This story appears in the December 12, 2017 issue of Forbes. Subscribe
Kendrick Lamar came of age on the streets of Compton, California, the violent landscape that has featured prominently in the music created by scores of hip-hop artists. He drew inspiration from his background for an entirely different venture: a 2014 partnership with Reebok to create a signature pair of sneakers–one red, one blue, symbolizing peaceful coexistence of the notorious Bloods and Crips gangs.
“Any kind of business outside of art and culture and hip-hop, I have to have full creative control,” says the seven-time Grammy winner. “And having that control, I always wanted to have something that represents more than just a price tag.” He’s earned $78.5 million over the past five years, including a career-best $30 million this year, and inked a new Nike deal this summer.
In the music business, Lamar has grown into a force. He has earned two visits to the White House and grosses more than $1 million a night on the road and even more for big festivals like Coachella. Next up: a slate of international dates from Amsterdam to Stockholm in early 2018. Meanwhile, his songs have clocked over 2 billion spins in the past year, more than Beyonce’s or Bruno Mars’.
Lamar probably won’t return to the White House anytime soon, but he’s using his star power to tackle some of today’s toughest issues. He decried Photoshop’s creation of unrealistic beauty norms on his multiplatinum album DAMN., released this past April; at last year’s Grammys, he won five awards, including Best Rap Album, and performed in chains and a prison uniform to raise awareness about mass incarceration.
“It’s really about failure, not being in fear of that,” Lamar says. “Once you tackle that and block that idea, and you know it’s okay to actually make a mistake or to fail at something, you get back up and try it again.”
Forbes senior editor Zack O’Malley Greenburg sat down with Kendrick Lamar at the 30 Under 30 Summit in October in front of several thousand people for a wide-ranging interview. Here it is, for the first time, with a few light edits for clarity and brevity.
ZOG: The audience is clearly familiar with Kendrick Lamar, the rapper. But what don’t they know about Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, the human being, and how he got his start?
Kendrick Lamar: I think that’s something I gotta ask y’all. What y’all wanna know?
ZOG: Let’s take it back to the beginning.
KL: I actually started freestyling when I was probably eight years old. That’s for sure. I don’t think I ever said that, told y’all that. Everything else I already written man, shit. I can cuss on here right? That’s cool?
Audience Member: Yeah!
KL: I fell in love with hip-hop at four years old, we played music all day in the house. It’s always been my passion. It’s just a lifestyle for me.
ZOG: If you had to pick a moment when you realized, “This is it, I’ve made it. I think this rap thing is gonna take off,” when was that?
KL: I think when I made a terrible single, and that shit was just garbage. That’s the real moment for sure. It’s the real moment because, at that point you’re at your lowest, and what you think you should be doing, but at the same time, I wasn’t aware that that was my highest point because I got back in there and I did it all over again, and continued to push through. That’s when I realized I really wanna do this, because I ain’t give up when I made a terrible ass song.
ZOG: Which song was that?
KL: It was a hard drive full of them, I can’t even tell you one. I said this probably in an interview a while back, it’s a record … Nah, I ain’t even gonna say the name, cause y’all be looking it up and finding it and everything.
ZOG: What do they say, all publicity is good publicity, right?
KL: Right. Well, not with this song.
ZOG: You had a lot of strong mentorship early on in your career. Both from Top Dawg, and later on Dr. Dre. Tell me a little bit about how each of them helped you along in those early years.
KL: Yeah, definitely. In Compton, and Watts, and just in LA in general, we have people we consider OGs and big homies, and people that … A lot of the kids, they ain’t have father figures, they usually turn to their uncles, or an older individual around the corner to give them guidance. Top Dawg himself, he’s definitely an OG, but what separated him from a lot of cats coming up, as far as mentorship when I was 16, 15 years old, he wasn’t giving us a way of negativity, or inspiring us to do negative things like some individuals do when they have that power in the streets. That’s something unique I seen about him when I met him at 16. It was a different swag, and it was a different thing as far as giving back and wanting to see these young individuals be positive with themselves.
ZOG: There was a great story that Dave Free, who’s one of your managers … a fellow 30 Under 30 honoree … he told a great story about how you and Top first linked up, and it involved tech support.
KL: Yeah, he swindled and weaseled his way into the studio and got us both in there and gave us free studio time, just off the creative process of trying to fix computers, and basically did some magic tricks to get us that time. It was a good look, and it all made sense at the end of the day, because we was all individuals from Compton and Watts, so [Top] gave us both opportunity to do something other than being in the streets. With Dre, Dr. Dre himself, he’s always been there as far as a person of inspiration. … He looked like us, he looked like my uncles, he looked like my brothers. Just him having that brand in Compton and making it out, that was the influence already there, that’s a different type of mentorship.
