Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the successful venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz (which turned an initial pool of $300 million into $2.7 billion in three years), and Nas, one of the most respected hip-hop artists of all time, sat down for a chat that could only happen amidst the hazy magnetic field of Austin during SXSW. Indeed, the panelists seemed a bit hazy in their presentation, possibly due to the previous night’s activities. As well, Horowitz mentioned after the talk that Nas had never given a presentation like this.
The two were previously acquainted, becoming so when a mutual friend, well-known music executive Steve Stoute, connected them in a search instigated by the Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., who had previously met Horowitz and was looking for hip-hop artists to appear on his television show “Finding Your Roots.” The question of why Gates, a world-renowned scholar of black culture with enormous stature, had to ask a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur for advice on how to get in touch with a hip-hop artist notwithstanding– “Just because I put rap lyrics in my blog does not mean I know any rappers,” Horowitz told Gates– Nas was eventually contacted by Steve Stoute on behalf of Horowitz.
“Steve [Stoute] is a serious advocate for hip-hop,” Nas said. “He’s been involved with hip-hop for years and years, and Skip Gates is a Harvard man… which is great. [Audience laughs]. So Steve and him had to educate each other on what they needed for the show. Steve tried, he didn’t really get it… but he got it later and got me on the show.”
From there the conversation took some sharp turns — a discussion of Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint Louverture, Nas’ early life in Queensbridge, New York and being the only kid in the projects with a Commodore 64, and an awkward silence or two — it largely centered on the theme of entrepreneurship, the central topic of Horowitz’s brand-new book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things,” a work which grew out of his infamous blog, in which he often references rap lyrics.
The specific lines of conversation would be familiar to people with any proximity to the tech world, touching on the unique positions of successful tech entrepreneurs (“He’s talking about twenty million like it’s twenty dollars! Firing people that you have love for… that’s gotta be hard,” Nas remarked), the risk-taking and vision required (“You come up with an idea that everyone thinks is really stupid and you go build it.” Horowitz said about innovative ventures) and the awkward skill set required of CEOs (“If you talk to guys like Zuckerberg — every CEO is at best a D student. If you can get a D-minus you’re kicking ass. You can’t worry about the mistakes you’ve made because you’re going to make a lot of them”).
Also of note was a short discussion on Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp, which Horowitz described as a new challenge for the founders, the danger of your most skilled workers “calling in rich” when the now-billionaire team faces new obstacles.
Nas discussed briefly the 20th anniversary, marked this year, of his seminal work “Illmatic” and being visited by Steve Stoute in Queensbridge. “He came into the projects looking for me. I had this big album and he knew he could find me in the projects… that tells you right there I wasn’t concerned with anything other than maintaining,” Nas said, going on to outline his and Stoute’s early business disagreements. “He had all these dreams for us to ‘go all the way,’ and I didn’t want to live in the projects, but didn’t want to go where Steve wanted to go. I’m happy with just the small things in life.”