TONY COX, host: But first, our next guest is a marketing expert who's worked with cultural icons like Jay-Z, Allen Iverson, Mary J. Blige and LL Cool J, among many others. He's recently written about how the hip-hop generation and hip-hop culture have revolutionized big business. It's a phenomenon that's been evolving for more than a quarter century, but one of the early marriages of hip-hop and the industry can be traced back to this classic 1986 song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY ADIDAS")
RUN DMC: (Singing) My Adidas walk through concert doors and roam all over coliseum floors. I stepped on stage at Live Aid. All the people...
COX: My Adidas, of course, Run DMC's tune about all the places around the world their cool shoes took them, kicked off a fashion craze among urban youth. It eventually led Adidas to sign the group to a major advertising deal.
The moment when Run DMC moved beyond just music to influence an international brand has been dubbed by our next guest as tanning. It's also the entry point to Steve Stoute's new book, "The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture that Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy." Steve Stoute joins us on the line now. Steve, nice to have you on with us.
STEVE STOUTE: I feel fantastic being here and being able to have this interview from London. Technology is great.
COX: You remember that, you remember that night?
STOUTE: I remember not being able to score tickets. It was the big first rap concert. You'd have to go see concerts in, like, little halls before that, and the fact that it'd gotten to a place where you needed to contain it with an arena and Madison Square Garden at that was a very special time in the growth of the art form.
COX: In your book, you know, you talk about tanning and you talk about this particular night being a seminal moment in the tanning of America. So let's start off by talking about just what tanning of America is.
STOUTE: So tanning is a phenomenon that went beyond musical boundaries and it went deep into the psyche of young America, blurring demographic lines and causing a transformation so that there was a generation of kids that did not identify each other through color any longer. They identified each other through shared values. And what that did that night, with Run performing that song and Adidas sending an executive from Germany, who I claim is culturally curious because the company wasn't doing well at all. But yet, they realized there was a skew, one particular line of shoe that was selling very well. It was their Shell Top Adidas and they wanted to know why it was selling particularly well in the northeast.
And it took them to that concert and it took them to Run DMC holding his sneaker in the air before he performed the song and 18,000 kids following suit. And because of that moment, Adidas realized that this art form was actually moving culture, and signed them to a deal. I believe that that was the tipping point for when the art form started getting into the mainstream mindset and started affecting business.
COX: There are many other examples along the way. I want to play one of them for you now. The industry began reaching out to hip-hop artists to sell many different types of products. One of the earliest commercials was by Sprite and it featured the artist, Grand Puba.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYME FOR RHYME")
GRAND PUBA: (Singing) I give a pound to my man with my right hand because I keep the Sprite in the left hand. Okay. And I push the button when I don't want to hear nothing. I let it go when I want to hear something. Yeah. This is how we flow when we in the studio, freestyle with Sprite. You know how the rest go. First things first, obey your thirst. Sprite, all right.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHER)
COX: I love that commercial.
STOUTE: You? You should have a camera on me. You don't know what you're doing to me right now, playing these.
STOUTE: You know what's amazing about that is that Grand Puba, a very unknown artist, was very important in Sprite because when he freestyled that rhyme, which is what - he said it off the top of his head. He said, first things first, obey your thirst. That's where that line came from. He made that up on the spot and then Sprite used that as their tagline to grow the brand for the next 10 years.
But this same artist, whom which people don't even know of, Grand Puba, was also the guy who put Tommy Hilfiger on the map, the clothing line. And it's just amazing when you think about how obscure his record sales were, which is the reason why tanning is such an important phenomenon because it has nothing to do with the music. It had everything to do with the cultural impact.
COX: Throughout the book, you talk about how effective marketing is on one hand and that it requires a blending of cultures, which you just said just a moment ago. But you also say in the book - and I want to get you to really delve into this a little bit more - that it's also about the beats.
So which is it? Is it about the culture or is it about the music that makes people want to go out and buy products that these artists are pedaling?
STOUTE: I say the music was the Trojan horse for the culture and what it did was the music videos were very descriptive. It showed people how to dress, how to approach women, how to add aftermarket parts to their cars, what jewelry to buy. It was like tutorials on living your life. And I believe that the music played an important role of getting in the household, but when the culture stuck, it didn't go anywhere and I think that the culture's what drives these purchases.
COX: One of the things that you talk about, also, in the book, Steve, is that you say that there is an authenticity that a lot of these artists had to have and had to bring to the product in order for the product to sell. And you suggest in the book that an artist would not promote a product that he or she didn't sincerely believe in.
The cynicism in me says, isn't it really about the money?
