Hip-hop’s ‘bling’ culture is wooing USA

Despite the violent associations with ‘gangstar’ rappers, hip-hop music and their bling-bling culture are a sure-fire moneyspinner.

Hip-hop is officially happening. Once dismissed by corporate America as a niche musical genre with minimal buying power, hip-hop culture is now spreading its influence across a host of industries and brands are at last taking notice. According to market research company NPD Group, hip-hop CD sales hit $1bn (£545m) in 2003, due largely to massive hits from Eminem and 50 Cent. Furthermore, it is now estimated that the industry as a whole generates over $10bn (£5.4bn) a year.

The larger-than-life entrepreneurs involved in hip-hop influence what people wear, drink and even what they drive, with the potential for cross-promotion seeming limitless. Forbes magazine recently noted that “visionaries foresee hip-hop-inspired housewares, furniture, linens, food, writing instruments… publicly traded hip-hop companies and even a hip-hop entrepreneur rivalling Ralph Lauren or Oprah Winfrey on our list of the World’s Richest People.” Madison Avenue is starting to see hip-hop stars such as LL Cool J, Eve, Missy Elliott and Jay Z as hot property that can shift client products – especially as hip-hop has merged with so many other youth cultures, while urban sounds and style have influenced the suburbs of middle-America.

There’s a strong entrepreneurial streak that runs through many hip-hop artists, as they diversify outside the music business to build their empires. It is undoubtedly partly ego-driven as they like to define what is cool for their fans, whether it’s drinking Cristal champagne, wearing Gucci or driving a Cadillac. While brands initially benefited in a haphazard way from mentions in songs (Run DMC praised “My Adidas” in a 1986 song) and on record sleeves, the arrangements are now much more formal and lucrative and the artists are keen to create their own brands around their own image.

Russell Simmons is widely acknowledged as the original hip-hop mogul who paved the way for the brand extensions that are so common today. The creation of Def Jam Records in the Eighties helped to bring hip-hop into the mainstream and his Simmons Latham Media Group is expert at cashing in on its burgeoning popularity. Simmons is described on his website as “a master visionary, hip-hop entrepreneur and cultural icon” who has apparently managed to systematically “revolutionise every aspect of popular culture over the course of the past 25 years.” His empire includes clothing, television, theatre, jewellery and even financial services. SLMG estimates that 45.3 million consumers spend $12.6bn (£6.8bn) a year on hip-hop media and merchandise. It also says that 80 per cent of this 13- to 34-year-old age group are white, with a total spending power of $1trillion.

Following in the well-shod footsteps of the Def Jam founder are the likes of Sean “P Diddy” Combs, Jay Z and Damon Dash, all eager to capitalise on their high-profile positions in this fast-growing market. One thing is clear – shy and self-effacing these people are not. Comb’s Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group calls itself “one of the world’s pre-eminent entertainment companies” and says Combs has forever changed the industry by “bringing the music and style of urban youth culture into the mainstream”. BBWEG generates close to $300m (£163m) a year and includes a full-service agency, Blue Flame Marketing & Advertising, that counts Calvin Klein, Coors Light and Microsoft among its clients. The group also includes restaurants and artist management.

Jay-Z and Damon Dash co-own the Roc-A-Fella empire that includes the Roc-A-Wear clothes line, films, fragrance and recently agreed a “strategic relationship to market and promote” the Armadale Vodka brand. Alongside Blue Flame, other agencies have sprung up that specialise in linking into the hip-hop culture, such as Brand Pimps & Media Whores (BPMW!), a New York agency that works on urban menswear PR and does brand consulting for the Roc-A-Wear clothing line.

