Part 1: Jamarlin talks to Brandon Tory, a hip-hop artist and senior software engineer at Google. They discuss Brandon's journey from homelessness to teaching himself to code and working with Timbaland and Jimmy Iovine. Brandon talks about feeling cultural pressure to hide his "geekness" from his friends and how he landed a job as an Apple engineer.
This is a full transcript of the conversation which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jamarlin Martin: I wrote a book about my life named "Moguldom". You can get more information about this book at Moguldombook.com. I talk about acquiring the knowledge of self, self-determination and building a business over 10 years. There are some gems in this book that you don't want to miss. One way to support the GHOGH movement and this podcast is to go to Moguldombook.com. Buy the book on presale to support the GHOGH movement. Let's GHOGH! You're listening to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin. We have a go hard or go home approach as we talk to the leading tech leaders, politicians and influencers. Let's GHOGH! Today we have Brandon Tory, a multitalented senior software engineer at Google and hip hop artist. Welcome to the show.
0:47 --Brandon Tory: Thank you. Very happy to be here. Super excited.
Jamarlin Martin: Share with the audience a little bit about your family background and the path to getting into coding.
Brandon Tory: Yeah, absolutely. When I was about 14 years old I wanted to be a hacker more than anything and so I had seen a couple of movies. One of them was "Good Will Hunting". One of them was "Hackers" with Angelina Jolie. And I just piqued my interest so much so that I began coding maybe about 12 hours a day. I was online on chat rooms called IRC. That's internet relay chat. And at that time there were channels where you could go in there and you could talk to coders kind of anonymously. You'd have no idea how old they were or who they were, but you could learn from them. And I didn't have access to many resources so my first computer I actually went dumpster diving and built myself. My mother loves to tell that story. It's not something that I even really remember much of but she talks about it. And I found various parts. I put together a Linux operating system machine with an AMD processor. And I used this thing called freedialup.org, which was a way you could get the internet for free at the time. And it was a point to point networking system that you had to configure properly. And from there I was off to the races. I bought a book called "Sams Teach Yourself C in 24 Hours". I taught myself C. Then Python and Assembly. In those chat rooms, a lot of the guys that were in there, they'd say things like, if you don't know C, if you don't know C++, you can never be taken seriously.
Jamarlin Martin: And for the audience you're just talking about coding languages.
02:15 --Brandon Tory: These are coding languages yeah. And so I became really passionate about it and I was really young. So I would say, that's how I got into coding. And then later on in high school when I was like 16, 17, that became not so cool. So I was more so into everything else. I was playing basketball, I was in the city with all my friends and coding was just something that I didn't talk about, but I was always really good at from a young age.
Jamarlin Martin: It had nothing to do with kind of parents or friends. This is just something kinda unique to you?
Brandon Tory: Yeah, coding was specific to me. But there was also, there was a Radio Shack in my neighborhood, right. And I could walk to the Radio Shack and see parts and they had little circuit diagram books and my grandfather was very supportive. He would always buy me spare parts if I needed them from Radio Shack and things like that. So that's how I got into electronics. But coding was really because I wanted to be a hacker and I just got passionate about going into those online chat rooms and learning about it.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Can you share with the audience a little bit about your parents or your family background?
Brandon Tory: Yeah. I come from a religious family. My grandfather was a preacher at Mount Moriah Baptist church in Brockton, Massachusetts. My parents were young, they were about 18 when they had me. So we had financial troubles growing up. We moved around the city a lot. At one point when I was 15, we were homeless. We lived in a shelter and at that time, that's when my mother loves to recall the story of me working on that Linux computer that I had spray-painted black kind of zoned out. I wasn't thinking about what we were going through at the time. It was kind of my escape. And maybe that might be one of the reasons I was so obsessed with it back then was just, it was a way to kind of escape from what was going on.
Jamarlin Martin: So you're experimenting with coding while homeless essentially?
