This is what it looks like when hip-hop gets sold.
A moment of silence, please. This viral advertisement for Toyota’s Sienna Minivan has spread like wildfire since its posting about a week ago, gaining almost a million views in a few short days. There is much that can be said about the ironies of displaying suburban family life through a hip hop lens (or hip hop through a suburban lens), and this little project can be romanticized into countless brow raising theses about how refreshingly lighthearted and satirical it is. “It’s the most rebellious art form on earth meeting the quaintest and most sheltered existence one can have.” “They captured the hip-hop aesthetic to a T and took the ‘baller’ ideology and applied it to the upper middle class.” “And it’s so darn cute! I mean, just when we thought he was going to say ‘motherfucker,’ he says ‘motherfather!’ it’s so clever!”
No. It isn’t.
Now, although it should be, this isn’t a cynical rant about how terrible it is that marketing companies are sucking the life out of hip-hop to shell out their inferior products (didn’t Toyota just recall about a bajillion “swagger wagons?”). This is more a question of just how damaging this trend can be to the longevity and viability of the culture.
Hip-hop has gone from a hidden expression of the ghetto, to an aggressive, confrontation-based art, to a dark and introspective social commentary, to a glitz and glamour filled celebration of wealth, with countless other intervals and offshoots in between. Somehow, Afrika Bambaata, Vanilla Ice, LL Cool J, The Fresh Prince, NWA, Brand Nubian, Jeru tha Damaja, and Biz Markie have all been considered “hip-hop” at one point or another. It is unfair to ascribe to the genre one seminal manifestation; the idea that “real” hip-hop has a specific sound and style is a discredit to the diverse and rich sonic history the art has had, one that is arguably unrivaled by any other form of expression. But somewhere in the past few years, a confluence of several factors has made hip-hop sound very homogeneous. Fleeting record industry getting more revenue from licensing than album sales, technology becoming widely available that makes creating music easier, and major radio being forced to fight for ratings as more and more listeners turn to iPods and other mobile devices have all encouraged artists and labels to focus on radio-friendly pop hits, and they all sound the same. People see a formula for making popular records, see its lucrative results, and reenact it. Songs are as simple as possible, with shameless pandering to target audiences and nothing that may challenge the listener for fear of scaring him away. Hip-hop has gotten much more basic. We’ve now hit a strange space where mainstream hip-hop is not only extremely easy to create, but even easier to mock, and contrary to tradition, easy to mock very well.
We first saw a glimpse of this potential to parody hip-hop with The Lonely Island’s smash hit “I’m On A Boat.” The comedy troupe released their debut album Incredibad in 2009 fueled by the T-Pain laced ode to nautical adventures. They seamlessly recreated the various hip-hop clichés of today’s industry, from the DJ Khaled-esque screams over the intro, to the rapid 808 snares and hi-hats, to the auto-tuned bridge. The song achieved mainstream airplay, its music video was in regular rotation at MTV, and it was even nominated for a Grammy alongside Jay-Z and T.I. After a while, it almost seemed as if everyone forgot that it was a joke. The fact that a song viciously caricaturizing a genre can be nominated for its highest recognition of achievement alongside the pioneers and proprietors of said genre is frightening. It’s almost as if the world said “this is how seriously we take you, hip-hop. Even these guys can do it.” It was uncomfortable. How could we give what we do and love any value in the real world if it were that easy to slap together? The song eventually faded with the end of summer, but in its wake came a slew of cookie-cutter imitation songs and artists that delicately balance on the line between practice and parody.
Now we come to The Sienna Family. If a song like “Swagger Wagon,” which by all means structurally is a Top 40 hip-hop record (albeit a minute short in length), can be put together cheaply and quickly, spread through the masses effortlessly, and absorbed by radio and ringtones readily, what makes it any different than an “actual” hip-hop record? This ad is so significant because it represents an alarming phenomenon: hip-hop has given marketing companies the means of creating an actual product in order to sell another product. The commoditization of hip-hop by big business means that instead of buying ad space, they can create products to be advertised around themselves. Why pay for a 30 second radio ad slot when you can create a song that radio will be forced to keep in rotation off sheer demand? Now, I’m not implying that “Swagger Wagon” will be #1 on 106 and Park any time soon, but we do remember that “Whole City Behind Us” posse-cut/Boost Mobile commercial. Boost Mobile reached out to the genre’s biggest and most talented artists and created a product that actually honored the tradition of hip-hop. That ‘Ye beat knocked, Game blacked out and Ludacris showed up hard as always, but it was still a Boost Mobile commercial in disguise. Busta Rhymes and Swizz Beats just released a record that will undoubtedly be a club/radio hit, and features an inexplicable connection to “Iron Man 2,” which probably amounts to no more than two fat checks from Paramount Pictures. How far away are we from our favorite genre being no more than a slew of marketing campaigns and subliminal advertising? Will our favorite albums come with commercials instead of skits? Product placement has been a common marketing tactic for decades, but we don’t see feature length films being made to showcase the new Vizio flatscreen television or museum exhibitions with various interpretations of the AT&T Blackberry Bold. It is only hip-hop music that is getting sold this viciously, and at such an alarming rate. Drake has gotten an endorsement deal with Sprite (which has a rich history of collaborating with rappers) without as much as a debut album. How long is it before new artists feel more pressure to ink deals with soda companies than with record labels? When hip-hop becomes one big PR agency, where does that leave the music?
As labels search for new ways to make profit and artists feel more pressure to get as much out of their shortening life expectancy as possible, it is very possible that hip-hop will leave the booth, be lost in the boardroom and never make it back to the park.
Here are a few examples of hip-hop as a marketing tool that have dropped in the past few years. We can post them here since they were made free to the public due to their role as an advertisement. How ironic!