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Product Placement in Rap Music Lyrics

Came in the Range, hopped out that Lexus.

Every year since, I been on that next shit.

Traded in the gold for the Platinum Rolex's

Now a nigga wrist match the status of my records.

-- Jay Z, On To The Next One

Parapa...the original gangsta.

Parapa...the original gangsta.

Product placement is so cleverly embedded into today's various forms of media, it should be no surprise that music lyrics (like the ones above) have a litany of references to brand names and labels. Scroll through the radio channels and you can easily hear a half dozen references to cars, fine wines, watches and the all-inclusive bling bling. Yet, unlike most genres, rap music seems to be (by and large) the biggest perpetrator. Why is that? Are rap artists more likely to sell out to corporations and fat checks?

Ok, to be fair product placement in popular songs has a very long and detailed history; dating back to 1908 when John Norworth wrote the words to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," giving The Cracker Jack Company a century of free advertising and good sales. However, I focus on rap music because things are getting ridiculous. For example, I hear so many rap music references to "push-button start", that sometimes I feel like I am listening to a Toyota infomercial. The situation is so bad that I am almost to ready to declare Parapa (picture above) as my favorite rap artist. Therefore, in my infernal irritation I decided to investigate further...

Jay Z with his brand Ace of Spades

Jay Z with his brand Ace of Spades

The Myth

The basic skeptic in me says: "Of course rappers get paid to constantly rap about what champagne they guzzle or what shiny diamond watch they choose to accessorize. I mean why mention all that stuff for free?" The surprising truth is that rap and hip hop were not always about brands and branded messages. Early rap groups used brands in their lyrics as simply a way of self expression. For example, there is no evidence that Run DMC's hit single "My Adidas" was in any way influenced by the large shoemaker. As stated in this 2003 MTV article, it was only "when Adidas execs saw thousands of fans waving their unlaced shoes up in the air at a Run-DMC show in '86, a light bulb went off." Run DMC was later offered a 1.5 million dollar deal.

Even today, most artists adamantly claim to only include and promote brands that they personally have a liking for. I believe the term that people in the industry use is "organic"...the artist has an "organic" liking of a particular label and so they rap about it....pure and simple.

The Awful Truth

Well, well you learn something new everyday. According to the artists themselves, most rap is supposed to be "organic", low fat and probably fair trade. And for all intents and purposes, most rap probably is. Also, In some well publicized cases, rap artists have gone so far as to s@*# on some brands when they felt insulted by company execs. Take for instance the blow up between Jay-z and the hit champagne Cristal.

In 2006 article of the Economist Frederic Rouzaud, managing director of the company that makes Cristal, stated that his company viewed the popularity of his company's wine amongst rappers with "curiosity and serenity." Furthermore, when asked if he thinks the association between his company's brand and the rapper lifestyle was bad, he was quoted as saying:

"That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Don Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business."

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Ever the showstopper, Jay-Z found Rouzaud's comments insulting if not altogether racist. He pulled Cristal from the shelves of his most famous nightclubs and went on an anti-Cristal campaign that has yet to let up. He has even gone so far as to express his fury through lyrics as shown here:

"I used to drink Cristal, them fuckers racist.

So I switched gold bottles on to that spade shit.

You gonna have another drink or you just gonna babysit?

On to the next one, somebody call the waitress."

---Jay -z, On To the Next One.

Of course "that spade shit" that Jay-Z is referring to is Ace of Spades (or as it is properly called Armand de Brignac) a brand produced by Champagne Cattier. Packaged and shipped in oversize gold metallic bottles, this champagne seems curiously tailor-made for rap videos. However, there is a backstory to this little known liquor. Due to some investigative journalism by the Atlantic Monthly, Jay-Z may not have developed an "organic" liking for Ace of Spades so much as it is his own damn brand of champagne. --Marcy son.

But hey, that's not selling out, it's just business acumen. If I were being paid four million a year, I would bathe in Ace of Spades let alone drink it. Yet still there are increasingly clear instances of rap music pandering to corporate sponsorship. None so clear as the Busta Rhymes and Sea "Puffy" Combs collaboration "Pass the Courvoisier" and "Pass the Courvoisier Part II." After which the maker of Courvoisier, Allied Domecq made collaboration deals with both their respective management companies.


The Awfuller Truth

The truth of the matter is, some rap music along with most pop and a few other popular genres are the musical equivalent of bright neon billboards advertising viagara and diet pills. I'm not saying this to be mean. It is simply a sign of the times. As record companies struggle under the weight of new technologies, new aggressive forms of piracy and new distribution platforms; the artist gets stuck with less generous offers and a smaller cut of the record sales. To stand any chance of making serious money, an artist must rely on tours, appearances, sponsorships and yes even the occasional corporate deal.

So it shouldn't be surprising that there is a whole micro-industry dedicated to connecting popular artists with companies and their brands in exchange for ad revenue. Take for example P. Diddy's Blue Flame Marketing and Advertising Firm. A firm with strong simultaneous connections to top luxury brands and top grossing artists. Or even more specific and revealing is Maven Strategies, a Maryland based marketing firm owned and operated by Tony Rome.

Rome's firm does a fantastic job at bridging the gap between an artist's lyrical promotions and branded companies. In some cases, companies shell out millions to be featured on tour buses, band posters, show up in music videos...and yes even to be mentioned in song lyrics. In one famous case, a deal was in the works between Rome's firm, McDonald's and a few other companies that specified that "if rappers would include Big Mac in their lyrics, the fast food giant would pay them between $1 and $5 each time their song was played on the radio."

Unfortunately (or fortunately), the deal never really went through as a deal insider leaked the deal's details to Advertising Age, a leading ad industry web publication. You see corporate media buyers are wise to the game. They are wary of having their brands promoted by a rapper without the promotion seeming organic (there's that word again).

In Conclusion

While most rap artists probably stay true to their urban, ghetto fab roots; many of the real power players are happy to engage in a little corporate back-scratching. Some would argue that not only has hip hop become more entrepreneurial than in the past; but that it is out of necessity and if anything it empowers the artist.

As one record producer so eloquently put it..."hip hop is about the here and now." In the 1980s, the here and now was urban plight, police brutality and drugs. In the new millennium, the here and now is a limitless horizon of monetary possibility. Does this make hip hop more self-centered and egotistical....yes, does this take away from general class consciousness...probably, are rap lyrics slowly rotting my brain and engendering antisocial betcha. But hey if you want you songs to have wholesome themes of eternal love and fellowship listen to christian rock or country; I've still got a bottle of Cristal to finish.

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Kevin Gedney on November 15, 2016:

I enjoyed this article thanks

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