September 28, 2004

By Canyon Cody
Published in The Heights

Chuck D used to say that rap was CNN for black people, but today hip-hop looks more like QVC. Emcees used to be journalists who described their urban reality, whereas now rappers serve as unofficial spokesmen for bourgeois brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton. So far in 2004, there have been 81 rap songs on the Billboard Top 20. Thirty-seven percent of these songs mention at least one brand name, according to Hennessy (52 times) and Cadillac (49 times) were referenced most often, but Toys 'R' Us and U-haul got only eight and three shout-outs, respectively. It's a sad day for hip-hop when one can't distinguish between the music and the commercials when listening to the radio.


Run-DMC - "My Adidas"
Back in the day, of course, things were different. Run-DMC unintentionally started the trend of corporate sponsorship with "My Adidas," an ode to the rappers' favorite sneakers. Following the success of the song, Russell Simmons invited company executives from Adidas to attend a Run-DMC concert at Madison Square Garden in 1986. Simmons promised his brother, Reverend Run of Run-DMC, that they could get an endorsement deal if they took off their Adidas sneakers and held them up during the performance.

When the Adidas execs saw the crowd's enthusiastic reaction, they began to grasp the power of product placement in music. For the next four years, a sponsorship deal worth $1 million annually guaranteed that Run-DMC would never be seen without their Adidas. While Chuck D and KRS-One believed in the revolutionary political power of hip-hop, Simmons viewed the movement in terms of marketing. "The hip-hop community is the biggest brand-building community in the world," he said.

Nelly - "Air Force Ones"
Years later, Nelly decided to mimic Run-DMC and write a song about his generation's sneakers. Whereas you could hear a genuine passion for Adidas coming from Run-DMC, Nelly's song sounded more like an extended radio jingle. Not surprisingly, Nike soon turned the video into a commercial, which turned Nelly into a corporate mascot with as much artistic credibility as Tony the Tiger. The problem isn't the corporate sponsorship, per se, but Nelly's ridiculous contention that he didn't write the song with the intention of getting a Nike deal. He feigned suprise when (gasp!) Nike decided to give Nelly his own line of sneakers. It's too bad that Nelly's superb marketing skills couldn't come up with a better name for his sports drink than Pimp Juice.


The Game - "Whole City Behind Us" (ft. Kanye West and Ludacris)
Music videos have looked like commercials for Benzes and Cristal for a while, but now commercials look like music videos. A new television ad for cell phone company Boost Mobile features three of the most popular emcees in hip-hop rapping into their walkie-talkie phones. Incorporating popular music into an advertisement is certainly nothing new, but the lines between art and advertisement are now becoming so blurred that one can hardly tell the difference. This song was originally released inan Ampd Boost mobile commercial and will also appear on The Game's new album.

Busta Rhymes - "Pass the Courvoisier"
Like Nelly, Busta swears he had no intention of establishing a business relationship with Courvoisier when he wrote this song. Not surprisingly, though, after the sales of Napoleon's cognac went up by 20 percent in the United States following the release of the song, the rapper and the alcohol company hopped in bed together with a lucrative promotional deal.

The October 2002 issue of Fortune magazine describes a memo obtained from Sony music in which the company blatantly offers to include product plugs in the lyrics of an upcoming album by boy band B2K. In addition, Lori Lambert, vice president of strategic marketing at Epic Records (the Sony division that represents B2K), said that the same offer could be extended on behalf of "most of our pop acts." Though more blatant than the instances involving Nelly and Busta, the idea remains the same: Hip-hop has sold its soul. All the fake pimps in hip-hop have gleefully accepted their new roles as whores for corporate sponsorship.

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