Zack O’Malley Greenburg – The Business of Hip-Hop Expert
Parlé: Let’s switch gears a little bit. We’ll come back to the book, but… Child Actor. That’s different, don’t meet too many of those. How’d you get involved in acting, and how’d you get the starring role in this movie, Lorenzo’s Oil?
Greenburg: Basically when I was little a friend of mine was doing television commercials so I got a little bit jealous. I asked my parents if I can audition for commercials too so they figured out how one would do that. I didn’t get picked for any but somehow I got into this circuit of auditioning for things and I happened to get an audition for this movie. The casting director liked me, they called me back, then I met the director, he liked me. They flew me out to L.A., drove me in a limo with Andy Garcia and Michelle Pfeiffer who were supposed to play my parents in the movie, but I think Michelle Pfeiffer took the role of “Poison Ivy” in Batman and she was replaced by Susan Sarandon. And then somehow Nick Nolte came in instead of Andy Garcia. It was a pretty tough experience as a six year old kid working 16 hour days, having bald caps on and make-up and all that stuff. Two hours a day in the morning for make-up, two hours a day at night taking it all off, not the most enjoyable experience. So after that was all done, I pretty much retired…
Note: You’d have to see the movie to understand. Good movie, but hard to watch. And you’d definitely understand why it would drive any actor into retirement.
Parlé: You’ve become an expert on Hip-Hop and business, did you grow up on the music?
Greenburg: Hip-Hop and grunge rock is what I grew up on. It’s kind of an odd combination, but Hip-Hop is what this generation of all colors and ethnicities grew up on. When I got to Forbes, when I started full time, a couple weeks after I started this editor came up to me and said, ‘hey, you’re under 30. I want to do this Hip-Hop package, will you help me put it together?’ I said yeah, so I ended up doing this story on how Tupac was making more money dead than all but five living rappers. With that story we did this list of the top Hip-Hop earners and we threw that online as the Hip-Hop Cash Kings. And then Jay-z, Diddy, and 50 Cent did the Forbes 1,2,3 “I Get Money” Remix.” A couple months after the editor left. She said, ‘this is your thing now. Here are all my contacts, take this and run with it.’ So every year since then I’ve been writing it.
Parlé: How important do you think that Hip-Hop Cash Kings package has become to the culture?
Greenburg: I would say in mainstream Hip-Hop anyway, wealth and power is an important element of lyrical content. But there was never a mutual arbiter of who had the most wealth or power or anything. I think that there was a void and we were able to fill that by applying our methods that we use for billionaires or a Celeb 100. It’s pretty straight forward we use numbers from RIAA and Nielson. The really fun part is finding out about all the deals, like how much somebody got for an endorsement off some business deal and that’s where having sources built up over the years comes in really handy so you can find out things that haven’t been reported. So we can figure out exactly how much Dr. Dre got for his Beats Audio deal.
Parlé: You went to Yale, did you see a career at Forbes while you were there?
Greenburg: I had done a couple internships at Forbes while I was at Yale. First the Summer after sophomore year, then they got me back after junior year. I actually wrote my first article for Forbes magazine before I was able to drink legally.
Parlé: How old were you?
Greenburg: I was either 19 or 20.
Parlé: Were you always interested in writing about business?
Greenburg: I hadn’t thought initially that business would be my focus but I really enjoyed it. I taught myself a lot about business by reading the Wall Street Journal every day and basically figuring out what I could write about. Editors told me, if you write stock picks we can probably put it in the magazine. I had a little familiarity with the stock market just from kind of a weird coincidence. When I was little I got into fantasy baseball at a very young age, my step mother thought it would be a good idea if I could find something more lucrative that I could obsess over. So she taught me the basics of the stock market, pe ratios, earnings per share, the basic metrics, which kind of corresponded to batting average and home runs. And she told me that if I ever wanted to buy stock, that she would give me a dollar for every dollar I invested. And I could buy shares of stocks she owned or mutual funds she owned and we’d just keep track on paper until I turned 18 when she would set me up with my own account and officially turn over the account so I could run it myself. I got really into it so by like 7th grade and 8th grade I was selling my baseball cards so I could buy mutual funds. And I was studying the tables in the business section of the New York Times. By high school I did a lot of day trading during lunch in the library. So you know it was probably a few hundred dollars at a time. It wasn’t anything massive or anything. Then of course the tech bubble crashed or popped, whatever it was, so I lost a couple hundred dollars or whatever it was. Then I stopped paying attention, until I got this internship and all those numbers starting coming back to me. I think having a very basic working knowledge helped me pile on top of that how to write a stock pick. And basically I taught myself the rest of like the other numbers that mattered, how you can call an analyst and get an opinion on why a stock isn’t buy or sell, that kind of thing. Ended up writing a couple stories my first couple of summers and then my senior year they kept me on as a freelancer. So I remember I’d finish writing my papers for class and then I’d write freelance stories for Forbes—I remember they paid me $2 a word, it was great (laughs). It just became second nature to me and they invited me to join full time after I graduated and I did. That’s kind of how it all came about.
Parlé: Okay, back to the book. Penguin Books, was that a one book deal?
Greenburg: One book deal, yeah.
