No Half Steppin’: A Case For Playfulness and Hip-Hop in Business

Nobody’s equal.

Commonly referred to as one of the most skilled and influential hip-hop MCs to have practiced the craft, Big Daddy Kane was the epitome of smooth and cool in the 80s. He effortlessly played with language and helped define a genre’s early days – from the rhythm to the stylistic algorithm that defined, with precision, an era’s vision. The lyrics above are from his 1988 hit “Ain’t No Half-Steppin” – the 25th greatest hip-hop song of all time according to Rolling Stone – and they break down his creative process in order to show just how easy it was for him to be the best, for him to be “Kane” (which stands for King Asiatic Nobody’s Equal). These lyrics are boastful, skillful, and most importantly, playful.

There’s a lot of playfulness in hip-hop, and Big Daddy Kane is just one of many who leverages play with ease to attract interest and grow his brand. If a 30-year-old example of strategic playfulness isn’t timely enough for you, please feel free to look at anything Drake does, or to the swarm of surreal Kafkaesque meme-rappers currently taking over the charts. Being playful can be, and has been for many, a great strategic move. It can make you look effortlessly cool and desirable to customers and shareholders alike. Playfulness is also partly how, over the last 30 years, rappers have transformed themselves from fringe artists into cultural powerbrokers, fashion icons, and industry moguls.

However, being playful isn’t for everyone, and it can be tricky. While it could be that today’s modern businessman might learn a thing or two about branding through hip-hop and playfulness, they should listen up and pay heed to Big Daddy Kane, because when it comes to being playful in business, there can be no half-steppin’.

Congratulations, you played yourself.

Or rather, don’t ever play yourself. DJ Khaled, the undisputed hip-hop authority on success, motivation, and winning, built his approach on the foundation laid by predecessors like Big Daddy Kane. DJ Khaled created and deciphered the mechanics around which playfulness can be leveraged to shape a narrative – and this strategy turned him into a chart-topping 21st-century phenomenon. By breaking down his famous catchphrase, “Congratulations, you played yourself,” you might catch a glimpse of his key to playfulness.

To “play yourself” is to reveal, in a moment of weakness, that you used ambition or malice to get ahead and gain an advantage over your competition. It is to admit that you are not what you seem. DJ Khaled’s roadmap to playfulness – and success – can be broken into the following:

/ “They don’t want you to win [but] we gonna win more. We gonna live more. We the best.”

/ “The key is to be honest.”

/ “I put cocoa butter all over my face and my iconic belly and my arms and legs. Why live rough? Live smooth.”

/ “I don’t think I would run for president.”

/ “You gotta water your plants. Nobody can water them for you.”

What does this all mean, and why does it matter? The above quotes by DJ Khaled, while clearly playful, all have one underlying theme: authenticity.

Individuals respond well to authentic behaviors and messaging. In “Reaching Generation X: Authenticity in Advertising,” Nielsen, a leading global market research company, highlights that Generation Xers, among others, report heightened appeal and connection with real-world situations and authenticity – a trend that has not gone unnoticed. You might disagree or disprove of DJ Khaled and his techniques, but you can’t deny that his positive, honest, and playful approach is authentic.

Playfulness can be a scary thing if you’re not DJ Khaled or in the entertainment industry. But if playfulness is new to you, here is what you might expect from your audience:

1. Astonishment

This is the moment of connection, the one in which your messaging and the audience first collide. At first, your audience will be confused and taken aback, as playfulness is often unexpected. When DJ Khaled first adopted playfulness, all of hip-hop reacted in a skeptical and incredulous way.

2. Acknowledgment

This is the moment of understanding, the one in which your audience recognizes what it is that you are doing. Your playfulness is acknowledged and the audience can react accordingly. This moment came for DJ Khaled when the industry around him recognized the authenticity in his playfulness – what he was doing, while comical, was honest.

3. Admiration

This is the moment where it all pays off – the moment in which contemporaries and audiences alike offer respect and clamor for more. DJ Khaled hit this moment with his most recent album, Major Key. In this album, he was able to leverage his playful brand to attract the biggest names in the industry. The result? Chart-topping hits and fans that were quoting his motivational one-liners constantly.

Know yourself, know your worth.

Cards Against Humanity, President Obama, McDonald’s, Audi, and Southwest Airlines. What could these five seemingly unrelated brands possibly have in common? And what might they have learned from hip-hop? They, among others, embody playfulness and powerfully showcase its role in creating an image that resonates across living rooms, stadiums, driveways, and, most of all, boardrooms.

/ Cards Against Humanity: The party game company regularly conducts counterintuitive and playful marketing campaigns, including raising its prices for Black Friday.

/ President Obama: President Obama and Vice President Biden’s “bromance” was ripe with playfulness, from friendship bracelets to film dedications and memes.

/ McDonald’s: The Egyptian arm of the fast food company partnered with influential social media celebrities in the fall of 2017 and launched a marketing campaign in which users were encouraged to make fun of spelling mistakes McDonald’s had planted.

/ Audi: Audi has had a long-lasting rivalry with other German car makers, but none more playful than the one it has with BMW, which has included viral “billboard wars.”

/ Southwest Airlines: The American airline has used playfulness for decades as a means to differentiate itself from its competitors, most famously with its entertaining flight crew.

But how do they achieve this state of strategic playfulness? The answer, and what truly allows brands to survive and thrive in this space, is as easy and straightforward as Drake’s lyric: “Know yourself, know your worth.” These brands understand who they are and they present an authentic message to the world. Albeit perhaps unknowingly, the brands above are strict observers of the DJ Khaled method.

How does one achieve and leverage such a state of understanding with one’s self? Quite simply, through ethnography and genius marketers. While the latter is a tad bit difficult to nail down, the former is quite simple. As an interdisciplinary approach to social studies research, ethnography’s role in playfulness cannot be overstated. Ethnography, the art and science of telling stories about people’s lives, provides organizations with the tools needed to truly understand who and what they are, both in real and perceived terms. With a mapped identity, organizations can determine which identity traits should be leveraged through playfulness.

And so, although there can be no half-steppin’ when it comes to being playful in business, if you leverage ethnography to get to know yourself and your worth, you can rest assured that you will never play yourself.

the author

Nic Connolly

Nic Connolly is an innovation strategist at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.