Why you should care

If Kendrick Lamar or ScHoolboy Q offers any clue, the secret to success in any business venture might lie in collaboration, not competition. 

If you want to be the next Kendrick Lamar, maybe you should consider not being top dog.

In the fiercely competitive world of hip-hop, where most major record labels sign only the most polished acts, the chances of making it as an inexperienced rapper on your own are slim.

So find yourself a team. Fast.

Wannabe MCs are increasingly turning to collectives: loosely organized groups of artist-friends who hustle their way to hip-hop stardom with swagged-out videos, a heavy social media presence and a steady stream of music. Take Black Hippy, which launched Kendrick Lamar, who later landed on Forbes’ Cash Kings 2013 list of the top 20 hip-hop earners and raked in $9 million after releasing his debut album; or A$AP Mob, which catapulted A$AP Rocky’s now-booming career. The appeal? It’s half-mentorship, half-protection in a savage market full of oversized egos — not to mention the brand power that helps young bloods stand out amid endless DatPiff mixtapes and SoundCloud tracks.

It all boils down to your own hustle mentality.

“It’s not just one artist or two artists, it’s a collective, an actual label that’s family at the end of the day,” said Kendrick of his fellow Black Hippy members in a Fuse interview last year. “We all wanna see each other win.”

Forget cutthroat, me-first methods of climbing to the top. As with any business venture, it’s all about, um, synergy, says Anthony Frasier, co-founder of the Phat Startup, a business development service that teaches entrepreneurship through hip-hop. Turns out hip-hop collectives and the startup economy have a lot in common, he says. “It’s all a culture of creating something from nothing.”

4 members of Black Hippy posing for camera, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul of Black Hippy

How to Make It in Hip-Hop

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Up-and-comers often piggyback on more established members’ popularity, performing on their tours and featuring them on their tracks. Like how Black Hippy’s ScHoolboy Q featured Kendrick on his single “Collard Greens.” Kendrick’s added hype likely paid off: ScHoolboy Q’s album Oxymoron debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s top 200 albums chart, whereas his earlier albums, released before Kendrick blew up, peaked at around 100.

But there’s no room for ball hogs. Choosing the right people is key. Less-than-talented members can hamper even the most promising artist’s success. And one person can ruin it for everyone — like when the White Girl Mob’s V-Nasty used the N-word and wrecked rapper Kreayshawn’s career just as it was heating up.

On the flip side, one diva in the bunch can breed envy and cause beef. Or other group members might overly depend on the superstar, crippling their own development. Like Young Buck, whose career tanked after 50 Cent dismissed him from G-Unit, says Phat Startup co-founder James Lopez. He “relied on 50 Cent too much … When he said, ‘Go out and create,’ Young Buck expected 50 to push him.”

In the end, Lopez adds, “It all boils down to your own hustle mentality. If [new artists] can hustle their way to the top, the collective will serve as a catalyst.”

If you surround yourself with other talented individuals, the more likely you’ll want to rise to that level and want to do the same.

Of course, it’s still possible to make it without a collective. You just might not get there as fast. Take Tech N9ne, who sailed mostly solo since launching his rap career in 1991 — but didn’t cross the 1-million-albums-sold mark until about 17 years later. Compare Tech N9ne to Kendrick, whose Grammy-nominated debut album sold more than 1 million copies after less than five years with Black Hippy. Collectives can make a long, bumpy road to success a little shorter and smoother.

Hip-hop collectives emerged in the 1980s, with groups like N.W.A and the Wu-Tang Clan, even as individualism and larger-than-life egos ruled the scene. But they’ve exploded in popularity over the past decade, mainly out of necessity. “Today it’s so easy to create music videos that the competition has grown exponentially,” Lopez says. Collectives allow emerging rappers to rise above the Tumblr and SoundCloud noise.

Building a fan base is a crazy uphill battle for young rappers, who face stiff competition from major corporations’ massive PR budgets. Without a label’s support, “You have to be your own marketing team, your own agent, your own everything,” Frasier says. Collectives, on the other hand, can divvy up management responsibilities, allowing members more time to work on improving their craft.

Take Odd Future’s ringleader, rapper Tyler, The Creator, who addictively uses social media to promote shows and merch, and tweets a weirdly magnetic mix of social commentary, personal details, poop jokes and more, drawing fans to the Odd Future mystique instead of the other way around. Meanwhile, nonmusical members Taco Bennett and Jasper the Dolphin star with Lionel Boyce and Tyler on Odd Future’s Adult Swim series, Loiter Squad. Odd Future has also been known to recruit a “street team” of fans who hand out fliers and stickers at skate shops and other popular fan hit-up spots to build hype before concerts. “It’s an extension of your brand all the way … across different sectors,” explains Lopez.

Tyler The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt performing

Tyler The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt perform at Red Bull Sound Select in Austin, Texas.

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Today, record labels rarely invest in artist developmentbasically helping artists build their careers, which includes finding and improving their sound. Take ScHoolboy Q, who rapped only verses before gradually building up to entire songs. “If you surround yourself with other talented individuals, the more likely you’ll want to rise to that level and want to do the same,” says Zack O’Malley Greenburg, author of the Jay Z biography Empire State of Mind. The result?Everyone succeeds.

A collective can continue churning out music and publicizing itself, even when one member goes on hiatus.

And if you’re shy? Good news. You can share the spotlight without working for it all yourself. Earl Sweatshirt, a member of the L.A.-based Odd Future collective, whom Pharrell describes as “much more of an introvert,” can still soak in the limelight by teaming up with Odd Future’s loud, off-the wall ringleader, Tyler, The Creator.

Plus, you can actually take a vacation. For young MCs, the one thing harder than achieving fame is staying famous — even when releasing music and touring all year can be exhausting, if not impossible. But a collective can continue churning out music and publicizing itself, even when one member goes on hiatus. Kendrick, currently “off cycle” from Black Hippy after releasing his album in 2012, continues to sell records by guest starring on Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q’s shows. Another win-win: Kendrick stays relevant, and his bandmates benefit from the value he adds to their shows. Sure, one fuck-up or beef can be enough to bring everyone down. But building each other up can pay off big time.

A dog-eat-dog mentality, on the other hand, might just leave you in the dust.

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