Hip-hop sways into the mainstream

From fast-food ads to skateboarding mags, hip-hop has moved well beyond music and now exerts a powerful influence over American pop culture.

From fast-food ads to skateboarding mags, hip-hop has moved well beyond music and now exerts a powerful influence over American pop culture.

If you want a quick snapshot of how mainstream hip-hop and rap have become, look no further than McDonald's. Not only is hip-hop music featured in many of the company's ads, but the fast-food giant has also announced it is looking for fashion input from the likes of Phat Farm, Sean John, and Fubu to help create new uniforms for its employees.

Perhaps because of its growing appeal among a broad demographic, hip-hop has moved well beyond music and is now an integrated part of American pop culture. "Anything that is seen as cool these days for the most part was started by hip-hop, whether it's clothes, jewelry, or cars," says Jody Miller, president of JLM Public Relations, which represents the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. "There was a story in the New York Post that noted when a hip-hop artist mentions a brand in a song, the brand's sales go up."

Crossover appeal

All of this has not gone unnoticed by the media. "I think there are a lot more opportunities for hip-hop than there are for other genres of music because there's so much crossover," notes Tresa Sanders, president of Tremedia, whose clients include Mike Jones, Luther Campbell, and Lil Scrappy. "For instance, we can get our artists into skateboard magazines like Vapors or Slam."

Wendy Day, founder of the Rap Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for hip-hop artists, says hip-hop in many ways has followed the same path pioneered by rock, and before that jazz music, in moving from niche, youth-oriented outlets into the general-interest press.

"The only thing that is different is that because the market is glutted with so many rappers, the coverage from mainstream publications really seems to glorify the negative," she says. "They'll write about how 50 Cent has been shot nine times or the arrest of some other artist."

Def Press Public Relations founder Phyllis Pollack, who has been involved with hip-hop since working with NWA in the 1980s, suggests that part of the appeal of many hip-hop artists is that their lives are open books.

"A lot of the coverage of hip-hop artists is more personal," she says. "You have to be creative and have a strong sense of the artist's hook or story, because it's harder to get a mainstream reviewer to sit down and listen to a hip-hop artist who is not produced by a well-known name or is out on a major label."

But the publicity process for hip-hop does differ from other musical genres. While rock, pop, or country acts can generate market-by-market media interest by touring, that isn't always an option for rappers. "With rap, it's very expensive to get insurance for concerts because of the negativity that is sometimes associated with it," notes Day.

That may slowly be changing, says Kathryn Frazier, owner of Biz 3 Publicity, which represents Atmosphere, RJD2, Aesop Rock, and El-P. "A lot of underground and independent hip-hop artists are jumping in vans and doing 100-city tours," she says.

Getting the word out

Many independent hip-hop acts are also leveraging the internet by providing both news items and music to sites such as Undergroundhiphop.com and Allhiphop.com, notes Frazier. "Thanks to these sites, we've had acts such as Atmosphere that were major sellers before they got any print attention," she says.

But Joan Myers, founder of Myers Media and a publicity consultant for the BET Awards and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers' rhythm and soul music awards, says major print coverage - along with MTV, BET, and radio play - remains the long-term goal for most hip-hop acts.

"They certainly would want to be in Rolling Stone because so much prestige is attached to that," she says. "But their core audience is most important, so they'll focus on outlets such as Vibe, XXL, and The Source."

Having embraced hip-hop as a cultural movement, Miller says the media is now focusing on hip-hop's emergence as a political force. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network was started by music mogul Russell Simmons to get artists involved in everything from voter registration drives to commentary on file sharing and drug laws.

Miller says the organization's work now gets regular coverage in outlets ranging from Vibe and XXL to The Washington Post, The New York Times, E!, and Hardball with Chris Matthews. "What we're seeing right now is a lot more positive hip-hop role models in the media," she says.

Pitching... hip-hop media

  • Most general-interest outlets don't have dedicated hip-hop writers on staff, so look to target the growing number of freelance reporters who specialize in the genre and contribute to a number of different outlets.

  • Touring, long the bedrock of most music publicity, is not as prevalent in the hip-hop community, but there are opportunities to do market-by-market radio interviews and other appearances to generate buzz for a new act.

  • It's often the back story that makes hip-hop music so compelling, so make sure your press releases go beyond the technical aspect of putting a song together and delve into the artist's personal life and inspirations.

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