Over the course of four decades, Francis Coppola has fashioned himself into a reputable director with an enviable filmography. The brain behind The Godfather recently sat down with 99% and shared insights on cinema, risk, and process. As it turns out, many of his tips also apply to music. What follows are Coppola’s words of counsel along with vital lessons gleaned from his interview.
1. Take chances
Coppola Says: “The cinema is very young. It’s only 100 years old. The cinema language happened by experimentation – by people not knowing what to do. But unfortunately, after 15-20 years, it became a commercial industry. People made money in the cinema, and then they began to say to the pioneers, “Don’t experiment. We want to make money. We don’t want to take chances.”
At a mere 30-something, hip-hop is even younger than cinema. Rap found commercial success in its teens, and while that was great for the industry’s collective wallet it also had unintended consequences on the music itself. Financial breakthrough doesn’t always push things forward, it turns out. Unchecked, overzealous attitudes can lead to a stale product for fear of losing the audience. Fans expect more from hip-hop, which explains why (even while the genre is thriving financially) there are constant charges that it is, in fact, dead.
2. Choose your team wisely
Coppola Says: “You can make the decision that you feel is best, but listen to everyone, because cinema is collaboration. I always like to say that collaboration is the sex of art because you take from everyone you’re working with.”
Putting a hot producer and a lyricist in a room together doesn’t always result in classic. Collaborative art requires a team of competent contributors. Some of the greatest songs around wouldn’t have been possible without the songwriters, producers, sound engineers, and other less revered but equally valuable contributors. Surround yourself with people who can offer fresh perspective and sound judgment.
3. Make it personal
Coppola Says: “Always make your work be personal. It is very important for an artist not to lie, and most important is not to lie to yourself.”
Art speaks truth to life. Is it important whose truth it is? Does it have to be the artist’s truth or can it simply speak to the listener’s reality? That’s up to you. Either way, strive to make it personal–personal for you, personal for the listener. Eminem is an example of an artist who made bank on the back of personal music.
4. Study the lords of your craft
Coppola Says: “Don’t worry about whether it’s appropriate to borrow or to take or do something like someone you admire because that’s only the first step and you have to take the first step. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice.”
Influence and Inspiration come from observing those you admire. Every great MC had another great MC as a role model. In his early days, B.o.B. would write down DMX’s lyrics, study them, and then substitute the words with his own rhymes. He did this until he found his own voice. Study the masters of your art even as you master your art.
5. Money isn’t everything
Coppola Says: “This idea of Metallica or some rock n’ roll singer being rich, that’s not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I’m going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?”
And I’m going to get stoned to death for including this, but hear me out. As strong a point as Coppola makes, the most valuable advice is the one he’s left out. Follow your passion and you just might find the money. Most artists spend their entire career stuck in one of two boxes: those who vie for respect at the expense of success and those who vie for success at the expense of respect. Artists should always get compensated for their work, but it’s those smart ones that usually find the sweet spot in the middle. You can’t get there if money is your only motivation.
6. Confidence is everything
Coppola Says: Self-confidence always. The artist always battles his own/her own feeling of inadequacy. So you have to be patient, and then slowly everyone starts to see that the ideas are right, or make the corrections. You have to battle the lack of confidence by giving the scene (work) the chance to solidify.”
There are points in your career when you’ll find doubters at every turn. When this happens, stop, take a deep breath and remind yourself why you fell in love with music in the first place. Renew your passion and soldier on in confidence. If you find yourself lacking confidence, it will undoubtedly show. Your fans will see through your it as if you were walking around in a lace dress.
7. Bake it a bit
Coppola Says: “What I learned, which is a simple idea, is that if you hold out with your vision a little bit, it’s like a cake being put in the oven. The scene doesn’t work immediately, you have to bake it a little bit. It’s unfair, when you begin to create a shot, say, or a scene, that it’s going to immediately be like those beautiful scenes in the movies. It needs a little bit of time to mature. It’s like taking the cake out without letting it be in the oven for more than a minute. Like, oh no, it’s terrible. So you have to be patient, and then slowly everyone starts to see that the ideas are right, or make the corrections.”
We see rappers dropping albums as if the format is going out of fashion. Most of them end up in the trash folder anyway. So, what’s the point? Quality art sometimes takes longer to package. Leave that shit in the oven and let it sit there for a minute. Take it from the master.
8. Color outside the lines
Coppola Says: ”An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk.”
Real creativity is borne from fearless experimentation. Pushing boundaries is intrinsic to the nature of hip-hop. People don’t always like what they hear, (see: 808s and Heartbreak), but a work of art doesn’t have to be widely sanctioned in order to be influential or innovative. Take a chance on your art and you just might build a legacy of a lifetime.