Tracking rappers' favorite cars and clothes.

How popular culture gets popular.
April 4 2003 12:12 PM

What Would Jay-Z Drive?

Tracking rappers' favorite cars and clothes.

Mercedes Benz
Mind-Benzing product placement

If you pay even casual attention to popular music, you are no doubt aware that hip-hop radio (and thus Top 40 radio) is awash in brand names—not just during the commercial breaks, but within the actual songs. But which brands are mentioned most often and for what sorts of products? Well, in the songs occupying the Top 20 slots on Billboard's Hot 100, brands are mentioned 47 times; 21 of those mentions refer to cars, 12 to clothing lines, and nine to drinks—most, but not all, alcoholic drinks. (The remaining brands are Magnum condoms, Burger King, the G2 private jet, Playboy magazine, and Barbie dolls.)

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This information comes courtesy of Lucian James, a 33-year-old brand strategist in San Francisco who recently began tracking pop brand mentions for his site, American Brandstand. Although he's been doing this for only a couple of months, a leader has already emerged from the pack—since the start of the year, Mercedes has racked up 29 mentions, well ahead of runner-up Burberry at 20. On the current chart, the luxury car makes cameos in 50 Cent's "In Da Club" ("When I pull up front, ya see the Benz on the dubs"), another 50 Cent tune called "21 Questions" ("If I went back to a hoopty from a Benz."); Jay-Z's "Excuse Me Miss" ("She sees more than the Benz wagon"), and Lil' Kim's brand-packed "The Jump Off" ("This is for my peeps with the Bentleys, the Hummers, the Benz").

Before we plunge into the obvious question—why Mercedes?—let's pause to acknowledge that James is definitely onto something here. This project came about simply because he noticed that more and more brand names were getting musical mentions and decided that there might be value in totting them up. (He does the research—tracking down lyrics and counting mentions—himself.) He's already fielded a couple of calls from auto makers (he asked me not to mention which ones) wanting to know how the hip-hop audience perceives their brands, why they weren't mentioned in more songs, what it meant when they were, how they could make it into the Top 20, and so on.

Are advertisers nuts for thinking about this sort of thing? Not at all. Some liquor companies and clothiers learned how much impact a hit song can have faster than you can say "Pass the Courvoisier." Last year, the Village Voice pointed out how some marketers angle for lyrical product placement in what is widely seen as the most the most authentic form of cultural expression going. "There is genuine brand endorsement inspired by an affinity for a product," that piece notes. "And then there's name-dropping with the hopes that a marketing director will come bearing free goods—or a check."

On the other hand, James points out, brands also need to worry about being "hijacked"—that is, getting shout-outs they don't particularly want. The high-end fashion firm Burberry, for example, has not exactly embraced hip-hop fans with open arms. And sometimes a brand comes up in a context that may not have been a company's first choice, like when Lil' Kim brags about skill at—well, when she raps, "Let me show you what I'm all about/ How I make a Sprite can disappear in my mouth." Yet any company would invite a firestorm if it explicitly discouraged rappers' praise.

James figures that when you're talking about a brand as big as Sprite or Nike, a rap mention probably doesn't have all that much impact. And that may be the case with Mercedes. But that brings us back to the question: Why has the Benz rolled out to such a big early lead in James' tabulations?

Part of the reason, no doubt, is simple bling bling: Mercedes is a classic example of a brand that broadcasts high-end success and money to burn, a theme that rappers never seem to tire of. I also suspect that it enjoys a syllabic advantage: Benz is a nice-sounding, compact word. Plus it's malleable as a rhyme—it's paired with "rims" and "Timbs" (Timberlands) in that Lil' Kim track, which mentions no fewer than 15 brands.

And if you can remember all the way back to the 1988 N.W.A. album Straight Outta Compton, one of rhymes I always enjoyed was, "Me and Lorenzo, rollin' in a Benz-o." Actually, the Mercedes-Benz is mentioned in two songs on that record. Maybe this suggests another reason that the Mercedes is so often mentioned in lyrics today: It's not a trend, it's a tradition.

James figures his project will get more interesting as time goes on and his data set grows, and he plans to issue periodic reports. One of the things to keep an eye on is whether non-rap popsters will get more comfortable with brand-drops. (James points to a lyric in the current Madonna single: "I drive a Mini Cooper/ And I'm feeling super-duper.") And meanwhile, as more rappers branch out into other businesses, we'll see how their own brands fare on the charts. There's one example on the current American Brandstand lineup in the lyric, "Snoop Dogg Clothing, that's what I'm groomed in." The endorser? Snoop Dogg himself, of course.

Thanks to Lucian James, who welcomes e-mail at lucian@lucjam.com. 

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