Aug 25, 2008 - 9:24 PM
Anthony Marshall, co-founder of the legendary Lyricist Lounge, at West Side Cuts in San Francisco.
As a child Anthony Marshall found inspiration in the rap game. Seeing individuals like Andre Harrell, Russell Simmons and Puffy pushed him to have big dreams as well, aspiring to be the youngest entrepreneur in the music industry. In 1991, when Ant was 15, he and his friend Danny Castro founded the now legendary Lyricist Lounge. Starting in a little loft space on the Lower East side of Manhattan, a young Ant Marshall and his partner unknowingly took the first steps to achieving their dreams. Seventeen years later, Ant reflects on what that experience meant to him. "Something happens when you give people space. If people don't have space, they don't have anywhere to go to create. Someone gave us a space and we did something with it, now you fast forward and we're still in it," he says.
Ant has now moved west, working as a host and producer for Current TV while teaching a class, The Art and Business of Hip-Hop, at San Francisco State University. I was able to sit down with this busy man and the fellas at West Side Cuts in the Fillmore to discuss the progress and state of hip hop as a business.
Nina Parks: What is the difference between hip hop as a culture and hip hop as a business?
Curtis, owner of Westside Cuts: Hip hop as a culture doesn't take money, it just takes love. The business, oh, it’s all money, no games—very vicious.
Nina Parks: Since we've established the difference between the two. How can we sustain the culture within the industry so it doesn't water down the essence of why it was recognized in the first place?
Ant Marshall: Like we said, you need more folks who love the culture working in the industry. What you have is a lot of people who don't give a fuck about it and are just trying to make that paper. And it is what it is. It's a business first, but … it should be about the music, that is the product. You have to care about the product first before you think about how you are marketing it and how you are shipping it out. It's the product, you gotta bake the cake and then you have to sell it. What's interesting is that with hip hop, we love it so much as a culture but it's not the same for every other [genre of] music. To me, I think we really see the music as a part of our culture. If you ask a rock and roll dude about rock and roll, he's like, ‘Yeah I like this band and love that band.’ But it's culture to us, it has different meaning than just being about the music.
Curtis: Where you walk, talk, breathe, live, listen hip hop.
Darelle, the guy sitting in the chair across from Ant: So you don't think that we are far away from that? For example, I feel a lot of people love Run DMC, NWA and Public Enemy because when you saw them, you saw yourself. You saw people with nappy hair, you didn't see people that were Hollywood and shit like that. One thing about the rock and roll boys, their long hair and rips in their pants, they stay true to it.
Nina Parks: So besides jazz and blues, hip hop is one of the first American cultures…
Jovan (waiting to get into the chair that Darelle is in): Don't say hip hop is the only culture ‘cause they have their own culture too, we just can't identify with it.
Darelle: I'm not saying that.
Nina Parks: I said that... just playing devil’s advocate.
Darelle: What I'm saying is how we get away from it. For example cats went crazy when NWA said "Fuck the Police," but they went crazy because a lot of other people were saying it at the time, you just didn't hear them. And so nowadays you've got all these cats doing all these dancing songs, snapping their fingers, and there is no lesson in their raps. You can listen to an old Too Short rap and he wasn't just saying ‘bitch.’ He had "Life is Too Short," you know what I'm saying?
Curtis: Substance, substance in music. Now they are just making a song instead of making a song about something. But...
Ant Marshall: Hold on, don't get confused, it's cool on the floor. People need to get their step on.
Nina Parks: Right. We good? Thank you for that.
Curtis: But like we said, we just need more people who love the culture in the business. Right now, they just care about the dollar.
Nina Parks: So what are business ethics in hip hop? Has hip hop established an ethics in business?
Ant Marshall: Ethics are fucked up. Ethics are all over the place, you know. You've got a lot of folks who have come into the business that don't understand the business, and just bring whatever they've learned from wherever they've come from into it. So if it's a dude that just came home from 20 years (in prison), and now he's like, “Fuck it, I’m a rhyme” or “I’m a start a record label,” he's going to go about it the way he knows best. If that means someone didn't pay him his royalties, a person may get hurt. That's a different business ethic than what the music business...well... Really, the music business been grimey anyways. But if you just talk about business, you know, it's supposed to be done with lawyers and this and that and that's supposed to be business ethics. But in hip hop, we've stepped it up a notch.
Nina Parks: So it like an honor system?
Ant Marshall: It is like an honor system in many ways but, then again, there are a lot of people who don't have honor or loyalty for this shit. We used to, when it was about a “we,” when we felt it was about a “we,” then there was an honor and trust within our circle. But that “we” is now about “I.”
Nina Parks: What can we do to bring it back to a ‘we’? Can we bring it back to a ‘we,’ or have we gone so far toward the capitalistic side of the American culture that we forgot about hip hop as a culture?
