GURU R.I.P.

Gang Starr frontman GURU died this week. If you don't know who GURU was, or want the details of his life and death, there's an excellent piece on that at URB, or The New York Times. This is a marketing blog, and as much as we at Rebel were fans of GURU and are deeply saddened by his loss, our job is to help you become better at your job of marketing your brands and products. We do that by learning from everything — I mean everything — that happens around us, including the untimely deaths of rap stars. Here we go… By some definitions, Gang Starr never made it big. They never sold records like Lil Wayne or Soulja Boy. They didn't become actors like Ice Cube or Mos Def. But they did manage to build a career that spanned two decades and brought us some of the most important hip hop records of our time.

In a word, Gang Starr were influencers. That term gets thrown around a lot these days, generally referring to anyone with more than 5 Facebook friends. But Gang Starr epitomized the role of the influencer long before marketing types could ruin the term. They were just really good at what they did. GURU was a good rapper, but his true legacy is about bringing jazz into hip hop in truly innovative ways; it's about crossing cultural borders by collaborating with artists from around the world; it's about partnering with one of the best producers in modern music to create records that would endure.

Without trying, they influenced dozens or hundreds of professional musicians to improve, and countless thousands of young kids out there to pick up a mic. And that's their legacy. Without Gang Starr — and other influential, but not famous artists — maybe there's no Nas, no Biggie, no Jay-Z. Maybe that's not the exact lineage, but you get the picture: For every one act who comes out and changes the world, there are several who served to inspire, to influence, to enable them to become who they are.

A major problem with modern society is that the role of the influencer is misunderstood. Surely, the current music business has no room left for artists like GURU or those before them like Rakim or Kool G Rap. The labels won't support an act with moderate sales over multiple albums. But these are the artists that make wannabe artists want to be artists. These are the ones that matter.

The brand world is largely the same. We're too busy looking for home runs and superstars to see the real opportunities in solid performers who don't make the a-list. If you're a sponsor, you're far better off supporting artists like Gang Starr who people actually care about than breaking your bank on someone like Lady Gaga who we won't remember next year. Even if you're not a sponsor, you should be looking within — and outside — your organization to find the real influencers who inspire you, your team, and your customers. You need to partner with them, win them over, somehow get them on your side.

Think about it: Who influences you? Who inspires you to do what you do even better? Who influences your employees, your customers? And what are you doing to participate in that cycle of influence? Leave a comment here and tell us your story.