Power of Influence: Hip-Hop’s Rocky Relationship with Brands and Product
Throughout the hallways in high school you would hear the ringtones of popular rappers, but it was the popular hip-hop fashions that truly grabbed our attention.
I saw more Air Force Ones than Jordans when Nelly released his single in 2002. Fila’s were everywhere when Lil Scrappy was heard across the radio preaching his everlasting love for Atlanta. Kanye had a few kids wearing pink Polo’s when College Dropout dropped but it was Young Dro, sometime after the eruption of “Shoulder Lean,” that really made kids crave Ralph Lauren in the A. All Dro wore was Ralph, he was the poster child that sent us running to the mall for collared shirts and button ups. All the fake Bape, Red Monkey, Evisu, and Louis Vuitton all connected to what was happening in rap. When I was 13 I bought a fake Louis V book bag. I knew it was fake - resembling the one that Kanye sported but not for the price that Kanye paid. Shortcuts in life are roads that rarely lead to the imagined destination, especially when it comes to fake products made to look like luxury brands. The bag lasted two weeks before the strap snapped, a future I should’ve foresaw. I witnessed and was spellbound by their influence.
When I got older, while listening to Biggie, I had a craving for the colorful Coogi sweaters he wore and rapped about. For Halloween or 90’s parties it was Adidas jumpsuits and three striped low tops to resemble Run-D.M.C. I had a closet full of over-sized streetwear because The Hundreds, LRG, and Diamond Supply were all being worn by the up-in-comers that we knew would breakout. A Ti$a snapback is still on my streetwear bucket list.
After graduating from E&J and Christian Brothers, Hennessy was the drink of choice, not because it's a quality cognac but because Tupac downed bottles while battling his enemies. You don’t see brands and marketing when you're young, just what’s cool and what isn’t. Rappers are the reasons so many of these kids today look like grunge rockstars. The brands are second to the men and women who wear them. Rap artists are the faces, the spokesmen/women, the creative directors, and the master advertisers who take product and present them to the masses in a way they can’t help but want. Products that don’t belong to them.
Run-D.M.C. scored the first big endorsement deal in hip-hop history. They took Adidas from a shoe and apparel company, a style, a song, into a million dollar payday. That deal was hatched before my day, but the contracts inked that I do recall are Nelly getting his own limited edition Air Derrty shoes after "Air Force One," Kanye eventually scoring his own LV sneaker, even Busta gaining a promotional deal with Courvoisier’s parent company after the success of his big single - moments showing how brands and hip-hop can coincide.
It never occurred to me how rare that is. How rap artists can speak of brands in songs, wear the clothes of companies in their videos, be walking, rapping billboards but not receive the slightest opportunity with these very companies. It goes back to Young Dro. It’s impossible to know if his wearing of Polo clothing helped the company's bottom line. But he did have the number one rap record in the world, number 10 on Billboard Hot 100. “Shoulder Lean” was everywhere. I know kids in Atlanta, many kids, who wore Polo because he did. Chevy’s the color of whirlwinds and Polo cardigans in every color. Polo was seen in all his videos and photoshoots, his sophomore album at the time was meant to be titled P.O.L.O (Playas. Only. Live. Once), heck, his Twitter and Instagram handles are “Dropolo,” but he was never endorsed by Ralph.
In an interview from 2015, Dro talks about why he stopped wearing the brand that became his trademark. He admits to spending over 5 million dollars on Polo clothing without receiving any endorsement, free clothes, nothing at all. Migos rapper Quavo echoed a similar sentiment a few years ago during the height of “Versace.” The group was still spending their own money for the clothing and the entire "Versace" music video is nothing but Versace, yet while their song was played to conclude Versace's Milan fashion week, they didn't receive an endorsement from the company. Versace has a pretty good history with hip-hop, which dates back to Tupac walking the runway at the 1996 Versace menswear show that was also hosted in Milan. Maybe they weren’t fond of the three amigos but they were fine supporting the song. It’s not a crime to promote free promotion but it shows how brands can capitalize without giving artists anything in return.
“You promoting something you like. It’s not even promoting it, you’re just talking about it. Hip Hop is about expression,” he said. “You’re talking about something you like and it catches on in culture. You’re an unpaid spokesman for this brand. You’re generating millions and millions of dollars for that brand. And for that brand not to say at least thank you it's a huge slap in the face” - Jay Z
It makes you wonder, has Uber reached out to Madeintyo about future partnerships? His song is a pretty big deal. For how often Mick Jenkins mentions water why haven’t we seen him collaborate with a big water company like Dasani, Fuji, or Vitamin Water? His biggest mixtape centered around water and drinking more of it. Is there a chance Desiigner will appear in a BMW commercial? Some connections just make sense. Think of all the rappers wearing Gucci belts but the only collaboration happening between rappers and Gucci is with Gucci Mane. Even outside of clothing - Hamburger Helper has no problem dropping a rap, trap-inspired mixtape, but they have yet to support a rapper who really raps about water whipping and feeding the streets. I see countless ads full of rap lyrics but none that actually back any rappers.
