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Share My World: how Mary J. Bilge brought glamour to hip-hop and broadened the appeal of urban culture to brand marketers. A new book explains

October 4, 2011

As a former senior executive at Interscope and Sony Music and the founder and head of brand consultancy Translation, Steve Stoute is a leading expert in the fertile intersection between recording stars and consumer brands. In an excerpt from his new book, "The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy" (Gotham Books), Stoute looks at the rise of Mary J. Blige, the emergence of the "ghetto fabulous" aesthetic and how they influenced brands like Louis Vuitton and Estee Lauder's MAC cosmetics. As designers gather for Fashion Week in New York, he reminds us of a turning point in the mainstreaming of urban culture.

Mary Jane Blige began her Cinderella-story career as a teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s at Uptown Records, where her then-producer, Sean "Puffy" Combs, oversaw most of her debut album, What's the 411? Before he left Uptown to launch Bad Boy Records, Puffy had dubbed her "the queen of hip-hop/soul"--a distinction that goes to the heart of the discussion about how the genre would soon be coloring all of pop culture.

The blurring of the lines, in fact, had been happening at Uptown all along, thanks to Andre Harrell's direction and in sights. Andre saw in the late '80s how the hard-edged drama of rap music, with the thumping drums and bass-heavy groove that were the signature of many Def Jam artists, was not incorporating all the rich cool smoothness and bright musicality that had built the house of R&B. The question he asked was, how can we make this less rough around the edges, give it more soul and R&B, put guys in suits and add glamour, plus bring in the hip-hop element and beat but with a less dramatic emphasis? The answer turned out to be very basic: melody.

Harrell, a super smart college graduate who began as an artist in the rap duo Dr. Jeckytl and Mr. Hyde, had the insight to leave the rock elements in the mix but to find a way to turn up the heat on the R&B. Some of the efforts that arose from various camps didn't gel and lacked both the hip-hop authenticity and its commitment. Two artists who had the cultural understanding and the unapologetic aspect of it were R. Kelly and Blige. They took that, kept in the beats, but also sang to it and brought the melody--putting the hip-hop spin on R&B and making it more palatable for radio. Eventually, you could look back and see how pivotal both were in bringing everyone under the hip-hop umbrella.

But in the beginning, at the point when churban wasn't ready to call itself hip-hop, radio stations initially still didn't know where to put cuts from Mary's What's the 4117 What did you call it? Not pure R&B, not dance, not hard-edged hip-hop, and definitely not pop. But Harrell finally had a marketing breakthrough to answer that question, as it so happened, when he was trying to secure one of Blige's new releases in the soundtrack for a film starring Halle Berry.

Harrell was explaining to the movie people why Blige's hip-hop style of songwriting was more suited to their movie's storytelling. And then he began to put into words what she represented, "her attitude, her struggle, and then the fashion." Rifting away, he began to talk about her following, how Puffy had already dubbed her the queen of hip-hop/soul, because, Harrell insisted, "she's singing about undying love, soulfully." Her image ... "hair done blond, jewelry dangling, Louis Vuitton this and that, big sunglasses, Billie Holiday blue," was, in short, "ghetto fabulous."

No sooner had he coined that very phrase for Blige than almost overnight hip-hop music, culture and marketing opened a new door that was as wide and as historic as the tanning transformation achieved by MTV's day-parting of Dr. Dre's The Chronic. Harrell asserted, "Ghetto fabulous allowed for women to get in it."

Blige, on all fronts, was for hip-hop what Diana Ross had been for Motown. Harrell--who later went on to run Motown after leaving his own Uptown Records, around the time that I started working with Blige--framed the need for a queen of hip-hop/soul by saying that in the general marketplace, it's "women who are the first to take to minorities in a big way and let us in the house. Men ain't letting you in the house with a new thing. They want the old thing, the same styles. Women are in touch with their girl, and their girl wants to see every new shiny thing that sings beautifully or dances wonderfully or looks handsome."

In a marketing lesson not to be overlooked, the "ghetto fabulous" name gave Blige her own brand identity that sent her career skyrocketing, got women invested in hip-hop and was infinitely merchandisable for all by all.