ZOG: People call you a conscious rapper. How do you feel about that label? Do you embrace it? How do you define yourself?
KL: Everybody have they own opinions, but … I always go back to what 50 Cent said, and it always stuck with me. And when he said it, it made an even more valid point. He said, “We all are conscious, whether you’re doing gangsta rap, whether you’re doing so called conscious rap, whether you doing whatever genre you may in because you have a post, you alive and you’re telling your true feelings … these are your true thoughts and you’re conscious of them, and you’re aware of them. You are conscious, as simple as that.” When he said that, that inspired me to not only recognize my own influence on what I have with my people.
ZOG: One of the things that’s happening in hip-hop is mumble rap … and then you have stuff like you’re putting out where it’s really important for people to understand what you’re saying. What kind of responsibility comes with that? With that mantle of being what many people consider to be the greatest rapper alive, the spokesman of hip-hop today?
KL: The responsibility … this is how I think is how you stay sane and stay focused in the essence of music, is to never forget the root where I come from, as far as hip-hop, and knowing my forefathers and the people that laid the groundwork for me to be here. I always keep that in the back of my mind. Never take it for advantage, and misuse it.
But also, at the same time I want to evolve. You know? I want hip-hop to continue to evolve. That’s why I can’t shun a lot of the artists that may not be a Kendrick Lamar. But this is what I tell them every time I see them … be yourself and do what you do but also know who laid down the groundwork. Don’t go on your interviews and dis them and say you don’t like them and you don’t care for them. That’s your opinion, that’s cool but you have to respect them. So talking down on the folks that inspired us to do this, it’d never be right. You dig what I’m saying? So at the end of the day as long as you be who you are but respect what got us here, that’s how you continue to evolve.
ZOG: Who most inspired you from the early days growing up?
KL: From the early days growing up, of course, a lot of west coast music. Snoop, Dr. Dre, N.W.A, Ice Cube, you know, when he was doing that solo thing, for sure. Tupac, of course. Kurupt. I think what all these dudes had in common for me, other than the fact that they had the lifestyle of being in LA and they looked like the people that I knew, it was talking about real things. Maybe I didn’t understand them as a kid, but the people around me understood them and I recognized the connection they had with that, and I looked and I said, “I want to have that same connection one day.”
Being 19 years old when I started freestyling, how this dude have this connection? How he feel like he can relate to what he’s talking about? Because he’s pulling his true self in these stories and he’s telling other people stories at the same time. So I always took that in the back of my head as a notion to what I wanted to do when I got on that microphone.
ZOG: Early on, how much exposure did you have to the original founding fathers on the east coast in terms of Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, those guys?
KL: Yeah, definitely, definitely. Big Daddy Kane for sure. I told this story before, that’s one of the records my pops was playing when I actually came from the hospital, like, blasting the music, my mom’s cussing his ass out, like, all the way to Compton. Yeah, they tell this story all the time because they trip out when they see me on stage and I’m doing my rapper thing. Know that very first day I was coming home he’s blasting that music. Yeah, Afrika Bambaataa, Professor X. My pa used to play this one record called “FTP.” I don’t know if y’all know that. You really all know that? It was one of them jams. For sure. Actually yeah, YG, I don’t know if YG know this but his song is down there, like the [new] rendition of that record. Yeah, and that’s true hip-hop history for sure.
ZOG: That’s “FDT,” right?
ZOG: I’ve heard that one.
KL: Yeah, he put the remix spin on it.
ZOG: Kind of on that topic, and the idea of being conscious or being aware, you do what I would like to call conscious capitalism.
KL: Mm-hmm, okay. That’s a good one.
ZOG: Bear with me here. By our own measures–the Hip-Hop Cash Kings list that Forbes puts out every year–you had your best year yet. But you’ve had a great way of blending, kind of the social aspect with the revenue aspect. You did a deal, a shoe deal where you had one red shoe and one blue shoe, and kind of the idea of bringing together Bloods and Crips. And now you have a new shoe deal with Nike. Tell me a little bit about that and how you can use commerce to make those kinds of statements.
