How hip-hop went from being shunned by big business to multimillion-dollar collabs

NEW YORK (AP) — The signs of hip-hop’s influence are everywhere — from Pharrell Williams becoming Louis Vuitton’s men’s creative director to billion-dollar brands like Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones and retail mainstays like Diddy’s Sean John and Jay-Z’s Rocawear.

It didn’t start out that way.

The music genre germinated 50 years ago as an escape from the poverty and violence of New York City’s most distressed borough, the Bronx, where few wanted to invest in its businesses or its people. Out of that adversity blossomed an authentic style of expression, one that connected with the city’s underserved Black and Latino teens and young adults, and filtered through to graffiti, dance, and fashion.

As hip-hop spread throughout New York, so did the culture.

“Hip-hop goes beyond the music,” said C. Keith Harrison, a professor and founding director for the University of Central Florida’s Business of Hip-Hop Innovation & Creative Industries certificate program. “Hip-hop always knew, as Nipsey Hussle would say, how to get it out of the trunk, and so they’ve always had to have innovative business models.”

That spirit of innovation has helped push hip-hop past big business’ initial resistance to align with the genre to become the most popular music form in the United States since 2017. Hip-hop’s impact on the $16 billion music industry and beyond is now so widespread, experts say it becomes difficult to quantify.

Author Zack O’Malley Greenberg estimates that hip-hop’s five wealthiest artists were worth nearly $4 billion in 2022 by themselves. It was no idle boast when Jay-Z rapped in last year’s DJ Khaled hit “God Did,” “How many billionaires can come from Hov crib? Huh, I count three -- me, Ye and Rih, Bron’s a Roc boy, so four, technically.” Jay-Z, also known as Hov, Rihanna and NBA star LeBron James are all on the Forbes World’s Billionaires List for 2023, though Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, dropped off the list after his controversial split with Adidas.

Hip-hop artists have achieved that level of success because they are much more than their music. They are tastemakers and trendsetters in lifestyle-defining products from fashion to high-end champagne.

“Hip-hop knows how to put butts in seats, no matter what context you’re in, and that’s what businesses want,” said Harrison, who is also a professor in the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program. “Emotion, return on emotion — that’s what hip-hop does differently. They have another level of emotion.”

Because rappers often tell stories fans relate to or aspire to, weaving brand shout-outs into their rhymes and product placements — sometimes paid for, sometimes not — into their videos becomes a powerful marketing tool.

In her forthcoming book “Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion,” pop culture expert Sowmya Krishnamurthy addresses what people get out of “putting somebody else’s name or logo across your chest or across your back.”

“In America, in a capitalist society, how else do you show you’ve made it?” Krishnamurthy said. “One thing I kind of joke about is: People can’t see your mortgage. But they can see a nice chain. They can see the clothes that you have on. That is an immediate signal.”

In hip-hop, that pressure to fit in and show off is heightened.

“You have a genre that historically has a lot of people who grew up with little to nothing,” Krishnamurthy said. “The aspiration is inherent.”

And probably no product has been as successful at connecting with hip-hop as footwear. Consequently, rappers get their own sneaker lines without ever taking part in a sport, said Harlan Friedman, host and creator of the Sole Free podcast on sneakers and street culture.

“A seventh grader can’t afford a $20,000 rope chain and medallion, but maybe he could afford a pair of (Nike) Dunks or a pair of (Air) Jordans or a pair of Adidas,” Friedman said. “That gives him that little bit of clout, that he’s like his favorite artist or athlete, and it kind of gives him that feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m like them.’”

Adidas was the first major company that saw rappers as potential business partners, Friedman said. But they had to be convinced.

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