'Vans' Bans and MTV 

The Man stomps the tongue of hot Berkeley rap act the Pack.

It's been called the summer single of the year, become a MySpace phenomenon (almost one million plays), and is that rare West Coast rap song to be embraced by East Coast hip-hop scribes and just about everyone else. Fueled by sparse, low-end modulations and rap verses expressing an affinity for skater-identified "punk rock" shoes, the Pack's "Vans" is on its way to becoming the biggest hit from a Berkeley hip-hop outfit since Timex Social Club's "Rumors."

It's also been the subject of a recent Internet controversy involving censorship and corporate commodification. On August 15, David Bell, who works in the digital marketing division of Sony/BMG (the parent company for the Pack's label, Jive), blasted the blogosphere with an e-mail containing audio and video links to the song. The original footage had been censored by MTV, he said, urging bloggers to post it on the Web.

"MTV asked Bay Area hip-hop group the Pack to edit their video AND change the name of their song!" Bell announced dramatically, adding that the video "as linked to below will NEVER be seen on MTV."

The e-mail caught the eye of Clyde Smith, who runs ProHipHop.com, a site dedicated to analyzing hip-hop marketing techniques. Smith posted the news on his site, noting that Bell's explanation for the ban was that "MTV said they feel the video is too much of an ad for Vans sneakers."

The song's title and chorus do mention Vans by name, and the verses extol the virtues of the shoes ad infinitum — even suggesting that you can pick up girls more easily when wearing them. But sources close to Vans and the Pack say that the group isn't even officially sponsored by the company (although its members reportedly bum-rushed Vans' SoCal offices recently and came out with hella free boxes of shoes).

Nevertheless, as word of the apparent ban spread, several commentators on Smith's site pointed to other rap songs with overtly commercial messages bordering on product placement, such as Run-DMC's "My Adidas," Nelly's "Air Force Ones," and Busta Rhymes, P. Diddy, and Pharrell's "Pass the Courvoisier." Many questioned MTV's censorship policy, noting that "My Adidas" and "Pass the Courvoisier" aired on the channel, while BET aired "Air Force Ones."

MTV's censorship criteria remain somewhat opaque and inconsistent — Wikipedia notes the word "sex" was excised from the video for 50 Cent's "Just a Little Bit," while "nigga" was left unedited — yet the Vans ban certainly appeared plausible. It did seem a little odd, however, that the same channel that brought you Pimp My Ride, that lovely infomercial for the auto detailing industry (ever notice how every single car on that show is upgraded with an XM satellite radio?), would balk at giving a shoe company formerly associated with stoner icon Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High some free publicity. C2tE even speculated on ProHipHop.com about a possible conspiracy between MTV and Vans rival Nike (the Pack video shows "coke white" Air Force Ones being thrown away).

Yet, as it turned out, things were not what they seemed. A week after Smith's item ran, Young L, the leader of the Pack, e-mailed from his BlackBerry announcing that the video had just been added to MTV's regular rotation (it recently debuted on BET as well). The ban, he said, "was just a rumor." Then David Bell sent in a cryptically worded e-mail, confirming that the video was playing, adding, "I'm not allowed to comment further." Taj Tilghman, the Pack's manager, put a further nail in the coffin of the conspiracy theory, explaining that "there never was an official ban."

So what really happened?

According to MTV spokesman Graham James, the cable channel and label's back-and-forth is just part of the normal process. "We like the song," James says, adding that "minor edits" were made and the chorus no longer mentions the shoe. James wouldn't precisely define MTV's censorship standards, but noted that each video is evaluated "on a case-by-case basis." Smith suggested Bell's alarmist e-mail may have been just a corporate viral marketing campaign aimed at the blogosphere.

But anti-Vans conspiracy or not, the new chorus Got my ____ on but they look like sneakers is kinda wack. Product placement is natural, even "organic" for today's youth, who have "grown up in a logo-drenched environment," says ProHipHop's Smith.

For that reason, says Jeff Chang on his PBS blog Hip-Hop America, hip-hop culture is both "pro-liberation" and "pro-logo"; branding represents "another metaphor for the transformation of a nothing into a something."

Such logic works for the Pack, which has gone from relative unknowns to harbingers of a new generation. That's classic hip-hop — contradictions, inconsistencies, and all.


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