The Rap Of Luxury

Radio stations have played Busta Rhymes's latest megahit more than 97,000 times. Busta performed his ode to the pricey cognac on "The Tonight Show." And MTV and BET have aired the video version a combined 600 times. In it, Busta and his collaborator, P. Diddy, defeat evildoers, get the girls and toast their triumphs with "yack," hip-hop's shorthand for cognac. Across the Atlantic, British spirits giant Allied Domecq, which owns Courvoisier, is toasting Busta, too. Over the past several months Courvoisier's U.S. sales have popped by double digits, thanks in part to Busta's making the drink "the hero of the song,'' says Stephanie DeBartolomeo, the cognac's brand manager. Talk about free advertising--no deal was struck between Busta and the distiller beforehand. And it's not even his favorite cognac. "I'm a Hennessey dude," he tells NEWSWEEK. Lucky for Courvoisier he liked the sound of its name better.

This is the rich sound of hip-hop: cash registers ringing loudly for luxury brands. Though rappers have long found inspiration for lyrics in brand names like Adidas and Tanqueray, it's the prestige logos that sparkle the brightest. Stars like Busta, P. Diddy, Ja Rule and Jay-Z have expensive tastes and have made themselves powerful pitchmen, lifting the aspirations of youth culture for life's finer things while spiking sales of the Cadillac Escalade, Bentley, Cristal champagne, Burberry, Prada and Louis Vuitton. "It takes rappers to make things cool," says Marvet Britto, a publicist for rapper Eve and other top urban stars. Called "ghetto fabulous," the phenomenon would seem to benefit everyone. An artist deems a product cool, sales jump, the rapper looks like a tastemaker and brands that were once the exclusive domain of bluebloods enjoy blinding exposure to a youthful crowd of new customers.

But no marriage is perfect. One source of strain: artists like Busta Rhymes are keenly aware of their marketing power, yet they often aren't cashing in, choosing to rap the praises of their favorite brands for free. So now some hip-hop celebrities are launching luxury brands, including jewelry, spirits and even cigars. Many of the high-end companies are feeling a bit uneasy, as well. Hip-hop's embrace can mean a windfall, but executives are concerned about long-term damage to their brands because of rap's sometimes unsavory aspects. Another worry: luxury brands view themselves as timeless, while hip-hop's unquenchable thirst for a fresh look inevitably makes them fleeting trends.

Just ask Rachel Johnson, the stylist for rapper Ja Rule, about some brands' ambivalence toward hip-hop. She tried to borrow some clothes from a Burberry store in New York to dress him for an Esquire magazine shoot and says she was rebuffed. "They didn't want him to wear their stuff," she says. "People have this stigma with the urban community." Burberry says it's unaware of the exchange. Ja Rule went ahead and paid for the clothes. He has sported Burberry for a Teen People cover, the MTV Video Awards and hit videos. Other rap stars, including Lil' Bow Wow, caught Burberry fever, as did many of Ja Rule's fans. "I'd go places and people would say, 'I got that, too, Rule'," he says. Adds Johnson: "When I go into Burberry, I see young black kids from Brooklyn, from Harlem. Even if they are just buying a hat, it costs $200. Ja took Burberry to another whole level.'' Burberry's Los Angeles store now sends him exclusive gear, and he says the company thanked him in writing.

One of the first marketers outside of hip-hop to recognize the power of the genre was Karl Lagerfeld. As design maven for Chanel, he first sent models sashaying down the runway in 1991 in hip-hop chic, with sneakers and chunky gold chains with Chanel nameplates. Then came P. Diddy, known then as Puffy, boosting the cachet of Versace, Gucci, Prada and others. He, along with hip-hop visionary Russell Simmons and wife Kimora, are among the few hip-hop personalities gracing Louis Vuitton's 200-member VIP list. It pays off. Recently, Puffy appeared in Us Weekly with his Vuitton luggage. The company says it's seen a jump in sales of some items to hip-hop fans, including the Damier, a checkerboard-patterned shoe.

