Incubating A Hip-Hop Career At Wharton

Originally published on Poets & Quants.

Clyde Kelly Atkins has a theory.

'I think people who identify as business people or entrepreneurs probably have an instinctive liking for hip-hop music,” Atkins says. “Because I think it has that message of hustle and grit that those people like. It’s becoming more common.'

Atkins would know. Since enrolling in the full-time MBA program at Pennsylvania’s Wharton School last fall, Atkins, whose stage moniker is Clyde Kelly, has produced two hip-hop albums — the most recent of which, dubbed Love Rx, was released May 18.

While it’s not uncommon to use an MBA program to incubate a business idea, it’s less common for that business idea to be your own rap career. But that’s the path the former analyst at McKinsey & Company is taking.

THE BUDDING OF A HIP-HOP ENTHUSIAST

In his youth, Atkins immediately gravitated toward music and grew up singing in his church and middle school choirs. When he entered high school in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, he had a revelation. “At that point, I realized my music tastes were in hip-hop,” Atkins, now 25, recalls, noting that he was inspired by Kanye West, Outkast, and Kid Cudi, among others. “At that point, I still never considered myself as someone who could rap, even though I listened to rap music and liked rap music,” Atkins recalls.

Then he experienced two life-changing events. During his freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his father tragically passed away. Enrolled in a poetry class, “I took to poetry as a way to cope with that emotionally,” he says. “Freestyling also helped with that.”

Atkins was also introduced to a group of like-minded freestyle enthusiasts and soon moved in with them.

“That’s where I first started to realize what it felt like to be inspired creatively and to use a creative outlet as a positive way to channel my emotions,” he says.

WRITING ON CLIENT TRIPS

Despite a deep and growing passion for music, Atkins was studious and practical. His main focus remained the job search. Graduating from North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, he immediately took a job at McKinsey’s Boston office. It only took six months of weekly jet-setting for Atkins to long for his college days of community and rapping.

“You don’t have anyone in your life that you sort of see on a daily basis. It’s very transient,” Atkins says of the young consulting lifestyle. “It’s fun. I was excited to be doing that at that point in my life. But I also missed that I used to freestyle everyday. I had friends I would come home to and we’d kick raps at the end of the day. It was way different coming back to a hotel at the end of the day by myself.”

Instead of freestyling, Atkins began writing down his raps. He wrote as much as he could — on flights, at hotels, and on weekends. He just kept writing. Then he bought a microphone and started recording himself. “That was a big turning point for me,” Atkins says, noting he still records and engineers his own vocal tracks.

RECORDING ON THE BEACH

On a weekend beach trip with his college friends, Atkins took his microphone and recorded some of their freestyle raps.

“I remember being so blown away by what even I was saying,” he says.

Atkins decided to act on it and started recording and producing more of his own tracks. Through those recorded songs, Atkins was able to attract the eye and ear of a local entrepreneur who decided to invest in the music.

“He decided he would fund my artist development as his first investment in the music business,” Atkins says. “It’s just him and me. And we’re both first-timers at this.”

BUSINESS SCHOOL TO INCUBATE A HIP-HOP CAREER

Around the same time, Atkins decided he wanted to attend business school.

“At McKinsey, you get a lot of great opportunities very early on. You get into the room with a lot of senior executives,” Atkins says. “But, that being said, two more years of being able to grow up, mature, and add another significant pedigree to the resume helps a lot in making it seem like you belong in the room with those senior people.”

When Atkins knew he’d soon be enrolling at Wharton, he decided to commit to recording and producing his first album, Not Rich Yet.

“That’s when we realized I was going to have more free time to put towards making music than what I had at McKinsey,” Atkins says.

FIRST ALBUM HAS HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF LISTENS ON SPOTIFY

Last November, Atkins officially released the 10-song album. The first track, “Inner Strength,” already has more than 168,000 plays on Spotify.

“When a listener listens to it, I want them to feel simultaneously determined and feel like they have motivation, grit, and strength,” Atkins explains. “But I also want them to feel at-ease and OK with the fact that life has its ups and downs.”

While Atkins says his fellow Wharton classmates have totally embraced his tunes, his mother was hesitant at first.

“My mom is so anti-swearing. She covers her ears. She can barely listen to the first album,” Atkins says, laughing. “And she is a big reason why the follow-up project is clean. She hates it. There was no cussing allowed in our house as a kid.”

Not Rich Yet earned the “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” label, but Atkins says the follow-up, Love Rx, doesn’t have a single cuss word.

“I’m really close to my mom,” Atkins says. Atkins and his two sisters were raised primarily by their mother while she was earning a Ph.D. in pharmacology and working full-time. “She is an incredible role model,” Atkins confirms.

‘THE MUSIC PULLS YOU IN’

For now, Atkins says he plans on returning to McKinsey for an internship this summer and full-time when he graduates next spring. Atkins has enlisted the help of fellow Whartonite, Emmanuel Chimezie to promote his music, story, and upcoming “Back to School” tour. “I think we’re both entrepreneurs at heart. And this is a startup,” Chimezie, 27, says. According to an album review Chimezie wrote for the Wharton Journal last November, Atkins’ personality and music immediately stood out.

“I met Clyde Kelly on the first day of pre-term, Wharton’s 3-week long orientation,” Chimezie wrote. “He wore sneakers, tan shorts, and a white tee-shirt. He was dressed for a beach day while the rest of his classmates were dressed like future corporate tycoons in their navy suits and mocha designer shoes.”

For Chimezie, Atkins’ early success isn’t a surprise.

“The music pulls you in,” he says.