Zack O’Malley Greenburg lets out an “I’m-the-luckiest-bastard-in-the-world” howl that is as infectious as it is unpretentiously goofy. This revelation comes as a shocker given that the Forbes senior editor (who as a child actor starred in ”Lorenzo’s Oil,” alongside Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) has become the go-to writer covering the otherwise serious world of business and finance. But while his peers have stuck to the well-worn path of reporting on billion-dollar company mergers, mutual funds and pension fraud, the Yale graduate has taken business journalism to populist heights with his annual Cash Kings list, which counts down the top hip-hop money makers of the year each fall. In this new, brave world, hip-hop mogul Shawn “Jay Z” Carter’s business wheeling and dealing is given the same serious-minded breakdown as billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s high-profile takeover of H.J. Heinz.
Forbes has embraced hip-hop as much as hip-hop has embraced Forbes.
“It took a couple of years before I was really able to convince the powers that be over at Forbes that this ought to be my focus: the business of music,” explains Greenburg, who has written the Cash Kings list since he started at the magazine in 2007. Back then Cash Kings was a mere sidebar to a Tupac Shakur piece on the late rapper’s posthumous earning power. Today, the anticipated list — which has featured a diverse collection of superstars and music industry powerbrokers including Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Nicki Minaj, Dr. Dre, Wiz Khalifa, Eminem, Drake and the aforementioned Jay-Z — has become a badge of honor for the rhyme and roll contingent. Artists who don’t make it or slip a notch or two, have been known to place heated calls to Greenburg. There was even a 2007 song by 50 Cent featuring Jay Z and Diddy, dedicated to their dominance of the top three slots that year titled “I Get Money (Forbes 1, 2, 3 Remix).”
“Forbes has embraced hip-hop as much as hip-hop has embraced Forbes,” the easy smiling, soft-spoken Greenburg adds. “Every year that I put it out, it seems to get more established.”
The Yale graduate has taken business journalism to populist heights with his annual Cash Kings list.
And Greenburg continues to expand his financial journalistic reach. The author of the 2011 biography ”Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office,” is gearing up for the release of his second page turner, ”Michael Jackson Inc.” The book, scheduled to hit shelves June 3, “reveals the incredible rise, fall and rise again of Michael Jackson’s fortune.” OZY caught up with Greenburg to discuss everything from Beyoncé’s self-titled, game-changing album (no videos, no official single, no promotion and a sh!tload of albums sold) to how he managed to merge the swaggering world of hip-hop with the overtly corporate world of Forbes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ozy: Your annual Forbes Cash King list has become much anticipated. How did you come up with the idea for that list, and did the conservative suits at Forbes look at you like you had two heads when you first pitched the idea to them?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg: The Cash King list started when I had interned at Forbes. I interned in 2005 and 2006 and they brought me in full time right after I graduated from Yale in 2007. I was basically sitting in my cubicle one day and one of the younger editors came by and said, “Hey, we are thinking about putting together a hip-hop earnings list. Do you like hip-hop?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I love hip-hop!” I grew up in New York on hip-hop, so I ended up helping her put that package together. I did a story on Tupac and how he at the time was making more money dead than all but about five artists were making alive. And we ran my story in the magazine, and we did this sidebar entitled ”Hip-Hop Cash Kings: Who Earned the Most Last Year?” It was Jay-Z, Diddy, 50 Cent, Timbaland and Dr. Dre. So we finished the package and put it out, and I remember driving around on some assignment and I heard this song. It sounded like, 50’s “I Get Money.” But Jay-Z and Diddy [Ludacris as well] were rapping on it, and they were shouting-out “Forbes” a lot! The top three guys on the list were so excited by the acknowledgment that they made this remix and put it out! We all at Forbes thought this was the coolest thing ever. And so a few months after the list came out, the editor I worked with told me I should really run with it and make it my thing.
Is there an artist that continues to shock you in terms of their showing on the Forbes hip-hop Cash King list?
Yeah. It depends every year but in terms of the consistency of their earnings, Ludacris is always in the $10-$15 million range. He’s above guys like Drake and Wiz Khalifa even though he’s more under the radar, but he’s a guy with tremendous business savvy. You know, it’s always funny when people rap about how they should have been on the list. I always give everyone a chance to comment on their number before I publish it. And in a lot of cases, they come back with a figure that’s outrageous, so I don’t adjust my estimate.
Tell the truth. You’re talking about Diddy aren’t you?
[Laughs] And then sometimes they point out something that I might have missed, and I will adjust it before the list comes out. And then there are other people who try to claim that they made less than they did, and you can kind of figure that out easily too. It’s the same process we go through with our billionaires list.
Beyoncé seems to be on everybody’s mind these days with the record-breaking release of her recent self-titled digital album. Are you surprised she took such a left-field approach with the launch of this project, having no promotion, no traditional rollout?
Well, it’s pretty incredible. Beyoncé sold more in three days than Lady Gaga and Katy Perry sold in their opening weeks of each of their albums combined, and in half the time. To me this really seems like part of the affect of her marriage with Jay-Z, which is in many ways a merger as much as it is a marriage. I think that this launch feels very Jay-Z to me. And that’s not to undermine Beyoncé’s chops when it comes to business.
Of course, she is always one of the leaders on the top moneymakers list.
That’s right. But you have to imagine — given the way Jay-Z rolled out his last album (”Magna Carta Holy Grail”) and the way that she rolled out her album — that there was a lot of brainstorming and comparing notes. Jay-Z’s last album didn’t have the traditional buildup. To be able to do that deal with Samsung is the kind of deal that I get into in my book (”Empire State of Mind”) that throughout his career he manages to get a brand to pay him millions of dollars to do something he wanted to do anyway [laughs].
So what actually pushed you to become journalist?
My initial dream was to be general manager of the New York Yankees. But as time went on it became very clear how difficult it was to get into that business. And I’ve always loved writing, but my parents are both writers and I didn’t want to do what they did. My dad has written children’s books and adult humor and thrillers, and my mom has written a lot of true crime stuff and TV, so I guess I ended up doing music and business writing, which are the only things that weren’t covered.
In your upcoming book, ”Michael Jackson Inc.,” you breakdown the various groundbreaking deals MJ was involved in, even after his death. What was the main view you came away with in terms of Michael Jackson as a business both in life and posthumously?
Well … I began to realize not only how much money he was making after his death, but how much he made during his life. The kind of deals that Jackson did to make that money really surprised me. I think a lot of people are going to be like, “Wait a minute, Michael Jackson did that? He was the first to do that?” There are a lot of things you see Jay, Puff and 50 Cent doing now that Michael Jackson laid the groundwork for business-wise in the ‘80s. If you are an icon who continues to put out new music, even if you are dead, that enables you to make these business deals that can put you in incredible standing like Michael Jackson. It’s a testament to his longevity as an artist.
MJ was a child artist and you were a child actor, starring in Lorenzo’s Oil with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, how did you get casted and what made you stop the acting biz?
A friend of mine in kindergarten did a commercial and I got jealous, so I started auditioning for stuff. Although I’m really glad I did the movie, it was a pretty unpleasant experience and I just didn’t want to do it again.
Seems like you were right on the money with your career choice.
Why you should care
Because the unlikeliest hip-hop hero is a Forbes senior editor who calculates and crowns rap’s top earners, writes celeb biz books and stars in feature films. And yes, you read that last part right.