These rappers know how to get paid.
“Straight Outta Compton,” which earned $60 million at the box office during its opening weekend, was America’s #1 movie for the third weekend in a row, making it one of the biggest-ever August releases. Made for $29 million, the biopic of gangsta rap group N.W.A. crossed the $100 million ticket sales mark less than 10 days after its debut.
Among other things, what this means is that the rap world can add “blockbuster movie producer” to the long list of successful entrepreneurial endeavors it has spawned. The movie was produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, the leading creative members of N.W.A. Dre and Cube are not only legends in the rap game, they’re representative of the many hip-hop artists who have been phenomenally successful outside of music, launching fashion lines, restaurant chains, luxury electronics, and liquor and beverage brands.
At first glance, it may seem odd that so many rappers become entrepreneurs. But think about it: Rappers use carefully crafted words, style, swagger, and images to sell themselves to the masses. They’re experts at making “Something from Nothing,” as the title of the 2012 rap documentary by Ice-T put it, and the most successful rappers know their audience incredibly well. After working so hard to sell themselves and their music, many rappers find it fairly natural to cross over and market other products and lifestyle brands to fans. And no matter if we’re talking song lyrics or the creation of a luxury brand of headphones, artists with roots in rap have an uncanny ability to remain relentlessly focused on money and “getting paid.”
In addition to being a gangsta rap pioneer with N.W.A., Dr. Dre is also the visionary who produced and called the world’s attention to rap superstars like Snoop Dogg and Eminem. And he’s been a hugely successful artist on his own, starting with his multi-platinum solo debut album “The Chronic” and continuing with this summer’s “Compton: A Soundtrack,” which was streamed 25 million times during the first week it was available on Apple Music.
Speaking of Apple, in 2014 the tech giant acquired Beats Music and Beats Electronics, the music subscription streaming service and maker of flagship $300 headphones founded by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, for $3 billion. Dre’s net worth hit around $800 million as a result—and that was before the release of “Straight Outta Compton.” The deal landed Dre on Entrepreneur magazine’s list of “10 Entrepreneurs Who Defined 2014.” Also on the list: fellow musician Beyoncé, whose roots are in R&B, not rap.
Kanye West is no stranger to haters. At the start of his career as a producer-turned-hip-hop artist, he struggled to be taken seriously as a rapper given his middle-class background and an aesthetic that didn’t match the stereotypical industry apparel. Well into his fame, President Obama called West a “jackass” for his infamous “Imma let you finish” interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs. But haters have hardly gotten in the way of West amassing his $130 million fortune—as he rapped, borrowing from 50 Cent, in The Good Life: “If they hate then let ‘em hate and watch the money pile up.”
Beyond being one of the best-selling and most award-winning artists of all time—he’s sold over 21 million copies of his just six albums, and won 21 Grammys—he’s also founded his own record label, G.O.O.D. Music, is a part owner of the Jay Z-owned streaming service Tidal, and has directed a number of short films. And as the New York Times has pointed out, his movement into the world of fashion—from collaborating with A.P.C., Adidas, and Louis Vuitton to launching a women’s clothing label, DW Kanye at the 2011 Paris Fashion Week—has “widened the genre’s gates… for high-fashion and high-art dreams.”
Known mostly today for his starring role in both the reality TV show “Ice Loves Coco” and the 15-year-running cop drama “Law & Order: SVU,” Ice-T first came to fame as a groundbreaking gangsta rapper with hot-selling tracks like “Colors.” But Ice-T has been many things beyond actor and rapper. Before making a living from rap, he was a pimp, thief, and all-around hustler. A partial list of his non-rap ventures once he became famous include creating and fronting a thrash metal band (Body Count), founding an online music label way back in the Napster era, launching a podcast, doing voices for multiple video games, serving as a producer for 18 TV shows and movies, co-authoring three books, and organizing this summer’s first-ever Art of Rap Festival—a concert series that takes its name from the Ice-T-directed 2012 documentary, “Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap.”
It’s understandable, then, that the word most commonly associated with Ice-T is hustle. “New Jack Hustler” was one of Ice-T’s most popular songs—used in the 1991 movie he also starred in, “New Jack City”—but “hustle” has been part of vocabulary for a long time. In fact, instead of focusing on rap for its artistry and insights into urban culture, Ice-T has referred to it as just another way to get rich. “Rapping is a hustle to me,” Ice-T said on the VH1 documentary “Behind the Music.” “I’m not one of those guys that’s like, ‘Oh I love the music.’ Nah. I love money.”
It’s hard to say which is more improbable—that a middle-class white kid named Rob Van Winkle would turn into the rapper Vanilla Ice and have the first rap song to top the charts with “Ice Ice Baby”? Or that a decade after he’d had a hit song, he’d reinvent himself as a home-flipping construction guru on the DIY Network reality TV show “The Vanilla Ice Project.”
As he told the New York Times in 2010, when the show debuted, Vanilla Ice unwittingly got his start in real estate by purchasing several homes when he was “young and dumb,” and at the height of his fame and riches. After spending barely any time in any of them, he decided to sell—and made several hundred thousand dollars in profit on each sale. He then took up the idea of “Hammer Time” more seriously, strategically buying lots and foreclosed homes in Florida, adding some value with smart improvements, and (hopefully) flipping them for easy money.