Parlé: You did a lot of research in the book, were there any chapters that you had the most fun researching?
Greenburg: I think the champagne chapter and the Jeep chapter were my favorites. The champagne chapter is something I’d always wanted to know about because if you know Jay you know he’s not just putting Armand de Brignac in his videos because he likes the taste. So I had a hunch. Basically went on this wild goose chase that started with Branson B in Harlem and he pointed out to me that this Armand de Brignac Ace of Spades gold bottle was basically the same as this gold bottle of a brand called Antique Gold. The more I looked into it, turns out they were made by the same company. And Antique Gold they stopped making the same year they started selling Armand de Brignac. Antique Gold sold for $60 bucks a pop and Armand D’Brignac is like $300 plus. So I followed this trail all the way to France because the wine sellers of the parent company Cattier Invited me in to take a look around and sure enough there in the basement there were these gold bottles, but they didn’t have the labels on them yet. These gold bottles had been in there cellars for years but now instead of putting those Antique Gold labels on them they were able to put Armand de Brignac labels on them, the Ace of Spades label that gets a Jay-Z shout out. At first they said that Jay found out about us at a moms and pops shop and whatever. But finally I was like how is it possible that he found out about this in a moms and pops spot when this video [“Show Me What You Got”] came out before the product was available in the U.S. And then that was when they started backtracking. They admitted that they had some conversations with Jay. I talked to some other people in the industry and they were like Jay has a stake in the brand. The number I kind of ball parked it at after talking to a couple sources in the champagne industry is something in the order of $5 million a year that he gets off sales, which is not bad at all.
The other one was the Jay-Z Jeep which I hadn’t heard about before I started writing the book. I interviewed MC Serch about his interactions with Jay and he was almost pained to talk about it. He said ‘the thing that I regret the most with Jay is this Jay-z Jeep. And I was like tell me more, he said, ‘go talk to this guy Marques McCammon about it. I was like, who’s that? He said ‘he’s this guy that was also involved in it. Just go find him. I don’t have his info anymore.’
So I use my reporter skills to try to find this guy. I email him and I call and I couldn’t get any kind of reply. Finally I was in L.A. And the guy was in San Diego so I just showed up at his office. And as I was getting there I was kind of thinking ‘gee Zack, this isn’t a great idea, what if there’s a security guard.’ But I showed up, said I’m here to see Marques McCammon. The secretary said, ‘Is he expecting you?’ I said nope. And five minutes later he came out, we talked for an hour and he was just the nicest guy. He gave me the whole story on the Jay-Z Jeep and I think that’s one of my favorite scoops of the whole book. The New York Times picked it up. In my opinion it was just such a great anecdote in Jay-Z career because it shows not just the ideas that he gets involved in, but how he responds to failure. It wasn’t really his fault that it fell through but it was interesting how he just swept it under a rug and never really acknowledged that that happened. But that’s what he does. When something doesn’t work he kind of glosses it over and maintains this invincible aura about him. I think that was a great example of it.
Parlé: I’d like to know, what are your thoughts on Hip-Hop and where it is currently?
Greenburg: I think the future is bright for Hip-Hop. It’s been accepted in the mainstream and corporate America finally gets it… that’s to the extent that corporate America actually gets anything. I think that one thing that Hip-Hop and Hip-Hop artists need to be wary of is that as Hip-Hop becomes more Pop in my opinion it’s something that has become watered down. And while Hip-Hop is this amazing genre that celebrates wealth, it’s harder to be cast as a sell-out for a Hip-Hop artist as opposed to a Rock artist, but it’s still a limit and at some point the core values of Hip-Hop do tend to disappear. I think that Hip-Hop as a genre needs to continue to work on its credibility. I think some artists are still doing that, Jay-Z is a great example of being able to toe the line of doing commercials with Duracell and Budweiser but at the same time making credible music. At the same time it feels like Duracell is a joint venture, not him selling out.
Parlé: What’s next for you Zack?
Greenburg: More books definitely. I guess to continue to build a niche for myself.
Parlé: And finally, what advice do you have for writers coming up. At this point, people just want to write, so what do you tell them?
Greenburg: I think that defining yourself and carving out an area of expertise that you really know like the back of your hand and can go toe to toe with anyone on it, I think that’s one of the most valuable things you can do, especially in this business. There aren’t many publications looking for general reporters anymore. It’s more like we need a healthcare reporter, we need a tax expert. It’s becoming more and more specialized. And there are so many people who want to write, you can’t just walk in and say you want to write. You have to be able to say, ‘I’m good at this and this is why you should hire me. And here’s my blog or here’s some freelance pieces I’ve done for this other magazine.
The book, Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner To Corner Office, is available at book stores every where. Jay-Z fans will love it, but anyone in the business of Hip-Hop or entertainment should read it just for the insight. If you get a chance, you should also check out Lorenzo’s Oil, a very insightful film in its own right. As for Zack, he has another book deal lined up with Simon & Schuster and he’s set to profile another prominent entertainer. Who? I can’t tell you just yet, but I’m sure we’ll all be hearing from Zack O’Malley Greenburg soon. And you can always check him out on forbes.com or in their print version.
Images by Reggie Wilson for Parlé Magazine
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