Previous ArticleNext Article

The New Hustle

Comments

It’s Friday night.  I’m riding down the Long Island Expressway to New York City in my girl’s new ’05 Trailblazer, channel-surfing her factory-installed XM satellite radio. I’m suddenly caught by the seductive sound of smooth-as-molasses shout-outs over orchestral strings and melodic percussion. My fingers stop. My mesmerist speaks, “I’m gonna stop talking and let the beat get to walking.” The voice extols the virtues of dig-in-the-crates classic R&B artists like Leroy Hutson and Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister, as he plays their tunes. And then the revelation: “This is Snoop Dogg, and welcome to Da Chuuch.”
There I was, caught up in Snoop’s ever-expanding web of alter egos, contradicting personalities and business ventures. This time it was his monthly radio show (with encores each week), on which he spins an eclectic mix of classic soul and contemporary hip-hop and R&B. And the way corporate America has embraced him, next time it could be who-knows-what.

From Hollywood to Madison Avenue, Snoop, aka Calvin Broadus, has reincarnated himself from a self-described gangster and purveyor of the pimp-and-ho lifestyle to rapper to movie star to million-dollar Main Street pitchman, appearing in ads for T-Mobile, AOL and Nokia, among others. Then there are the movies, the MTV comedy show, a shoe line with Pony,  and future plans for a Snoop DeGrill (yes, barbeque), restaurants and an animated series.

Snoop, Inc., is a booming business, and he’s not alone. A growing band of rappers, including Lil Jon and Nelly, hang their careers on lyrics that often demean women and videos that border on pornography—with half-naked sisters who gyrate, pop it and
generally drop it like it’s hot. The rappers then parlay that success into business ventures, marketing opportunities and lucrative endorsements.

Meanwhile, record-label executives—mostly middle-aged White men desperate for a surefire way to pimp the artists in a struggling market—sell us hard, jiggling backsides and all, to boost the frighteningly popular testosterone-charged playa rep that loyal fans—mostly young White men—seem to want. Execs like Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Records; Steve Gottlieb, president and founder of TVT Records; and Lyor Cohen, chairman and CEO of Warner U.S. Recorded Music Group, bank million-dollar salaries and multimillion-dollar bonuses, while artists take home their exponentially smaller cuts, and most video vixens go home with, at best, $1,000.

Together they are fashioning a legacy that does immeasurable damage to the global perception of Black women because these images are broadcast worldwide. Welcome to the new hustle. At its crux are Black women, legs open, hips shaking.

The driving force behind the new hustle is the confluence of the business of hip-hop and corporate America’s quest for the hottest and hardest-to-reach consumer demographics—men and teens. More than half of all rap is purchased by males, and more than half of rap’s buyers are teens and college-age, according to Isaac Josephson, who heads up music research for NPD Group. That compares with only 25 percent of rock and only 17 percent of country music being purchased by that same young, hot market.

In fact, Essence research shows, young, affluent White men buy more rap music than their female counterparts and their Black male and female counterparts combined.

So in the world of how-do-we-get-to-that-advertising promised land—18-to-24-year-old men and teens—Snoop is the messianic messenger du jour, leading advertisers, retailers and moviemakers to salvation: urban trendsetters and the suburban White teens who follow them. Snoop’s got that group on lockdown, and he, and the advertisers, know it.

In this climate, it’s not hard to see why a company would go with somebody like Snoop. The only other proven way for advertisers to reach men is the Super Bowl or Monday Night Football. Teens, who have the most disposable income in this country, have overwhelmingly made rap their music of choice. So who cares if too many rap lyrics are about bitches and hos? On the contrary, many brand names seem to be saying, “The next time you whip out dog chains for women, can you emblazon the chains with my company logo?”

“Some companies don’t care what an artist has said to become so popular. It’s just can he say it holding the company’s phone, wearing its clothes, or driving its car?” says Jackie Rhinehart, former senior vice-president of marketing for Universal/Motown Records. “It’s all about the money.”

