On a recent November afternoon, the Oakland-bred, Atlanta-based rapper Too $hort returned home to a very untraditional in-store appearance. He signed promotional posters and took camera-phone photos with kids. DJ Juice spun tracks from $hort's latest release, Blow the Whistle, along with a smattering of radio hits and the latest hyphy treats. Fans walked away with a free T-shirt or a mix CD. It had all the elements of an event at Amoeba or Rasputin, except Too $hort's in-store went down at West Grand Liquors on Market and Grand.
Welcome to the latest mutation of the in-store promotion, a music industry tradition that dates back to the late '60s and the now-bankrupt Tower Records. Its founder, Russ Solomon, brought the glitz right to the register by inviting music browsers to rub elbows with current chart-topping artists. These days, in-stores are more-than-weekly affairs at Amoeba and Rasputin, providing the immediacy and street cred that iTunes and Wal-Mart lack.
The version Too $hort is pioneering with his sponsor, the cognac maker Remy VSOP, is a recent outgrowth of this tradition, but it also has roots in hip-hop and alcohol cross-marketing that go much deeper. Even before Ice Cube declared don't drink 8 Ball 'cause St. Ides is givin' ends on his 1991 cut "Steady Mobbin'," the old Soul Beat television station was airing rap-scored ads for East Bay liquor stores, according to local breakdancer, rapper, and amateur hip-hop historian Bas-One. "JJ Liquors, which was right there on 65th and East 14th, had an ad that this old rapper Dangerous Dame did," he remembers. "And that was like '87, '88."
The first big product sponsorship of a hip-hop act dates back even earlier, to 1986 and Run-DMC's "My Adidas," a hit that preceded the trio's $1.5 million deal with the shoemaker. This time, the company sought out the rapper first. Remy Martin wants into the booming hip-hop-and-cognac niche dominated by Hennessy and Courvoisier, so it inked a multi-event deal with Too $hort.
At a West Grand Liquors event on September 1, the store offered customers a two-dollar discount on a bottle of Remy and a chance to have Too $hort sign its label or other promotional material. Over the course of two hours, a few hundred people dropped by, from the store's regulars to random adult Too $hort fans who happened to be driving by. So too did a gaggle of neighborhood kids with their parents, siblings, or by themselves.
The packs of teens dancing to DJ Juice's mix and showing off their new autographs to each other made for a block party vibe. The event was drama-free, Bas-One says, because "they picked the perfect spot for it. People from all over know West Grand Liquors they have the best deals around and people go there to hang out. Let me put it real bluntly people who want to get drunk appreciate what they're doing."
DJ Juice, the official Northern California Remy Martin DJ, says the events sometimes have free barbecue, and the laid-back atmosphere gives him and Too $hort a chance to keep their ear to the street. "To be successful in hip-hop, you gotta keep coming back to the neighborhood," he explains. "The moment Too $hort's not visible, the people say, 'Ah, he's not down with us no more.' So the whole Remy thing helps him out because they bring him into the community, and he helps them by endorsing their product. People leave saying, 'Okay, he hasn't forgotten about us he's still cool.'"
Ryan Fisher, field marketing manager with Remy VSOP, helped come up with the Too $hort campaign; he wasn't brand-new to the rapper-cognac connection. While working in a previous position at Allied Domecq, the former parent company of Courvoisier, he saw how Busta Rhymes' single "Pass the Courvoisier" helped resurrect the liquor maker.
In an e-mail, Fisher explains the logic behind the campaign at his current employer. "While understanding our core target audience being aspirational urban males 25-34, we sought to find a common relationship within the target market," he wrote. "Knowing the importance of hip-hop among the group, we secured a relationship with a leader in the Oakland community Too $hort." When asked for clarification, he defined "aspirational" as wanting "to trade-up in life ... aspire to be ... entrepreneurial, professional, etc." In other words, the sort of black men struggling to escape poverty who likely find inspiration in Too $hort's own famous story of ghetto transcendence.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled with this demographic targeting. Bay Area resident Adisa Banjoko, author of Lyrical Swords, a book about the political impact of hip-hop, counts himself as a longtime Too $hort fan. But, he says, "It's really sad to see someone like Too $hort who clearly doesn't need the money, unless he isn't living like he says he's living do this. As an old-school Oakland resident, he knows the damage that alcohol has done not just to the black community here, but the black community across the planet. I wish he was doing something with Simon & Schuster for books, or maybe he could've endorsed somebody's stethoscope to get people into the health clinic or something."
Bas-One, who says he would probably not take a liquor sponsorship himself, concurs with this sentiment but doubts that most people ultimately share it. As he put it in a separate interview, "Come Friday night, you've worked forty hours, you don't want to hear anything about social consciousness. You want to get drunk, you want to shake your ass and party. That's the bottom line. Whether I'm for that or not, the majority of people are. And I'm not going to lie I drink Hennessy and Courvoisier too."
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