Ant Marshall: Evolution is evolution. Once the change is made, it's changed. It's not what it was and it never will be what it was in '73, nor will America be what it was in '73, and that's it. I was born in '73 and I'm very different from who I was when I was a baby. And that's how I try to look at hip hop. In the days of its birth to where it is now, it's gone through a lot of changes. It went through its baby stages, where everything was love and "oh great," you know, and now it's in its adolescent stage. Well, way beyond its adolescence. It acts like it just turned 21, but it's thirty plus. And that mirrors how a lot of men are in hip hop: they're re really 30-something acting 20 years old. And you can't separate the music and the culture from the people. It's the people first. If we have a culture of young people who are going through some mental health issues, have been in and out of jails and have seen so much fuckin’ horror in front of their faces, then that's what they are going to talk about. What came first, the chicken or the egg? It doesn't matter. At the end of the day, you got fucked up kids making fucked up music. And people want to complain about it. But you've got to look at the environment they are in.
Nina Parks: So in order to bring a “we” back into hip hop, we need more community-oriented lyrics?
Ant Marshall: You can't make anything, you just have to cross your fingers and do your part and hope that we all do our part. Some people don't want unity, some people don't give a fuck about unity, they're like, “I'm out here thugging and that's my life so do whatever you doing but this is fun to me.” I learned that a long time ago, even with The Lounge, a lot of the stuff we did was progressive, positive, and at some point we were really judgmental with lyrics and about what people would say. … You just gotta look at the bigger picture to see where other people are coming from.
Nina Parks: Hip hop established its core with four basic elements: rhyming, breaking, DJing, and graffiti. We had garage parties, we had our parents’ record players and collections. What would you say the elements are for hip hop as an industry? We've establish that hip hop is here, it has grown, so what are the new tools?
Ant Marshall: We've got a lot of potential and a lot of opportunity; a lot of us are at the table. You know what I'm saying when I say, “at the table?” We are at the table seeing eye to eye with these CEO and record execs that we never got to sit with. Back in the day, we were meeting their assistants, lower management that was like, "Hey, I like what you're doing on the cardboard box," and they would snatch the idea, flip it, turn it into a movie, pitch it to their boss, and all of a sudden they blew up and you're still on the cardboard. But now we've got people like Crazy Legs that are still on the cardboard but on TV and sitting there with Sony making a video game about break dancing. It's a different look. Then again, we are older now. We're not 15 trying to talk business, we're 30-plus talking business and that's a different voice.
Nina Parks: The last time I saw you was at Distortion 2 Statics's hip hop symposium. You said that you were teaching a class at San Francisco State University. What is that class?
Ant Marshall: It's called the Art and Business of Hip hop.
Nina Parks: What is to be expected from that curriculum?
Ant Marshall: I'm basically teaching hip hop's timeline juxtaposed against America's timeline. If you want to know where hip hop was in the 80's, then you need to know where America was at in the 80's. If you want to understand Public Enemy and the stuff they were talking about in their album, then you need to know where America was at in the 80's, understand the Regan administration and the crack epidemic. You can't look at music and culture without looking at the environment that it's in, so I do this twofold picture of hip hop in America. We go through and we discuss just like we've just talked about. We talk about the growth and how hip hop started in its baby stages, what are the arms, what are the legs, what is the head, how the music is like the voice, break dancing is like the arms and legs, fashion is the clothing.
Nina Parks: So it's a person?
Ant Marshall: It is a person. It's a body, [like] the US government ... it's a body of people. And it's really what you do with it. Our problem is that we don't see ourselves as a body, we're disconnected. West and east coast beef, and now it's the south. But really, we are the same body. It's really that simple to me.
Nina Parks: And that's what you're trying to teach these college kids. How did you come up with this class? It's pretty amazing. Do you have a teaching credential?
Ant Marshall: I pitched it, and I guess with all the things that I have already done, they figured it was something that would work great for their music program. For me, it's the baby steps in moving to that part of my life. As we get older, it's our responsibility to give back.
Nina Parks: Transition from the student to mentor?
Ant Marshall: Yeah, you know, share your experiences. So maybe the next one will have it easier than you did, whether that's the little homie on the corner or the class room. I was like, “Wow, this opportunity presented itself to me, so I’m a take advantage of it.” I created the curriculum and they went for it.
Nina Parks: Do you have a mock industry? ‘Cause, basically, with art and business, you are saying that you can make money doing what you love.
Ant Marshall: I think it's important to start with the art. It's important to know that we didn't have no hip hop records. And it is important to know about the environment that it grew from. So we start with that. That's where we're at. So we study the history and growth up until this point. Now if your next question would be where do I see hip hop going from here…
Nina Parks: (Laughs) Yep, that is my last question.
Ant Marshall: This will come up a few times. This isn't my final or only answer. Hip hop is moving towards education and politics and it's not because of the culture, it’s because we're older. We're 34-plus. You need to be doing something in regards to education or politics or finance, those are the pillars of society. So if you're not involved with that, 30-something year olds, then you are not doing your part. And I'm not saying quit your job, I'm saying do your part.
Nina Parks is a photographer, writer, artist, treasure hunter, gypsy, pirate and hip hop phantom. Birthed out of the ashes of the Third Eye and Hyphy Movements, Nina Parks' new mission in life is to tell the stories of the "New American Experience," aiding in the rebirth of Culture and Community. See more of her work at www.ninaparks.blogspot.com.