In 1998, Puffy became the first in the United States to acquire the new 1999 Bentley Azure, shelling out $375,000. Soon the powder-blue convertible popped up in his videos. Bentley was suddenly a must-have among hip-hop stars. "Puffy made the initial statement," says Bryan Miller, owner of Manhattan Motor Car, a Bentley dealer. Almost overnight, he estimates, hip-hoppers accounted for about 15 percent of Bentley's U.S. sales. "Those guys help drive the high-end car market." Bentley's corporate spokesman in the United States, John Crawford, seems less thrilled. "We are aware that [hip-hop] is a segment that has intense interest in Bentley," he says, adding that Bentley doesn't know the precise impact on sales of "this instant promotion" from rap videos and songs. Miller, the dealer, acknowledges that corporate officials were cautious about the hip-hop business. "It was all new for Bentley," he says. "They didn't know where it was going."

Hip-hop's taste in cars is moving along already. Dealers like Miller say the next new things on four wheels are the new Porsche Cayenne SUV and DaimlerChrysler's Maybach, which starts at about $300,000 and is set to arrive in the United States in the spring. A New York dealer, Rick Caplan of Power Motor Car, says he already has $50,000 deposits for each of seven advance orders for Maybachs--almost all placed by hip-hop stars. The cars will undoubtedly costar in videos soon. Tastes in SUVs are shifting, too. The Lincoln Navigator was the ride of choice for a while. But now the Cadillac Escalade is hot. One top rapper, Ludacris, not only raps about the Escalade in a song but drove one onstage at the MTV Video Awards. The publicity isn't lost on Cadillac executives. "We feel like it's a trend, our time in the spotlight, but that it could just as easily go away," a spokeswoman says. Adds a GM dealer with a hip-hop clientele: "You hitch your wagon to these guys, then all of sudden they're gone, and it's a negative."

For luxury brands, the free ride may be ending, as hip-hop personalities begin pitching their own prestige offerings. Steve Stout, an influential executive with Interscope Records, is introducing a brand of $40 cigars, Vino Platinum, next month. Meanwhile, Jay-Z and his partners have acquired a European vodka, Armadale. They decided to get into the liquor business after sensing that Jay-Z provided a big boost to Belvedere, a pricey vodka, by mentioning it in several hit songs. Damon Dash, CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records and one of Jay-Z's partners, says, "We were making everyone else so much money. You won't see any more Belvedere in our videos."

Russell Simmons, the cofounder of Def Jam, has invested in Grimoldi, an obscure luxury Italian watchmaker. Recently, Simmons hosted a party for the watch, which sells for $1,500 to $32,000 at the New York retailer Tourneau. Among the guests: hip-hop star Wyclef Jean and top model May Anderson. Already, the brand is "selling very strong with the hip-hop segment," says Tourneau marketing director Andrew Block. "Russell wearing it is the kind of product placement you couldn't pay for."

If the line between art and commerce wasn't blurry enough, consider this: some record labels may soon try to charge brands for a starring role in songs and videos. Lyor Cohen, Island Def Jam's top operating executive and Simmons's longtime partner, is working with HP Media, a product-placement company, to explore such deals. Clearly, many squeamish luxury brands may be relieved because presumably they could steer clear of the hip-hop community altogether. But Cohen says the rappers have the leverage. Brands like Burberry "will suffer if they don't," Cohen says. "You think Ja Rule would have rapped about Izod if I said this little alligator is going to pay you some scrilla [cash] and help you with the video that you have to pay for? I think he would have." Says Ja Rule: "I wouldn't ask for money. It's not their fault that I'm a celebrity, that I like their clothes and people follow [my style]." Then again, the Izod alligator logo might be a better fit for Jay-Z, who could tuck it into a remix of his hit song "H to the Izzo." After all, if it doesn't sound good, nothing will sell.