I don't mean that there are no more hip-hop samples to be found in TV spots. Of course, there are still plenty. Rather, it's where they're found that demonstrates hip-hop's inevitable reversal of fortune-in high-end commercials, at least-and explains why "the beat of the '90s" is already feeling like yesterday to composers and creatives alike.
Three years is a long time for anything in the mass culture business, but that's roughly how long hip-hop has been the rhythm of the moment in television advertising. Once firmly on the edge, hip-hop is now the province of the middle: middle class, middle age, middle brow and middle market.
Here in New York, transit ads for an FM station proclaim 1997 to be "The year of hip-hop." Sports producers use it as a generic highlight groove. And commercials for decidedly unhip categories as insurance companies, mutual funds and comfort insoles feature "street" beats just as often as do those for the soft drinks, fast cars, sneakers, jeans and other brands of youth and cool that gave hip-hop its advertising cachet in the first place. With so little else on the musical template remotely resembling newness, hip-hop has had an easy time mesmerizing composers and holding our allegiance. Now that the mania has progressed from saturation to redundancy, it's worth asking what made the beat go on so long, what made it go south, and what's next on the musical horizon to make spots sizzle and consumers buy.
Hip-hop's here-there-and-everywhere role in commercials resulted from a particular confluence of creative, cultural and budgetary forces. Every so often, a buzz develops in edit suites around the country, as if by some grand design; and within weeks, it seems, no scratch track is without the same music from the same hot soundtrack or composer. Though Trainspotting is the most recent and vivid example, the list goes back through Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and Twin Peaks, to name just a few. But what distinguishes hip-hop from these soundtracks is that it's a product not of a single radical film but of an era of radical music, spawned not by filmmakers but by musicians. Tiring of a decades-old power rock palette, spots composers eagerly lined up at the music shop to buy the latest hip-hop sample CDs. With Gato Yashiki's drum samples all over the charts, we put them all over our tracks. Indeed, we wanted to create hip-hop music as much as our clients wanted to hear it.
But the reasons for hip-hop's domination in commercials don't end with its appeal to composers and creatives. It's music made for dancing, after all, and terrific to cut to. It's based largely on sixteenth-note figures, and therefore wonderfully energetic for athletic and automotive executions. It's instantly recognizable, and superbly targeted. And, of course, it's all-digital, sparsely arranged and ideally suited to the project-studio culture of low budgets and quick turnarounds. In short, we embraced it for the same reasons record companies did: it was hot, and it was cheap.
And, soon enough, it was overexposed. One need look back only so far as hip-hop's natural precursor-disco-to see how a musical style, also born of the street, went from curiosity (Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby") to legitimacy (the Stones' classic "Miss You") to lounge act (Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive"), all in the blink of an eye. It's no coincidence, then, that certain members of the style police are already dissing hip-hop, in its more recent middle-classified incarnations, as the disco of the '90s.
But there's another reason why, soon enough, hip-hop could be taking its final bows in commercials. It's called techno: the computer-driven minimalist amalgam of electronic sounds that are as defiantly artificial as a Kurzweil's samples are pristine. With a bevy of composers all too eager for something truly new, the techno age, ironically, may come to advertising before it comes to the American Top Ten.
In fact, techno's influences in commercials can already be heard, from Ford Taurus to the Volvo S70 to the Canon Rebel G. Techno hybrids have given U2 and David Bowie new life, and were a key ingredient in Beck's triumphant debut. Truth is, techno could be the most exciting thing to happen in commercials music in a long time. Let's just hope that nobody plays it into the ground.