The political nature of gangsta rap set a fire in him that has yet to be put out. For the Ghana-born, Flatbush-raised MC, TV host, and band leader, hip-hop offers a crucial record of the streets in every country where it's found.
So when his new tech startup Amp.it sought a competition to launch its product, Take Back the Mic: The World Cup of Hip-Hop was the natural choice. Using the same open-source promotional strategy with which his own band Soulfége was able to generate global chart success, the competition brings O Comboio RJ from Brazil, Crew Peligrosos from Colombia, and Italee from Jamaica to the eMerge Americas Conference, where they will battle for rap dominance.
Here's what Ashong had to say about secret investors, trading mixtapes, and the rapper Ice Cube. New Times: Yo, nice work! How did you get funding for this startup?
DNA: I put the money in to start it and then got an investment from a senior technology executive in Silicon Valley. I don't wanna say the person's name, but they're a phenomenal person at a major tech company. They're on our board of advisors, but they like to keep a low profile.
What is your interest in music?
I'm a musician. I started out as an artist playing guitar, bass, and keys. I'm an MC, producer, writer, arranger. I'm in front of the mic and in the studio. I've been in the industry a long time. When I was in grad school, I wrote about how open-source software is like open-source music, and then did a video with my band that charted in my home country of Ghana, got picked up in South Africa, Jamaica, by MTV Base, and went worldwide off the simple principle that if you open source the promotion of music, the people will amplify each other.
How did you turn that into a company?
I found the smartest cats I could and recruited them from Google, HBO, the NFL, the NBA, Amazon, and that's who built this company.
'Cause I'm a hip-hop head. And they used to say that hip-hop is the CNN of the streets. But today, in the U.S., it's corny sometimes. Everybody is a gangster, everybody got guns, everybody got girls. The founding MC from my country, Reggie Rockstone, used to say, "Why are American artists so hardcore?” Yeah, they have drive-by shootings out there. Here we have coup d'états. I come from a different background. It becomes a joke. Go ahead bring your guns. See if you can fight the Air Force. These dudes on and on about they're so hard. I've seen people who are hard. Children who are hard. Not because they want to, because they had to be. Hip-hop music is a liberation. It can be made without money. All you need is rhythm and soul. So we took it to the streets to see what the people are singing about.
How did you get into hip-hop?
I grew up in Brooklyn. We moved from Ghana to Flatbush when I was three or four years old. I was coming up in the '80s when hip-hop was growing, and it's been part of my life and culture and the soundtrack to my childhood, youth, and adulthood. First, I got into Run–D.M.C., but the artist that changed my thinking was Ice Cube. I was living in the Middle East when I first heard "Straight Outta Compton." Gangsta rap was super-political when it first came out. They were fighting police brutality 25 and 30 years ago. When I heard Cube's Amerikkka's Most Wanted, I played that tape till it broke, and that was my first real understanding of the power of hip-hop.
How did that music find its way to you way out in Qatar?
Cats used to go home to London and New York and would come back every summer with tapes from the store or that they made themselves. People would sit and listen to the radio with the play, record, and pause buttons, and wait for the songs they liked to come on and record them. There was no one selling Ice Cube in Saudi Arabia. Had to get it from other people. I grew up discovering music through friends. But now, through technology, we've made it easier and we reward people for it.
How did you get this relationship with the eMerge Americas Conference?
I was on the megaboard for music, entertainment, gaming, and arts for eMerge the first year out the gate. I was talking to Melissa Medina about the plans for the upcoming year and she told me some of the ideas surrounding entertainment: we kept building the platform and then were like we could run it to where the public could decide who plays and do it together. That's how we got the New World Center and came to produce the Monday-night event with our finalists. The support and backing of eMerge has been fantastic.
What will the attendees get out of it?
Not only to finally meet the artists, but to experience the culture that gave birth to them.
What does Miami get out of it?
We have pride in what we have here. This is the city of the future.
Take Back the Mic: The World Cup of Hip-Hop. As part of the eMerge Americas Conference. Monday, May 4, at New World Center, 500 17th St., Miami Beach; 305-673-3331; nws.edu.