Power relationships are found at the essence of hip-hop. Rappers constantly prove their worth and assert themselves, whether freestyling in the back alleys of their hometowns or arguing with lawyers over song rights in the back rooms of corporate Hollywood. Robert Greene is a contemporary Machiavelli whose philosophy has become highly influential among rappers and others in the music industry. Like Machiavelli himself, Greene is a devoted historian who uses rhetorical sleight of hand in his writing as a means of resurrecting principles practiced throughout history. He is the author of the New York Times Best Seller The 48 Laws of Power, a legendary manifesto that applies the rules of aristocratic courting practiced throughout medieval times to contemporary culture; each law is its own chapter,complete with “a transgression of the law”, “observation of the law,” and “a reversal” using real life examples from expert manipulators such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and JFK.
The book has long since adapted a cult following, referenced in songs by UGK, Jay Z, Kanye West, and Drake. DJ Premier and Calvin Harris have tattooed excerpts on their bodies. Such was its impact a few years ago 50 Cent approached Greene a few years back—the two collaborated on The 50th Law, a book chronicling 50's rise to power, using anecdotes from the own life in conjunction with historical figures ranging from Montesquieu to Miles Davis. With the demise of major labels and the democratization of free music power relationships in hip-hop have never been as ambiguous as they are right now—I called up hip-hop's Yoda and asked him to explain just what he thinks is going on.
Noisey: You’re predominately a historian, but you have become a pervasive influence in pop culture. What goes through your head when you hear the The 48 Laws of Power referenced in contemporary rap music?
Robert Greene: When it first started happening back in 2001 it was very new and exciting. I got to meet a fair amount of rappers and hang out with 50. I’m naturally attracted by the underdog and the story of 50 seems to perfectly embody the Laws of Power. Writing the book with 50 was some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
What was that collaboration like?
His interest in The 48 Laws of Power was a coincidence because when the book came out there was this whole shift where rappers were trying to become entrepreneurs. Some of these prefigure with people like Tupac where there was some tension about who really owned the music. Managers like Chris Lighty heard about the book and found it extremely helpful in carving out their independence in the music world, because traditionally black artists are the most exploited. And so Fiddy came to it through that channel when he was first signed to Interscope. He told me personally that he found the book very helpful for dealing with that shark infested world. He was the one who reached out to meet me and I think he was curious to see who I was and if something could be done between us. It was kind of funny because neither of us was what the other person expected.
What did you expect?
We both got along, strangely enough, despite how different we are. We had a common interest in strategy and power games. Based on the fact that we had a nice report, we tossed around the idea of working on a book together and it grew from there. I spent a lot of time with him; went to his house in Connecticut, which was a strange place; hung out in Manhattan; went to the VMAs together in Vegas; saw his private life, his business life, and absorbed his overall energy. He’s a great person.
Do a lot of celebrities reach out to you?
I’ve had contact with people in Hollywood, but that was the closest relationship I had with anybody you would consider a celebrity. I’m on the board of directors of American Apparel and Dov Charney, the CEO, is a public figure that I’ve been good friends with him for many years, but he’s obviously not on the level of 50 Cent. I love rappers because of their stories and where they come from and what they’ve had to overcome. That type of thing excites me, as opposed to people who come from privlidged backgrounds who have been given everything. Meeting Busta Rhymes and Kanye and hanging out with them was more exciting than hanging out with actors.
Why do you think 48 Laws of Power has resonated with rappers so much?
I don’t know how much it resonates now. I know it has an underground, cultish chic to it, but the rap world in ‘98 is not the world that exists now. It was a lot grittier, a lot tougher. So I think when the 48 Laws came out, it really resonated with that culture. And before that, there had been this whole fixation with things like Scarface and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Tupac referenced Machiavelli in his own way. There was an interest in that way of thinking. But as I said, a main component of it was trying to be part of the business world in hip-hop and own your own music. Black people have faced the power game in a way that white people haven’t. They see the corrupt side of it. They don’t really have any illusions about it. The book strikes them as realistic and honest and they found that really refreshing. I remember Chris Lighty and 50 telling me that coming from the streets, they had no way of knowing what to expect from the corporate world and how people can be so two-faced. The book was really helpful. It’s a different environment now. The business side is completely different now from what it was when 50 was breaking in. It’s now settled into something much more corporate. You’re not going to make the huge fortunes rappers could make ten years ago. If my book came out now I don’t think it would have as much of an impact as it did in ’98.
What do you think changed in the game?
It’s weird because it’s happened to all music. There’s not much buzz or excitement. Everything just kind of exploded into these little pieces so there’s no longer room for any singular voice that’s going to capture all of us and pop culture in a way that Fiddy or Michael Jackson did. I wouldn’t necessarily separate hip-hop out. It used to be the game where you’d get a big name and you’d pump it up and have the concert tours and put out a lot of CDs. And that just disappeared. There’s not any money in that anymore. The music just kind of got de-emphasized and became about the money, the merchandizing, and the business side of things. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the exciting things going on in Houston and Atlanta so I wouldn’t want to necessarily say it’s dead, but I know there’s not the excitement there was 10 or 15 years ago.
Well, Law 6 emphasizes “to court attention at all cost.” Gucci Mane gets a tattoo of an ice cream cone on his face so that’s a way of courting attention, but I think a lot of the music is intentionally ridiculous. It’s almost as if they’re making fun of themselves, the music, and what they represent as figures through satire.
What makes you think it’s conscious satire?
I think there’s a degree of satire, but it becomes pretty ambiguous after a while. It becomes an issue of what’s serious and what isn’t. It becomes about turning yourself into a brand and selling it.
How long do you think can that last? What’s the bigger game?
That’s what I’m saying when I said we’re in a weird, different era: people don’t think in those terms anymore. There’s hardly any room to imagine a five year picture like Fiddy always did. He knew from the very beginning he couldn’t remain a recording artist because the spirit just wouldn’t be there anymore. He wouldn’t be on the streets and then people wouldn’t be interested. So he decided he’d get into business, become an actor, and become a larger presence. I don’t see that in the people you’re mentioning. It’s like an immediate thing… it’s like, “how can I grab some attention in an immediate way?” My laws are more about playing for the longer term. That’s what real power is. So you get a little attention for a year where people play you at parties, but where does that ultimately leave you at the end of that? Have you really made a name for yourself? Are you now going to be able to go off into other things like become a producer or go into film? Probably not because it’s all very flimsy and there’s not a lot of thought into it. I can’t speak for certain on the names you mentioned. But it’s just different and not orientated to a larger power move. And I would differentiate people who are courting attention at all costs for immediate hits as opposed to someone who’s more Machiavellian and thinks in the larger term. Fiddy, who used to court attention at all costs, was very Machiavellian about it. He would deliberately choose to have beef with Ja Rule knowing how much he could milk it. All of his beef was very strategic. That’s a very different mentality than rappers going, “How can I get myself into the club? How can I get my song played here? How can I get an immediate hit?” It just feels different to me.