Laws for an Outlaw Culture

Special to The Times

Law 5: So much depends on reputation -- guard it with your life.

Hip-hop producer DJ Premier boiled this law down to “Reputation is the cornerstone of power” and had it tattooed on his arm.

Law 8: Make other people come to you -- use bait if necessary.


New York rapper L.G. had this one printed, epigram-style, on the in-leaf of his underground mix tape, “Industry Co-Sign II: The 14 Tracks of Power.”

The two laws are found among “The 48 Laws of Power,” a 1998 book that bundles anecdotes from history’s great schemers -- Casanova, Machiavelli, dancer and courtesan Lola Montez, Chairman Mao and con man “Yellow Kid” Weil among them -- to make urgent points about how to come out on top in life. The book became a bestseller (it was on the Wall Street Journal’s list for 11 weeks), and now, largely as a result of rap artists’ growing sense of themselves as an entrepreneurial warrior class, is finding new life as the bible for behavior in the hip-hop world.

Rappers write lyrics about the book (“The only book I ever read I could have wrote: ’48 Laws of Power,’ ” Kanye West rapped in a famous freestyle), they refer to it in interviews (“In ‘The 48 Laws of Power,’ it says the worst thing you can do is build a fortress around yourself,” Jay-Z noted in Playboy) and they study it as a guide to succeeding in the cutthroat music business.

“The book is like a martial-arts manual for the business,” said Quincy “QD3” Jones III, a rap producer turned filmmaker who is making a feature documentary about “The 48 Laws’ ” hip-hop connection. “It teaches people in our demographic how to think more holistically about their business practices.”

Some reviewers had a different take when the book first appeared. “By the 36th law, you start to feel unclean and worried about your own morality,” said one. “By the 44th, you have accepted the fact that you are basically immoral and so is the world. By the time you reach No. 48, you are saying: ‘Right, who is my first victim?’ ”

Law 27: Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following.


As his book’s influence spreads, author Robert Greene, a self-described “geeky white guy,” is fashioning himself into an unlikely consigliere to hip-hop’s elite. He’s been enlisted to collaborate on a business book with 50 Cent, the multi-platinum-selling rapper whom Forbes magazine has called “a masterful brand builder and a shrewd businessman” and who famously survived being shot nine times.

“A lot of people who identify with the book are people who’ve had problems dealing with powerful people,” Greene said in an interview. “I used to be sort of like that. I learned the hard way.” Now, in addition to his rap following, Greene, 46, advises such maverick business chiefs as producer Brian Grazer and American Apparel Chief Executive Dov Charney.

“The music industry is a brutal world,” Greene said. “A lot of rappers figured out that they had to control things and learn how the game’s played or else they were going to be continually exploited. That’s what brought them to the book.”

Shout Out to ‘Scarface’

Hip-hop, with its regional rivalries and short attention span, doesn’t seem to be a culture likely to assimilate the cautionary tales about French courtesans, Italian nobility and American hucksters detailed in “The 48 Laws.” But rap music can be carbon-dated by the outside influences it has used to define itself, and in many ways the book is perfect for this moment.

Throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, rappers often recited dialogue from Al Pacino’s 1983 gangster classic, “Scarface,” in songs; the character’s ruthlessness and ambition exemplified hip-hop’s mercenary self-image and ideals at the time. Then in the mid-’90s, Sun Tzu’s 2,500-year-old military strategy treatise, “The Art of War,” became rap’s most shouted-out book, for much the same reason super-agent Michael Ovitz distributed copies to his staff during his tenure at Creative Artists Agency. Emphasizing outmaneuvering opponents through superior gamesmanship, the book found a natural application in an increasingly competitive business, one in which rappers felt like perpetual underdogs.

But in the early 2000s, as hip-hop became the dominant sound on the pop chart and its players began to wield real clout in the industry, they began to present themselves more as street-savvy, self-made millionaires than as gangsterish outsiders. “The 48 Laws” spoke to this new sense of a broader, more mature power base while still flattering their self-image as formidable warriors.


Law 38: Think as you like but behave like others.

With urban music industry heavyweights Island Def Jam’s Lyor Cohen and Warner Music Group’s Kevin Liles among early adopters of its principles, Greene’s book began influencing the way deals were made.

“It might be a situation where you act one way and then you think about ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ and you totally restructure your thought process,” said Violator Management & Records’ Chris Lighty, one of hip-hop’s most influential talent managers. “You start to think ahead on how you want to manipulate a situation in your favor.”

