Robert Greene just might be your favorite rapper’s favorite writer, but if you saw him on the street, you’d never guess that the best-selling author would have had any impact on hip-hop. A tall, soft-spoken 53-year-old, Greene looks like kind of guy you’d guess was teaching a college course, not teaching rappers, Wall Street types, and Hollywood executives about the ways of the world. But in 1998, when he published his best selling book, The 48 Laws of Power, he became the unlikeliest of hip-hop heroes.
Greene went on to write several successful books including another huge hit, The Art of Seduction. But in the hip-hop world, he remains best known for 48 Laws which has been quoted by everyone from Jay-Z to Busta Rhymes. His book was so well received in the hip-hop community he wrote a book with 50 Cent, The 50th Law. Last November, he published his fifth book, Mastery. The book explores the idea of becoming a master in any particular field, and was inspired by time Greene spent with 50. Greene swung by the Complex offices to discuss the idea of mastering the art of rapping, why Jay-Z is still making hits and 50 isn’t, and why the 10,000 hour rule can only go so far in rap music.
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
When did you first become aware of the rap world’s interest in your work?
I think it was about 2001. There was an interview in Playboy with Jay-Z and he was quoting a couple of [the laws of power]. Then I started hearing anecdotal information from people; word was getting around. I’d hear about it in lyrics and things from Kanye, Nas, and a few others. It trickled in. It was never a conscious strategy on my part, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense why the book resonated with so many people in the business.
Over the years I’ve met quite a few big rappers. Then it exploded with 50 Cent, and I did a book with him. It’s always a strange meeting of two worlds, it’s very exciting. The book was really popular among the Wall Street crowd too, but I’m much more excited about the hip-hop crowd than I am about the Wall Street crowd.
Because it’s art as opposed to business?
I’ve always loved black culture; I don’t know any other way to put it. Since I was a kid I loved music and early jazz, Sly and the Family Stone. I’m older—I’m in my early 50s—so you’ll have to excuse me. That was always very exciting to me to connect to the culture on that level. It was something that I never intended, but I’m very happy about it.
What was it like meeting 50?
50 is a great person. I was a little intimidated when I met him for the first time in 2006. I didn’t know what to expect. It ended up we got along really well. That’s why we decided to do a book together, The 50th Law of Power
How did he end up influencing your new book?
When I came up with the idea I was still working with him on The 50th Law. A lot of it came from [50’s book] From Pieces to Weight, which is a great book. The idea of knowing something so well that you’ve got a feel for it, what I call, “from the inside out.” He talks a lot about how he reached a point where he has an intuitive feel for what he’s doing. That’s what I wanted to write about in this book. He inspired it, and he embodies a lot of the things I’m talking about.
It’s irritating because people don’t realize [how hard it is] to be as successful as he is in hip-hop. How many people can you say have been around for 10 or 20 years who still mean something? I know he’s not the same as he was 10 years ago, but he still has quite a presence. It’s not very common.
He’s got a larger picture of the world. He’s doesn’t want to just create a couple of hits and live off the money. He’s seeing something much wider than that and he’s very disciplined. It’s not just music that he’s mastered but business as well. So he in some ways was the paradigm for what ended up turning to be the book Mastery.
A lot of people don’t understand that he’s an incredibly disciplined person. I lived with him for about four or five months. We went to a party in [Las] Vegas at Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s mothers’ house out in the middle of the desert. I was the only white guy in four Escalades that were heading out to the desert. It was a pretty wild party, there was a lot of pot and everyone was dancing. Here was 50 Cent sitting in the corner on a sofa, watching a sporting event. He’s not a party person at all. He’s very serious. How many people know about that? What a great role model he would be if more people knew that.
He never drinks. No drugs. He likes to feel like he’s in control of situations because of dealing drugs and seeing what happens [to people on drugs]. He hates the feeling of not being in control. That includes his own body and his own thoughts, which is another theme in the book.
Speaking of, what is the exact premise of Mastery?
You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule [the theory that success comes when you practice a specific task for 10,000 hours]. The Malcolm Gladwell thing comes from a very famous study of people in chess and music. It’s very real. What happens if you stick at something long enough, and study it for so long, you have a different kind of intelligence. It’s not an intellectual thing. It’s almost like an animal intelligence. I call it our form of instinct, almost how a lion knows exactly where its prey is.
For us, once we’ve had so much experience in something it’s almost like the power of an animal because we know something without having to think. There are people like that—50 exemplifies it, Steve Jobs exemplifies it. They see things that we don’t see, they see trends.
I wanted to be able to describe it in great detail so it’s not a big mystical thing. It’s not about, “Some people are born geniuses.” I wanted to show you the step-by-step process that leads to this very powerful form of thinking. It transcends all fields; it can be boxing, sports, music, science, writing, whatever. It’s about the brain, it’s not about what field you’re in.
You mention how 50 is not what he once was 10 years ago. He still mastered the the skill of being a rapper, he put his 10,000 hours in. How come he doesn’t make the same records that he used to make?
That early music came from a very real place. I’m talking about his first album after he got shot, when he had his mixtape campaign. There was a lot of anger and grit, that’s not fake. There’s a lot of fake gangsters out there, he’s not fake. That came in the music; it was very visceral.
