In 2011, Anthony “Ace” Patterson was at what seemed like an apex in life. At just 21 years old, Patterson was enrolled at Columbia University, the co-founder and president of the Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop (CUSH), and he was onstage rapping under the pseudonym Tha Pyro as an opening act for hip-hop legend Snoop Dogg. But it was also at that moment Patterson says he had a “come to Jesus moment” that would re-route his life path.
“I didn’t like the circle I was being surrounded by,” Patterson, now 28, tells Poets&Quants. Specifically, Patterson had a literal platform and listening ears to spread whatever message he wanted. What exactly was that message?
“Total frat-boy style of let’s party, take shots, let’s do bad things,” Patterson says. “Hood-rapping with my friends — those sorts of things. So I stopped rapping.”
Now, seven years later, Patterson’s winding path has taken him from hopping couches of family and friends to UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business as an MBA in 2014-2016 on a different coast to a freshly-minted and more purposeful rap career while juggling working long hours as a consultant and now marketing manager at Facebook.
EARLY BEGINNINGS IN A FAMILY OF IMMIGRANT ARTISTS
Patterson grew up in a family of immigrant artists. His sister sings, brother dances, mother writes, and Patterson, too, began writing poems as young as elementary school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where his family landed after immigrating from Jamaica. “Music is one of those things that has just always been around me,” Patterson says. “My mom will tell you that classical music was the first type of music I listened to, but society will say reggae and hip hop became the immediate genres I gravitated towards.”
At the end of middle school, he began to put music behind the poems and a young rap artist was born. Towards the end of high school, Patterson applied to Columbia University, reportedly on a “whim” and with the promise of a “substantial financial aid package.” In his application essay he talked about living in a homeless shelter for a while as a kid.
When Patterson arrived at Columbia’s New York City campus, he found his community and created one. According to its campus webpage, the mission of CUSH is to “bring together lovers of Hip-Hop music in all the forms they come in, fans, artists (emcees, singers, poets, etc.), Producers/BeatMakers, DJs, B-Boyz/Girls and Graffiti artists.” What’s more, the group says, is to “provide a space for networking, entertainment, and to discuss some critical issues in hip hop today, both on the music/industry side and also Artform/cultural side of things.”
Patterson had found and organized his people. Driving it all was what Patterson now calls the “hood dream,” or making money through the art. With a simple Google search, YouTube videos of Patterson and other CUSH members freestyle rapping on stage and in dorm rooms are abundant. Patterson and others take turns rapping about everything from homework to football, but Patterson does seem more comfortable with the flow in his raps than others.
And then in 2011, Patterson performed with a group from CUSH in the Battle 4 Bacchanal at Columbia. Setup in a battle of the bands format, the winners would earn opening rights at Columbia’s annual Bacchanal concert. CUSH and Patterson won and would soon be opening up for Snoop Dogg and local Brooklyn rapper, Das Racist. And that’s when the transition began for Patterson. “I was cocooning into a different butterfly, if you will,” Patterson recalls. He chopped off his longer braided hair and when graduation came later that school-year, he decided he would put all the music aside. “I didn’t think I was going to be a rapper anymore,” he says.
CONSULTING: THE ‘DOG YEARS FOR BUSINESS EXPERIENCE’
The problem was Patterson had spent the majority of his time and energy at Columbia planning on becoming a rapper. “I didn’t have a job lined up, mind you, because I thought I was gonna be a rapper,” he says. So he moved back home to his mom’s place and began sleeping on the floors of friends and working non-paid internships to find some sort of lead. Eventually, Patterson snagged a role as an operations analyst for Success Academy Charter Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit.
That’s when the business school roots were placed. As an anthropology major, Patterson had never really considered business education. But two of his managers at the nonprofit had earned business degrees. And both were very supportive of Patterson and his potential and would later write his letters of recommendation for his MBA applications.
“They (bosses) worked in banking and consulting, etcetera, before they went to nonprofit and they told me the best thing you could do for the nonprofit world is bring that private sector experience and that rigor, etiquette, and thinking to this world to help make things more efficient,” Patterson explains.
Around the same time, Patterson took a trip to Colombia where he worked with a church that had an established business program aimed at rehabilitation and restoration of former gang members, drug addicts, and homeless. The program, Patterson explains, gave these populations vocation and a general importance in life. More than anything, Patterson saw that business and the marketplace could be used for social good, something Patterson decided he wanted to be a part of. So Patterson decided to apply to business school with the end-goal of going into consulting.
“That was also the reason to go into consulting,” Patterson says of going to business school to build “business chops and acumen.”
“It’s like dog years for business experience,” Patterson continues. “You know, one year is like seven when you’re moving from project to project.”
RETURN TO THE RAP GAME
During the winter break of Patterson’s second year of the full-time MBA program at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business, he met with an old friend in Connecticut. Patterson’s friend asked him a question that hadn’t been on his radar for years. He asked Patterson if he still thought about music and knew how to rap. Patterson told him he still listened to beat occasionally online and every once in a while might freestyle to them. Then the excuses poured out.
“I’m about to get married,” Patterson told his friend. “I’m about to have a real job as a consultant, probably making more money than regular rappers,” he reasoned, “I was about to have a health care plan. All of these things. Even down to, I don’t even have a rap name anymore.”
One-by-one, Patterson remembers, his friend dispelled each excuse. It’s OK to have a job and be a rapper, the friend said. It’s even OK to be faithful to a spouse and still be a rapper, he continued. As for the rap name? Patterson’s friend asked what his Instagram account name was. Call me Ace, Patterson told him. “He was like boom, there’s your rap name,” Patterson laughs.