L.G., who won the 2005 Underground Music Award for best male rapper and whose mix-tape album cover replicates the copper-and-blue cover of Greene’s book, said “The 48 Laws” has given him a tactical advantage when he negotiates record deals.

“My manager passed me the book because he knew a lot of things in there can be used to interact with different people in the industry,” L.G. said. “I use it in my business meetings, speaking with people to feel them out, to see what their motives are.”

According to Jones, the book became ubiquitous in the culture after trickling down from management to artists. “It’s been a three-tiered thing,” he said. “First, it was the power players in the business who discovered the book. Then they’d pass it on to the artists. Then, once they talked about it in songs, it spread to the audience.”


The path from street corner to corner office is common in hip-hop. Ruthless Records’ late founder Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Island Def Jam’s Jay-Z and G-Unit Records’ 50 Cent are but three of the most notable examples of drug dealers turned rappers turned record label chiefs. In the absence of formal business educations, many in hip-hop’s executive class have turned to “The 48 Laws” for lessons in boardroom brinkmanship.

“We’re businessmen, not gangstas,” said Lighty, whose clients include Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent. “We have tax ID numbers, we have to figure out overhead just like any Fortune 500 business. And this book is a helpful tool, in that a lot of individuals in hip-hop haven’t had the luxury of going to college. It’s a means of growing their ingrown savvy.”

Law 28: Enter action with boldness.

The chapter that begins with this law is about a poor, unknown Italian Renaissance poet named Aretino. “He attacked the pope by writing a scathing poem about him and tacked it on every street corner,” Greene said. “Overnight, he became famous.”

The lesson: “If you’re low, choose a big target and attack them as boldly as possible,” he continued. “You have nothing to lose.”

According to Greene, the law finds frequent application in rap -- 50 Cent has staked his success on it, Greene said.


Since 2003, 50 Cent has verbally abused a constellation of hip-hop stars, including Ja Rule, the Game, Jay-Z and Lil’ Kim, in his songs. And he has disparaged such institutions as British Airways, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly and the New York Times in interviews. In April, the rapper lashed out at Oprah Winfrey, complaining in an interview with the Associated Press that the talk show host rarely invites rappers to appear on her program. As an aside, he said her disapproval would probably enhance his street credibility: “I’m actually better off having friction with her.”

Anger management issues aside, he has sold more than 20 million albums, parlaying that fan base into an acting career, successful clothing and shoe lines, a record label and a video game.

“He doesn’t have irrational anger,” Greene said. “The guy’s totally under control and smart as a whip.”

“A lot of people don’t like viewing these artists as smart people,” he continued. “They cling to the idea that they’re these emotional, thuggish creatures. They don’t want to give them credit for being smart about business.”

Law 15: Crush your enemy totally.

Greene says he is untroubled by the possibility that laws such as this one, or its close cousin, Law 42, “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter,” could provoke violence in the rap world.


“The violence on the street is internalized. It has nothing to do with my book,” he said. “They’re not going to kill because of it. If you read the book carefully, you understand that emotions and violence are the most unpowerful things you can do.”

Still, some of the more aggressive social maneuvering advocated by “The 48 Laws” is considered over the top even by the urban music world’s intensely competitive standards.

“The stuff about dissing another man to get ahead, some of the more cutthroat ideas -- that’s not something I’m going to apply in my life,” said DJ Premier. “I’m on board with about 85% of the things he says in the book. But not everything.”

Law 48: Assume formlessness.

Greene grew up on the Westside, attended Palisades High School and has a degree in classical studies from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He held a series of media jobs -- as a freelance magazine writer and documentary film researcher -- and worked his way through several low-level film industry positions before teaming up with book packager Joost Elffers in 1996 and assembling “The 48 Laws.”

Greene comes off as pensive and soft-spoken, despite the take-no-prisoners tone of his books (his follow-up to “The 48 Laws,” 2001’s “The Art of Seduction,” is also an international bestseller, and “The 33 Strategies of War” was published in January).


If Jones has his way, Greene will become even more of a household name in hip-hop circles. For his “48 Laws” film, Jones plans to mix documentary-style interviews with rappers and label heads, vignettes of people enacting some of the historical scenarios described in the book and commentary by the author to illustrate each of the laws.

And even though Greene has yet to meet many of his hip-hop admirers, he is both shocked and delighted to have been embraced by the rap community.

“I’m a total fish out of water,” he said. “But to be honest with you, meeting 50 Cent or hanging out with Jay-Z, I’m in seventh heaven.”