Hip hop was born sometime in the 70’s, probably in New York, and grew up over the course of block parties in that city’s toughest neighborhoods. Last night, it was presented to a seated crowd at the Fox Theater in Redwood City, at an event hosted by venture firm Andreessen Horowitz*.
The occasion featured a private screening of a new documentary about the rapper Nas, Time is Illmatic. Nas was on stage along with Andreessen Horowitz partner Ben Horowitz. The duo introduced the film and returned afterward for a Q&A.
One pertinent question that didn’t arise from the packed house of invite-only guests: Why is this happening?
It’s well-known that Horowitz is a hip-hop fan – he starts every one of his blog posts with a rap quote. At this year’s SXSW in Austin, Nas interviewed Horowitz onstage about the software entrepreneur’s new book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Days later Horowitz jumped onstage during a Nas performance put on by Ashton Kutcher’s venture capital fund, bouncing and rapping quietly along. Ridicule duly issued forth from tech-blog-land.
At last night’s event, the roles were reversed, with Horowitz playing the role of interviewer, and the new documentary the ostensible subject of the conversation. Horowitz immediately acknowledged the composition of the audience.
“It’s an unusual group: we’ve got people from the tech community, people from the GLIDE [Memorial Church] community, people from the Oakland Raiders, and three kids from Georgia, who heard about some of the things that were happening with the police and decided to do something about it – they made an app to rate your police officer,” he said, pausing for applause at each step in the litany. Only the Raiders drew boos.
The film itself, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and is due to be released in October, is a personal look at the creation of Nas’ 1994 smash debut album, Illmatic. It documents the humanitarian disaster of the New York City housing projects during the ‘crack epidemic’ of the Eighties and early Nineties, and Nas’ childhood growing up against that background, with long interviews with the rapper’s family and friends as well as a smattering of celebrities.
It was a labor of love for producer Erik Parker and director One9, who spent nearly a decade making it, only securing Nas’ participation over this past year. Above all, it’s an intimate portrait of a bygone time and place, when big outdoor hip hop block parties were an outlet and release for a generation of young people who grew up amid that violence and chaos. It closely documents the trauma and determination that propelled the 19-year-old Nas into the Columbia Records studio to lay down rhymes that would eat the world.
“More than anything, its the story of a young man who knows he wants to do something bigger than himself even if he doesn’t know exactly what that is. He wants greatness, like we all do here,” said Horowitz as he introduced the film.
The doc follows Nas up until around the time of the release of Illmatic. So the audience was left to speculate about the course of the rapper’s career in the intervening years, and the path that led him to last night’s event.
Which brings us back to the nagging question of why. Back in March, after the SXSW event, Gawker’s Valleywag blog asserted that the odd-couple friendship of Horowitz and Nas was being trotted out as a desperate ploy by Horowitz to convince the world that he is cool. This seems a little too simple — Horowitz is hardly a new convert to hip hop — but hey, it’s Gawker.
Horowitz wasn’t wearing flashy sneakers, a cocked hat, or in any other way disavowing his elemental nerdiness. And he didn’t belabor the connection between rappers as entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs as creators of culture. He did grin a lot and wrap up the interview with, “What a good ass album that was.”
It’s clear that he really likes Nas, and is thrilled to spend time with him. And it’s easy to see why, as they each perched in their director’s chair and addressed the mic. Nas is charismatic, good-looking, poised and holds the audience in the palm of his hand.
The cynical tech writer in me would like to think that Nas countenances this only because Ben Horowitz is powerful and rich. Time may indeed be illmatic, but Nas is decidedly pragmatic. After all, he started his own venture fund earlier this year. Queensbridge Ventures, named after the housing project he grew up in, has made a few dozen investments to date, in a broad array of business verticals, seven of them in companies also funded by Andreessen Horowitz.
That cynicism must contend with the fact that Ben Horowitz seems to genuinely love hip hop, and has long-standing ties in the Bay Area’s African American community. He and his wife, Felicia, have worked closely with GLIDE memorial and exhorted other tech workers to follow his example, which is admirable. Somewhere within this spectacle is the kernel of a meaningful idea, to use one’s celebrity to attempt to bridge two communities that are normally separate worlds-unto-themselves: Hip hop and tech.
To promote self-reliance, savvy, and determination as shared values and means towards overcoming the conditions one was born into may have been the understated goal of last night’s event. And though it may be a calculated cross-promotion, it has a positive motive and one that is crucial for tech if it is ever to escape the perception that it’s the exclusive domain of nerds with good schooling.
When asked what message he had for kids today growing up in neighborhoods like Queensbridge, Nas said he would tell them to try a little harder, because it was going to work out. And he’d ask them, “Yo, have you heard of Silicon Valley?”
So my qualms about the absurdity of this event may just be the result of clumsy communication of an otherwise noble pursuit. The apparent absurdity may have been on Nas’ mind too, when, unprompted, he went on a tangent that seemed to target the haters who question the hip hop credentials of Ben Horowitz.
“Hip hop speaks to me, and it speaks to Ben. We both grew up in hip hop. The truth resonates with certain people,” he said. So step off.
I’d like to think that this string of joint stage appearances is a strange form of strategic currency in an unorthodox business relationship. Nas has street cred, Ben Horowitz has major investor clout. They talk, we mock. Perhaps MC Hammer bristles – Nas is treading on his turf. But perhaps the conditions exist for true friendship, which is, after all, a bond that often defies rational explanation.
Both men are clearly sustained by a perception that they have something important to say, and each has successfully found an audience that agrees with them. And they share a similar outlook on the value of the self-made individual. Horowitz champions entrepreneurs and believes that disruption is the process by which progress occurs, new companies being the source of new things. Nas holds that something similar is true for hip hop.
“The streets will always produce the next real thing,” he said, in response to a fan’s assertion that he represented ‘real hip hop.’
Just what is the underlying social structure of this relationship? Is it just business, if not entirely ‘as usual’? Is it a contemporary rehash of the D’Medicis patronage of the Florentine masters, an exchange of capital for tribute?
Is Ben Horowitz, a la The Dialectic of Enlightment, reproducing the timeless relationship of the capitalist to art, lashed snug to the mast of his enterprise like Odysseus to his ship, tantalized by the promise of the Siren’s song of his beloved art but tactically incapable of merging with it? Or is this a this odd friendship an exemplar of the boundaries of fame and celebrity in contemporary American culture?
Smarter minds than mine can parse and elaborate on such speculations. There’s something more going on here, but I can’t quite place it. I’m interested what Horowitz Marxist-cum-conservative thinker father David Horowitz might have to say.
The event wrapped up with all the glamor of a VH1 retrospective, after a series of audience members stepped to the mic, promoted themselves and asked horribly inane questions, or pressed Nas to reflect publicly about his life’s most tragic moments –the death of his mother, and of a close friend. One intrepid questioner, who your correspondent later deduced was significantly drunk (there was an open bar), tried to ask about Rap Genius, which has received funding from both Andreessen Horowitz and Nas and has courted a bit of scandal-publicity. Unfortunately, he tripped over himself in his outrage over that company’s purported rascism and exploitation, allowing the speakers to laugh him off and move on to the next.
Perhaps the best snippet to explain what we were all doing there was offered by Nas towards the end of the Q&A.
“I’m too rich for the hood I came from, so I just have to embrace that,” he said.
Dull, dull, dull.
[* Disclosure: Andreessen Horowitz partner, Marc Andreessen is a personal investor in Pando.]