03:59 --Brandon Tory: Essentially. Yeah. I mean there were bits and pieces. I mean, homelessness is, there's a lot of transitionary phases, right? We lived in a motel at one point, then we lived in a transitional facility, then we lived in a homeless shelter in Brockton. And then ultimately I lived in a place called the Family Life Center that was owned by the YMCA. And there was a building that had about 14 families in it who were transitioning out of the homeless shelter that we were in. And from there the YMCA actually supported me a lot. I was actually, I was essentially a YMCA kid, you know, I was in the YMCA everyday playing basketball.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. It sounds like literally nobody can say you're not from the streets. You can't get more streets than that.
Brandon Tory: Yeah. I mean, all my friends. I got a lot of hood friends. I'm not a gangster or anything like that, but I got a lot of hood friends.
Jamarlin Martin: What's the step where you go corporate, like what's the bridge between that and working at some of the biggest tech companies out there?
Brandon Tory: So I would say my journey to getting to Apple and Google actually came from my journey in hip hop, believe it or not. I was the kid who was, not to hype myself up, but I was pretty good at taking tests so I could go to school and not do much homework, not even bring it backpack to school and still be able to do good enough to get through my courses. And then when it came to the SATS and things like that, it was just something I enjoyed doing. So I tested well enough to get support from the state of Massachusetts and I went to the University of Massachusetts on several grants and scholarships, and a small loan as well. And so I got my degree in electrical engineering. The reasoning for that was I thought I was already too good at coding, so I wanted to do something different. I was wrong. There was a lot more to learn, but being young, that's what I thought. Let me try something else. But it turns out through the electrical engineering program at UMass, you learn a lot of stuff in coding anyway.
Jamarlin Martin: Is that Amherst?
05:55 --Brandon Tory: Amherst, yup. And so after graduating I did get a job in Boston as an engineer. I got a patent while I was there in an LVDS firm, web design. And then I decided I want to be a rapper, and so I left on good terms, my boss was happy for me at the time and I decided to buy a $1,200 van and pack everything I had, and my girlfriend at the time who's now my wife, she came with me. We packed everything we owned and we drove to Atlanta where I had some friends in the music industry.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. I'm thinking of Tom Cruise in "The Firm", where they just packed the car. Yeah. Go ahead.
Brandon Tory: Yeah. So I ended up in Atlanta and at this time, coding is probably the last thing on my mind. Making trap music. I'm going to open mics at places like Apache Cafe, bars in College Park. Just wherever they had open mics with different venues that you could perform and get your chops up and meet people. I was doing that and it was hard, it's really hard to even make a dent in the music industry. And so Atlanta was great though. I learned a lot. I had a roommate at the time named Yvonne who taught me a lot. He's a great musician. And so being around him, I picked up a lot of musical traits and I became really, really passionate about learning and becoming a student of the game and music. One of the things I did while I was in Atlanta to try to fund the music operation was I began working on IOS apps at the same time. So I kind of revived the coding thing by doing IOS apps and trying to get into the startup world in parallel. And so through that I was still active in the coding scene even though music was my top priority. And then I moved to L.A.. I moved to L.A. after about two and a half years in Atlanta because I wanted to change my sound. I wanted to get more into a little bit lighter, not so much trap, more guitar, more pop, more melodic stuff. So I moved to L.A. and one of the first things that happened when I moved to L.A. was I won this national songwriting competition by Timbaland and Open Labs. And it was, there were 6,000 contestants. I won that.
Jamarlin Martin: How did you find out about it?
Brandon Tory: My friend Jimmy texted me the link, like anybody else and I was like, "Bro, there's no way I could win this. There's too many people." It was what are the chances? But at the time I had a song that was guitar-driven, it was pop. I was like, you know what, this might be perfect for this kind of thing. And so I submitted that and it climbed up the ranks everyday. We were looking at it and it was going higher and higher until ultimately the advertising agency called me and said, "Hey, you're in the top five, tonight we're going to call you and tell you about more information for the contest." And so I'm all excited. That night when I thought they were going to call me, it was actually Timbaland on the phone and he says, "I love what you're doing. I love your song. You make one more song. I think you got this."
