How the Looming Specter of Viral Marketing Ruins Rap Songs About Consumer Goods

by Willy Staley


There has been much commiseration lately over the perceived decline of hip-hop. It’s bad because it’s fully transitioned to pop, say some. It’s bad because of The Internet, say others. To me, this seems to be a whole lot of misplaced nostalgia. Do these people really want to return to the early 90’s-so they can hear Cypress Hill on the radio? Or maybe the late 90s, to catch a guest verse from Fiend or C-Murder on some No Limit clusterfuck of a record? The 90s were not some paradise for commercial rap where mainstream radio played UGK, Heltah Skeltah and Mac Dre all the time; most commercial rap sucked in the 90s, too.

So in order to avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia, let’s focus our collective attention in a little closer, on an odd little micro-trend in rap: the way that the current state of viral marketing is totally ruining songs about consumer goods. Specious? Yes. Speculative? Definitely. But best of all, it’s completely unfalsifiable, because it’s happening in my head.

As Dave Bry wrote recently, rap doesn’t concern itself with making a divide between art and commerce, or at least doesn’t always see money as a source of corruption. Bry wrote about how he was saddened to see rappers getting paid by malt liquor companies to shill for them. I assume he was referring to St. Ides’ awesome campaign in the early 90s of having rappers do 30–60 second raps about their product — which tastes like what normal malt liquor might taste like immediately after brushing your teeth.

Ice Cube was their most famous spokesman, but my favorite ad would have to be the brilliantly named Geto Boys track “My Malt’s Playin Tricks On Me”.

When Willie D refers to St. Ides’ “smooth taste” you know that he’s been paid for it, and you know he’s lying through his teeth (which might feel like they’ve just been brushed, but they have not).

But in that age, you didn’t always have to pay rappers to rap about their favorite malt liquor. Let’s not forget Eazy-E’s classic, “8 Ball”, his semi-ode to Olde English 800 which — ironically — was written by Ice Cube, as Cube forces Eazy to admit towards the end of the song.

And while these odes to specific brands of drink pop up from time to time — E-40’s “Carlo Rossi”; Busta Rhymes’ “Pass the Courvoisier” — it is rare that the artists are compensated directly by the bottling company.

It’s easy to understand as part of a larger, historical trend in rap where rappers claim brand affiliations and, somewhat inadvertently, drive trends that way (q.v. Run DMC “My Adidas”; Nelly “Air Force Ones”; The Pack “Vans”). While patently different from advertisements, these songs function even better than advertisements.

Despite whatever the CEO of Cristal said a few years back, this sort of endorsement is incredibly valuable. According to a year-old NPR story, the aforementioned “Pass the Courvoisier” (2001) helped Courvoisier reorient their brand in the last decade. “The Brandy of Napoleon” got a hood pass. Or, in their marketing manager’s words, “it was huge for the brand. Because it went on all the big hit lists. And the truth of the matter is that it really showed us what the importance of having that particular status in the African-American market was all about.”

McDonald’s took note of “that particular status” back in 2005, when they publicly offered $1 to $5 for every time a rapper’s in-song mention of a Big Mac aired on the radio. This led to a bit of a backlash against McDonald’s for their cynical marketing strategies. Between McDonald’s and Courvoisier, the lesson to advertisers is mixed: on the one hand, this sort of endorsement is invaluable, but it is damaging to publicly solicit it.

Enter the concurrent trends of declining album sales and viral marketing, and we can finally get to what’s going on inside my head, instead of these boring facts.

I recently came across this video by an unknown group of rappers from Cleveland called the Gwop Gang. It’s dedicated to Four Loko, a high-ABV caffeinated alkapop beverage that comes in a variety of foul-sounding flavors. Imagine Smirnoff Ice wearing Ed Hardy, and on a lot of blow. I invite you to enjoy the song, because it’s really quite good.

What I find fascinating about the video is the sheer amount of detail that the Gwop Gang gets into when talking about Four Loko. Not only do they mention the MSRP ($2.50-$3.00), they mention the precise number of flavors (eight), the Alcohol-By-Volume (12%), and the number of fluid ounces per can (24). The video constantly flashes close-ups of Four Loko cans. No, it certainly doesn’t look like an advertisement in the traditional sense, but it shares some elements.

Also, merely by clicking on the related videos sidebar on YouTube, I came across four more songs dedicated to Four Loko that all debuted on YouTube last month (“Four Loko” by Chocolate City ft. K. Nobles; “Four Loko” by Young Dooby, Mag-Niff, and El Nino; “Four Loko Song” by Josh Gates; and ). Now, rappers can be quick to hop on a trend, but five songs dedicated to one disgusting drink — or, sorry, a line of eight disgusting drinks — in one month seems like a statistical anomaly.

And it’s hard to ignore how odd that is, when it comes on the heels of the Bros Icing Bros phenomenon, which had even the King of Trend Reporting, The New York Times, scratching its old, grey head. Are alkapop bottlers in desperate need of our money? And what odd channels would they go through to get us to part ways with it? Are they willing to toy with certain assumptions I have about reality — basically, my assumption that rap songs aren’t advertisements — to get me to buy caffeinated malt beverages?

Or alternately, are rappers totally lazy, artistically bankrupt, and trying to promote themselves by making raps about trendy topics? Why, after all, would Four Loko pay rappers who are complete unknowns to promote their product? No matter how little they might have to pay guys like the Gwop Gang or Young Dooby to make a half-assed track, what could the possible returns be? But then again, assuming you’ve read this far, here we are talking about it.

So, there is really only one thing we can take away from these Four Loko videos: rap songs about consumer goods will never be the same again, at least for me. My knowledge that viral marketing exists is enough to taint these type of songs forever — an upsetting prospect.

And yet, what right do I have to be upset with this possibility? I prefer to listen to a form of music that is awash in references to consumer goods as a rule. I know what my favorite rappers’ diamond chains look like; I know that, for whatever reason, virtually all of them like to eat at Pappadeaux; I know what jeans they like to wear; I even know what colognes they like to wear; I know what cars they like to drive; I listen religiously to a guy who calls himself Gucci Mane. This is what it is to really listen to rap music. Sometimes, you might as well be flipping through some bizarro version of SkyMall.

But I still think that, in spite of rap’s obsession with material wealth and consumer goods, there is a real difference between the obsession itself and leveraging that obsession to reach a target audience. As COMBAT! blog’s Dan Brooks wrote, in his piece on Bros Icing Bros, “the premise of viral marketing is that we are exposed to it involuntarily through what we used to think of as our normal lives.” That, he says, is what makes it so terrifying; it’s advertising that directly and intentionally assaults our understanding of reality. As different as rappers have always been from their audience — this is half the fun of listening to rap, and the premise of an excellent recent Gucci Mane track — we have always assumed that they make decisions much like we do, without being directly compensated by advertisers. So, even when we go along with the trends that they set, we maintain a bit of autonomy from the corporations who benefit from this odd form of free advertising; we feel we are part of an authentic trend, not a successful marketing campaign.

So say what you will about the evils of rap music, or its decline as an art form, or whatever. At least rap — on its own — doesn’t undermine basic assumptions you have about reality.

Willy Staley writes about federal urban policy for Next American City, and about Bay Area rap music (kind of) on Nation of Thizzlam.