Storytelling Inspiration

Allen Toussaint and the Culture of Innovation Through Collaboration

Matt Wellschlager By Matt Wellschlager November 13, 2015

Sometimes, we lose great musicians. Whenever a great force of creativity slides off this mortal coil, it feels like an opportunity to remind ourselves of what truly incredible creators can achieve. And that reflection can serve as an inspiration for innovation, from the life of someone whose career spans many decades and just about every musical genre. Even if we can’t all be geniuses, it’s an opportunity to ask ourselves: What have we done today to be innovative? What opportunities stand before us to collaborate to unlock our creativity?

On November 10th, the greatest musician you’ve never heard of passed away. Allen Toussaint was a name seldom heard, especially at the peak of his output in the 60s and 70s. But between the music he wrote directly, the music he produced, and the extent to which that music went on to be both incredibly influential in its own right and a pillar in the hip hop movement, Toussaint was arguably one of the most important creators, collaborators, and musical innovators of the last 50 years.

From an early age, Allen Toussaint was involved in the music scene. But it didn’t take long for Toussaint to discover that, while he loved writing songs, many of them seemed best suited to be performed by other musicians. He hit the ground running, working with just about every musician you can think of. Songs you grew up listening to—from “Working on a Coalmine” to “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” to hip hop classics like “Feel You Flow”—all were written by or sampled from Toussaint projects. When you have Naughty by Nature, the Meters, Phish, The Who, and The Rolling Stones all covering your songs, you know you’ve had a profound impact on the very fabric of music.

Toussaint said in his interview with the Advocate Newspaper, “I feel my forte is what I did for others behind the scenes.” As Questlove put it on his instagram feed, “This dude wrote some of your favorite music & you just didn’t know it. That’s how you know how potent and effective your art is: When you quietly change the scene without proper acknowledgement.”

For those of you in the B2B software space like me, you know that collaboration is the key to creating an amazing product. It requires a lot of people, creativity, and ingenuity in all stages of the process, from the conceptualization of the software to the design to the build to the way it gets talked about and sold to the work you do to make your clients successful with it. And the best thing about your clients’ success is that no one needs to know you were behind it.

We wake up every day trying to play this role of behind-the-scenes masterminds. Sometimes we nail it. Sometimes we talk about how to do better next time. But innovators like Allen Toussaint are always in the back of our minds, reminding us that collaboration is the key to a culture of innovation. His spirit will be sorely missed.

In the spirit of sharing, here are a couple Toussaint playlists on Spotify you may enjoy.

Songs mostly written, some produced, by Toussaint:

Hip hop songs that sample Toussaint’s work:

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