In effect, these companies are giving the corporate go-ahead to the denigration of Black women. And multiplatinum rap artists such as Snoop have the ultimate bargaining chip—millions of young fans. The top-ten–selling rap artists make up 29 percent of rap sales, while in rock music the top ten sellers account for only 11 percent of rock sales,
according to NPD Group. “Rap is unlike rock in that a few high-profile artists dominate the industry,” says Josephson.

For an advertiser, it’s a cost-saving no-brainer—pay one chart-topping rap artist to reach millions of young people or pay five or six rock artists to reach the same number of people. Says Rhinehart: “If an artist can reach 20 million people and command their attention, a company is not going to tell him to change the message or style that got him there in the first place.”

Granted, beautiful women have been used for years to sell everything from sports cars to aftershave, and now that society’s mores have hit new lows, sex is also used to hawk toothpaste and breakfast cereal. We know sex has sold music for generations. But hip-hop has fallen out of balance. Somewhere along the way, it took Black women from eye candy to cheap tricks. Want a hit record? Sure, you need a catchy beat. But what you really want to do is throw a few “bitches” and “hos” in your lyrics, brag about their performing sex acts, and make a few obligatory references to ways to keep a woman in check. It certainly worked for Snoop.

His latest album, R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece, features the solipsistic, chart-topping hit “Drop It Like It’s Hot” along with tracks like “Can U Control Yo Hoe”: {Can you control yo hoe?.../Listen you’ve got to put that bitch in her place, even if it’s slapping her in her face.../This is what you made me do/I really didn’t want to put hands on you.}]

 And it wasn’t so long ago that Snoop paraded at the MTV Music Awards with scantily clad women on dog leashes.

It’s hard to hate on the get-rich part of this game. That rappers are becoming more astute businessmen, branching out into multiple industries, is a good thing. “Rap music was making a lot of money for the corporate world, and artists realized that they’d rather pimp themselves than be pimped,” explains Bryan Leach, vice-president of A&R (artists and repertoire) at TVT Records, Lil Jon’s label. Okay. But why step on sisters in their rise to the top? Perhaps it’s because they think we have no juice. “The Black woman has never been afforded the respect she deserves in the marketplace,” says Carol Motley, Ph.D., a marketing professor at Howard University’s School of Business.


I asked T-Mobile, a multibillion-dollar telecommunications company, quite simply, “Why Snoop?” This answer came from Jim Goodwin, vice-president of Integrated Marketing for T-Mobile USA: “We wanted an eclectic set of personalities that, when connected through the Sidekick II, made strange bedfellows and would evolve into fun dynamics to be enjoyed by the youth audience and all demographics.” Hmmm. Where’s the “fun” in people who promote pimping and gang violence and putting women on leashes? Well, at least he got the strange bedfellows part right: Perhaps he’s seen Snoop’s porn series, produced by Larry Flynt’s Hustler Video, in which Snoop peacocks in outrageous outfits presiding over sexual festivities.

The message is clear. We already knew it was, “What you say about and do to Black women is inconsequential as long as you make money for the record company.” But now it’s also, “Our company rates a ‘cool factor’ for being associated with you.”

“Everyone has bones in his closet,” says Killick Datta, who, as owner of Pony, inked the sneaker deal with Snoop through his company, Global Brand Marketing. “But Snoop transcends hip-hop.” And obviously corporate values too. (By the way, the first shipment of Snoop’s Doggy Biscuitz shoe line sold out in most stores nationwide in three days.)

This is not to say that every corporation looking for buzz has lost its way. “There are a slew of companies that don’t like the volatility of dealing with rap artists and have no interest in ever going down that road,” says Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News. Nevertheless, rap music has exploded into a $1.2 billion industry, even as rap veterans lament the state of the music. Social outcries, political messages and cultural commentary, once rap’s hallmarks, have been virtually silenced, but the business of selling it is in full throttle.

