December 18, 2023

A Symphony of Creativity

Lupe Fiasco. “Little Death” (2015)

“Such is life, odd as Egg McMuffins at night”

Ironically, there’s a debate over who said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Based on my extensive research (two minutes of Googling), the smart money is on Picasso — but if you’re hung up on whose words they are, not the words themselves, you’re missing the point.

A few years ago, I started a note in my phone with my favorite rap and hip-hop verses. Sometimes when I’m driving I’ll hear a line that sticks out, then I’ll pull over and type it up before I forget about it. To be clear, I’m not a rapper. I possess neither the swag nor skills to drop a mixtape or launch into an 8 Mile-esque freestyle. But I am a writer. I’m not averse to generously borrowing from others, particularly those who master wordplay.

I used to think of the note in my phone as a collection to revisit and admire. Like a shelf lined with jars of sand from different beaches, or an assortment of rare bourbons that will never be opened. Then, for the first time, I considered how I titled the note, “Rap Sheet,” and I realized this didn’t have to be just a collection. No, this was a list of offenses, and I was a lyrical klepto. These lines weren’t merely to be read, but repurposed, rewritten — stolen.

As Hyperquake Strategist Mike Fox put it, “We aren’t in the business of selling widgets. Clients come to us for our creativity.” On paper, we’re a studio of strategists, designers and project leaders, but our edge is our creativity, and our output is art. To believe this is far-fetched is to limit our own creativity and thus, our value to a client. So we believe it. We’re all artists. And great artists steal.

In this business, it’s a crime not to keep a Rap Sheet of your own. It could be a compilation of photographs, bookmarked articles, poems, sketches or magazine covers. This is not an invitation to plagiarize intellectual property, but a strategy to spark new thinking, sharpen your craft or create a point of reference.

Eminem, “Forgot about dre” (1999)

“Slim Shady
Hotter than a set of twin babies
In a Mercedes Benz with the windows up
When the temp goes up to the mid-eighties”

Dump the jars of sand out and build a castle. Crack the bourbon, take a swig, savor the notes and concoct your own recipe.

Atmospehre, “The number none” (2010)

“ I was just a kid, she was just a kid
Lost in the mix, it didn’t matter what we did
She used to babe me, I was her baby doll
I used to chase her around, she was my basketball”

Because this is my ode to writing, I have to address the Fat Joe in the room. AI is the future of written content and pretending it doesn’t exist is futile. Mining the work of others is exactly what it was made to do — and it does it with the range and at the rate no person can match. There’s unmistakable value in that, especially if you understand the algorithm well enough to know which prompts to give it.

Still, there’s hope for us human writers. The reason why is the same reason it doesn’t matter who said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal,” or who rapped, “eat your puddin’; twenty alligators died for this sh*t I put my foot in.” (Thank you, Action Bronson). Say you want to create a piece of content that’s pithy, lighthearted and family friendly, with the tone of voice you’d find in a children’s book. You could copy Shel Silverstein, but that’s all your writing will be: copied. Stealing, on the other hand, is about the appraisal of the work, not the artist whose work you’re using — it’s knowing why the piece is worth further examination, recognizing the exact details that make it brilliant and beautiful.

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