It’s hardly an easy thing to do, though. “Fixer-uppers can be a dream or a nightmare,” he has said. “Expect the unexpected. You have to have carpenters and know how to budget projects. There are a lot of growing pains you’ll experience in your first few projects. But if you play it smart, you will find success.”
The reasons Nicki Minaj is everywhere—all over social media with 20 million followers on Twitter, inside Madame Tussauds in wax, and soon, even on her own mobile game app—are only partially due to rap. Throughout her career, Minaj hasn’t been focused simply on making music, but on building a brand.
And she’s been able to extend her unique mix of attitude, sass, flash, smarts, and sex to her own personal brands of perfume and beauty products (sold at HSN), a women’s wear collection for Kmart, and a fizzy wine called MYX Fusions Muscato, among other ventures. In fact, her approach to business is often used as a paragon for how young people—women especially—should handle themselves in the workplace, including lessons on how to take charge at the office, how to rebrand yourself when switching careers or companies, and the necessity of being bold and assertive.
What with the “Friday” films and family-friendly fare like “Are We There Yet?” Ice Cube’s career in movies has been arguably just as successful as his experience in rap, first as a member of N.W.A. and later as a solo artist. Both of Cube’s worlds collide in “Straight Outta Compton,” the highly profitable film released this summer that tells N.W.A’s story. Ice Cube not only served as a producer on the movie, his son O’Shea Jackson Jr., plays the role of his dad on screen.
Ice Cube’s transition to film started while he was at the top of the rap game, in 1991, when he was cast as Dough Boy in the critically acclaimed “Boyz N the Hood.” (Ice Cube actually wrote a song with the same name a few years earlier.) He has also been in the director’s chair, for the 1998 film “The Players Club” and the ESPN documentary “Straight Outta L.A.,” about the period when the NFL’s Raiders were based in Los Angeles rather than Oakland.
Given he launched his music career with the nine-times-platinum album Get Rich or Die Tryin’, it’s perhaps no surprise that Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent, has long been a hustler. He got his moneymaking start as a 12-year-old on the streets of Queens in the late ‘80s; by the age of 18, he was raking in $5,000 a day on crack and heroin sales. Jackson’s time as a dealer culminated with a 2000 shooting outside his grandmother’s home that left him with a hole in his jaw, a piece of bullet lodged in his tongue, and a new sound: as he told Rolling Stone for a 2003 cover, “Getting’ shot just totally fixed my instrument.”
Since his rise to music fame as the protégé of Dr. Dre and Eminem in the early 2000s, Jackson’s business spirit hasn’t let up. In 2003, he founded his own record label and clothing company, both called G-Unit. A partnership with Vitamin Water soon after landed him a minority stake in the company, which he later sold and then rapped about in his 2007 song I Get Money: “I took quarter-water, sold it in bottles for two bucks. Coca-Cola came and bought it for billions. What the f***?” 50’s more recent ventures include a headphone competitor to Beats, a high-end vodka label, and patented support technology men’s underwear.
It was no small blow when the loss of a high-profile lawsuit forced the rapper to file for bankruptcy in July, just two months after having ranked fourth on Forbes’ Hip Hop’s Five Wealthiest Artists 2015, with an estimated net worth of $155 million. But the Chapter 11 filing doesn’t mean 50 Cent is broke—just a little low on cash.
Though Jay Z—whose real name is Shawn Carter—has gone in and out of music retirement over the past decade and a half, his status as an entrepreneur and entertainment mogul hasn’t wavered much. In addition to having owned his own nightclub, vodka company, and fashion line, Rocawear—which he sold in 2007 for over $200 million—Carter has also owned a lucrative share of the New Jersey Nets, which he later sold for a 135% gain. And in 2008, Carter founded the entertainment company Roc Nation, which in 2013 came to include a sports agency, new territory for the mogul.
Jay Z’s net worth now sits somewhere around $550 million, but his investments haven’t all exactly gone swimmingly: Tidal, a subscription-based music streaming service owned by media technology company Aspiro, which Jay Z acquired in March 2015, was served with a $50 million lawsuit this summer. The news has prompted “99 Problems” jokes galore.
Hardly ever known by his real name, Calvin Cordozar Broadus, and most recently known as the “born again” Rastafarian Snoop Lion, Snoop Dogg boasts some of the most unique business ventures on our list. A major player in ‘90s West Coast gangster rap, Broadus was ushered onto the scene by Dr. Dre, who featured him on his first solo album following the break-up of N.W.A. in 1992; by 1993, Snoop was topping the Billboard 200 chart with his album Doggystyle. But Snoop’s image wouldn’t be complete without his ventures in filmmaking in the early 2000s—including the fist hardcore porn video to make Billboard’s music video sales charts and the Adult Video Network award-winning Snoop Dogg’s Hustlaz: Diary of a Pimp. In 2005, he founded his own production company, Snoopadelic films, dedicated to Snoop-themed films.
