Straight Outta Compton hits theatres this weekend reminding us of the combustible origins of gangsta rap in the late-1980s. Like the 1988 debut studio album of the same name from N.W.A, the movie re-opens a dialogue weaving police brutality, racial tensions, gun violence and censorship together in a complex narrative. That original album resonated with listeners, reaching double-platinum without the benefit of airplay at a time when radio was king. With the anniversary of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson as a backdrop, the biopic provides a fresh opportunity to review progress, or lack thereof, on these important social issues. The issues are real and linger.
One dramatic change in the 27 years since Straight Outta Compton hit shelves is the status of the transformative voices that made hardcore rap relevant. Artists who sparked a revolution in culture and music have taken roles as pillars of cultural infrastructure. The list of cultural brands emerging from that era to stay relevant today is impressive. Chuck D, Sister Soulja and KRS-One lend their voices to a range of social issues. LL Cool J, Ice-T and former N.W.A member Ice Cube find huge success in the pop culture mainstream. Ice Cube's run of action and family comedies has generated almost $2 billion at the box office.
Dr. Dre stands as the paramount example of brand evolution. In 1992, the Los Angeles Times referred to the N.W.A as the representation of the "confluence of violent art and violent reality." Today, he is heralded a legendary rapper. In between, he ranked as one of the five greatest producers, became an endorser for Dr. Pepper and Cadillac, and sold his Beats Electronics business to Apple for $3bn. Not a bad journey. So how did he create such a durable brand?
Identify and Nurture Talent. Brands have lifespans. The music business understands the importance of keeping a brand fresh and authentic. The path to success for people like Sean Combs, Jay-Z, Kanye West and others is like an Amway sales path -- laydown a hit, create a label, and build a pyramid of artists to collect on-going royalties. The music adapts to trends without needing the core brand to change. Dr. Dre's role as a producer requires a more hands-on, direct approach. He is responsible for developing the stable. While not all of Dr. Dre's artists have lasting careers his list is memorable. Beyond N.W.A, artists like Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Tupac and 50 Cent apprenticed under Dr. Dre's influence. Dr. Dre's sustained status as a world-class producer testifies to the success of his approach. For brands more broadly, the importance of identifying and developing supporting talent will remain a cornerstone for success.
Collaborate Thoughtfully. Too often, success breeds an isolationist culture. A fear develops that the brand's stature will diminish if it is too accessible. Dr. Dre largely skipped the destructive East Coast -- West Coast rivalry and actively collaborated with a range of talent. Artists like LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige, Xzibit, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott and others influenced Dr. Dre's style. Whether commercially successful or not, the influence of those artists allowed him to experiment with different facets of his brand. Beyond producing music, Dr. Dre's collaboration with Jimmy Iovine led to the ubiquitous Beats brand. Similar to big consumer brands, he thoughtfully collaborates with the "right" partners at the right time.
Demand Quality. It sounds cliché. Brands need to clearly articulate their definition of quality and remain true to that vision. Theoretically, every piece of content represents someone's "best effort". Critics remind us that this is a highly subjective definition. Dr. Dre applies the theory of quality in a pragmatic business context. He has left a stack of unreleased music, including Detox, which no longer represented his brand voice. Similarly, his refusal to compromise audio experience played a key role in the success of Beats Music. The lesson becomes starkly clear when compared to the experience of Tidal, which made a series of publicity errors and missteps that crippled the launch. Trial and error is powerful, but brands who experiment with quality are at higher risk.
For those running brands, Dr. Dre's path from epicenter of gangsta rap to the first billionaire rapper holds lessons that reach far beyond music.
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
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