KL: That’s something I always took upon myself and I promised myself any type of venture or partnership I’m doing with a brand, I have to have … 100% creative control on how I want the proceeds to go, and the look and the creative process, and actually what it’s saying, rather than just putting a name and a price tag on it. Because, at the end of the day, you want something that’s further than the right now and the moment. You want to look back and say, “Okay, this red and this blue shoe, it actually did something for the city of Compton, which it has done when I walk back through the city and I see people that I grew up with and certain enemies wearing the shoe.” And how they embrace the fact, okay, this is culture now. We got somebody that’s representing us that understands us, and value the actual mistakes that we made, as far as value is pushing it forward and moving forward past it. And that was the whole process. So anything that I do as far as branding I have to have that sense of awareness and knowing that it’s just not a price tag.
ZOG: Now, when it comes to your recorded music, you’ve got a kind of complicated situation, right? You originally signed at TDE, where you still are, and then of course Dre–the deal is through Aftermath–and also Interscope. How does each of those three labels kind of come together to help run the Kendrick machine?
KL: First off, TDE, we always worked as an independent company, so we always had that independent mind state, before we signed to any major. And, moving forward, when we signed to our majors, I think the relationship started off great because they understood that. They understood how we operate and it wasn’t one of them things where they want to come in and switch up the whole program. They want to figure out how we can help. Rather than change the story up and change the music up … we never would’ve allowed that. So I think from the jump, once they had a full understanding of that, it was all about, okay, let’s sit in these meetings now and figure out how we can make the best of what TDE already has. And putting the machine behind that. And we just continued to build off something organic, rather than letting a whole system come through and critique or destroy what was built.
ZOG: And with that of course comes the talent pipeline, right? You’ve got a lot of other acts that are coming up behind you … now you’re becoming a mentor to some of the other acts.
KL: Yeah, that’s an interesting thing, because I can watch … or I can go back and look at the mistakes I made, as far as the music and as far as on the business end … I tell the new artists on TDE, don’t never reach. Always do something that you feel good about. Don’t do it because you want to get signed or you want a distribution deal or something, because at the end of the day that doesn’t last. What lasts is something that 100% true to yourself … you get so twisted and tangled in the hit singles and how many streams the other cat gets you lose vision of the creative process. And this is something I try to mentor with the artists, and I don’t have to do it much because they already know, and have the mental capacity of knowing what they want for themselves.
ZOG: You mentioned mistakes. What do you think your biggest mistake was other than that song that you won’t name? And what did you learn from it?
KL: My biggest mistake. As far as the creative process?
KL: Yeah, the creative process, my biggest mistake was watching the other artists’ success and thinking that can be my own success. Everybody’s their own individual, you know? A lot of the times, like I said, you listen to the radio, you be pushed by what the industry is doing, or what’s popping at the moment. So you go through these stages of trying to figure that out. That hindered me. A long time. But the day I changed my name [from K-Dot] to my actual real name, Kendrick Lamar, and found my true story, that’s when I started getting the looks, and the ears that I wanted.
ZOG: What was the thought process behind that? Behind making that change?
KL: The thought process behind it was, okay, I said, “I put well over 10,000 hours of just rappin’. I can rap all day, and freestyle all day and just have a thousand bars.” But I said to myself … “What will separate myself from the other artists out there?” I went back, again, to people that inspired me and inspired people that was around me and said, “Okay, it’s the connection. What do I have to connect … with the artist? What do I got to connect with these individuals out here that actually stand for something or want to hear somebody that stands for something to give them the motivation to keep going? To keep pushing through with their daily lives.” And my story, I was a good kid in a mad city. Once I honed in on that, I think that’s when the transition really made. It gave me the confidence, okay? … This is who I am, and this is what I’m comfortable with, and if you don’t like it, so be it.
ZOG: Obviously that story is resonating incredibly with people. I think you’ve got over a billion spins on streaming over the past 12 months, maybe more. Incredible amounts of consumption of your music. What has the streaming revolution meant to you over the course of your career both in terms of getting your message out, but also now maybe actually starting to see some pretty good returns on it now that streaming has been exploding the way it has over the past couple of years?
KL: It’s definitely a transition on how we get the music out. Obviously, the internet plays a big part. The early starts in my career was actually … internet based before it got to actually streaming. It’s a whole different process. First I didn’t understand it, because I’m so used to … we come from the ’90s. I can see a lot of people my age, and 2000s, we’re used to having a physical [record], something tangible you can feel in your hand. I want to look through the CD and feel it.
So … when this idea was brought to me and saying people are not actually buying albums no more–they don’t want to feel it, they don’t want to see it–it kind of threw me for a loop. It’s just something I had to grow with the process, as far as technology. Then I understood, okay, streaming. Get a database of people all around the world listen to your music in one single time. Still getting the words out, still getting the message out. So I think for me personally I have to just keep it at a minimum of thinking it always starts with the music. However it gets out, who it gets to, it starts with the music first. Whatever money I generate from it I just know that it’s not singly based off that. It’s based off the music. You dig what I’m saying?
