Hip-Hop Goes Commercial


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.

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.”

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.”

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.”