Jamarlin Martin: How nervous are you when Timbaland calls or not?
08:34 --Brandon Tory: I think excited was really the word, just really excited. Definitely a little bit of nerves in terms of, okay, now I gotta make this song.
Jamarlin Martin: He's like a heavyweight. What year was this?
Brandon Tory: Yeah, this was 2014. This was 2014 when this happened. So long story short, I won that. I flew to Miami, I got to meet Timbaland. And I was already jaded from my time in Atlanta, so I wasn't really going into it thinking, okay, well this is going to change everything, but it's a great next step. And to my surprise, Timbaland was so positive and so cool. And he was like, listen, I want you to take my number, I want you to call me as soon as you get back to L.A., we're going to continue to be in contact and continue working. And that happened, as soon as I got back to L.A., I was walking down San Vicente, towards the corner of San Vicente and Hauser. My phone rings, it's a 305 number, it's Timbaland. "What's going on, where's the next song? What are you doing?" And so for the next year he was just pressing me, "Where's the music, what's next, what's next, what's next?" And so the first mixed tape I put out, which was called "Shine", really came from that pressure of Timbaland kind of mentoring me and being like, "Where's the music?" And not having any excuses. Before that I would wait for inspiration. Let me get past this writer's block and I'll make a song. But with Tim it was more so like, this is work. It doesn't matter, where's the next song? And so that really helped me to grow as an artist.
Jamarlin Martin: You're working with Timbaland, and how do you get to Google? What's the next step?
10:03 --Brandon Tory: So this is all happening, right? And we, my partner and I, John, who's here, we're throwing parties now in L.A. to release the music. So we threw this really big mansion party for the "Shine" release, we do another one for the next one. And these were very lavish 500-plus people parties.
Jamarlin Martin: When you say "Shine", are you talking about shine, shine?
Brandon Tory: Well, "Shine" was the name of the project. That's just what I named it.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay got it.
Brandon Tory: And so this was costing me a lot of money, right? We're doing all this stuff. I've got friends that supported me from my neighborhood, but it's still costing me a lot of money. And so ultimately I ran out of money. I went broke in L.A., because I didn't have a hit song.
Jamarlin Martin: A lot of volatility in these parties. Some hit, some don't.
Brandon Tory: Well the parties were free. So we weren't charging them. Everybody come out, 500 people come out. We've got new music. And so I wasn't trying to make money off the parties. I was just trying to build a buzz, you know what I mean? And I had the Timbaland thing, so it was dope. But that being said, in the music industry, if you don't have a big hit song, the financial part is not very lucrative for an up and coming artists. And so that was a challenge for me. And essentially I ran out of breath and when that happened I had a decision to make. Am I going to stay in L.A. and figure that out or am I going to bank on who I am, which is a really talented engineer at the end of the day. Why not use that at the same time? So I decided to join Apple.
Jamarlin Martin: At that time. In your mind, did you think you were a better coder than an artist?
Brandon Tory: To this day I know that I'm a better coder than artist. Music is something that I love and I'm very passionate about and I feel like I'm growing and evolving. Coding is something that comes very natural to me. It's just something I've been doing since I was a kid.
Jamarlin Martin: Did she think of yourself at that time, because you got started early, and then under adverse circumstances, did you think of yourself as a prodigy at the time?
12:00 --Brandon Tory: At coding?
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. At coding.
Brandon Tory: I would say I did think of myself in that way. I don't know if that's the reality or not, because I've met a lot of talented engineers, so I can't really say. But in my mind, yeah, in my mind when I left the tech industry to move to Atlanta, I had thought I could always get back into this because it just comes naturally to me and I really enjoy it. So why not take a risk and try something else?
Jamarlin Martin: So how did you get your job at Apple?