ZOG: You talked about the 1990s. I’m a child of the ’90s as well. I think one of the wake-up moments for America about hip-hop was, I think it was ’91 or ’92, when Nielsen started recording through SoundScan exactly how many records are being bought and sold in the record stores–physically scanning each one that was sold, as opposed to just collecting anecdotal reports from a select few record shops–and what they found was that, surprise, hip-hop was the dominant genre, one of the dominant genres in the country. I think that took a lot of people by surprise back then. But then you had a couple of weeks ago another, Nielsen report came out, the number one most streamed genre was hip-hop. People suddenly were having this reaction again. “Oh my God, hip-hop, it’s here!” But Hip Hop has been around for over 40 years … when do you think people are going to finally realize that it’s 100% here to stay? It has been, and it’s not going anywhere.
KL: Hip-hop has always been the ultimate genre. Yeah. Even when these numbers wasn’t out. Even when the stats wasn’t out we always moved the needle. We always … we were the culture. You can debate me on this all day you want. We say what’s cool and what’s not cool. We say what we like. Yeah, we do that, simple as that, and it goes back to … my mom told me, I couldn’t believe when she told me this. She said 1987, the year I was born, [people were saying] hip-hop was going to last six months to a year … that tripped me out. And now you fast forward and you see Jay-Z up there, you know? [Song]writers’ Hall of Fame. This is us. This is who I am. He’s from the projects. You dig what I’m saying? So, to any non believers, you look at what he’s done. You look at what’s Dre done. You look at what Puff done, and you look at some of the guys that carried that mood of culture forward outside of hip-hop … We tell you what it ain’t, if it ain’t it. We decide that, you know? Simple as that.
ZOG: So, let’s talk about those three guys you mentioned. Puff, Dre and Jay. Talk a little bit about what each of them brought to the table, worldwide and also for you, both musically and commercially.
KL: On the creative level they brought a sense of … these cats that I always see working at a high level. As far as their music, it’s always been … on a high level. On on the music end, they always had the best music in my eyes. Simple as that, you know? They’ll throw in the visuals from each region, whatever they was from. And, bigger than that, on a entrepreneurship level, that’s the game they thought we would never break through, as far as hip-hop, and these are the three individuals that showed us that. We’re going back to and we’re talking about Jay-Z, and we talking about Roc-a-Fella, his clothing line and things of that nature. That was a big accomplishment. I listen to the raps and I hear his tones, and the mannerisms on how he talked about that. And how he felt accomplishing that, because that’s something we wasn’t seeing success from. They said we couldn’t start businesses outside of hip-hop. When you look at technology, you look at Dre, you look at what Puff is doing. These are some of the things, and some of the aspirations, that has been branded in my generation. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t know the mistakes. We could sit up here and have these conversations with these individuals and they can tell us, “Okay, you do this, you do that, you don’t do that, this is what I did wrong.” They already laid that groundwork, so for them to go through the steps and see the success they had and they have, it’s a blessing. It’s definitely a blessing.
ZOG: What about Dre? Was there any particular advice that he gave you along the way that sticks with you above all?
KL: Yeah, advice he had sticks we me all the time. I was inside his house, and I was like, “Damn, this is a big ass house.” Like, seriously. In my head. This wasn’t long ago. People was like, seeing success and seeing the accolades and things I have, and it definitely took time, but all these memories play like it was yesterday … He was like, “Yes, it’s a big ass house … the easy part is not getting it … You have to keep this big motherfucker.” You gotta continue to work. You’re gonna make mistakes along the way. But you have to ask questions. That’s something that I’m learning now. I don’t know it all. I have to ask questions. I’m still fairly a new cat as far as, you know, being a businessman and furthering my music process and my other ventures outside of music. You have to ask questions, and that’s something that I’ll always continue to practice.
ZOG: But you’re asking questions of definitely the right people. I mean, you’ve been to the White House a couple of times. I think you’re Barack Obama’s favorite rapper.
KL: Big Barack. He Big Barack now. We got him. Yeah, he big homie. We gotta change his whole thing up.
ZOG: What did that mean for you, a kid from Compton to be able to go to the White House?
KL: It’s not even about a kid from Compton going to the White House. It’s really about Barack letting urban kids walk inside that building. … It’s really him giving me the honor and giving other acts, other urban acts the honor, and people that come up in our community to have these conversations and sit down with him inside that house, you know?
