Corporate America cozies up to hip-hop

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Artists descending on Miami tonight to celebrate The Source's Hip-Hop Music Awards will be as cutting edge as ever, but many of the show's sponsors will be much more mainstream.

Even ultra-conservative Detroit is getting in on the BET broadcast this year, as General Motor Corp.'s Pontiac unit joins top-line sponsors Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile, Nike's Brand Jordan and video game publisher Activision.

The interest in what's billed as the Super Bowl of hip-hop comes as big-name advertisers fawn over fans of Scarface, Bonecrusher, Lil' Kim and Ashanti as their influence increasingly shapes the country's culture. "Corporate America has realized hip-hop is here to stay," said Josh Taekman, president of Buzz-tone, a branded entertainment agency with offices in New York and Los Angeles. "It influences fashion trends and it is how corporate America builds credible relationships."

That's a big shift from The Source's early days. David Mays, the 34-year-old founder and CEO of The Source Enterprises, recalls that "from 1988 to 1993 it was about advertisers most closely associated with the [hip-hop] movement. From then onwards, we started to break into other industries that wanted to target urban teens with sneakers and soft drinks. Fashion advertisers then began to take root and that set off major companies that sold products like deodorants and cars."

Today, The Source has grown its business to include not only a magazine and events business, but a line of urban wear that is marketed through stores such as Sears, Roebuck & Co., J.C.Penney Co. and Marshalls. "Only within the last two to three years has there been a corporate awakening. It has definitely been an evolution," said Mr. Mays.

Auto marketers have been particularly receptive to the movement, particularly since cars-especially customized ones-have become a big part of hip hop. For a long time, "nobody in Detroit would take our calls," said Chris White, VP-corporate sales for The Source. "But we've been recognized."

As part of its estimated half-million dollar sponsorship package, for example, GM will "trick out a whip" in urban parlance, or customize a Pontiac for the show.


Others are also trying custom cars. Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln earlier this year arranged a deal to have Sean "P. Diddy" Combs design a limited edition Sean John Navigator. Automakers are also actively taking part in "Hot Import Nights," a traveling tour arranged by Vision Entertainment that gives consumers a chance to show off their customized vehicles. More than 80% of attendees, called "tuners," are under 25, said Carin Galletta, a Vision spokeswoman. Tuners started in California with imports that were easy to customize; now Detroit has added more accessories for tuners, and more American cars are turning up at the shows.

Motown marketers are also using more hip-hop music in ads. GM's African-American agency, Carol H. Williams Advertising, Oakland, Calif., is using a custom song with a hip-hop beat, but played with classical instruments in a commercial being developed for GMC's Yukon XL. Attik, San Francisco, tapped Human Worldwide, New York, to create a hip-hop song for one of four launch TV spots for Scion, Toyota Motor Sales USA's sub-brand, a few months ago, said David Skaff, senior broadcast producer of the shop. Separately Vigilante, New York, GM's youth agency, created a custom hip-hop song as part of the launch of Pontiac's youth-targeted Vibe sport wagon. The company now distributes that song as part of a CD called "Music to Drive By" at Pontiac events.

There may be a reason for not using hip-hop artists in the spots. Pepsi-Cola Co. caught flack for severing links with Ludacris over his bad language, while Reebok, a sponsor of last year's Source Awards, also dropped its association with R. Kelly after he was indicted on child molestation charges. Reebok has been bolder, working with Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Mary J. Blige.

That so many marketers are attaching themselves to the hip-hop movement could be a sign that the cultural movement is about to enter a new phase. Larry Samuel, New York-based author of "The Trend Commandments," points out that McDonald's latest campaign "I'm lovin' it," signals that hip-hop can't get any more mainstream. "Hip-hop is where rock n'roll was in the '70s. It's evolved into a safe place. The whole East Coast/West Coast hip-hop wars have largely been resolved because right now there's too much bling-bling in it for everyone."

white audience

Mr. Samuel also observes that there are now more white people buying hip-hop products than black. He predicts that hip-hop will enter a new phase of mutation causing more diverse subgroups to emerge. "The face of the demo is just as likely to be rich white kids in Des Moines, Iowa, as it is black kids from Bedford-Stuyversant. Hip-hop is a musical and cultural force that has crossed the boundaries," Mr. Mays said.

Curtis Blow, the first hip-hop artist to receive a gold record for sales of "The Breaks," released in 1980, however, claims that mainstream marketers were there from the start. He said he starred in a Sprite commercial in the early `80s and recollects doing spots for both Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. But even he's been surprised by hip-hop's appeal around the globe. "Who could imagine there'd be kids in the Middle East rapping about Israel and Palestine. Hip-hop culture has influenced every different country," he said. "I didn't plan on that."

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