You love to hear the story, again and again. The Tanning of America (the four-part documentary airing all this week on VH1) relates the birth of hiphop and its eventual, international dominance of mainstream youth culture—the same narrative as Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Nelson George’s Hip-Hop America and over a dozen other books. “Rapper’s Delight”? Check. “Walk This Way”? Check. Etc. Every generation should have its own grand entrée into the same old story, so I guess millennials were due.
What makes this VH1 doc distinct is the concept of “tanning,” an idea first coined by former music exec turned ad man Steve Stoute in his 2011 bestselling book, also titled The Tanning of America. Written with author Mim Eichler Rivas, the book explains in detail how hiphop led to the permanent blurring of cultural and demographic lines, essentially making everyone urban (a term Stoute wants done away with). Outside of hiphop, seminal tanning figures include Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and the cast of The Cosby Show.
“It’s hard to pick one definitive [tanning] event, because it’s all cumulative over the last 30 years,” Steve Stoute says, speaking in a conference room at Manhattan’s Paley Center for Media prior to a public panel discussion with Al Sharpton, Nas, Fab 5 Freddy and FUBU founder Daymond John. “There are some events that were more big, cultural. There were some things that affected commerce, where people started changing the way people dressed.
“I always like to look at the point in which momentum started gathering. The moment on July 19, 1986 when Run-DMC had their Adidas in the air I think was a pivotal moment, because of the fact that they had a deal with Adidas, and the power of the culture transforming commerce—that was the tipping point of the realization of such.” At Madison Square Garden that fateful night, thousands of fans thrust their Adidas in the air at the close of “My Adidas,” and the sneaker giant’s marketing head Angelo Anastasio cut the hiphop trio a million-dollar endorsement deal on sight.
Stoute draws a through line from 1520 Sedgwick Avenue (the South Bronx address where hiphop founder Kool Herc first deejayed) to the White House’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, positing that the rise of hiphop culture scored America its first Black president. When it comes to hiphop and its effects, Stoute definitely knows whereof he speaks. From his career beginnings as tour manager to Kid ’n Play, to managing Nas and Mary J. Blige, to running the urban music division of Interscope Records, the Queens native saw the whole arc of the culture’s worldwide domination firsthand.
And yet, 17-year-old Jordan Davis was still murdered by an aggravated White man for playing his rap music too loud. The Tanning of America devotes whole segments to Tommy Hilfiger, FUBU and Sean John, but Trayvon Martin’s hoodie (an urban fashion staple) aroused the suspicion that led to his murder. What Stoute calls tanning is a real thing, but wearing rose-colored Cazals while being self-congratulatory about how hiphop conquered all can be dangerously naïve.
Steve Stoute does admit—even with T.I., Too Short and Nelly hopping on tracks with Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus—that dividing lines between hiphop and mainstream pop do still exist. “There still is a line,” he says. “Just because a song is on the radio where other pop songs are played doesn’t mean that the culture of hiphop doesn’t still exist as a side load of a thing.”
Get him talking music, though, and he quickly digresses into musicologist mode. “I remember back in the days there was a song, ‘Friends.’ Jody Watley and Rakim was on it, and it was hiphop all the way on a record that was pop. If you go through time, you’ll see Jay Z’s verse on [Beyoncé’s] ‘Crazy in Love,’ it didn’t matter—it was hiphop on a pop record.”
The Tanning of America features music luminaries like Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin (the original founders of Def Jam, rap music’s Motown), Nas and Mariah Carey; cultural critics like Nelson George and Dan Charnas; fashion impresarios Dapper Dan and Marc Ecko; and Stoute himself, narrating viewers through his tanning parables like the true believer he is. As an assistant hands him a glass of cognac, I ask Stoute to imagine himself running a label again in the iTunes era. (He currently heads up Translation, his own brand marketing firm, with clients like McDonald’s, Target, State Farm and Wrigley.)
He almost laughs at the idea. “If I was doing it, I’d break the template of what was done for many years,” he says, “like the release of Jay’s album, Beyoncé’s album—that’s innovation to the template. They’re incorporating brands [like Samsung], and I think that’s what I would do if was running a record company right now. I’d be much more open-minded to multimedia and not even thinking about SoundScans and dropping albums on Tuesdays. Everything that was done in the past, I would do the opposite. That’s the only way I would know that I was heading in the right direction.”
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.