It's Not Selling Out if the Brand Suits You

Hip-Hop Vets KRS One and Dre Talk About How to Maneuver in a Branded World

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NEW YORK (Madison & Vine) -- Madison & Vine was at New York's Element nightclub the other night for the kickoff to Smirnoff's Signature Mix Series campaign. As the club started to fill with a chain-gang of invitees to the Diageo brand's exclusive party, we caught up with 20-year hip-hop veteran KRS One, aka "The Teacha," father of seminal hip-hop tracks like "You Must Learn" and co-founder of Boogie Down Productions, as well as producer Dre, of Cool and Dre of "Hate It or Love It" fame, in a side lounge to get their thoughts on branded entertainment and the state of the record industry.
KRS One
Photo: Dorothy Hong

KRS One

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Madison & Vine: Do you feel like you need to move a million albums to be successful these days?

KRS One: Hell no! You need to move a million iTunes hits, you need a million YouTube hits, you need a MySpace, and you need to do your tour, man! That's what you need these days. What a great time we're living in. I prayed for these days. I prayed for the day that when I did a record, I had the means of putting it right in front of my audience with no bullshit in between. That's what I wanted, and I got it, and so I don't have no complaints.

Dre: No. I think you just need to know how to brand yourself. I know a lot of people that don't sell a million records, and they make a shit load of money on the road, getting $25,000 to $30,000 a show doing four shows a week. You're living alright, you're living good.

M&V: Do you believe brands have the potential to change the industry's business model?

Dre: They're doing it now. Look at Verizon and a lot of companies that have digital channels. ... Once artists find a way around the middleman to connect with a particular brand, then there'll be no more record companies, you know what I'm saying? If record companies are looking towards big corporations to take their music and brand it, if that's what they're doing, they're letting you know what you should be doing.

KRS One: Let me tell you the truth and be real humble with it right now: This is what is keeping KRS alive. Not just financially-- these people are paying big money, OK? This is totally unrelated to Smirnoff, but you look at my SoundScan, I barely do 10-20,000 records these days. Barely! KRS! Barely! Nelly sold 10 million, and his single was "Air Force Ones"! Nike bypasses him and goes straight to KRS and others. ... It's a new day dawning!

M&V: So you're not afraid of losing your credibility?

KRS One: No, not at all. They'll see the light. I stand on truth. I make sure every move I make is on truth. So this is a truth move. It's not about the money. It's not. Well, maybe it is to my wife. But for me, I can't play myself; I can't just be seen with a liquor thing and some bullshit DJ, and then a record that's bullshit. But you don't need to ask me twice to work with [DJ] Premier on a classic track like "Criminal Minds."

Dre: If you're an artist and you make music about abstinence and stuff like that, you shouldn't go out there and let Viagra sponsor your tour, you know what I'm saying? You find whatever brand is gonna suit the type of things that you're doing.

M&V: What about product placement in lyrics?

KRS One: I love it. I've changed my mind about that. My students-- and I hate to say students, my apprentices-- the dudes that were there in the '80s and the '90s, are now the dudes with the mike in my face, the dudes signing the checks, the dudes behind the camera. So it's like, "Damn, what do you do?" You keep beating your fans? You keep beating your family? You keep cursing out your own apprentice?
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