The touching bromance that bridges hip-hop and Silicon Valley

Hip-hop artist Nas and Ben Horowitz, co-founder and partner at Andreessen Horowitz, share a moment. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

In the left chair sat a rapper. Gold chain. Backwards Starter cap.

In the right chair sat a venture capitalist. Bald, pasty, and wearing a bland blue shirt.

The unlikely duo of Nas and Ben Horowitz served as a reminder on stage Sunday at SXSW that successful people flourish in part thanks to their ability to connect and learn from those they might appear to have little in common with.

“Thank you both as a listener and a writer for your honesty. It’s completely changed my life,” Horowtiz said to Nas.

“You changed my life too, man,” Nas said. “We have so many conversations about life. [I’ve] been at your home, your beautiful family. The beautiful group of people that I’ve been meeting with you. It’s opened up my head to a lot of different things, investing and things like that.”

The mutual appreciation gushed during a surreal and heart-warming talk.

Horowitz called Nas “the greatest story-teller of our generation.” Nas eagerly described reading Horowitz’s book, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”: “As I’m reading the book I’m having heart palpitations. He talks about throwing 20 billion and stuff like it’s 20 dollars!”

The pair spoke of their shared interest in Toussaint Louverture, a slave who successfully led the Haitian Revolution.

“You gave me a book on him and I was shocked,” Nas said. “You gave me one of the best books I ever read on him, and also that you even cared and know about this guy that no one seems to talk about.”

The connection extends to their fathers too.

“One thing our dads have in common, they live in their own orbit,” said Nas, whose father encouraged him to drop out of high school in the ninth grade. Horowitz’s father happened to deliver Communist newspapers to the housing projects in New York where Nas grew up. “By the way, his dad is not a Communist anymore,” Nas added.

Horowitz and Nas have something else in common — a willingness to get outside their comfort zones. Nas will be branching out and performing with the National Symphony Orchestra later this month. Horowitz has found success by working alongside a partner, Marc Andreessen, who challenges him on a daily basis. “It’s a constant fight with him. He says things that really upset me,” Horowitz said. Ultimately, the arguments pay off as they sharpen each other’s ideas.

Horowitz and Nas  initially met when Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called Horowitz and lamented that he couldn’t get a hip-hop artist on his TV show. To help, Horowitz reached out to his friend and marketing executive Steve Stoute, which led to Horowitz and Nas meeting.

On Sunday, Horowitz praised Nas as having “an incredible eye for talent,” and said Nas had written one of the most true lines in the history of hip-hop:  I never asked to be top of rap’s elite. Just a ghetto child tryna’ learn the traps of the streets.

Nas mounted the stage with a set of prepared questions, peppering Horowitz about everything from bitcoin to recent Facebook acquisition WhatsApp: “What do you think will be the biggest challenges that they’ll need to address with their team now that they balling?”

Horowitz said the No. 1 reason readers had given him for why they like his book is a lesson he took from Nas: Be exceedingly honest. He recalled almost falling out of his chair while reading a deeply personal lyric about raising a daughter.

Typically speakers at SXSW just walk off stage when their talk is done. But not Nas and Horowitz. They bear-hugged each other and strolled off with smiles on their faces.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.



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Matt McFarland · March 8, 2014

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