Lyrics To Go: Hip Hop's Struggle With Corporate Endorsements
Rick Ross, Tyler the Creator & Lil Wayne serve as three high profile acts who have already lost promotional revenue this year with the sudden upswing in Rap being publicly vilified.
Since Hip Hop managed to capture the globe, business has been the unstated yet quite welcome sixth element—after emceeing, deejaying, B-boying, graffiti art, and knowledge/overstanding of the culture. Entertainers find themselves further capitalizing off of the charm that translates into mass fervor. Whether MC Hammer’s embarrassing dance for KFC’s popcorn chicken, more respectable box office success such as Kid & Play, Ice Cube, and Will Smith or the likes of Jay-Z, Diddy, and Nelly being amongst the many to own clothing lines. These days, side ventures are not only encouraged but also expected as an added perk of stardom. However, 2013 seems to be a tough time for extending one’s image through outside branding, as there seems to be a reignited the hunger to paint Rap as a plague to society. Unfortunately emcees are making themselves easy targets for otherwise preventable misfortunes, resultant in the swift cancellation of their endorsement deals.
Hip Hop’s Eternal Conflict With Greater Society
Though the trend has recently taken on new life, conflict between corporate America and Rap is nothing new. Reverend Calvin Butts took to Harlem’s streets in 1993 attempting to steamroll any variety of profane Rap CDs. The steamrolling was aborted in favor of a boycott in front of Sony’s Madison Avenue location in Manhattan and a meeting with the emcees he angered. These days, other than his dated rhetoric serving as the intro to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Thuggish Ruggish Bone,” Butts has other issues to worry about. Similar efforts by civil rights activist, C. Delores Tucker were met with resistance. After buying 10 shares of stock in Time Warner in 1995, Tucker was at least partially responsible for convincing the media giant to divest a 50% share in Interscope Records—and Death Row Records by extension. Tucker’s foresight took a preemptive measure to prevent today’s lyrical obscenities from coming to pass, and her success was a precursor to the modern trend of corporations folding under pressure.
Similarly, Ice T’s attempt to pass “Cop Killer” off as a Heavy Metal song from his side project Body Count found him in hot water. The aspersions cast against his character infringed on his First Amendment right to free speech, with the faulty logic being that Rap possessed the ability to influence the behavior of listeners—a misguided belief still held today. Routinely dismissive of Hip Hop, the ever-opportunistic Bill O’Reilly took the liberty of chastising Pepsi for dealing with Ludacris, whose only musical crime is suggestive philandering that’s considerably more playful than a number of his peers.
With Rick Ross, Tyler the Creator and Lil Wayne serving as three high profile acts who have already lost promotional revenue this year, why the sudden upswing in Rap being publicly vilified? Are emcees so full of themselves that they’ve lost any semblance of lyrical decency? Are consumers overreacting and easily offended where perhaps they shouldn’t be? Most of all, are the big companies who get into business with rappers justified in cutting ties amidst controversies and should they seek to profit from the faces behind questionable art to begin with?
Boss’s Life: Rick Ross, Rape References & Reebok
Never one to back down in the face of adversity, Rick Ross has withstood the type of incidents that usually derail a rapper’s career. His 2009 feud with 50 Cent has largely been forgotten, and he’s survived a handful of seizures and a shooting attempt. Given that Ross has managed to place over 10 singles on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” chart and seen two albums certified gold since TheSmokingGun.com revealed his correctional officer past in 2008, one could argue his hesitance to come clean about a professional life that a well adjusted listener would understand, has helped him. Among Hip Hop’s modern leaders, Ross reshaped the way fans define authenticity as his music spoke greater volumes than any attempt to shame his uncovered past as a corrections officer.
Obedience to trendy drug culture has been a fixture in Hip Hop since as far back as The Chronic, if not before. So while it’s without surprise that Rick Ross jumped aboard the molly bandwagon, I think his proposed usage was both illegal and non-consensual rather than recreational. His now infamous line, “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it…” put a dent in the financial empire it took him years to build. After all, the self-styled “Ricky Rozay” landed at the #12 spot on Forbes magazine’s vaunted “Cash Kings” list in 2012. On French Montana’s “Pop That,” Ross rhymed, “I’m the life of the party / Let’s get these hoes on the molly…” but with “U.O.E.N.O.,” I think he left little if any room for benefit of the doubt.
As if the implication of date rape wasn’t distasteful enough, in an interview with New Orleans radio station WQUE Q93.3 FM the portly emcee made matters worse by refusing to take accountability, claiming his lyrics were misinterpreted.
