Robert Greene: Master of War

If he was a music artist, he would be a multi-platinum seller. Instead, Robert Greene is one of Hip-Hop’s biggest influencers without ever have recorded an album. Released in 1998, his book, The 48 Laws of Power was a meticulously researched book about strategy that has become a must read for anyone, but especially people […]

If he was a music artist, he would be a multi-platinum seller. Instead, Robert Greene is one of Hip-Hop’s biggest influencers without ever have recorded an album. Released in 1998, his book, The 48 Laws of Power was a meticulously researched book about strategy that has become a must read for anyone, but especially people in the entertainment industry. Now, just over a decade later, Robert Greene has collaborated with 50 Cent to write and release The 50th Law. spoke with Mr. Greene by phone for a long discussion about the need for power and strategy and why the rap game is so much like the dope game. First, I have to say that I love the book, The 50th Law; I’ve read it twice already.

Robert Greene: I’m happy to hear that. Your books are so popular, specifically, The 48 Laws of Power, I don’t know many young Black men who don’t own that book. Why do you think that your books are so popular among an urban audience?

Robert Greene: A combination of things, probably. Number one, the timing of the book was pretty good. At that time, it sort of resonated in Hip-Hop; it just came out at a time when a lot of rappers were wanting to become entrepreneurs, owning their own labels, starting their own businesses. And the music business is just the worst as far as Machiavellian, sharky, evil games going on, as far as manipulation. So, a lot of these guys found the book helpful because they didn’t come from a business background and they needed something to tell it like it is, to show the kinds of power games that people have been playing for hundreds of years so that they could even the playing field. As far as in the urban community, for a lot of Black people in America know that people can profess to being good, but all they really care about is power, they’ve seen it, and they know that this is the game and how it’s played, so they were kind of attracted to the honesty. I’m speculating because I can’t really say for myself, but I have had a lot of conversations with people. You mentioned how treacherous the music business can be and in The 50th Law you make a lot of comparisons between the music business and the drug game.

Robert Greene: Hustling on the street and dealing with the police and dealing with other hustlers, 50 would say it was actually easier than dealing with the music business because on that level, your enemies are pretty clear, you couldn’t trust anybody basically so you had to be out for yourself and you had to be careful and people more or less revealed their cards openly. But the music business, what he wasn’t prepared for, was how people could smile and say nice things to you and promise you a big budget for marketing your record and then do just the opposite, things were so much more manipulative and subtle. So in some ways, the way he describes it, the music racket is even more brutal and difficult to deal with than the hustling racket and I’ve heard that from other rappers. I mean, you know, you have a greater chance of being a moderately successful hustler than being a successful rapper, even if you get that first record deal, that’s just one tiny little step, how many artists have that one album and then where are they now?

Greene arm wrestles co-author 50 Cent. Let’s talk about 50, how did your relationship with him evolve?

Robert Greene: Well, you know at first, neither of us knew what to expect from the other person. He was expecting someone older and more conservative. I was expecting someone who was kind of this gangster thug-type person whom I might be a little intimidated by. Then we met each other and realized that wasn’t the case on either side. He’s actually really a kind of charming, nice person. He doesn’t have much ego considering where he is. When you talk to him, he listens. He’s kind of down to earth. I can kind of be that way myself. From the very beginning, we felt kind of comfortable with each other. We just had a really nice rapport, some of it comes from thinking alike, but some of it is stuff you can’t explain. We had a comfort level and I didn’t worry about him trying to meddle with the making of the book. To this day, we talk on the phone; we have a very nice relationship. Each chapter of the book opens with a brief story of his past and then you kind of go into the “meat” of what that story is supposed to tell. How did you come up with that concept?

Robert Greene: It was difficult, because to do a book together, there weren’t really other books out there like this, I had no model. We spent a lot of time together, I had a lot of interviews, great material, a lot of discussions, but it was a question of how to bring out two voices together, and at first, I tried to put a lot of 50’s own words in the book, but it wasn’t flowing right, between his voice and my voice, so I decided to do the book in my voice, but decided to use him as the anchor of each of the stories. When we were doing the book together, we came up with these ten chapters and we discussed them at length, but because his story is so amazing, just to think about it from where he came from, the circumstances of his life, to have experienced all that and to be where he is now, I mean, can you think of any other black person who can have that and hold onto his power and have that kind of success and hold on to it for so long. To me it’s like the classic American rags to riches story. On page 32, you state that, “The world has become as grimy and dangerous as the streets of Southside Queens-a global, competitive environment in which everyone is a ruthless hustler, out for him-or herself.” Can you elaborate on that?