John Demsey, group president of the Est4e Lauder Cos., remembered how, when he was getting started as the head of MAC, ghetto fabulous fostered an aesthetic and values to urban culture that was the yin to the yang of what male rappers were doing. Demsey told me, "All of a sudden hip-hop had a parallel track because the female side and the male side are very different." Talking about the macho aspect of rap as being more violent and gang-oriented, he went on to note that the female side might have had the same swagger, but it cultivated the values of belief and respect and sisterhood. The women were in the minority because in the genre, men were having the big success, Demsey observed, and the women needed to talk to each other about how the men didn't listen to them. The first time Demsey went to a Blige concert in her early years, he remembered it was about 90% women, mostly African-American, all of them pointing and screaming back when she was singing. "It was like a dialogue," he said, "basically like being in church, like a revival."

I had plenty of experience getting to watch the female bonding when I was working with Blige as a manager and executive producer of her SI World album--by which point she had become the first woman I'd ever seen who could headline a show and have legions of men show up too. Hardcore hip-hop guys would come to see Blige. Why? Well, it didn't hurt that they could say, "I'm going to bring my girlfriend out for this." But the fact was that Blige was embodying the essence of hip-hop--the beats that brought the feeling, that let you dance and show your authenticity, and the subject matter that she was speaking about was generally not too far from a man's understanding. Blige was speaking about it with a hip-hop tone, giving voice to issues that were in the rap code, not to mention that she had songs with tappers. In that big tent brought to you by Blige, it was all coming together. Guys were going, women were in the mix, and tanning was about inclusion however you wanted to look at it.

Ghetto fabulous took in everyone--women, men, rappers, soul singers, athletes, comedians, movie stars, TV hosts, everybody. One of the most iconic images that later appeared to encapsulate this time (when the battle to out-ghetto and out-fabulous each other kicked into high gear) was by photographer David LaChapelle. As the story goes, after LaChapelle took this caramel-tinted photograph of LiP Kim wearing nothing but a Louis Vuitton hat over blond hair and showing her completely bare body stamped all over by the same Louis Vuitton logos, it was included in a gallery exhibit and spotted by then editor-in-chief of Interview magazine, Ingrid Sischy. As she was being shown David LaChapelle's work, the moment Sischy laid eyes on the Lil' Kin photograph, she immediately said, "Take it down." She wanted it for the cover of Interview. And when it appeared as a cover, as I can well attest, it stopped cultural time. This was blatant, unapologetic consumption mixed with & fine art and the rare moment captured was a visual masterpiece.

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And it galvanized attention in the midst of the heyday of party and champagne and bling culture. The power of Lil' Kim appearing with these logos on her body certainly did more for Louis Vuitton than anything inside or out of popular culture at the time. Those who were attuned read the image and thought that if she believed enough to have the logos on her in a way that said, "Look at me, this is how much I'm down for this brand, this is how much it means to me," then it had to be important and worthy. It was certainly powerful whenever hip-hop artists vocalized their love for luxury brands and thus became walking billboards for them. Again, the fact that they came from the ghetto and had fabulous taste plus money to make luxury choices made the brand powerful by association. So the fact that Lil' Kim was literally wearing the brand and nothing else was a watershed moment, catapulting Louis Vuitton and doing so much for Marc Jacobs in the process, but pushing luxury brands further into prominence. What's more, it pushed the psychology of needing luxury brands even further into the cultural mind-set that already embraced the idea of needing luxury brands to establish who and what you stood for. The statement was that important. Not an endorsement deal, not an ad, not a record promo. Just a statement about starting in one place and journeying to another on the cover of probably the most prestigious, elite, cultural magazine of the era, expressed in one image, in code.

Long before that cover appeared, MAC cosmetics--through the reading of consumer cues by Demsey--had understood where pop culture was headed and how the ghetto fabulous sensibility was the perfect match for the brand. Seizing the moment before anyone else, MAC leapt on the opportunity to use both Lil' Kim and Blige in the first strongly supported ad campaign featuring female urban artists. From a marketing perspective, Demsey remembered, "Up until then, no one had ever embraced hip-hop as being glamorous." But the MAC team recognized that "urban music had become the music for everyone and urban culture had become the culture for everyone."

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