How Hip Hop Uses Lean Startup Principles

It all started in the Bronx in New York City, during the 1970's where DJ Kool Herc inspired the likes of Afrika Bambaataa to pioneer a new genre of music at block parties now known as Hip Hop.

Apart from Hip Hop's African connections;

Afrika Bambaataa was born Kevin Donovan in the Bronx, New York in 1957 and changed his name in 1975 after a trip to Africa which he earned after winning an essay contest. This trip combined with him having watched the movie Zulu led to him adopting the name of Zulu Chief 'Bhambatha. Bhambatha famously led a rebellion against the apartheid government protesting unfair economic practices in South Africa. This also inspired Afrika Bambaataa to return to the Bronx to try and stop the violence and build the community,

it has also spread quite rapidly accross the globe to become one of the dominant urban youth cultures. With every country that Hip Hop spreads to, before long it is among one of the dominant music genres and cultures.

What makes Hip Hop go viral? Is it just the cool factor? Is it the catchy hooks and beats? Or is it something more methodical and deliberate?

Afrika Bambaataa Biography

Mixtape vs Minimum Viable Product

During Hip Hop's early days still in the 1970's, it's widely reported and written that the only way you could hear Hip Hop music was at block parties and at live shows where DJs would play it.

To ensure the music spread, the DJs and fans recorded the parties and shows onto tapes and distributed them around. This is what today Eric Ries would call a Minimum Viable Product.

Put simply, a minimum viable product has only the core features that allow the product to be deployed and get feedback from potential customers. It is NOT a lesser version of the eventual product but a strategy aimed at getting the first version of your product to customers in order to get feedback and avoid building products that customers don't want.

The Mixtape was and still is (in MP3 and digital form in our age) Hip Hop's version of the Lean Startup's Minimum Viable Product.

It evolved over the years but the principle remains the same as it was in the early days of Hip Hop: to spread the music and get feedback, just like you would with a minimum viable product.

Another iteration of the mixtape as a minimum viable product is the single that a Hip Hop MC would drop from an alleged (oft times not yet complete) upcoming album to test the feedback from the market.

Exclusive: Drake To Re-Release So Far Gone Mixtape

It's all good cause the streets is A&R'ing this

The mixtape / single is out on the streets (more likely internet today), how do you get feedback? How does a Hip Hop MC get validation on whether the streets dig his new mixtape or track?

Again, just like in the Lean Startup, validation comes when the fans are requesting the song on radio, radios are play listing the song, fans are constantly asking where they can cop it, etc.

Hip Hop was mostly rejected by record companies for a long time, as such many artists relied heavily on mixtapes, parties and DJs (this still applies today in some cases for different reasons) to spread the word. As such most MCs didn't have the budget of a typical A & R (Artists & Repertoire) division at a recording company.

Wikipedia: Artists and repertoire (A&R) is the division of a record label or music publishing company that is responsible for talent scouting and overseeing the artistic development of recording artists and/or songwriters.

So, like Hov' says in his track "So Ambitious" when alluding to his earlier days as an MC and went on to start his own recording label: "The streets is A&R'ing this!". Which in Lean Startup terms literally means that the customers (DJs, radio stations, sales numbers, etc.) are validating this.

So, what happens if the streets don't like what you put out (invalidate your assumptions), as Jay-Z puts it in the same song:

Back to the drawing board ducking officers

Back to the Experiment Board in Lean Startup Machine terms!

I smarten up, open the market up

The last similarity (of many I could go on writing about) is the pivot.

Hip Hop culture as the year's went by developed beyond music. It literally became a culture on its own, having its own language, its own way of dressing, its own code of doing things as well. This also sparked the need for MCs to look at other ways to make money given how difficult it has become to sell albums / songs.

So many MCs create personas, brands associated with how they rap, a lifestyle if you'd have it. Once the streets have validated them as stated above, they now know that they are onto something and as some like Jay Z have done, they pivot into other related businesses like clothing still using their music as an entry point into their brand.

If somebody woulda told 'em that Hov' would sell clothing.. Not in this lifetime, wasn't in my right mind


Despite not being well documented into a science or a methodology, Hip Hop's rise can be attributed to the beats and rhymes as much as it ca be attributed to a methodical way of constantly testing the market, iterating and pivoting.

Even the sound of Hip Hop has evolved to fuse in all sorts of other genres of music making it more and more popularly accross the world.

P.S. This post was was inspired by the work being done by the folks at The Phat Startup, love of Hip Hop as an art form (poetry), coffee and No Sleep Remix and Ts'epe Sethu'a Majoe on repeat. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Cover Image Credit: Pieter-Jannick Dijkstra