Robert Greene: It’s a very rich idea that I could spend a lot of time on, but I won’t go too deep into it. What kind of inspired it was when I read From Pieces to Weight, it struck me that in the 1980’s, what happened to places like Southside Queens is kind of mirroring what the world is going through now. In a place like that, prior to crack hitting the streets, it was mostly large gangs that ran the drug trade and even though it was violent and ugly, there was a little bit of order to it, kind of a hierarchy. Then when crack hit the streets, it all just kind of broke up, nobody could figure out what to do or who had the power or not. From within that chaotic environment, which was highly competitive now, people emerged as consummate hustlers who could kind of do things for themselves and navigate the new world. It just seems sort of similar to what we’re going through now. We are living in a world now where the old order of things, large companies, mainstream media, are all falling apart. The model that they lived by is no longer relevant and no longer profitable, so it’s chaos now. We don’t really know what’s going to emerge out of this recession, and in that kind of environment, entrepreneurs are the ones that are going to be able to thrive, so the world is so competitive now and so globalized that you can’t just think of your small audience, you have to think in larger terms and deal with so many political games, it kind of just reminded me of the chaos on the street. I think people nowadays have to let go of their old habits and wake up, it’s a new world. More and more you have to be like a hustler and think of yourself and your own future. That’s fascinating; my mind is turning a mile a minute. In the book, you kind of talk about how it’s kind of difficult for a person of financial means to be prepared for that environment than for someone from the streets.

Robert Greene: Now with the recession going on, it’s people of higher income who are suffering the most because they are now out of a job, they have never had to deal with that before, many of them had a sense of privilege that they were almost owed a certain kind of lifestyle, when that’s gone, it’s a terrible feeling. People who are poor, white or Black, have been dealing with crap their whole life and they have the inert skills, they know that bad stuff is just part of it, and if you are wise, it doesn’t necessarily get you down. It was always shocking to me to talk to 50, and after all he’s been through, and even with a lot of the pressures that he is under right now, he’s got a great life, but there is a lot of pressure. He never gets depressed, so many of my friends get depressed at the drop of a hat; he says that he doesn’t have the luxury of getting depressed. What do you hope people will learn from The 50th Law?

Robert Greene: We’re all human beings, 50’s experience is relative to anyone else’s on the planet. What it demonstrates to me is that it’s up to your mindset to create your opportunity in life. You can say it was all sorts of things that he did, but in fact, the root of his success is his attitude. Anybody can learn from this, you don’t need 9 bullets going through your body, you are also facing death and danger and competition, but at any moment, you can decide to have a fearless mindset. Did you learn anything about Hip-Hop culture from working with 50?

Robert Greene: I’m not deeply immersed in the culture, so I’ve been reading about it, but seeing it first hand, I did get a sense that, as far as a business, it’s a very difficult world. I have a lot of admiration for people like 50 or Jay-Z or Puffy who have managed to have such success because A) You’re dealing with the dynamics in America which is hard for Black artists, B) You’re dealing with a business where there are just so many people competing for the light and attention. So, it’s a little more brutal than I imagined. I went to the VMA’s and various award shows with 50, the feeling that he has managed to get where he is, is almost insane, it’s not luck, it’s a lot of hard-work. There are a lot of people who don’t like him even in the Black community who are Hip-Hop fans who think he’s sold out, I was surprised by that. So, the pressure, the competitiveness and the envy, it was a little bit surprising. You mentioned that there are a lot people who don’t like 50, he is a very aggressive person; do you think that there is such a thing as being too aggressive, maybe, when it comes to him?

Robert Greene: Number one, it’s what brought him to the top, so at that point, from Power of a Dollar, Get Rich or Die Trying and maybe The Massacre, at that point he couldn’t be TOO aggressive. It’s what got him his name, if he suddenly went kind of soft after his first album, it wouldn’t have worked. Now, if you’re saying that in the last couple of years, has he gone too far? It’s possible. He’s learned some things; he learned some things from the whole situation with Game. But, it’s weird because he is a very competitive person, so he enjoys it. He enjoys picking fights; it’s almost like a pleasure. He’s 34 years old at this point; it’s going to start wearing thin. I guess my answer is, you can go too far with it, he understands that. It’s almost like a trap, if he starts becoming soft, people will accuse him of selling out and if he keeps up the aggression, people will wonder what’s his problem. It’s almost like he can’t win, but he can if he just figures out how to make it a little more balanced. He needs to pick his fights when they are important, and leave them when they are not. Ok, so speaking of some of his rap battles, in The 50th Law, you specifically mention the Ja Rule situation. What should Ja have done, from a strategy standpoint?

Robert Greene: It’s very simple; he should have totally ignored 50. I think that’s what he was doing. I have to speculate because I didn’t talk to Ja Rule, but from 50’s side, because of the Supreme connection, he (Ja Rule) was kind of forced into going after 50, and that was a mistake. He was in a more powerful position than 50, in that kind of situation, you leave them alone. The moment he started engaging in a battle with him (50), it just increased his presence, and it wasn’t just the songs that he did, but the fights and things that went public. I think he felt like his manhood was at stake and that he had to respond to show how tough he was. On a strategic level, if I was his counselor, that was a no-no. Would that be your advice in the Rick Ross situation which is kind of 50’s current battle situation, what’s your take on it?

