The relationship between hip hop and the corporate world has reached its 30th anniversary. In those past 30 years mainstream representation of rap music and hip hop culture has run the gamut from respectable entertaining fare, to films and commercials that looked like they starred graduates of the Black Acting School depicted in Robert Townsend’s 1988 film Hollywood Shuffle. Oftentimes in regards to hip Hop culture, rap music and commerce have mixed like acids and bases…which is why a new commercial staring the legendary Busta Rhymes blew up the internet this weekend.
You don't always know how endorsement deals will be received by rap fans or hip hop heads. The overwhelmingly negative response to the 2014 edition of the Toyota Sienna Swagger Wagon campaign featuring Busta Rhymes may have surprised Donnell Johnson, former associate creative director of advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi LA who devised the campaign. Why? Because the 2010 campaign spots went viral and increased sales of the Toyota minivan.
For the sake of historical context, let’s recount a short history of hip hop’s marriage with Madison Avenue. Go back to 1984, when there was a Hershey commercial featuring poppers and lockers and a B-Girl with faux Ollie & Jerryesque Electro as the backdrop, and breakdancers setting it off for Mountain Dew. In 1986, there was a Brittania jeans commercial featuring rapping school children in hopes of making the company seem cool. It didn’t work. Lest we not forget the Fruity Pebbles commercial featuring Barney kickin’ rhymes dressed like Run DMC as Fred as scratched records, and the struggle bars devoted to Nintendo's "Legend of Zelda" in 1987.
Run DMC signed their monumental $1 million dollar endorsement deal with Adidas in July of 1986, which opened the floodgates for rappers to endorse a wide range of brands. However, people often forget that Russell Simmons had already set the ball into motion the previous month when Kurtis Blow became the first rapper to endorse Sprite and appear in a national commercial and print ads.
Rapper endorsement deals were prevalent afterwards, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince endorsed Le Coq Sportif, Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew spread the gospel of Bally shoes, Heavy D & The Boyz sported Nike head to toe on cover of their debut album…which featured a song dedicated to the brand. Meanwhile, LL Cool J openly endorsed Troop and in later years 3rd Bass endorsed Snapple and Craig G did commercials for Van Grack. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were the official spokespeople for the USDA’s anti-pollution campaign in 1988. They were essentially endorsing the government. They also made money from a 1-900 number that no one seemed to think warranted “selling out” at the time. So when did everything change?
Let’s jump ahead to 1990…
After the chart topping success of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and the album Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, the Oakland native quickly took advantage of his newfound fame and the many endorsement deals offered to him. He endorsed British Knights, which rap fans screamed bloody murder over–although Kool Moe Dee had done ads for them first. He endorsed Pepsi, which rap fans screamed foul at–although Run DMC had been endorsing Coke for years. MC Hammer’s KFC commercials made him the subject of ridicule when Young MC was already endorsing Taco Bell at the time.
Since rap has new waves of fans every 3 to 5 years, the history of corporate rap is often lost, but it's one worth remembering if we are going to put that (painful) Swagger Wagon spot in the proper context.
By the time MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were being accused of selling out the culture in 1990, everything they were being crucified for had already been done several times over by previous generations of rappers. The Fat Boys had not only appeared in “Krush Groove” and “Disorderlies” but did crossover songs with The Beach Boys (“Wipeout”), Chubby Checker (“The Twist”) and a theme song for the 1988 film “A Nightmare On Elm Street: The Dream Master” and had been selling Swatch watches since 1987. Reason being is the people bristled at Hammer and Vanilla Ice because they were "Pop Rap" and had achieved levels of mainstream success that had yet to have been achieved yet.
After KRS One threw PM Dawn off the stage in January 1992, ushering in the 2nd "Golden Era" (or second half of hip-hop's Golden Era, depending upon who you ask), there was a represent/keep it real" attitude in regards to endorsement deals.The stigma was gone again, so long as you weren't too corny.
The St. Ides malt liquor rap campaign popped up in 1993, and while Ice Cube (who had been better known for his rejection of pork and engaging of the Nation of Islam) was criticized by some for participating–most notably Common on "The B*tch In Yoo"–there was very little backlash. In fact, the campaign went on to include MC Eiht, Snoop, Warren G, Scarface, Nate Dogg, Wu Tang and others. There was even a mixtape. (Ironically, KRS's own Gill Scott Heron-sampling "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" ads for Nike fell short of that standard and led to some significant, though not career ending, backlash.
As far as the endorsements done post-Jiggy Era (1997-) all bets were off by then. With executives and CEOs becoming as big as the artists and disclosing things such as points, spins, money earned per feature, tour grosses and endorsement money, if you weren't diversifying THEN you faced ridicule and scorn. This was when the underground rap scene and the majors/mainstream split from each other for good. The gospel of rap is "get that money," and rappers have been doing that by any means ever since.
Rap fans often short-sighted, and very inconsistent, when it comes to deciding what constitutes a 'mockery' of hip hop culture. In my opinion, most of the songs that are played in clubs or on the radio are a mockery of rap. And as far as commericals go, I once saw Kurtis Blow sit on the steps of 227 with Mary, Pearl, Rose and Sandra spitting some struggle bars about “Foofur” on a Saturday morning watching NBC in 1987. Now that was a mockery.
So while we may want something better from (and for) an elder statesman of hip hop like Busta than that Swagger Waggon spot, let's not pretend like that's a new low for rap advertising. Not even close, kids.