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The Difference Between AI and JAY-Z

By Collin Hockenbury

The Difference Between AI and JAY-Z

AI is an incredible tool, but it’s just that — a tool.

 

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.

 

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

 

 

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.

 

 

Great artists don’t merely mimic others. They’re trained to spot the intricacies of style and faultless technique, then make them their own

In other words, great artists show us something we’ve never seen before. Of course it’s the fusion of countless stolen items, but each one is understood, imbued with that person’s unique lived experiences and channeled to their strengths. 

Most importantly, great artists are emotive — and this cannot be understated in the world of brands.

 

As efficient as algorithms are, they’ve never been moved. They can only gather information to copy. We can gather inspiration to make audiences feel, because we’ve felt.

 

Therein lies AI’s shortcomings. It’s a writing tool, not a writer. Sure, use it for menial tasks that can be time-consuming. Use it to complement your work. If you need content and don’t know where to start, AI can give you the big block of marble to chip away at. But the nuances, at least in early 2024, are down to a person — sitting, thinking, probably drinking too much coffee — whether that’s you or a hired expert. 

Will AI get better and potentially more “artistic?” Yes. Between the time you started reading this piece and now, it’s already improved. But the point stands. A feeling is more than generating the right words and images. It’s why seemingly innocuous ones can invigorate us in ways so profound it can’t be explained by the laws of nature (in The Bear, for instance, the words “Let it rip” empower an embattled soul to keep building something great). Nuance matters. Circumstance matters. Being human matters.

 

 

Every rapper worth knowing has that thing they do best, that -ism that makes them them, and that is the gold nugget to look for. For me, no one does humor like Lil Wayne: “I’m here to distinguish the bears from the penguins.” Lupe Fiasco should do a TED talk on how to make puns and similes cool: “Wipe the rain from my dear like Dasher; you’s the dame who’s the username to all my passwords.” And for the late Christopher Wallace, AKA The Notorious B.I.G., it’s the ability to infuse stories with attitude.

 

 

But like I said, it’s not about the rapper. It’s not even about the raps. It’s about breaking down the lines, reading between them — feeling them. Then stacking up what you find and using that inspiration to inspire something new.