  One thing that came to mind is the way Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were able to climb out of the war zone that was Compton and Death Row Records to become captains of the industry, while many of their homeboys simply perished. In that regard, their success makes for a case study that would be a fit for any business school in the country.

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Here are some things that made Dre and Cube different from the rest:

1)      The ability to see the bigger picture:  The easiest way to stay broke and powerless is to think small and to be short-sighted.   In fact, visionaries are regularly able to exploit the short-sightedness of those who have no discipline.  While other members of the group were thinking about spitting rhymes, getting women, and buying yet another gold medallion, Ice Cube’s mind was able to visualize multi-million dollar franchises.  I would much rather be a dumb person who thinks big than a brilliant person who thinks small.  This can make all the difference.

 2)      Education and a desire to understand how business works:  Ice Cube and Dr. Dre succeeded not just because of formal education, but because they became educated on the industry within which they operated.   Far too many singers, dancers, rappers and athletes think that all they have to do is worry about their craft, and end up putting themselves into dead end financial situations.  A good example would be the singer Fantasia, who never learned to read and ended up signing a contract that made her into a high-paid slave.

3)      Why be a King When You can Be a King Maker?  The Black community never ceases to have plenty of talent for the stage, but even the most talented among us are accustomed to waiting by the phone for some white-owned corporation to give us an opportunity. At the end of the day, your entire reality and everything you can or cannot be is managed by forces beyond your control.  Your well-being, success or failure is entirely contingent upon a world that someone else has created for you, effectively making them into a corporate version of God.

Ice Cube and Dr. Dre weren’t just satisfied with being kings. Instead, they chose to become King Makers, giving them greater and more lasting power than any king can possess Ice Cube has launched entire careers with his “Friday,” “Barbershop” and “Are We There Yet?” franchises.  Dr. Dre has been the engineer of Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent and a host of other powerful artists.  Even Diddy (or Puffy or Puff Daddy, whatever his name is now) remains in power, even though he hasn’t made good music since Biggie was alive.  A king makes money by working.  A King-Maker gets money when other people are working.  That’s what it truly means to be a boss.

4)      Enough discipline to delay gratification:  Ice Cube often tells the story about how Jerry Heller, the white guy in charge, put $80,000 checks in front of each member of NWA, next to contracts for them to sign.  The contract was basically a deal with the devil, locking Heller in for all of the group’s upside potential, while helping him to evade the downside.  Even in the year 2012, you can get a lot of folks to sign away their grandkids for $80,000, so you can only imagine how much money this was in the 1980s.  The only person who walked away from the contract was Ice Cube.  To this day, he’s the one with the biggest bank account and the highest net worth.  Artists may rap about booty, bling, weed and all of the trappings of negative Hip-Hop culture, but those with real and lasting power don’t get high on their own supply when it comes to that nonsense.

5)      Good ole fashioned ambition:  Ambition and high expectations can mean everything when it comes to success in life.  If you aim for nothing, you get nothing.  If you do nothing, then you’ll always be nothing.  It was the ability to squeeze the trigger and go for their dreams that led Cube and Dre to a different reality than the rest of NWA.  By stepping away from their situations and getting off the corporate plantation, both Dre and Cube have built empires that will benefit their families for many generations to come.  Having all the talent in the world means nothing if you are afraid to take a chance.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Syracuse University Professor and author of the forthcoming book, “The RAPP Sheet: Rising Above Psychological Poison.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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