STOUTE: The art form really came from a place where it was coming from nothing. I always say that hip-hop redefined the American Dream for the next generation because these guys were unapologetic about, you know, I came from nothing and now I made something. And, you know, Jay-Z's "Outside of Empire State," his biggest song that broke him into the mainstream was "Hard Knock Life" and he was talking about, you know, getting kicked and, you know, what "Annie" was all about, coming from nothing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD KNOCK LIFE")
JAY-Z: (Singing) It's a hard knock hard - uh-huh - for us. It's a hard knock life for us. 'Steada' treated, we get tricked. 'Steada' kisses, we get kicked. It's a hard knock life. From standing on the corners boppin' to dropping some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen, for dropping some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard, for the dope spot with smoke Glock, leaving the murder scene. You know me well, from nightmares of a lonely cell, my only hell.
STOUTE: Artists, when they promoted brands, different from rock music was that, when they promoted a brand, ultimately, it was about getting money, so nobody ever looked at them and said, oh, you were a sellout as a result of the fact that you promoted a brand. They actually seen these guys doing Sprite ads and said, these guys are getting money. That's what it's all about.
But I will say to you that one thing about hip-hop that's very important - I think it's important in every art form, but this art form in particular - was credibility. That's why it was always important, like, you know, this artist - Jay-Z's from Marcy Projects and it's dangerous and 50 Cent got shot nine times, so he's really authentic. And this guy, Lil Wayne, is from Magnolia Houses, which is the worst part of New Orleans. He's really authentic.
That thing mattered, so you could never take that thing and then, all of a sudden, you know, do something that wasn't reminiscent of that or didn't feel like what a person coming from that area would consume. So, yes, it is about the money, but it's about the money within proximity to your credibility.
COX: How do you explain how this works? Hip-hop, for example, has always been a little on the braggadocios side, I think it's fair to say. Artists rapping about items that they have or aspire to have and it can sound materialistic at times with the Rolexes and the Bentleys and, until the problem with Crystal happened. The Crystal and now I guess it's Ace of Spades. The Pasa la Courvoisier, for example.
STOUTE: Gin and Juice.
COX: Gin. All right. There's another one, but that's a little cheaper.
STOUTE: That's Tangueray, but still, man.
COX: Okay. But my point is, how do these things connect with people who really can't afford them?
STOUTE: Well, there's something about people who notoriously come from nothing. If you are oppressed, you use items. Materialistic items, fortunately or unfortunately, are badges to say, I've made it. And there's baby steps at that. You know, whether it be a car or a house or a champagne that you're drinking, whatever it is, you use these materialistic items to say that, I'm going in the right direction.
I understand how it looks to the non-core fan. The non-core fan looks at it and goes, look at this ostentatious behavior. You give these guys a little money and watch them just spend it all on nonsense. I can understand that, but the truth of the matter is that hunger for materialistic items is what got them out of their situation.
COX: Who's getting exploited here? Or is anyone, in your opinion?
STOUTE: I think it's a win-win. I think brands have benefited from - I mean, forget it - benefited. That's an understatement. A lot of brands have built their entire fan base because of hip-hop. So I go back to Timberland again. I mean, that outdoor boot had a seismic shift in sales because a generation decided to use that outdoor boot as a fashion statement. They didn't market to that consumer at all. They just received the benefit from it.
As long as you're saying, thank you, you're not doing what Crystal did. When Crystal said, I don't make the champagne for them, that's the ultimate disrespect and slap on the face because, you know, you're unpaid sponsors and you're not even being told, thank you. You know, that's an unfortunate circumstance and I think that's where it went too far.
But I don't see anybody being exploited unless you start avoiding the real conversation, which is saying that these guys have done work that has benefited your property.
COX: We're talking to Steve Stoute, former record executive, current advertising strategist and the author of the book, "The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture that Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy." This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.
Steve, here's another question for you. We have examples, many of them. You've already cited some, we've played a couple that have just worked like crazy, Sprite and a number of other connections - I'll put it that way - between hip-hop icons and products that are sold to the hip-hop community.
But it doesn't always work, does it? And there are some glaring examples of situations that did not work. Share one with us and tell us why it doesn't work, when it doesn't work.
STOUTE: The examples do not always have to be hip-hop. It's sort of when you put celebrity brands together; there are some marriages that are not strategic. They are basically made because the product would like to get the popularity of that celebrity and don't even realize that there's no natural connection. Right?
A glaring example of a bad idea is Tiger Woods and Buick, when they had that relationship.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Up, down, kiss.
TV ANNOUNCER: You may not be able to play like Tiger Woods.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: They need the ball now.
ANNOUNCER: But at least now you'll be able to drive like he does. The 240 horse power Regal by Buick, official car of the PGA Tour.
