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Commercial Endorsements in Hip Hop Music

(Pictured above Beanie Sigel for Sprite)

In the last two decades hip hop's relationship with advertising has gone from sell-out to underground supporter. The first major commercial merging began with Sprite Soda during the early 90s. During this campaign, Sprite placed some of the biggest names in hip hop in their commercials, including Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and Nas and AZ (See below or click on the names). The campaign grew into "parties" with Sprite's endorsement attempting to make associations with "cool" music and their "cool" product.

With hip hop gaining mainstream success around the same time, many followers and members of the community viewed endorsements like this as selling out. In truth, this might epitomize the notion of "selling out," as artists utilized their skills to solicit an irrelevant product. On the other hand, these campaigns built the framework for the eventually towering hip hop business, which some businessman (P. Diddy and Russel Simmons) foresaw.

With the potential growth of hip hop seeming limitless prior to the destabilizing of the music industry (due to record sales), many other companies attempted similar marketing campaigns. Here is an example of Volkswagen making a parody of the hip hop targeted MTV show, Pimp My Ride , which was hosted by hip hop celebrity, Xzibit. As more companies created similar campaigns, a divide grew in the commercialization of hip hop between two viewpoints: one of cooptation, the other of cultural support.

Today, while groups like the Black Eyed Peas sell their music to Target, companies like Scion and Red Bull have created niche communities supporting underground hip hop. The gap between the companies' intentions is small, but their role in maintaining hip hop music is wide. While a commercial similar to this Target and BEP collaboration reaffirms the watered down hip hop music that embraces auto-tune (and you know how much I like auto-tune), Scion and Red Bull have campaigned using a different style of hip hop music.

Scion AV is a marketing campaign which has allied Scion's cars with different underground music scenes. This campaign includes free shows in select cities featuring underground artists, free CDs made by local DJs and free gear with Scion logos. In the past, Scion has featured notable artists like Slick Rick the Ruler, Ghostface Killa and Biz Markie. While it's strange to embrace these endorsements, there is a dramatic difference between Target's endorsement of B.E.P., and Scion's endorsement of non-contemporary, but historically, influential hip hop figures. In the latter case, Scion seems to be preserving a culture, versus Target, who might be diluting.

Similarly, Red Bull has created a hip hop production tournament, called Red Bull Big Tune, which travels across the US scouring the talent of emerging hip hop producers. While the product remains completely insignificant to the development of hip hop, the company's endorsement ($$$) maintains an otherwise struggling group. As Nas describes in the promo video, Red Bull is providing young artists an opportunity to be heard in an otherwise difficult industry to emerge without "selling out" one's sound with the goal of being heard on the radio.

When hip hop first developed into a commercial commodity it was very new to everyone. Later, the merging of hip hop and commercial marketing garnered the title commercial hip hop (remember, hip hop wasn't really played on the radio until the late 80s, early 90s). Now, commercial endorsements like Scion AV and Red Bull preserve a dissolving hip hop culture. The question is: "What's next?"

Sprite Commercial ft. Nas and AZ

Volkswagen Commercial


  1. Great article. I was just discussing these "halo-effects" in advertising on my blog. Companies like Sprite and St. ides really utilized the culture to catapult their brands in the early 90s. The idea that Red bull is investing in culture instead of force-feeding their product on people is a future trend. Creating platforms will be the new advertising. Great work!

  2. Thanks a lot! What is your blog?

  3. I'm interested in this as well--how do even MORE underground artists, those are who known for their resistence to over-commercialization align themselves with nation-wide brands without appearing to have sold out, regardless of the circumstances? I run an online publication about independent / underground music and as I start to get to the point of considering advertising it's something I've been wrestling with. But again, you have groups like the Living Legends that are endorsed by LRG Clothing. It's an interesting topic.

  4. Hi Tyler-

    You bring up another interesting topic: does the brand that sponsors you make a difference? Is Pepsi better or worse than LRG? Is LRG legit because it's "hip hop clothing?"

    I hate having advertisements on this blog. I merely do it because I still hope that MOG will encourage traffic to my site, and I just want more people to read.

  5. Hey,

    Very nice post. Im really interested in this stuff - ive got a Marketing Degree and am a HipHop artist/producer. Has anyone seen the documentary "Merchants of Cool?" It was all about the Sprite Hop Hop campaign.

    Im split on the whole corporate sponsorship thing. It can definitely be selling out but it can also be positive for the culture and the artist. It all depends on the type of biz/corp and the approach taken by the marketing team.

    My fave hiphop ad has to be the Boost Mobile "Where You At" campaign with The Game, Luda and Kanye. I thought it was fresh. I live in Canada but hell, I even wanted a Boost phone lol.. That ad was done nicely and felt authentic not cheesy like certain McDonalds campaigns.

    Anyways, almost at 2010 I think its just business as usual nowdays. Artists need to make money however they can, and sponsorships are gonna play a big role, like publishing.


    Lyrical Militant
    http://www.lyricalmilitant.com - "Free Hip-Hop to Free Your Mind."

  6. Thanks for the post Lyrical Militant. Your site is nicely done.

    The documentary "Merchants of Cool" was the inspiration for this post actually. I saw it when I was in high school, and it has stuck with me ever since.

    Remember that scene where MTV goes into this kid's room to check out what clothes he wears or something. Crazy.

  7. Hey David, thanks for checkin out the site..

    Yea I remember that scene lol. A lot of it was funny, seeing what marketing people did for research. Its def. a good doc, one your readers might wanna check out.

    Here's a link to it on YouTube for you:



    Lyrical Militant
    http://www.lyricalmilitant.com - "Free Hip-Hop to Free Your Mind."


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