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ZACK
O’MALLEY GREENBURG


My mission has
been to bring dignified coverage of hip hop to the mainstream business press.

Zack O'Malley Greenburg, 2022 AD

A music & media journalist, former Forbes senior editor, and four time author shares his journey into writing—and his adventures profiling the pre-eminent musicians of our time.

All words by Zack O'Malley Greenburg in conversation with Seneca.

Seneca

Empire State of Mind by Zack O Malley Greenburg

My parents really didn’t want me to be a writer.

But the problem was that I really like writing.

It was that way as long as I can remember. But my dad never graded me on a curve. He wouldn’t say, “Oh, this is really good for a 10-year-old.” He was like, “Why are you using so many clichés?” To which I probably replied, “Because I'm 10! What's a cliché, by the way?”

Sophomore year I wrote this article for the Yale Daily News about a baseball player who’d been in a horrific car accident in which several of his teammates died. The doctors said he’d never walk again, but he did, and even fought his way back to the field. The feature won some awards, but more important to me was a note my dad sent: “Welcome to the club.”
Seneca

As a kid, they would whisper in my ear: ‘Arbitrage!’

My dad’s written over 70 books, starting with How To Be A Jewish Mother, the best-selling book of 1965. My mom authored the true crime tome Are You There Alone? Writing runs in my blood. My stepmom is a writer, too. But none of my parents wanted that for me.

I watched my parents be successful early on. And then, during my middle school years they stopped getting work, had to sell my childhood home, got divorced. So I saw the ups and downs of the writing business early. It made me want to not be a writer.
Seneca


"Forbes, 1, 2, 3, I get money."
It was Jay-Z, Diddy, and 50 Cent rapping about the story I'd written.

Forbes brought me on full-time right after graduation, and after a few months, an editor walked into my cubicle and asked me to work on a package about the top earning rappers of 2007. I wrote a piece about how Tupac was making more money dead than all but five rappers at the time. We put the magazine issue to bed and I went off on some reporting trip. I’m driving through desert and this song comes on with Jay-Z rapping about the first “Forbes list.” Whoa … I was on to something.
From then on, my mission became to bring dignified coverage of hip-hop to the mainstream business press. Even then, hip-hop was a multi-billion-dollar business, a cultural and economic movement incorporating everything from fashion and footwear to art and philosophy. Yet some still thought it was a fad.
So I built this into an annual list and gradually convinced the powers that be to let me do more music coverage. I would always try to find the threads where you could link entertainment back to the broader business world: here's how to invest in Broadway, or here’s the system behind music publishing, the economics of streaming. Which led to bigger profiles, cover stories on folks like Kendrick Lamar and Katy Perry.

I remember initially, the head honcho was like, “Zack, Forbes doesn't cover music.” Within a year or two, we were laughing about that.

Writing books is a real chicken-egg problem. It's like, how do we know that you can write a book?

You have to be lucky and good, and if you're good, the luck will come along and find you.

In 2009, an editor at Penguin read one of my stories and asked me to come write a book about Jay-Z. I don't think she knew that I was 25 at the time, but she gave me a chance. Kanye once had this line about Jay-Z: “With me, you see the effort, but with Jay, you only see the win.” There's a lot of effort that goes into Jay's win. Up until recently, with 4:44, he didn't really share that part with anybody. I had to dig deep. I went on Facebook and found people who went to high school with him and interviewed them. I talked to Damon Dash, J. Cole, Alicia Keys, many others.

Empire State of Mind is a blueprint for how Jay-Z got to where he is. It's a show-don't-tell approach. Perhaps inspire people to go make their own kingdom.
Seneca

I thought I was gonna be a footnote in Kanye West's obituary.

It was 2019 and I was digging into the idea of Yeezy as an Air Jordan level brand. I fly out to interview Kanye in L.A. and when we wrap for the evening, he says, “I wanna show you something.” He ushers me into his Lamborghini SUV. Next thing we’re flying down the hill blasting Bach, and he’s showing me screen shots from his bank account with these $40 million deposits from Adidas.

Eventually we end up at this bungalow in the woods, where he introduces me to some guys jamming on a presentation for him. Then he leads me deeper into the woods. It’s just the two of us, one in the morning, pitch-black. We're going by the light of our iPhones in the foothills of Santa Monica mountains. I’m thinking, “Something is going to eat me.” And eventually we come to this clearing and there are these three massive structures. Kanye says something like, “Behold, here’s how we’re going to solve homelessness.”

So I stand there in the dark, scribbling in my notebook. Eventually he asks, “You good?” And then he drives me back to my rental car. A few days after the story came out, and I mentioned these structures … the neighbors complained and forced him to tear them down. I’m sorry, Kanye.

My dad always told me do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life.

Seneca

Ownership brings opportunity. That’s what I’ve learned from Jay-Z, Puff, Dre.  My whole career, I've been following this trio, even wrote a book called 3 Kings in 2018. One of the things that they've always done so well is ownership. For hip-hop, that came by necessity because of all of the obstacles, the systemic racism, lack of opportunity. Jay-Z had to start his own record label. Puffy had to start his own clothing line. And now we're sitting here decades later and talking hip-hop billionaires.

When I decided it was time to leave Forbes, I was confronted with the idea of giving up some of my intellectual property at my next gig. I thought that it would be hypocritical of me, having extolled the virtues of ownership my entire career. So instead of taking another legacy media job, I cold-called the founder of Substack. The idea was to release all my new work there and serialize my next book, We Are All Musicians Now, in weekly installments. Have a direct relationship with my readers, get to have my own voice.

Whether it's words on the page, or a TV show, or a movie, it's all storytelling. Putting somebody in a different head space, transporting them, evoking something. And you can only evoke something if you deeply care about the subject matter. Storytelling is what I really love to do.
Seneca
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ZACK O'MALLEY GREENBURG, 2022 AD

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