Brandon Tory: Yeah, I pretty much just applied and they flew me out for interviewing in Cupertino. And actually before they flew me out, we had phone screens, so they called me and we went through some technical questions and algorithms and things like that. And then I flew out there and it was eight, nine hours of just algorithms and white-boarding. And so I did that as well. And honestly, funny story, when I walked out of the interview, I was really nervous because I thought to myself, I'm going to have to move to Cupertino. I didn't get the offer yet, but I could feel it. And I was like, "Oh man, now I'm really going to have to make a decision here", because I'm an artist. I got a bunch of stuff going on in L.A.. I got a whole team that's in L.A., but I know that I just kind of got this, based on the interview. And so I got the offer and that was another tough decision. And so at this point it was a turning point because I began to not tell people what was going on. And so my partner here, my whole team in L.A., I pretty much said I'm going to the Bay for a couple months and I'll be right back. And so I moved to San Jose to work for Apple as a senior software architect. And at the same time was traveling back to L.A. To do shows and parties.
Jamarlin Martin: You're driving back and forth?
Brandon Tory: Yeah. Driving back and forth and wasn't telling the people closest to me because I was very insecure about that. I was very insecure about the idea that I had tapped out of music and went back to tech. And so I didn't want people to think that, so I didn't tell anyone.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. So I read that there were insecurities in terms of the hip hop crowd of revealing your passion for coding.
14:12 --Brandon Tory: Yeah.
Jamarlin Martin: You had some kind of internal conflict about that in terms of how we think about what's cool and swagger. Talk about that.
Brandon Tory: Maybe it was just in my own head, but to me it was from growing up, when I'm at the barbershop and people say, well, what do you do? What are you into? I might say computers, but I'm not going to say C++.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. I don't think it was in your head. I definitely think in the culture. Particularly Black culture, the more hip hop culture now, the more you're talking about murder and I did time and I'm serving time, I'm popping pills.
Brandon Tory: Street culture.
Jamarlin Martin: That's a high street IQ. And then the more you're talking about Urkelism or "I want to be a computer geek. I want to get into technology."
Brandon Tory: Exactly.
Jamarlin Martin: I think that's pretty systemic in terms of a negative viewpoint.
Brandon Tory: So you get it. You understand exactly. And that was the mindset I had and what I've realized through kind of being me, just being myself, and people like my little sister talking to me about it, is that that's a dated mentality. In the future, even in the hood and even in the street perspective, technology is going to be a big part of that. And you can see it now, you see people now who are in the streets and they're talking on encrypted apps. They know about encryption, they know about things that are important in the technology space. And so I think that that whole thing, it is a real perception issue. But at the same time, I think it's going to go away because technology is becoming so prevalent in everything we do.
Jamarlin Martin: You think it's going to flip where Black kids in Harlem and Watts and the south side of Chicago, that you'll see more being into technology and coding than wanting to be a rapper, in let's say the next 15 years.
16:09 --Brandon Tory: I really hope so and I believe so.
Jamarlin Martin: You believe so?
Brandon Tory: Oh, I don't know about more so than being a rapper. But I think that those two things will become more synonymous because when you talk about the lingo, when you talk about what's relevant, technology is just as relevant as fashion. It's just as relevant as anything else.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. Would you say that it's like you're in the middle culturally because you have a heavy dose of hip hop culture and you are an artist and then you're a engineer at the same time. In my view, I know this is simplistic, but all the push, we over index on hip hop and street culture and all that stuff, but it needs to be flipped on the other side in terms of technology and how technology and the groups that are deficient in technology culturally are going to be left behind, in terms of how the global economy is developing. But it seems like Black culture, we need to flip it, in terms of the priorities being in many cases, hip hop and hip hop culture, where the priorities could be shifted over to technology
Brandon Tory: Tech culture. I don't know. I don't know if it necessarily needs to be flipped or if it just needs to be merged.
Jamarlin Martin: Merged yeah.
Brandon Tory: Because there's a certain power that music has that I'm not sure any other form of content will be able to replicate when it comes to bringing people together and conveying an emotion. And so I think that the content itself can be used to spread the message about tech and about innovation. And I really think that's the direction that things are going to go. I think that talking about things like encryption and artificial intelligence and things like that are becoming cool.
Jamarlin Martin: You see it in the culture?
Brandon Tory: Yeah.
