THE EVOLUTION OF HIP-HOP AND BRAND MARKETING
BY KATHY IANDOLI
Over the last fifty years, designer name checks in Hip-Hop are still as prevalent as shouting out the city in which you’re from. What started as a brag, really—where the level of wealth and/or success was dictated by the level of the brands you shouted out—has since evolved, as rappers have turned entrepreneurs and recognized that there is no brand more powerful than their own. However, what does branding really mean to Hip-Hop culture, and where is it going?
When fashion leader Dapper Dan first emerged during Hip-Hop’s earliest days, his power lied within giving access to untouchable designer brands, as he printed counterfeit logos like Gucci and Fendi onto outfits. This move spoke volumes once rappers entered the scene, since they donned Dapper Dan’s outfits and became walking billboards for the designers. Fast forward nearly four decades later, and Dapper Dan is directly collaborating with Gucci. That is the power of Hip-Hop. In the ‘80s, we listened as artists like Slick Rick tossed casual brand references on songs like 1986’s “La Di Da Di,” where he impressively tags Johnson’s Baby Powder, Gucci underwear, and Polo cologne into the lyrical conversation, while Run-DMC bragged about “My Adidas” that same year.
By 1993, Snoop Dogg was twisted off “Gin and Juice,” sending a specific nod to Seagram’s. Clothes and booze were the typical fodder for rhymes. Designers like Tommy Hilfiger took note, styling rappers like Snoop Dogg and later creating Diddy’s infamous “Shiny Suit” at the 1997 MTV VMAs. Gradually, though, the shout outs evolved. Take Lost Boyz’s 1996’s “Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz & Benz,” which highlighted the good life by way of four prominent vehicles. By 2008, Rick Ross was rapping a new tune with “Maybach Music,” and four years later pumped the gas even harder with “Aston Martin Music.” Fashion-wise, we have Lil’ Kim to thank for haute couture, as the rap vixen not only dominated the fashion world, but made it her lyrical ammo on songs like 1996’s “Queen B@#$H” where she raps, “Mostly Dolce wear.” Kim walked so Migos could fly on 2013’s “Versace,” though Jay-Z also upped the tax bracket in 2010 when he shouted out Maison Margiela on “Run This Town” and “Tom Ford” in 2013. Let’s not even add in the many male rappers who brag about buying women Birkin bags now (average price tag is anywhere from $9k to $200k).
As Hip-Hop and its players became more and more popular, the concept of using rappers as the face of brands started taking off. In 1991, MC Hammer showed how “proper” Pepsi was in their commercials, while becoming the face of Taco Bell that same year (every meal needs a beverage, after all). Fast food is no stranger to rap, especially McDonald’s, as the brand used The Clipse’s Pusha T to pen their 2003 jingle “I’m Lovin’ It,” while artists like Saweetie and Travis Scott have curated their own meals, along with Megan Thee Stallion who invented her own Popeyes sauce for the “hotties.” Then, of course, we have full-fledged partnerships—as Rihanna brought Fenty to Puma, Beyoncé brought Ivy Park to Adidas, along with Kanye West moving through multiple brands like Gap, Adidas (Yeezy’s), and Balenciaga. Artists are proud owners of their own brands. You can’t think about Cîroc without thinking of Diddy or Ace of Spades without Jay-Z, and no 50 Cent Instagram post is complete without a hashtag from Branson Cognac.
These days, if you don’t own your brand, then the biggest flex lies within the indies. Take Kendrick Lamar on his 2023 track with Baby Keem called “Hillbillies,” where he name checks Wales Bonner and Martine ROSE or Maiya The Don who sends love to Telfar on her 2022 cut “Telfy.” The purpose now is not to brag about who is hot today, it’s about who is hot tomorrow.
From drinking to shopping to driving, and everything in between, Hip-Hop is as tightly woven into branding as the threads on a designer outfit. The real reason why has little to do with the money or the affluence; it’s the cool of it all. Hip-Hop is the zeitgeist, and rappers are driving it all. So, buckle up.