Robert Greene: I think in that situation, he (Ross) initiated it. I think you get seduced by thinking, “If I go after 50 now, or if I engage in a fight, I’m going to attention.” But 50’s too smart, he’s too strategic, he’ll let you have that fight, he’ll go after you and give you that attention, but at the same time, he’ll destroy you. He’ll keep at you, he has too many weapons, he has so many resources, once he engages in that fight, he is just going to crush the hell out of you. I would say just leave it alone, you’re not going to win, look what happened to Fat Joe. Who are some other artists that you admire for their strategy?

Robert Greene: Jay-Z is kind of smooth; unlike 50 he conceals his aggression. You think he’s charming and nice but he is actually pretty sharp and pretty hard edged. In some ways, that can be kind of smarter than 50’s method. And Kanye is a hard one to figure out, because he’s so out there, he’s kind of authentic. People love him because he is so honest, but he doesn’t know how to control it and he goes too far. I know he reads the 48 Laws and he’s quoted it, but he seems to lack what a lot of these other guys have, like 50 has a little bit of coldness, and Jay-Z has it, but Kanye seems to take things kind of personally. He’s almost like a child, which is a nice thing, in The Art of Seduction, I talk about that kind of person and how they can be very compelling but on a strategy level, I think he has some issues. I don’t know Nas very well, I wish I did because I love his music, there are only 5 or 6 rappers that I listen to a lot and he is one of them. He seems very secretive. One situation going on right now is Jay-Z and Beanie Siegel. Beanie was signed to Jay-Z’s label and that kind of fell apart and Beanie has been kind of battling Jay, releasing songs and Jay really hasn’t said much in response. Now Beanie may be signing with G-Unit which sort of aligns 50 and Beanie against Jay. What could come out of a situation like that?

Robert Greene: Wow. I’m a little bit behind things. Specifically as it relates to their tactical strategies, how would you see a battle of Jay-Z versus 50? What would that look like, in your opinion?

Robert Greene: Wow. In my opinion, like a heavyweight bout. (Laughs) Like Pacquaio and Mayweather and I don’t know which one would be which. I guess 50 would be Mayweather and Jay would be Pacquaio. (Sighs) It’s a little bit like what happened with Game where Game turned against 50, in the end, he could attack Game, but they were on the same label and it was almost self-destructive. That’s how I met 50, he was in that beef and he wanted my advice on it. I’m sure he’s thinking about that when it comes to Beanie Siegel and Jay-Z. From Jay-Z’s side, he has nothing to gain by this. Over the years, 50 has tried many times to lure Jay-Z into a battle, and he’s never really taken the bait. He never really lets it go into an all out war; he’s really smart that way. If I analyzed him, it’s almost like he’s like one of those great Chinese generals, he’s very crafty, and he’s one of the few people that won’t bite the bait that 50 will lay out for him. 50 tries, he keeps on trying, he knows that if he and Jay-Z are in a battle it would be huge money for him. I have a feeling that based on the past; Jay is going to let this go. Is that what he’s doing so far? So far. One of the most fascinating things to me to come out of it was after the American Music Awards, Jay-Z was photographed at a basketball game sitting with Jimmy Iovine. Jay isn’t on Interscope, but 50 is.

Robert Greene: (Laughs). Here, if I could read between the lines, that would be Jay-Z’s way of attacking 50 because 50 and Jimmy have a very up and down relationship. That’s his way of counter-attacking 50 and aggravating and frustrating him. The guy is very clever; he’s not going to counter-attack in a direct way, by like doing a song. Ignoring the battle and then doing subtle things like you just mentioned is very crafty. Jay is ultra-smooth and ultra crafty, I know that he is a reader of The 48 Laws and Law 48, Assume Formlessness is one of his big laws. He would never want to make a counter attack obvious or clear, he’s like a ninja warrior. But, in the long term, I’d still put my bet on 50. Cool. Ok, so you went from The 48 laws to The 50th Law, I have to ask, what is the 49th law?

Robert Greene: (Pauses) Well, I have to say in some ways the 49th law was The Art of Seduction. Seduction is a form of power, in the world that we live in today; seduction is the ultimate form of power. The way the world is, you can’t be too aggressive and fighting all the time, people will start to hate you; seducers are the most powerful people in the world. Interesting. What’s your next project?

Robert Greene: It’s tentatively called The Master Player. In all of my books I have kinda learned what makes somebody powerful and successful. It is just a way of thinking about the world, I am going to reveal this ultimate way of thinking. I allude to it in Chapters 7 & 8 of The 50th Law, but I am going to be going much more deeply into it. It’s kind of process of knowing something so well that you kind of have a feel for it, I am going to use some current and historical examples about how that way of thinking works and how to adopt it, and if you adopt it, you are going to end up changing the world.

Robert Greene is the author of The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction and The 33 Strategies of War, he is the co-author of The 50th Law written with 50 Cent. Biba Adams is a long-time contributing writer and a beat and book junkie, she can be reached at