In addition to having released his 13th studio album this May, Snoop Lion has become active in the world of venture capital. His estimated $135 million net worth includes a stake in Reddit, a high-end dog food company called DOG for DOG, and, as of earlier this year, Eaze, a California-based start-up that aims to deliver medical marijuana in 10 minutes or less. Dedicated Snoop lovers can also download his free sticker app, Snoopify, complete with not-free stickers of joints, chicken and waffles, Snoop’s face, and much else. According to the Wall Street Journal, the app was earning him $30,000 weekly in sales a month after its launch.
By the time Pharrell Williams launched the funk/hip-hip trio N.E.R.D. in 1999, he’d already spent several years as part of the Virgin Records production duo The Neptunes. But cash wasn’t necessarily flowing: Pharrell told Seth Meyers on his show in April that he was fired from three different McDonald’s gigs in the late ‘90s: “I was only good at eating the chicken nuggets.” (He later got even by writing the “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle used in the company’s ads.)
The new millennium ushered in a number of production successes for The Neptunes, including Britney Spears’s 2001 “I’m a Slave 4 U” and Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” in 2002. In 2003, Pharrell released his first solo single, and it helped prompt plenty of new business ventures. Beyond founding his own record label, Star Trak, in 2002, Pharrell has amassed some of his $80 million fortune in the fashion industry. He has two clothing labels (Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream), has co-designed a line of jewelry and glasses for Louis Vuitton, and last year designed a line of T-shirts for the Japanese clothing company Uniqlo. He’s also a co-owner of Brooklyn Machine Works and textile company Bionic Yarn, both of which fall within his creative collective, iamOTHER. And somehow, he still finds time for some killer creative collaborations, including with starchitect Zaha Hadid and, more regularly, the internationally acclaimed fine artist Takashi Murakami.
Long before he was an actor starring in blockbuster movies like “The Departed” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” Mark Wahlberg emerged on the early ’90s hip-hop scene as Marky Mark—a pseudo-rapper name he took on perhaps to distance himself from the boy band roots of his brother Donnie, a member of New Kids on the Block. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch had one major hit rap-dance song (“Good Vibrations”), and his six-pack abs and proclivity for dropping his pants helped Wahlberg become an iconic Calvin Klein underwear model long before Justin Bieber.
As his music career fizzled out, Wahlberg turned to acting, earning critical acclaim for his starring role in 1997’s “Boogie Nights.” Dozens of films followed, and he evolved from an actor into a major Hollywood player, serving as producer (and real-life inspiration) for the HBO show and 2015 movie “Entourage.”
In 2011, he and his brothers Donnie and Paul opened a fast-casual burger restaurant concept called Wahlburgers, which inevitably became a reality show of the same name on A&E. This past spring the company announced plans to open 66 new locations over the next few years, including 20 Wahlburgers in the Middle East, two at airports (Boston, Toronto), and a sprinkling of new restaurants in places such as Long Island, Florida, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. Eventually, the Wahlberg brothers say there could be as many as 300 franchises around the globe. As Marky Mark once rapped, “If you ain’t in it to win it / Then get the hell out.”
It seems appropriate that William Adams—or Will.i.am—had a couple of false starts before making it big as the founding member of the Black Eyed Peas. A debut album for Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records was shelved in 1992, and later fell through altogether when Eazy-E tragically died of AIDS in 1995. There was also a stint in the “Black Eyed Pods” before a name change and the addition of Fergie to create the rave-inspired hip-hop group we know today. After all, these days, Adams identifies himself primarily as an entrepreneur and businessman, with music coming second.
But just as The Black Eyed Peas garnered enormous success—they’ve sold over 76 million records to date—Will.i.am has arrived at no shortage of success in the world of innovation. He’s channeled classes he took at LA’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising into creating i.am +, a fashion tech start-up most recently known for Puls, a competitor to the Apple Watch, and has partnered with Coke on Ekocycle, a project that promotes the use of recycled materials in the fashion world. He owned a founding share in Beats Electronics alongside Dr. Dre, and reaped the rewards when Apple bought the company for $3 billion last year. He’s Intel’s Director of Creative Innovation. And in 2012, he became the first artist to ever debut a song from another planet, when he premiered “Reaching for the Stars” from the Mars curiosity rover.
It’s been years since Sean Combs was topping the charts with songs like “I’ll Be Missing You,” his 1997 tribute to the passing of friend and musical partner Notorious B.I.G. But don’t feel sorry for Combs—a.k.a. Diddy, P. Diddy, Puff Daddy—who currently has a net worth in the neighborhood of $735 million, according to Forbes.
With his Sean John clothing line sold in mainstream outlets like Macy’s, and with investments and partnership deals with huge companies like Diageo and upscale brands such as Aquahydrate and Ciroc vodka, Combs is the very picture of rapper turned entrepreneur. As for his advice about being a successful businessman, Combs told Entrepreneur.com that it’s essential to research and understand a company before getting involved. Above all, pay close attention to how the business will make a profit. He’s a believer in the phrase, “If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.”