Hip-Hop Goes Commercial

Rappers Give Madison Avenue a Run for Its Money

As the artists determine how much their street credibility is worth, record labels are tuning in to see how name-dropping can defray the costs of music videos and recording costs. Verizon recently recruited Elektra recording artist Tweet to endorse Verizon wireless services. She uses Motorola phones in her video for "Call Me," and a commercial for the Verizon campaign was shot at the same time with Elektra and Verizon sharing the costs. Record label executives insist that this merger of content and advertisement can be a win-win situation—as long as the endorsements are subtle and realistic.

"I've had conversations with artists and their managers and asked them to consider writing a song about this or that," says Camille Hackney, VP of new media and strategic marketing for Elektra. "But I won't have that conversation if it doesn't make sense to the artist. I won't tell my hip-hop artist who grew up in Brooklyn to start talking about Hyundai because they want to give you a million dollars to pretend you drive it. They would laugh me out of the room."

While radio and video programmers may soon be faced with the prospect of songs like "Pass the Courvoisier" turning TRL and 106 & Park into musical infomercials, there are no immediate plans to prohibit excessive product placement in songs. Although MTV blurs some visual images of brands in videos, verbal endorsements slip under the radar. "Lyrically, if it's a slice of life and [the video] fits the song," says Amy Doyle, MTV's VP of music programming, "if it doesn't seem like a blatant shout-out to a particular product—we probably won't ask to edit it out."

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

But more often these days, even the blatant shout-outs are going unchecked. "You listen to a Jay-Z record and it's damn near a commercial," says Xzibit. "He talks about every brand of alcohol and every kind of clothes. There's nothing wrong with that. But I'm not gonna be a fucking billboard for corporate America."

Jay-Z has increased the urban profile for a variety of products: Nike, Motorola, Belvedere, Versace, Chloe, Range Rover, Filthmart, Rolex, Mercedes-Benz, and his own clothing line, Roca-wear. And his recently reported purchase of Armadale vodka has some questioning whether "Pass the Armadale" will be his next hit single.

"It hasn't gotten to that yet," says Stephen Hill, VP of music programming at BET. "Busta doesn't own Courvoisier. If Nelly releases a single called "Wear My Vokal" [his clothing line], we may have a problem. If Jay-Z makes a song, 'Armadale Is the Best,' it's something that we will look at. If it gets to such a level where it's just uncomfortable and everything is an advertisement, you'll ask them to remove the word."

Today's rappers understand the power of their every utterance. And they've learned a lesson from artists like Grand Puba, frontman for New Rochelle-based rap outfit Brand Nubian, who is widely recognized to have single-handedly rocketed the cachet of the Tommy Hilfiger clothing line in the mid '90s. Puba's renowned references to Hilfiger "top gear" on Mary J. Blige's "What's the 411" resonated with underground hip-hop heads and were reflected throughout the urban fashion scene in the summer of '92.

"[Tommy] didn't have a clue as to the power rappers had until I did that, and he saw how his income changed drastically," says Puba. "He probably didn't know why it happened until his brother informed him. Now everywhere I go, people always say, 'You're Grand Puba, you put me onto Tommy Hilfiger.' That's one of the things I'm known for."

Once Tommy Hilfiger acknowledged the impact the rapper had on sales, Grand Puba received a one-time payment of $10,000 after posing for publicity shots for the company. There was also talk of a record deal with a Hilfiger label, but it never got off the ground.

Today, rappers like Snoop Dogg, Busta, Nelly, and P. Diddy have their own clothing lines—and more—to promote on record. The days of name-dropping with no financial gain may soon be over.

"We sang 'My Adidas' because we just liked them," says D.M.C. "That's the difference. Now a lot of guys are just hoping to get that phone call."

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