“Woman is the most precious gift known to man,” Ross offered. “It was a misunderstanding with a lyric—a misinterpretation where the term rape wasn’t used. I would never use the term rape in my records. As far as my camp, Hip Hop don’t condone that. The streets don’t condone that; nobody condones that. So I just wanna reach out to all the queens that’s on my timeline—all the sexy ladies, the beautiful ladies that have been reaching out to me about the misunderstanding. We don’t condone rape, and I’m not with that.”
Evidently Rick Ross’ initial move to rectify this situation was deemed insufficient and felt like an insult to the intelligence of anyone concerned. Protests outside of Reebok’s New York headquarters led to the sneaker company severing ties with Ross and a follow up statement from the MMG boss—likely drawn up by a publicist or similar rep—that was far more remorseful. Given social media’s speed of light news cycle, what was originally intended to be vulgar slick talk on Rocko’s Gift Of Gab 2 mixtape (which would have otherwise flown under the radar of most offended parties) became a nationwide story once again depicting Rap as a plague to society.
Since parting ways with Reebok (the same shoes he swore allegiance to in his “U.O.E.N.O.” verse) Rick Ross has maintained a more modest presence, but I think his rape allusion remains a stain on an act already deplored by some. Much like the fictional Walter White/Heisenberg from the TV series “Breaking Bad,” William Leonard Roberts III seems trapped in the character that is Rick Ross. As if having his life threatened by gang members wasn’t worrisome, his brash manner has cost him a lucrative shoe deal and earned a great deal of scorn from women, perhaps Hip Hop’s most important demographic.
I Am Not A Human Being: Lil Wayne vs. Mountain Dew
Formerly taking pride in his sharp ability and once considered amongst Rap’s elite, Lil Wayne’s transformation before our very eyes has been odd to say the least. Whether it’s drug abuse, no longer having a point to prove or the money he rakes in from the success of his underlings Drake and Nicki Minaj, I think most would agree the Young Money chief’s lyrical offerings have declined in a way comparable to possibly no one before him. Unlike Rick Ross who made a vile, misogynistic boast, Wayne seems to have quit caring about rapping altogether, let alone the substance of his words.
Another case for outrage, for some God forsaken reason Lil Wayne attempted the simile, “Beat that pussy up like Emmett Till” on the Future track, “Karate Chop.” Till was a black youth brutally murdered in 1955 at the age of 14 for alleged interracial flirtation. While I think this is inexcusable and flat out idiotic on paper, this is standard as 2013 has allowed Wayne to grace our presence with crass thoughtlessness such as, “I make her take this dick like advice,” (“I Am Not A Human Being”) “I stand up in that pussy like a sunroof” (“Romance”) and “I hope that pussy warmer than Luke, and sweet as Godiva / Suck this dick and swallow that nut, and call it penis colada…” (“Wowzers”) To me, consideration towards Emmett Till’s memory and living relatives is expecting a lot from someone caught up in such insanity and possibly back under the influence of drugs given his recent health scares.
With Wayne’s mishap stirring up an online frenzy of its own, Mountain Dew coincidentally became sensitive to the black community’s concerns and parted ways with him. A spokesman went on record stating, “We do not plan any additional work with Lil Wayne moving forward. His offensive reference to a revered civil rights icon does not reflect the values of our brand.” Hip Hop’s self-appointed mediator Al Sharpton (admonished on the end of Wayne’s widely revered Tha Carter III LP) called the situation a “teaching moment for Lil Wayne, corporate America and the family of Emmett Till.”
Rather than apologizing, Lil Wayne (or a hired writer, as suspected with Rick Ross) addressed the family with a written letter saying he understood their position, would no longer evoke the name Emmett Till in song, and that he holds Till’s legacy in the highest regard. Though not exactly admitting to wrongdoing, this is almost passable from one who carries his recent anthem “No Worries” over to just about every personal and professional decision these days.
Glorious Bastard: Tyler, The Creator vs. PepsiCo
On the heels of Lil Wayne’s misfortune, one can only assume copycat tactics are the cause of the most bizarre disassociation yet. Tyler, the Creator gained initial visibility employing heavy shock value (rape, Nazi symbolism, murder etc.), setting himself apart from the endless array of black teenage competition online, a formula that shot him to quick stardom given his zaniness and production talents. Always dismissed as youthful angst and attention seeking antics, it wasn’t until his visions transcended music that he set off large alarms.
