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A Snapshot of the Early Days of Marketing Hip Hop to America

tanning of americaTonight, part two of  The Tanning of America airs, the Vh1 documentary that takes a look at the history of hip hop in America and the rise of African-American stars in television, film and music. The film is inspired by the book of the same name written by the founder and CEO of Translation, Steve Stoute. The four-part series looks back at shows like those created by Norman Lear in the 1970s, rap music in the New York City of the early 80s, and the impact all of that has had on both pop culture and politics of today.

We saw the first couple of parts at a screening last Thursday at the Paley Center in New York City. Compared with the humble beginnings depicted on screen, the event had a definite luster about it. Stoute, Nas, Rev. Al Sharpton and Gayle King were among those participating in a panel discussion. Mona Scott-Young (who’s also in the film) and Jerry Seinfeld were among those in the audience.

One thing the documentary makes clear is that the road from the Bronx to Vh1 was paved, in part, with marketing and PR opportunities.

A lengthy section of the first part deals with a Wall Street Journal story written by reporter Meg Cox. As she points out, having a publication like the WSJ profile Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons — and refer to him as the “mogul of rap” — was a PR push in the right direction for hip hop.

As Eddie Murphy was rising to super stardom and The Cosby Show was gaining popularity, Run DMC was making a name for Adidas shell-top sneakers. As the film points out, Adidas shoes weren’t exactly flying off the shelves. But when an Adidas exec came to the US from Europe and saw a venue full of young people raising their shell tops at the request of the rap trio, they were sold. Run DMC was signed with Adidas right after that show. They became the first hip hop act to sign an endorsement deal.

As Stoute points out, at that point, executives at big companies “saw hip hop drive sales.”

“It was critical to showing the economic power of this art form,” he adds.

By the time we get to part two, marketers are using rap music freely in all manner of ads, with the film showing a throwback Fruity Pebbles commercial with Barney and Fred Flintstone rapping in Bedrock.

With the ubiquity of hip hop today, it’s interesting to take a look back at a time when it was an underground art form. We’re watching Diddy’s Revolt TV station right now and it’s clear that hip hop music has come a long way without going so far astray that its roots are lost.

Part two of The Tanning of America airs tonight at 11pm. You can watch part one online. And you can follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #hiphopchangedus.

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