He’s not in that place anymore. He lives a comfortable life surrounded by all sorts of people. He’s not close to where he grew up. So the music doesn’t reflect that. It’s good in its own way but it’s not the same.
He’s [still] extremely talented. I would sit there in the car with him when we were going somewhere and he would play me his latest mixtape, which is something he had put together a few hours ago. It sounded fantastic. Some of the stuff you never get to hear because then they would go in and produce it and produce it. I don’t know if you’d put him on the improvisational level of Jay-Z, but he’s definitely got a talent for music.
He transcends music because he’s a business person. To me, that’s where he’s a master. That’s where he’s put in his 10,000 hours, beginning from dealing drugs on the streets to learning everything when he was at Columbia during his first record deal.
What other rappers do you think embody mastery?
Well Jay-Z would be the other titan. As I said, how many people come and go? They’re almost like comets. If they last five years that’s pretty amazing. Jay-Z has incredible sense. He’s more fluid than 50. He’s not as much a hardcore businessman as 50, but I don’t know, I haven’t met him personally. But he certainly embodies many of the things inMastery.
I remember I was flying home to Los Angeles one day. I was talking to the woman next to me and the flight attendant tried to tell me I was sitting next to somebody that I should know. I didn’t recognize her but it ended up being Beyonce’s sister, Solange Knowles.
When I found out and I got very excited and we were talking. She was telling me that Jay was this insane workaholic. I was finishing up The 50th Law so I was like, “Wow. Jay will drink and stuff, but he’s got many of the same character traits as 50.”
One thing about Jay as a rapper—both creatively and commercially—he’s been great for the last 15-20 years. Which 50 hasn’t been able to do. Why is that? They’re both masters.
I think he’s more naturally gifted. He didn’t depend as much as 50 did on his personal story. Jay-Z has a great story, he came from a pretty rough background. But 50’s early success was so much fueled on the story and where he came from. With Jay-Z, I feel he has a more natural gift for language and for music itself. 50 really had to study and work at it much harder.
That seems contrary to the 10,000 hours theory though. Isn’t it the idea that people are not naturally gifted, so they work 10,000 hours to get to being gifted?
Yeah, but music is maybe a little different in that sense. For every Jay-Z that comes along, who’s insanely gifted when it comes to rhyming and all the other things, how many of them last very long? There are other people like Jay-Z that have come up.
I think early on Busta Rhymes had a lot of incredible talent. But he’s not disciplined. He’s too wild and out there. Maybe Kanye’s a little bit like that. In fact, we had a screenplay together because Busta was going to do a film version of The 48 Laws of Power. He had a whole scenario. I can’t exactly remember what it was, but it took place in the South. Some young kid who uses the 48 laws to raise himself up. It was pretty good. But he didn’t follow through on it.
A lot of people who have that natural gift, they don’t stick it out so they don’t last. Jay-Z has the talent and he put in the 10,000 hours. That’s the point; he loves music. He’s like a Mozart. He’s put in all of that time. For 50, I think it was more of a slog, it wasn’t as natural to him. He’s got talent, but I don’t think he’s got the feel for it.
And when it comes to business, that’s what he gets more excited about in some ways. I’m not sure because I don’t know Jay-Z’s personal habits, but I agree with you, that he’s still able to do the kinds of hits that 50 isn’t able to do anymore.
What would you say about someone like Eminem? He has the natural talent, put in the 10,000 hours, and still makes hit records but he’s not the same rapper he once was.
It’s think it’s a young man’s business. A lot of it is testosterone-fueled. It’s an anger, a feeling that you had in your youth. Hip-hop has a feeling element, it’s not just about knowing music. It’s not like classical music or jazz where you can go on raw energy.
I think Eminem burned out. He’s not good at the publicity and social part of it. He really hated that. I tried interviewing him forThe 50th Law and I couldn’t get through. I interviewed all of his people around him. He doesn’t like interacting with people and it’s a very social business. So he’s not putting in the energy that he used to have. Also, if you have millions and millions of dollars, you’re living in a totally different world. You don’t feel it anymore and you’ve got to feel it.
I use a lot of jazz artists in my book. My favorite jazz artist is John Coltrane who I think is the greatest master of modern music, or the 20th century at least. He died when he was like 40 but he totally burned himself out. His music depended a lot on that kind of feeling and closeness to his roots. I don’t know how long you can keep that going. It becomes fake.
For a lot of artists, death is the ultimate improvement. You get imprinted in the image of greatness and we never see you fail. Like how Biggie died at a young age, so he’ll always be perfect.
2Pac’s the same way.
What would happen if he was still alive?
He would have burned out just like everybody else burned out. But you don’t burn out, there’s that perfect image of you and the movie ends there.
A lot of rock stars keep going on but you’d wish they would burn out. You wished they would go away. Hip-hop, you can’t really do that when you’re in your 50s. Well, I did see Wu-Tang is still pretty awesome. Maybe they’re an exception.
Jay-Z is still selling out stadiums and he’s in his 40s. He could conceivably still be doing it in his 50s.
Probably. But the smart ones like him or 50—the masters—they diversify. They know that they got to go beyond the music.