Hip-Hop Goes Commercial

Rappers Give Madison Avenue a Run for Its Money

It all began with Run-D.M.C. In 1986, the Queens-bred kings of rap bumrushed Madison Square Garden with their sold-out "Raising Hell" tour. Russell Simmons had urged the group to record a song extolling the virtues of Adidas, their favorite sneaker brand. The result was a Top Five r&b record, "My Adidas"—most recently included on Run-D.M.C.'s Greatest Hits, out this week on BMG Heritage. At one point during the show, Run stopped the music and asked everyone to take off a shoe and raise it to the ceiling. The sold-out arena swelled with the sweet smell of freshly purchased, shell-toed Adidas. The always prescient Simmons made sure Adidas executives were on hand to see the impact of product placement in a hip-hop song. To the executives in attendance, the room reeked of funky marketing possibilities.

"We didn't know the representatives from Adidas were there," says D.M.C. "But when [Simmons] saw that, he ran backstage and said, 'I'm going to get you guys an endorsement contract.' " Run-D.M.C. received $1.5 million to endorse the brand, including a line of sneakers emblazoned with the trio's logo. In 1979, seven years earlier, when the Sugarhill Gang bragged about their "Lincoln Continental and sunroof Cadillac," the idea that rap artists could land an endorsement deal for a mainstream product was unthinkable. Fifteen years later, rappers are well aware that every brand name they drop can mean money—both officially and under-the-table.

On any given week, Billboard's Hot Rap Tracks chart is filled with songs that serve as lyrical consumer reports for what are, or will be, the trendiest alcohol, automobile, and fashion brands. In her latest single, "Stylin'," Foxy Brown name-checks Frankie B. jeans, Juicy Couture sweatsuits, Marc Jacobs handbags, Nike's Air Force 2 sneakers, Bentleys, Range Rovers, and Burberry—the long-standing British fashion company recognized for their trench coats and distinct plaid design.

Tweet and her Motorola, caught on video
photo: Annie Chia
Tweet and her Motorola, caught on video

There will probably be no breathless Burberry marketing executives sitting backstage at the next Foxy Brown show. Her brother, Anton Marchand—who is also an a&r director at Interscope Records and co-owner of Foxy's label, Ill Na Na records—says he's tried, unsuccessfully, to approach Burberry executives.

"They've been pretty reluctant; I don't know why," says Marchand. Even beyond Foxy Brown's sexually charged image and potty mouth, Burberry (currently gearing up for an IPO) may not want to court rappers directly for endorsements. And these days, hip-hop liaisons like Russell Simmons have other, more subtle ways to marry mainstream consumer products with hip-hop.

Two years ago, Allied Domecq, the French spirits company, hired Simmons's marketing firm, dRush, to refurbish the staid image of Courvoisier. The campaign included ads in urban magazines like Essence and Vibe, and the sponsorship of showcases by urban artists like Sunshine Anderson and Musiq Soulchild.

This year, Allied Domecq scored a free marketing coup worth more than 10 full-page ads in Vibe, with Busta Rhymes's "Pass the Courvoisier," a tribute to the cognac in the spirit of "My Adidas." The video, a virtual commercial, received heavy rotation on BET and MTV. Busta has denied that the song was anything other than a heartfelt tribute to a brand of liquor. But industry insiders speculate that an outside marketing firm like dRush, one with quiet connections to both entities, could easily have brokered a deal.

Steve Stoute, VP of Black Music for Interscope Records, has even created a company called PASS with Peter Arnell—of the New York-based Arnell Group—to match urban music and musicians with advertisers. It's widely known that Stoute was responsible for Jay-Z's "Motorola two-way page me" shout on "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)."

"A lot of that stuff we'll never know about," says Colby Colb, former music director at New York's Power 105.1. "I'm sure down the line there will be an arrangement made with artists who do songs and match them up with advertising campaigns, because 'Pass the Courvoisier' was one of the biggest records Busta ever had and the most airplay he received for any single. I'm sure [Courvoisier] is hitting him off."

While Courvoisier claims they made no agreement for compensation previous to the record's release, Stephanie DeBartolomeo, director of marketing for Courvoisier, does admit to contacting Busta after the record had impacted to "explore ways to work together."

It's an open secret in hip-hop that product placement comes in two distinct categories. There is genuine brand endorsement inspired by an affinity for a product. And then there's name-dropping with the hopes that a marketing director will come bearing free goods—or a check.

"We've been approached by a couple of liquor companies," says Marchand. "They'll just put in a call and say, 'We'll send you some of this stuff and if you like it, could you mention it in a song?' "

Dr. Dre protégé Xzibit is wary of liquor companies that openly court him—though he proudly sports a Hennessy logo tattooed on his arm. "They offer you free bottles, but what the fuck is that?" asks Xzibit. "They try to get you to [drop their name] by giving you a bottle or two. I'm not stupid. [Hennessy] don't pay me shit. I just love the product."

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