In addition to porn, rap’s tentacles are reaching into music-video DVDs, video games and cell-phone ring tones, sparking new industries, breathing life into old ones, and adding dollars to rap’s bottom line (see box). “We’re creating a market that’s not about selling records but about artists developing themselves as a brand,” says TVT Records’ Bryan Leach.

In the United States, sales of rap music account for about 10 percent of the $10 billion industry for CD music sales. But not much of that makes its way into the artists’ pocket. In fact, for every CD sold, the artist only gets $1 on average, and that’s if he or she had a good attorney. Others can get as little as a few cents per CD, after the artist has paid back money the label shelled out for the signing advance, marketing costs, recording studio fees and the video shoot. That’s why rappers are trying to hustle their “brands” as well.

For instance, Lil Jon, who waxed on in “Bounce Dat” (Pop that p---- ho/grab that p---- ho/butterfly ho and let that p---- breathe), has a record label, Crunk!!! Energy Drink, a line of eyewear he developed with sunglasses maker Oakley and a cartoon in development. And according to published reports, 50 Cent’s (“Just a Lil Bit”: I ain’t playin’, I’ma tryin’ f--- tonight/Clothes off, face down, ass up, c’mon) endorsement deals, films, record label, and clothing and sneaker lines raked in more than $50 million in revenue for him last year. That includes a deal with Glacéau to produce Formula 50, a grape-flavored drink, as well as his G-Unit footwear line with Reebok, which alone made him a whopping $20 million last year—more than he might ever make selling records.

If selling the brand works for a rapper, then the most powerful ways to establish that brand are with radio play and videos. Record labels spend hundreds of thousands to get radio spins or plays in various stations’ rotation. As for music videos, well, they run the gamut from creative storytelling to salacious booty-shaking. “Nothing sells through better than the music video,” says Tom Calderone, general manager of VH1. “It builds personality and credibility and, we hope, boosts sales for the artists.”

Sales also come from related products like cell-phone ring tones, which brought in more than $400 million in 2004. Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” was the number one seller for months, with 100,000 to 200,000 downloads a week.

Even if the song doesn’t ride to the top of the ring-tone list, an artist and label can still make a killing with product placement. Remember the lingering shot of the iPod in The Game’s Hate It or Love It video? Or the Xbox featured in Ludacris’s Number One Spot video? Advertisers want trendsetting artists to sip their champagne, wear their shoes, don their clothes, or whip their ride, and they are willing to fork over thousands of dollars to be associated with their lifestyle.

Another increasingly popular venue for “the brand” is pornography. It’s no secret that some rap videos teeter on the cusp of porn, but several rappers, like Snoop, 50 Cent and Lil Jon, made the full-frontal leap, using women of all hues to add millions in profits and some erotic adventurism to their image. Snoop’s DoggyStyle video sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and in an industry where 4,000 copies is considered a big hit, it was named the top-selling tape of 2001 by porn trade publication Adult Video News. Snoop’s follow-up production, Snoop Dogg’s Hustlaz: Diary of a Pimp, was the top-selling title of 2003.

Don’t be surprised if you see more rappers going this route. In porn they often construct a deal in which they are partners and producers, not just hired hands. So if the video sells well, they get a double payday: First as the talent, they can pull in about $1 for every copy sold, and then as a producer or investor, they can reap up to 50 percent of the profits.

I couldn’t help thinking about all this as my ride into New York City that night became a journey into my mind, a trip back to the days when rap loved—even celebrated—Black women. And even though it was all street and maybe a little raw, we loved it back. But these days it’s all about the hustle. My sisterfriend and I didn’t listen to Snoop that night. Like so many Black women, we tuned out. I can’t help but wonder if one day rap’s bottom line will be all that it has left.

« Previous Entry
Fantasia’s Second Act
Next Entry »
King Family Drama Could Hurt Book Deal