Hip-hop artists fall under the corporate spell — without regrets
The marriage between hip-hop and Madison Avenue can be traced to a 1986 concert at Madison Square Garden where headliner Run-DMC encouraged 20,000 die-hard fans to hold their Adidas sneakers in the air. With Adidas executives conveniently standing in the stage wings, the legendary trio later negotiated a $1.5 million deal to market their own sneakers and accessories, opening the floodgates to the commercialization of hip-hop culture.
Since then, the hip-hop nation has witnessed some memorable campaigns, including the Ice Cube-driven St. Ides malt liquor ads that aired in the early '90s, and the Sprite spots that encouraged heads to obey their thirst via Grand Puba and Large Professor freestyles. These days, many commercials have been hip-hopnotized, and perhaps no other figure represents the pimping of the elements more than Calvin Broadus.
As Snoop Doggy Dogg and later Snoop Dogg, Broadus has parlayed a multi-platinum recording career into a stint as the ultimate pitchman, using his Southern drawl to successfully peddle everything from porn to PDAs. Like Will Smith and Cube, Snoop has become the consummate raptor (rapper/actor), with his ninth album again dominating the pop charts.
For San Antonio underground emcee and producer mic.Dagger, who is opening for the Doggfather, Snoop isn't selling out as much as crossing over with his Girls Gone Wild videos, his voice-over work in the movie Racing Stripes, and his turn as Huggy Bear in the film version of Starsky and Hutch.
mic.Dagger and the Prhymemates, San Anto's premier hip-hop collective, are also delving into commercial ventures, including one with Scion, a division of Toyota, and the car company's marketing firm known as The Rebel Organization. With Scion's backing, the Prhymemates have attracted national acts to San Antonio including underground darlings Aceyalone, Jedi Mind Tricks, and Del the Funky Homosapien.
"Scion kind of stepped in at the point where our monthly dues weren't coming in as frequently as they were at the beginning," says Dagger. "We were running out of money from throwing shows because we were barely breaking even or losing money on all the shows that we were doing. So they were kind of a savior at the time for saying, 'Hey, here's some money. Keep doing your shows.' Now we see it as a corporate sponsor but we're like, 'fuck it.' If we didn't have Scion we probably would have fizzled out a year-and-half ago."
According to Dagger and the Prhymemates, the Rebel Organization's marketing scheme hasn't interfered with their creativity. "The two or three people that we've been dealing with at Scion have been extremely true to the culture that we know and love, and are in no way trying to tamper with it. They're not trying to commercialize it at all. They have absolutely no say or bearing on who we bring to town, what we do with the show, or where their money goes. They really pressure us to make sure that it's as genuine as can be. I can't see any form of them trying to corrupt what we're doing in any way."
Yet, music critic Greg Tate sees the marketplace undermining hip-hop's original street-level, political ambitions, with its fans as willing participants in the genre's demise. "So that hip-hop floats through the virtual marketplace of branded icons as another consumable ghost, parasitically feeding off the host of the real world's people - urbanized and institutionalized - whom it will claim 'til its dying day to 'represent.' And since those people just might need nothing more from hip-hop in their geopolitically circumscribed lives than the escapism, glamour, and voyeurism of hip-hop, why would they even chasten hip-hop for not steady ringing the alarm about the African-American AIDS crisis, or for romanticizing incarceration more than attacking the prison-industrial complex, or for throwing a lyrical bone at issues of intimacy or literacy or, heaven forbid, debt relief in Africa and the evils perpetuated by the World Bank and the IMF on the Motherland?"
Dagger responds to that criticism by noting that corporations are necessary if artists are to earn a living and reach a large audience. "Our whole movement is supposed to be opposed to corporate hip-hop and what is stands for and what it does to the art form. In reality, what do you do without corporate hip-hop? Just rap after you get home from your nine-to-five? Go make somebody else a millionaire and then come home and have fun with your own shit? I've been rapping for props for a long time. I'm trying to make myself a millionaire." •
By M. Solis