Common, Microsoft Learn to Make Music Together

Q&A: Rapper on Collaborating With Zune and Hip-Hop's Changing Attitude Toward Brand Partnerships

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- While the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten hawks butter and Usher designs men's lingerie, there's at least one successful artist practicing some rather stringent brand discipline.
Common: 'Microsoft is classy, it's a timeless brand, and it means something to the world.'
Common: 'Microsoft is classy, it's a timeless brand, and it means something to the world.'

In his 20 years in hip-hop, Common has issued seven albums and partnered with even less advertisers, but, in anticipation of his latest release, "Universal Mind Control," due this December, the Grammy-winning rapper (born Lonnie Rashied Lynn) decided to work with Microsoft -- a decision, he says, he didn't take lightly.

And judging from the number of platforms the partnerships spans, neither did Microsoft. The software giant and music-hardware upstart is sponsoring his current tour with N.E.R.D., and backstage footage from a gig in Seattle is being used for a new artist video-podcast series called "The Green Room," available exclusively on Zune's newly revamped desktop software. Common and the Zune team also have a T-shirt line in the works, and the iPod challenger even got a brief cameo in the video for Common's latest single.

The Chicago native took a moment away from the tour bus to speak with Ad Age about how hip-hop musicians and marketers have come together, and why he's fine with integrating an MP3 player into his new Hype Williams-directed music video.

M&V: I saw the video for "Universal Mind Control," and I almost missed the Zune that appeared in the first five seconds.

Common: The video, or any visual, is very important to me, and for me to be open to showing a product in my video means a lot, because it's a representation of me. With anything I associate myself with, I think, "Is it gonna help or bring me down?" The Zune is something that I've been confident about associating myself with, because I think it's got a fly presentation to it. It is truly about music lovers, for me.

M&V: What persuaded you to work with Microsoft?

Common: Their tradition. ... I know that Microsoft has been around for 20 years, they established themselves in the mid-'80s, and since then they've progressed. Microsoft is classy, it's a timeless brand, and it means something to the world, internationally, and I felt like that's the direction of what I want Common to be, to be honest. I want to be timeless, I want to be international, and those are the things I feel like I'm working toward now. I was able to team up with them for some of those reasons. Like I said, I liked creatively where they wanted to go. Actually Microsoft and I are about to do a line of T-shirts coming out in November. I'm designing them.

M&V: Do you feel like Microsoft has similar goals to you?

Common: Yeah, definitely. Because I listen to what they want, and they want to touch down with the community and they want to touch the world. And they also obviously want to hit certain audiences that are hip and cool. So yeah, we've got certainly have similar goals. And Bill Gates is a philanthropist and does good things in the world. There's nothing wrong with making money, but you definitely want to be able to give back, and I see the head of their company giving back, so from that point right there, the head is giving back to the people, so that automatically can tie him in with me and make him alright with me and make the company alright with me.

M&V: You've been rapping now for a couple decades. How do you think the hip-hip community's attitude toward brand partnerships has changed since you started?

Common: Before, it used to be, "Oh man, you don't mess with corporations." I mean, you know corporations; they just represented the evils of America at a certain point. They represented capitalism and the exploitation of a lot of people. And hip-hop is so rooted in culture that it's based on a love for art, and art and corporations didn't seem like they mixed, but I think the Sprite commercials [from the mid-'90s] are what started turning it around for a lot of people. They'd go out and get Grand Puba, CL Smooth, Afrika Bambaataa. I remember I knew one of the guys who used to write those commercials, and he was a pure hip-hop dude.

I think more hip-hop artists became open with more people in corporations when the corporations really started to understand the music and respected the artists. So corporations could go out and get [KRS-One], and not just get the popular person, the person of the day.

M&V: As in people who have deeper connections with fans.

Common: A deep connection and a true following.

M&V: So whose attitudes have changed more: rappers or corporations?

Common: I think the rappers' attitudes changed because the corporations, some of them really had a respect for true artists and they knew what they were talking about and they presented things that made sense for the artist. And also artists realized that we have to make a living too, and if it's something that's gonna go well with what I do, then why not do it, 'cause these corporations are making money off it. If I mention something in a rap, they're making money off it anyway, so why shouldn't I get a piece of it?

For more on the wild and wooly world of music-branding, licensing and partnerships, check out Ad Age's Songs for Soap blog.
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