I find Tyler the Creator to currently be pretty harmless. To me, his music and general demeanor reflects that of a modest kid happy to be living his dreams. Wearing the hats of both musician and director (responsible for all of his own videos), Tyler recently got the opportunity to let his exuberant imagination run wild shooting a series of commercials for Mountain Dew. The commercials featured a talking goat who commits violent acts upon drinking the soda, landing in a jail lineup with black men—all of which are Odd Future affiliates.
Where the masses rushed to decry Rick Ross and Lil Wayne as poor representations of Hip Hop and black manhood to boot, the lone voice of dissent here was Dr. Boyce Watkins. A concerned citizen and parent, his snap judgment labeled Tyler’s production “Arguably the most racist commercial in history.” His rationale stands that the ad stereotypes black men as criminals and promotes glorification of violence and rape (using Tyler’s former music to make his case). In what has now become a standard routine, PepsiCo buckled to this criticism and removed the video from online circulation.
I think if Dr. Watkins were to fully examine the artist in question, he would find a young adult having fun on his own terms, doing whatever comes to mind creatively. In response Tyler candidly told Billboard, “It was just a goat who liked Mountain Dew. He got pulled over by the cops, and the lady points out the goat. No [commenters] saw that commercial and said, ‘This is racist.’ I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, let’s use all black [people]’ or whatever. I wanted to use my friends. You can look at every one of my videos, and my friends are always in it.’”
Addressing Watkins personally, Tyler said “He’s an older black man. It’s a generation gap. He’s older than me. So the things that he had to experience with racism and stereotypes and being a black man in this country, is different from mine. For him to always have to break the [stereotype] of being a ‘black thug’ when he was growing up, and for him to see that in a commercial, it probably hurts him.”
Though he understood the perspective of Dr. Watkins, Tyler ended with, “I also don’t understand why in life are you trying to point out the negatives. It’s a young black man who got out of the hood and made something of himself, who’s now working with big, white-owned corporations. But instead of looking at the positivity from that, he’s trying to boycott Mountain Dew. I just actually can’t believe that somebody sat there and pointed out that it was all black people, instead of being confused that it was a freaking goat talking. That’s mind-blowing. That’s mind-blowing that people still think like that.”
(When) Should Corporate America Invest In Hip Hop?
Regardless of where we stand on Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, and Tyler, the Creator’s personal cases, the greater issue remains corporations use our community’s treasured artists as cash cows and dispose of them once they come under scrutiny. Understandably Reebok and PepsiCo are concerned with their bottom line being affected by bad PR, but these companies should do due diligence prior to putting money on the table. Fellow emcee R.A. the Rugged man said so much in an exclusive piece for DX in April.
“In Rick Ross’s case, it appeared that he was nearing the end of his commercial reign,” R.A. wrote. “Venues cut down on booking him, he had to cancel tours due to gang threats on his life, Maybach Music Group’s sales have gone down, and his street credibility has continued to deteriorate. Since his career looked like it was in decline, he became disposable to the public, so they made an example out of him. These spineless media outlets don’t want to hurt the reputation of anyone who is still benefiting them. So kick the guy while he’s on his way out…but they had ignored anything negative he did while he was generating tons of money for them. Basically Rick Ross said the ‘wrong rhyme at the right time.’ They build you up, and when they’re done with you, they tear you down. Then they eat off the controversy while they’re doing it. That’s the way of the American media.”
Much like any investment, I think a smart executive would closely examine what they’re purchasing along with the inherent risks involved. On the contrary, businesses throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks and back out when society declares war against Hip Hop once it spins out of control. While the reasons behind the popularity of “negative” rappers extend to a much larger discussion, a company with a true understanding of our culture would realize every beloved act isn’t heralded for wholesome values.
If anyone could sum it up best, it would be former industry extraordinaire Steve Stoute who spoke to the Mountain Dew/Emmett Till uproar. Stoute told the New York Times, “Again and again we are looking at marketers who are just buying famous people. I don’t think Lil Wayne did anything that’s not Lil Wayne.”
With emcees paying the price for their lyrical content, how much worse will this epidemic get? Could Pepsi move to cut off Beyonce if people get up in arms over a rap her husband says? America has to come to grips with Rap music being entertainment that is often uncomfortable before deciding whether or not to consider artists as commodities.
Jesse Fairfax has contributed to HipHopDX since February 2012. He lives in Los Angeles and is the founder of GoInRadio.com. Follow him on Twitter via @goinradiodotcom.