Clothes and footwear are a big part of the hip-hop lifestyle and labels are definitely on show. P Diddy recently won Best Menswear Designer at the American Fashion Awards for his Sean John label. Having sold successfully through other outlets and now enjoying multi-million dollar retail sales, the brand will open its first standalone store this month. Female star Eve has also got into the fashion business, albeit in a less conventional way, with a range of Fetish clothing that achieved $50m (£27.2m) in sales last year. The S Carter line of trainers by Jay Z for Reebok was considered a risky move, as it was the first by a non-athlete. It soon proved to be a useful tactic as it became the fastest-selling line and remains a best-seller. In February, Simmons sold his Phat Fashions empire to clothing giant Kellwood for $140m (£76m), but remains chief executive.

Roc-A-Wear is best known in the UK for being modelled by Victoria Beckham, but in the US it has retail sales of $300m (£163m). Roy Edmondson is vice-president of marketing for “The Roc” as Dash and Jay Z’s empire is now called. He notes that: “Rap and hip-hop are definitely big influencers on the way people look and dress in the US. There is a huge fascination with ‘the street’ and people love the idea of the ‘ghetto fabulous’ look.” He says that outside the US, the biggest markets for hip-hop brands are Japan and then Germany, followed by the UK. There is one small problem though, “In the US, our sizes start at XXL and go up from there, so to develop our business in Europe we are having to deal with the sizing issue.”

The drinks industry, whether it’s soft drinks or hard “liquor”, has long been an image-conscious one. Jay Z gave a fond mention to Armadale Vodka in one song and Damon Dash says “Roc-A-Fella has always respected quality vodkas… and we feel Armadale is of elite quality.” Meanwhile, Jermaine Dupri, owner of the So So Def company, has become co-owner of a brand called 3 Vodka that claims to be carbohydrate free – tapping into the Atkins’ craze alongside hip-hop. Rap star Nelly is no stranger to courting controversy through brands, as he launched his “Pimp Juice” energy drink to many raised eyebrows in the US and talk of boycotts. This didn’t stop the drink selling 1 million units in the first three months after launch and gaining a strong distribution in 32 states.

One of the ultimate lifestyle statements is a car and stars are keen to promote their life at the wheel. Ford launched the Sean John Lincoln Navigator and Volvo has recently got in on the act, arguably to cultivate a more hip and youthful image. Ads for Volvo Cars of North America featured the music of Dilated Peoples promoting the Volvo S40. LL Cool J did the voice-overs, while music-video director Dave Meyers shot the ads. Thomas Anderson, VCNA executive vice-president, marketing, says: “The tone is youthful and confident, but not arrogant. With this campaign we will show that Volvo can be sexy and fun.” It remains to be seen whether the campaign will have the desired effect or whether it will simply be seen as me-too marketing, trying to jump onto a bandwagon that doesn’t suit it.

The American dream is a big aspect of the hip-hop success story and partly explains why fans think it’s all right for these artists to endorse products in a way no other musical genre could credibly get away with. Many of the biggest names in hip-hop claim to have come from impoverished, or at least from very humble, beginnings. Artists like to remind their fans that if they work hard, they too could be part of the dream and be “bling” like them.

Corporations in the US used to be put off the genre by the “gangstar’ associations of violence and controversy, from high-profile court cases, to the murder of some of its biggest stars. In the UK meanwhile, the shooting of Radio 1 hip-hop DJ Tim Westwood in a drive-by in 1999 as well as the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Asher D of UK collective So Solid Crew for illegal firearm possession in 2001, suggest that similar risks are also present in the UK. But many driven and determined artists are arguably becoming more influential on youth than today’s politicians. Anyone that can grab the attention of the key 13- to 34-year-old demographic, wields a lot of marketing power.

While home-grown hip-hop is finally beginning to assert itself in the UK, it remains in relative infancy and has not got as far as creating strong brands beyond music. The big US names look set to take a large stake of the UK market for hip-hop music and products. There are undoubtedly inherent risks involved using hip-hop within a corporate marketing plan, but as the explosive growth in the US has shown, the risks of ignoring this genre may prove to be far greater than getting involved – so pass the Pimp Juice, Mos Def.

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business editor

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