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Laws for an Outlaw Culture

Hip-hop artists swear by the often-ruthless 48 rules of power put forth by a `geeky white guy' as they seek the upper hand in the boardroom.

July 12, 2006|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

Law 5: So much depends on reputation -- guard it with your life.

Hip-hop producer DJ Premier boiled this law down to "Reputation is the cornerstone of power" and had it tattooed on his arm.

Law 8: Make other people come to you -- use bait if necessary.

New York rapper L.G. had this one printed, epigram-style, on the in-leaf of his underground mix tape, "Industry Co-Sign II: The 14 Tracks of Power."

The two laws are found among "The 48 Laws of Power," a 1998 book that bundles anecdotes from history's great schemers -- Casanova, Machiavelli, dancer and courtesan Lola Montez, Chairman Mao and con man "Yellow Kid" Weil among them -- to make urgent points about how to come out on top in life. The book became a bestseller (it was on the Wall Street Journal's list for 11 weeks), and now, largely as a result of rap artists' growing sense of themselves as an entrepreneurial warrior class, is finding new life as the bible for behavior in the hip-hop world.

Rappers write lyrics about the book ("The only book I ever read I could have wrote: '48 Laws of Power,' " Kanye West rapped in a famous freestyle), they refer to it in interviews ("In 'The 48 Laws of Power,' it says the worst thing you can do is build a fortress around yourself," Jay-Z noted in Playboy) and they study it as a guide to succeeding in the cutthroat music business.

"The book is like a martial-arts manual for the business," said Quincy "QD3" Jones III, a rap producer turned filmmaker who is making a feature documentary about "The 48 Laws' " hip-hop connection. "It teaches people in our demographic how to think more holistically about their business practices."

Some reviewers had a different take when the book first appeared. "By the 36th law, you start to feel unclean and worried about your own morality," said one. "By the 44th, you have accepted the fact that you are basically immoral and so is the world. By the time you reach No. 48, you are saying: 'Right, who is my first victim?' "

Law 27: Play on people's need to believe to create a cult-like following.

As his book's influence spreads, author Robert Greene, a self-described "geeky white guy," is fashioning himself into an unlikely consigliere to hip-hop's elite. He's been enlisted to collaborate on a business book with 50 Cent, the multi-platinum-selling rapper whom Forbes magazine has called "a masterful brand builder and a shrewd businessman" and who famously survived being shot nine times.

"A lot of people who identify with the book are people who've had problems dealing with powerful people," Greene said in an interview. "I used to be sort of like that. I learned the hard way." Now, in addition to his rap following, Greene, 46, advises such maverick business chiefs as producer Brian Grazer and American Apparel Chief Executive Dov Charney.

"The music industry is a brutal world," Greene said. "A lot of rappers figured out that they had to control things and learn how the game's played or else they were going to be continually exploited. That's what brought them to the book."

Shout Out to 'Scarface'

Hip-hop, with its regional rivalries and short attention span, doesn't seem to be a culture likely to assimilate the cautionary tales about French courtesans, Italian nobility and American hucksters detailed in "The 48 Laws." But rap music can be carbon-dated by the outside influences it has used to define itself, and in many ways the book is perfect for this moment.

Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, rappers often recited dialogue from Al Pacino's 1983 gangster classic, "Scarface," in songs; the character's ruthlessness and ambition exemplified hip-hop's mercenary self-image and ideals at the time. Then in the mid-'90s, Sun Tzu's 2,500-year-old military strategy treatise, "The Art of War," became rap's most shouted-out book, for much the same reason super-agent Michael Ovitz distributed copies to his staff during his tenure at Creative Artists Agency. Emphasizing outmaneuvering opponents through superior gamesmanship, the book found a natural application in an increasingly competitive business, one in which rappers felt like perpetual underdogs.

But in the early 2000s, as hip-hop became the dominant sound on the pop chart and its players began to wield real clout in the industry, they began to present themselves more as street-savvy, self-made millionaires than as gangsterish outsiders. "The 48 Laws" spoke to this new sense of a broader, more mature power base while still flattering their self-image as formidable warriors.

Law 38: Think as you like but behave like others.

With urban music industry heavyweights Island Def Jam's Lyor Cohen and Warner Music Group's Kevin Liles among early adopters of its principles, Greene's book began influencing the way deals were made.

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