STOUTE: It was pretty obvious that Tiger Woods does not drive a Buick, yet they were paying Tiger Woods $10 million a year in order to say that he drove a Buick. No one ever seen him drive a Buick in public, nothing. But they're just making desperate moves in order to shift their perception. But you can't just do it that way. There's a process in which you and your values and that artists and their values come together and the fact that they have that strategic partnerships illuminates your strengths. Not you pay them a bunch of money and hopefully their fan base will then run to you. That never happens.
COX: You know, one of the things that your book talks about is a term called comfort in discomfort. You used it to describe the authenticity of the hip-hop culture. But here's my question. A lot of these people are now - you know, they're 40-ish and Jay-Z, LL Cool J, either are in their 40s or nearing their 40s and hip-hop's traditional audience is getting younger. Where does the tanning process go from here and how do you maintain comfort and discomfort when you're middle-aged or approaching it?
STOUTE: So comfort in discomfort is challenging yourself to move forward, so as a former record executive, when I went from the record business to the advertising business, I knew that I was going back, in the back of the line, so to speak. But I had to find the comfort in discomfort to make that move to grow and I think a lot of people have that issue, in general.
For the artist in the industry, to keep pushing the boundaries, you've got to keep finding that discomfort because I think that, unless you're willing to be curious and take a shot, there's not going to be any innovation anywhere. You talk about LL Cool J. Let's call him 40-something years old. I mean, he's doing a television show now on CBS. He's one of the big stars on CBS. I'm not sure that him coming from Queens as a rapper and not a trained actor is not finding the comfort in discomfort. He found it and that's why he ended up on CBS.
What Jay-Z's doing right now, whether it be his champagne company or whether it be the fact that he's building a record company and clothing lines, these are risks that people are taking, putting up their own money and their time in order to grow the culture and move forward in life.
So - yeah. I still think that there's comfort in discomfort in doing all of it. I think it's applicable to all.
COX: My final question is this - and I've really enjoyed talking with you and I thought the book was fascinating and I read it front to back and you've had, obviously...
STOUTE: Thank you.
COX: ...a tremendous career and I should tell you that I got some points with my hip-hop-aged son when he found out that I was going to be talking to you, so thank you for that.
STOUTE: Well, it's a pass that'll last for three days, then it's back to dad again.
COX: I will take whatever I can get. Here's something that you wrote that I had difficulty with and I'd like to get you to respond to it. It is this. Color is no longer a determining factor in how people think. How do you come to that conclusion, given the things that we hear and see and read about daily in America and elsewhere?
STOUTE: It's fortunate that we've come to a place, and all the work that your generation has done, all the work that my generation has done, to see teenagers now grow up and no longer does their ethnicity determine what drives them culturally. The fact of the matter is that this generation of kids, between of hip-hop culture and what digital has done to allow people to share cultures with one another, has blended and caused this tanning phenomenon to speed up.
And when you look at the census numbers and you look at now, one in seven marriages are interracial. The biggest penetration of Hispanics in America is no longer California and Florida. It's North Carolina and Illinois. We're talking about, by 2020, between Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans, there are going to be more babies born of those ethnicities than Caucasians.
So I think we are moving towards a colorless society, where you cannot define one by their color and I stand by that. I think hip-hop music or the culture that has come from hip-hop has done more to bring people together than anything since Martin Luther King. And I stand firmly behind that.
COX: Steve Stoute is the author of "The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture that Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy." He joined us from London, England. Thank you so much. We enjoyed the conversation. We appreciate it.
STOUTE: Thank you for having me. This was fantastic. The fact that you played Grand Puba and you pulled up my ideas...
COX: Yes, we did.
STOUTE: ...you definitely should have cool points with your son for a little more than two, three days.
COX: I appreciate it.
STOUTE: It should last a little longer than that.
COX: Thank you very much.
STOUTE: All right.
COX: Travel safe.
STOUTE: Very cool, man. Thank you. Bye-bye.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
COX: Just ahead, playing favorites. It can happen in the classroom with the teacher's pet. It can happen on the playing field with a star athlete, but what about when parents play favorites at home?
MELISSA KEITH: I have four children and my third child was definitely my favorite. From the moment she was born, I kind of felt more of a connection with her than any of my other children.
COX: We'll ask our panel of moms about playing favorites, which parents do it, which ones don't and why. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
COX: Many social observers have argued that upwardly mobile black women have a harder time finding someone to marry, but recent data suggests that's not true.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: The plight of single, professional black women is not that much different than single, successful white women, particularly in urban environments.
COX: We debunk myths about African American women and marriage next time on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.