… Our ancestors, they looking down on us and acknowledge that, inside the house and talking to him. I could only imagine how [Obama] feels. Not how I feel, because he’s the gatekeeper, and letting me inside here and letting me know certain things.
ZOG: I think that Barack Obama’s favorite musical is Hamilton.
KL: Shout out.
ZOG: And we have one of the stars of Hamilton in the house–Oak, who’s I think somewhere over there. He had a question for you that I’m going to relay. And the question is, “How do you juggle preaching to the choir and preaching to those who are outside of the church?”
KL: That’s a great question … that’s a tapped in question because … it’s a process that I think about every single time I go inside that studio, and write. The best way for me to analyze and the break down how I do it is to not hold back. Simple as that. And to be unapologetic. It’s a process where I can’t be afraid to offend anyone, if that makes sense … I can’t feel like I’m doing it just for a region of people. I have to do what is true to myself and my own values and my own beliefs, you know? So, for a long time it was like, okay, I could tap into these people over here … but if I’m showing that I’m unflawed, then the people outside of this church, they’re not gonna feel who Kendrick really is. They’re gonna think that I am some type of God, you know what I’m saying? But I’m a human just like the people in this church and the people outside of this church. So that goes for me not actually preaching to people, but actually goes into me on record saying my flaws and the things that I have to learn, and the things that I don’t know and the things that I want to know, and the mistakes I made, and the mistakes I might make in the future. Once I learned the idea and the concept of that, to not be above all and actually show my own personal flaws, I think that’s what makes the connection. Because I can actually tell what I do know, and the mistakes I made and my own spirituality. Also singing the same song, I still wanna grow. I still don’t know this and I still don’t know that. And I think that’s what made the connection with people inside the church and people outside the church.
ZOG: During the dark times, both personally, nationally, internationally, what do you do when you feel like giving up? How do you plow through and come out on the other side?
KL: How do I plow through? I think that ultimately you look at … you want to be a person that stands for something. Whether the plan works or not, I want to be remembered as that. Same thing with Colin Kaepernick. You know? I’m sure they feel he want to give up. They think he’s gonna give up but he want to stand for something. Simple as that. You don’t look at the moment whether it is going to work or not. No, you look at what the next generation is going to receive from it. And if I quit what I’m doing, or feel like I can’t go no longer because I have naysayers or I have people behind the scenes that say I can’t do it, or I feel a little discouraged, I gotta think beyond the moment. I gotta think further than just me. Dig what I’m saying?
ZOG: For sure.
KL: So, to anybody in a situation where they feel like they truly believe something or truly have a passion for what they doing or for what they putting out there and the energy they putting out there, and you don’t feel like it’s working, please believe it’s working … it will be working for the next kid that’s looking up to you or somebody that’s inspired by you at the next generation. So you have to look at, from a base of what do you want to be remembered for. Simple as that.
ZOG: So, I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is that we are nearly out of time. The good news is we have time for one more … we’ve got a ton of entrepreneurs out here. A ton of people who are starting their own careers. What advice would you give them, to the people that are starting out, that helped you in your career to make it where you are today?
KL: I think the main focus, and I talk to a lot of people about business and following their dreams, and it always comes back to this one single word, “failure.” You know how many people is in fear of that word? At least 80% because I’ve been in that … situation, plenty of times. Over several times. And you really … you have to almost intimidate this word with work ethic. It’s no other way … it’s no better way to put it. You have to intimidate it. Because, failure is the one thing that stops us all from being our own entrepreneurs and following our own dreams, and having ownership in what we do, because we’re scared of what people are going to think, we’re scared about the money we’re gonna lose. We see about the financial state it’s gonna put us in 10 years from now. You know? You gotta completely block it, because at the end of the day, your failures and mistakes … may be on you, right here and right now, but at the end of the day these are lessons learned. These are experiences. You may have kids that you can tell and inspire for all the mistakes that you made and give them the energy and they take these mistakes and they’ll take your dreams, your ideas to the next level. Or the kid outside. So, you have to be selfless in these type of situations, I mean, and know that they will come but at the end of the day it’s going to be for a better subject matter, for the kid outside your building, and to inspire you to keep pushing, because if you don’t … like the last question, what do you stand for?
ZOG: All right, I think that’s a great note to end it on. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Kendrick Lamar!
KL: I appreciate y’all, man. I had a good time with y’all. We gonna keep on rocking. Y’all keep living out your dreams out, all right?
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