Jamarlin Martin: You see it on the street level?
Brandon Tory: Yeah.
Jamarlin Martin: That's encouraging. So you're at Apple. What happens next?
18:20 --Brandon Tory: So I'm at Apple, and I'm living this double life. I'm essentially lying to my friends and my family and my fans because I'm not telling them what I'm really doing, and I'm just traveling back and forth. And that worked out for a little while. I did a bunch of shows. I shot a video called "6OG" with me and about 40 of my friends from my neighborhood. And people really loved that because it was gritty and it felt authentic. But after a while that starts to weigh on you. The travel starts to weigh on you, the making up stories about where you're going to be, it becomes a lot. And for me it started to become like, who am I at this point? You know what I mean? And so it was almost, I don't want to use the word depression, but it was going in that direction. I felt very uncomfortable with the life I'm living right now. So I wanted to find a way to come clean about it. So I had this idea called multi-dream and I was going to do a short documentary series and kind of base it all on hip hop and my life in L.A. and Hollywood and Timbaland and all these things I'm doing. And then at the end, I was going to say, "But I'm a senior engineer at Apple" and I want people to understand that that's how I'm able to do some of these things in terms of financially. And so I'm working on this. I shot about four episodes of it. People had seen it, my sister saw it and she goes, this is my little sister. She goes, "It's too boring. Nobody's going to care. You've got to do something else." So I'm like, alright, so I throw this party, this huge mansion party, the biggest one yet. We had about 1,200 RSVPs, and I figured if I throw this party and I make the image so street, so hip hop, just a thousand people out of here, show performance and a lot of bottles, a lot of champagne, a lot of sparklers, pool, view of the city, and kind of do this great event, that'll be footage that'll be powerful enough for me to tell my story in an exciting and entertaining way. So I threw this party, it was success. Everybody came. It was great. So my little sister was there. So at the end of the night, it's about 3:00 AM, everybody left. And now it's just me and my closest friends and family in the hills, smoking cigars, drinking champagne. And I'm pretty much elated. I'm super happy with how the night went. She looks at me and goes, "You should fire your whole team," and I said, "What do you mean fire my whole team? Do you not see what we just did?" She goes, "Yeah, what I see is that the person you are in real life doesn't match the person you are online and you're not really using your story in a way that could really captivate a much larger audience. I don't think you understand how trendy and how popular tech is right now. You need to be yourself." So this was my little sister talking. And so she convinced me to, instead of putting out this documentary, to take that exact same footage and prepare a one-minute mock commercial for Apple in which I stated that this multi-dream concept of breaking down the barrier of art and science, of hip hop and technology, could be attributed to the technology that Apple is building. And so I did that. I sent it to executives at Apple while I was an engineer there. And Jimmy Iovine, who was the executive of Apple Music responded to me within nine minutes.
Jamarlin Martin: Wow.
21:26 --Brandon Tory: And so, at that point I pretty much dropped to my knees and praised God. I was in shock because for anybody in the music industry, Jimmy Iovine is pretty much the top person you could speak to. And so I actually didn't respond to him for about two weeks because I was trying to think of what's the right thing to say here. And I finally responded, I said, "Hey, Mr. Iovine, I need a mentor, can we meet?" And he agreed to meet with me. And so I met with him at the Culver City office here in L.A., and we met for about an hour and he really grilled me on like, what is it you're trying to do? What are your objectives? How can you make this make sense to more people? Because right now it's not clear. At the time it wasn't very clear what my overall objective was. And he offered his support. He connected me with people at Apple Music to get my songs more exposure and it just became a really great moment and really great meeting. And so I left there with a larger network and a much clearer focus of what it was I was trying to do.
Jamarlin Martin: This is part one. Tune into the next episode for part two. Thanks everybody for listening to GHOGH. You can check me out @JamarlinMartin on Twitter and also come check us out at Moguldom.com. That's M O G U L D O M.com. Be sure to subscribe to our daily newsletter. You can get the latest information on crypto, tech, economic empowerment and politics. Let's GHOGH!