OPINION: Can Hip-Hop and Tech Become Friends?

by Winston "Stone" Ford


Repost from Medium’s Culture Club

So it happened. Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s Beats Music was sold to Apple Computer this week in a blockbuster 3 billion dollar deal. The jury is out on if this would make Dre the world’s first “hip-hop billionaire” but one thing is certain—this deal could finally create a cultural friendship between hip-hop and technology.

Hip-Hop has long been a driver of trends. Ever since a defiant RUN-DMC urged a sold-out crowd to put up their Adidas at Madison Square Garden, brands and tastemakers have always looked to the streets to define everything from design, to fashion, to art. Hip-hop as a genre has influenced the design of cars (Cadillac Escalade and Chrysler 300), to fashion (insert streetwear brand here), to street art, and even architecture. With hip-hop’s influence on popular culture reaching a nadir, one industry seems to be missing here: technology.

The relationship between hip-hop and technology has been fickle at best. Outside of Dre’s namesake headphones and Jay-Z’s controversial Samsung collaboration, the relationship has been an uncomfortable one, and riddled with many stops and starts and downright comical product introductions. T-Pain’s Autotune app comes to mind.

From an end user standpoint, the hood has embraced technology more than ever. If you’ve read an article on #BlackTwitter or watched a Terio video on Vine then you know that Blacks and Hispanics dominate social media platforms almost 2 to 1 over their White counterparts. Also, next time you’re on a bus you’re bound to hear some teens spouting the merits of their Samsung Galaxy or iPhone better than a tech writer on Engadget.

However, the embrace stops there. When I spoke to a few friends about my move from the music industry to digital, or about launching an innovation conference to find technological solutions to problems in minority areas, I get blank stares and negativity.

To many, the aura of tech hasn’t reached them. The lack of STEM education in schools leaves many ill-equipped to dream about (much less compete for) high-level tech jobs. Add to that the negative stigma that these jobs are now producing in many communities thanks to workers driving up real estate prices and commuting in private buses and tech becomes more of an alienating force.

Add to that the stark cultural differences. Ever see a “glasshole” dance at a hip-hop event? Not pretty. Even the hip-hop focused startup RapGenius has come under fire several times for not connecting with and mocking the hip-hop community on which it is based, and emulating the stigmatizing “bro culture” that keeps many minorities and women out of the sector. On the flip side, Dr. Dre’s hip-hop braggadocio in a premature video announcing the acquisition made more than a few Apple execs nervous last week.

However, hip-hop has always been able to break down these barriers by offering alternative means to entry. Graffiti and street art emerged as the antithesis of the closed-off gallery scene. Brands such as FUBU evolved without the help of the fashion industry, and rappers such as Chamillionaire and Tech-9ine have worked outside the system to sell hundreds of thousands of albums. If anything, urban culture has birthed the ingenuity and free thinking that tech entrepreneurs live off of.

So will we be seeing a slew of hip-hop hackers in the future? With anything, where there is a will, there is a way. Platforms such as Bubble and AppStudio are allowing users to build mobile apps without the use of code. CodeAcademy, Course and Skillshare are allowing users to learn new skills cost-effectively and cheaply. With the Internet of Things and wearable devices coming to the forefront, the sky’s the limit for emerging technologists and coders. Like anything in the culture, it takes aspiration, and someone like Dr. Dre could open the door.

But it’s not just up to our culture to lead the way. Tech entrepreneurs need to look to urban communities as opportunities for customer acquisition and marketing. For as much influence as technology has in our lives, it still lacks that “cool factor” and authenticity that accelerates mainstream adoption. Communities of color should be included in the design, testing, and marketing process. Imagine where Google Glass would be if they seeded to visionaries such as Pharrell or Kanye, or if emerging apps such as Facebook Home seeded with community influencers?

It’s obvious that the tech community and the hip-hop community need to be friends. Apple’s purchase of beats cracked the door. Now it’s time for someone to kick that door open.