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Beyonce's Audio Engineer Young Guru Rising as a Startup Adviser

Hip-hop and entrepreneurship aren't that far apart.

At the end of last Friday’s Tech808 conference for entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds, a crowd of about 40 people formed around one lanky speaker. It was Young Guru, famous in the hip-hop world for his work as a sound engineer on music by Beyonce and Jay Z.

The crowd of fans thrust their cellphones toward him. They didn’t want autographs. They wanted app advice.

And one by one, 10 minutes by 10 minutes, Young Guru, originally named Gimel Androus Keaton, stayed and doled it out. I stayed for three hours, and people were still lining up, asking him about how to find an audience for their party-promoting app, and his recommendations for monetizing a beat-sharing service.

Young Guru, 40, is one of the most famous sound engineers working today. His credits include the most prominent hip-hop artists of the last decade: Rihanna, Ludacris, Ghostface Killah, along with Jay and Bey. As a sound engineer, his role is to mix and manipulate the music to give it its beat, tone and timbre.

He said that the technological sophistication of it should not be underestimated — and that young people who idolize this skill set should see parallels between sound mixing and other kinds of engineering. He has popularized the hashtag #eraoftheengineer, and he joined the faculty of the USC Thornton School of Music last year. He is also getting into startups, serving as an adviser for a project called EarSketch, whose mission is “computational music remixing” to drive interest in computing and engineering.

The New York conference and Young Guru’s talk come at an interesting moment: The number of black people working at Silicon Valley tech companies is manifestly dismal, as evidenced by the numbers released by many companies over the past months. At Google, only one percent of the employees working in technical roles are black. At Twitter? The same. At Facebook? One percent.

Another speaker at the conference, Devo Springsteen — a music producer for Kanye West turned entrepreneur — said he confronted enormous stigma when he started in tech: “I had no background in technology, and it was held against me. I’d try to tell people the idea, evangelize the concept, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, hip-hop guy, what do you know about tech?'”

But helping young people realize that hip-hop and entrepreneurship are similar isn’t that hard, said Young Guru.

“When you look at the ethos of hip-hop, when you look at how we took something from nothing — turntables weren’t meant to be instruments, and beat machines weren’t meant to be for sampling,” he said. “People flip it and figure out a way. Make what you need using what you’ve got — that’s entrepreneurship.”

Entrepreneurship, he said, can be explained as a way for a less-powerful group to assert itself against hegemony.

“The story of Instagram and what that represents for me, and what I try to preach to my students — the giant is not the giant anymore. The size of the company doesn’t make a difference anymore,” he said. “Instagram showed Kodak if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on on the streets, you’re gonna fall.”

Young Guru said he has always been someone who tinkers and hacks, fixing the family VCR and bikes. His life changed, though, when his mom, a teacher, brought home an early Apple II.

I tried to wait out the crowd, but hopeful entrepreneurs kept coming, so I just hung out with Young Guru while he stood and held court, leaning against a railing in a loose gray sweater and dark jeans.

To one young founder, describing the importance of finding an audience, he recommended checking out Grits & Biscuits, a very specific, retro “Dirty South”-themed club night that took off — “Learn your audience. It’s all about finding your niche now.”

Discussing monetization tactics with another fledgling founder, Young Guru suggested thinking about the difference between BitTorrent bundles and iTunes. BitTorrent is free, but gives the musician info about the listener (email address, etc.) which is sometimes worth more than the money an artist gets from iTunes, which keeps all the audience data for itself.

“You have to think about what you value,” he said. “Are you giving the most important part away for free?”

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