In high school during the '80s, the 40-ounce ruled. Wine coolers may have gone down easier, but beverages were chosen as often for their cool factor as for their taste, and we quickly seized upon the 40-ounce's ghetto toughness and its unmistakable link to hip-hop. Before long, the stubby tank of cheap malt liquor became the weapon of choice when Mom and Dad left town for the weekend.
Unbeknown to us dorky white suburban teenagers and our easily duped parents, the 40-swillin' gangsta image was carefully cultivated by liquor companies to ensnare young black consumers. This covert ploy broke out into the open in the late '80s when St. Ides Malt Liquor commissioned a series of hip-hop-themed ads to push its concoction on urban radio. The company's sales jumped 25 percent, and the ensuing outcry from Hispanic and African-American communities eventually caused the spots to be pulled, but not before some of the era's most high-profile rap talent had voiced their opinion on the malt of choice in a series of notorious sixty-second radio spots.
San Francisco's Hip Hop History has compiled the thirty-odd pieces and released them as DJ Drank's Greatest Malt Liquor Hits. More than a curiosity, these spots offer a snapshot of an era and pair hip-hop's biggest names with some of its most memorable beats.
Making best use of a big liquor budget, DJ/producer E-Swift combined original rhythms with lyrics from the likes of LA gangsta rap predecessor King Tee, NWA's Ice Cube, EPMD, Eric B and Rakim, and the Wu-Tang Clan. The various MCs diss 8-Ball ("Wait, don't you drink Old English?/Huh, how you figga?/King T's hooked on the premium malt liquor"). They praise their product's libidinal effects ("Get your girl in the mood quicker/Get your jimmy thicker/With St. Ides Malt Liquor"). And they debate its enjoyment across gender lines in a duet ("Strong enough for a man/But not for a woman -- back up off my tip/To me you're just shooting your lips/Ain't nothin' wrong with a woman takin' a sip").
Whether you see the spots as a purely exploitative bit of marketing or as a brilliant assemblage of lyrical talent, this is a hilarious and essential bit of rap history. Either way, what's undeniable is the creative genius and cultural power of hip-hop: Even when it's being exploited, limited, and marginalized, the music can elevate as dubious an item as malt liquor to the status of a cultural icon. That's something no marketing company could ever do on its own.
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