10K80 by Mariana Carvalho April 12, 2018
A ghostly image of the Queensbridge Houses appears on the cover of Illmatic, the 1994 debut album by Nasir Jones, known to fans as Nas, stuck under a photograph of the then-20-year-old rapper as a toddler.
Right after its release, Illmatic was praised as a benchmark debut, and Nas gained clout as a prodigious writer. But in the past decade, Nas has also been building his cred as a tech investor.
Always a step ahead of the curve, Nas made sure not to put all his eggs in one basket. As a founding partner of QueensBridge Venture Partners, his portfolio includes some pretty high-profile startups across a variety of industries.
Nas, and his manager Aymen Anthony Saleh, have invested their own bread into 40 startups, including the likes of Fancy, Coinbase, Dropbox, SeatGeek, Lyft, Prism Skylabs, Zest Finance, Stance, mParticle, Proven, Earbits, Trendabl, Crowdtilt, 21E6, Balanced, MeCommerce, DeviantArt, 500 Startups, Push IO, Swarm Mobile, Glio, Boosted Boards, MadeFire, Fashion GPS, Washio, SellSimple, Hotelzilla, Signal Ventures, Clean Plates, BOXC, MediaSpike, CapLinked, and SendHub.
Jones told CNBC in February of 2016,
“I want to meet the people who are innovating in all different fields, and investing lets me do that. I meet the people that are changing the game across all different industries, and I get to be there first at the ground level. It’s helped me to progress tremendously in my business.”
Not only is Nas helping founders with new ideas build their businesses, he’s also benefiting the culture. Just take these examples of ventures he’s invested in:
The Genius knowledge project began in 2009 with Rap Genius, a website that explained the lyrics of co-founder Mahbod Moghadam’s favorite rap songs.
The platform for annotating rap lyrics eventually expanded to include annotating any page on the internet.
It’s a living, crowdsourced archive and tool for interpreting human culture, breaking down information with line-by-line annotations, added and edited by anyone in the world.
LANDR is a post-production music service startup that uses big data and artificial intelligence.
LANDR has raised more than $8 million in the last few years from different sources including Nas’s firm, Warner Music Group, Disney Music Group, Atlantic Records, SoundCloud, and Native Instruments. LANDR helps musicians in the crucial mastering process.
Creating music masters can be expensive and cumbersome, so this is where LANDR, along with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (which provides performing rights and advocacy for music creators) comes in to help with its automated mastering system.
Mass Appeal, the graffiti magazine turned multi-platform brand, announced this year that it has taken a $6 million in series A investment.
Universal Music Group led the round, which also included funding from Evolution Media, Jon Jashni, Charles King, Michael Kassan, and Usher. Founded in 1996, Mass Appeal became known for its unique coverage of hip-hop and urban style.
It ceased publication in 2008 until Nas revived the outlet with a six-figure investment in 2013, according to Forbes.
The company has since launched Mass Appeal Records and also partnered with CNN Films on a hip-hop-themed documentary and produced scripted programming through a deal with TBS and TNT.
Mass Appeal also launched a creative agency, working for clients like Sprite, Under Armour, and Red Bull.
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In 2014, Nas joined Google and Microsoft in an effort to increase diversity in tech by funding scholarships at New York City-based tech educator General Assembly.
General Assembly began in 2011 as a co-working space in Midtown Manhattan and evolved into a private school.
The scholarships target groups that have been historically under-represented in tech such as women, African Americans, Latinos, and veterans.
Walker & Company Brands first came into the public eye via its flagship product, the Bevel razor, a razor designed to eliminate razor burn and irritation for people with coarser hair, making it especially popular amongst Black males.
Nas is an investor in Walker & Company Brands, mentioning the trimmer halfway through DJ Khaled’s track “Nas Album Done,” rapping, “My signature fade with the Bevel blade.”
Valued at $1.3 billion, fintech startup Robinhood has been backed by celebrity investors including Nas, Snoop Dogg, and Jared Leto.
A zero-fee stock trading app, Robinhood helps access and encourages equality in participation in the financial markets.
Legacy brokerage firms like Fidelity and Schwab have cut trading fees up to 40%, and now offer trades for less than $5 as they compete with the likes of Robinhood for millennials’ business. Robinhood’s most recent funding round was a $110 million C Series on April 26, 2017, Crunchbase reported.
All this to say, if Nas’s upcoming 11th studio album has been a few years coming, it’s because he’s been busy building a mini-empire of business interests.
Interests that not only support the youth, but traditionally under-represented communities as well.
Aside from the investments he’s made through QueensBridge Venture Partners, there’s also the sneaker and apparel store he’s opening in Las Vegas, the line of lip products he launched with his daughter, and his restaurant business venture with NYC soul food joint Sweet Chick, with plans for expansion to L.A.
Let’s also not forget Nas’s partnership with Hennessy. While countless rappers have waxed poetic about hip-hop’s favorite liquor over the years, few have actually gone ahead and made moves to capitalize on that by partnering with the company.
Nas officially joined forces with Hennessy as a brand ambassador in 2013, repping their Wild Rabbit campaign, and has re-upped every year since.
Last year’s campaign highlighted Hennessy’s family of explorers and adventurers, whose pursuits of excellence fit the brand profile of a legendary MC who’s cultivated a diversified portfolio of business interests even as he maintains his reputation as one of rap’s living legends.
Nas’ first dip into the startup world wasn’t that great of a success though. He co-founded a men’s subscription commerce site called 12Society. As Nas described it in a TechCrunch op-ed, 12Society was meant to take advantage of the new direct line between artists and fans created by new web tools.
Through its monthly box, Nas and his celebrity co-founders (Nick Cannon, Michael Strahan, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Tim Lincecum) would share their taste with fans through curated goods.
But 12Society wasn’t able to score as many free goods for its boxes in exchange for the celebrity endorsement as it had hoped, so a year after launching, 12Society sold to Quarterly in a 90% stock deal and the brand shut down.
Talk about bouncing back, right? One of the main differences in his strategy this time around involved making friends in Silicon Valley, and learning from them.
The start up world actually works a lot like the entertainment world, running on relationships and networks.
When Nas first invested in Rap Genius’s $15 million round of funding, he met Andreesen Horowitz, who led the round.
Horowitz was able to share his knowledge in the investing game with Nas and Saleh, showing them how to value a business, how to evaluate a team, and ultimately how to deliver on the promises they make to founders.
Investing in an idea helps when you’re doing it alongside other folks who know what the hell they’re doing.
If you’re considering pitching to QueensBridge, get your New York state of mind on and hit them up.