Notice how quickly brands and companies will react on Twitter when something happens in rap or hip-hop. How quickly they chime in on Meek and Drake or Beyonce and Jay Z. Anything popular and cool gets coverage, but it comes without an endorsement. Rap, like much of black culture, is cool to interact with, cool to thrive off of, but isn’t stood beside. Isn’t endorsed. Isn’t supported. They are here for the good times and only the good times.
There was a bit of controversy at the time because the classic preppy base abandoned the Tommy brand when it was adopted by the hip-hop community. And when hip-hop moved on to a new trend, you were left hanging.
Look, it fueled a lot of growth, but it took us away from our roots. We came back to our roots 10 years ago; that’s when our business started to really stabilize and grow again. When people ask me advice, I say stick to who you are. Stick to your guns. There is an image and attitude to most brands and that’s really important. I like to stick to my heritage and not chase trends and at that point we were chasing trends. Chasing trends was easy but it was dangerous. It’s more important to me now to be consistent. - Tommy Hilfiger 2014
Tommy Hilfiger said in his 2014 interview with Bloomberg that transitioning to focus on hip-hop was stepping away from the preppy brand that was his original vision. Even though rumors he was a racist were proven to be false, his statement rubs me the wrong way. He was fine in the 90’s riding the wave, getting behind artists like Aaliyah, Usher, and Snoop Dogg because hip-hop was being well-received by the audience that was gravitating to his clothes. He wanted to jump on the wave, ride the trendy train, but that’s all hip-hop was to him, a trend. One that he was never loyal to. Again, I never saw brands or the men who were behind them, just the people wearing them. It never occurred to me that the person who is receiving the most money could care the least about the culture. We saw what happened with Cristal. Hip-hop’s most well known beverage quickly became a bad taste that hasn’t been mentioned since Jay Z’s boycott. That’s the power of influence, if you are truly influential you can both spark a fire and you can quickly douse it.
“Hilfiger immediately understood the money to be made if he could align himself with popular rap stars. Andy Hilfiger began giving trunks of clothes away to any rapper with a recording contract. Soon icons in the ‘hood like Raekwon and Coolio began wearing Tommy Hilfiger on their concert tours and in their videos.””Having the music puts a certain image over the brand,” Hilfiger told The New York Times. ”If you don’t have the music, you don’t have the cool. You don’t have the young people. Every designer has a certain type of cool they’re trying to put in operation.” - Digging Deeper | The Racism Scandal That Rocked Tommy Hilfiger
Image is still everything. Sprite isn’t going to get behind Future, knowing that the Sprite he promotes is too dirty for their clean user base who won’t obey that thirst. Nas has been rapping about Hennessy since Illmatic but it wasn’t until late in his career, after he got involved in the corporate side of the business, that he became the voice and face of the drink. Kanye has always been fashionable, trendsetting but he is just now breaking through the glass ceiling when it comes to entering the fashion world. Some artists just have a smooth transition. Lil Yatchy hasn’t dropped an album but he has influence and that’s why he’s already been able to partner with Puma and Pink Dolphin. Lil Dicky has done a great job transitioning into the commercial world. You can hear his song “Save Dat Money” in Old Navy’s new ads, he's the awkward spokesman for Trojan and is featured in a national spot for Carl's Jr. Amazing. It took Lil Wayne his entire career to pour champagne on a waterproof phones and Lil Dicky is already accomplishing similar commercial success. Meanwhile Kayla Newman, who coined “on fleek,” got to watch her viral term get repurposed on terrible t-shirts, used in ads, and on social media by corporate companies without receiving a dime or even the slightest nod of recognition for her inventiveness. The internet has a funny way of blessing some and ignoring others.
I understand why Diddy created Sean Jean clothing, why Jay and Dame had Roc-A-Wear, why Tyler has Golf, and why Drake has OVO fashion. If they won’t give you money to wear their clothes, you create and wear your own. If liquor companies won’t endorse you, find one that will. Go find a Ciroc, go find a D’USSE. Artists have to become the brand and the face. If they want your cool, if they want your uniqueness, if they want the swagger, make them pay you or make your own.
We live in a time where visibility is everything. Materialism and individuality go hand and hand. I hate how so many rappers and creative individuals aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve because such an influential culture isn’t respected as an artform. Black culture and black people aren’t respected for their influence. They can help brands more than hurt them. This won’t be understood until the boasting and bragging cease to be about their products. Then they will recognize the power rap and hip-hop truly holds. Or maybe they won't. Even a blind man wouldn't have such blind optimism.
By Yoh, aka D.I.Y(oh) aka @Yoh31
Photo Credit: 300