Spilt Champagne

The playas in the club are no longer raising glasses of Cristal, at least not the playas at Jay-Z’s upscale 40/40.

Cristal—which can sell for up to $600 a bottle—has in the past two years gone from an obscure luxury brand to pop culture shorthand for the good life, thanks to the embrace of the hip-hop community. The brand has been name-checked in songs by Snoop Dogg, Sean “Diddy” Combs, 50 Cent and Jay-Z himself. But in a recent issue of The Economist, a Cristal executive wondered if the hip-hop community’s attention would hurt its elite status. Jay-Z promptly accused the company of racism, pulled the label from his clubs and instigated a headline-making boycott of the brand.

If it’s not exactly the East Coast-West Coast rap music beef that spilled blood years ago, Jay-Z’s falling out with Cristal shows how far urban culture has come from its inception as the angry protest of ghetto youth. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five scored one of the first big rap hits with “The Message,” a paean about poor inner-city living conditions. Public Enemy told youngsters to “Fight the Power,” and Ice T ignited a national controversy with “Cop Killer.”

Now, the highest strata of urban culture is occupied by multi-millionaire music producers, club owners, fashion designers and recording artists whose conspicuous consumption have written posh brands like Bentley, Burberry and Courvoisier into the pop culture lexicon. Cross that community, Jay-Z seems to be saying, and you can just as easily be rubbed out.

It’s a particularly potent threat considering the breadth of urban culture’s appeal. A major survey by JWT confirms what I’ve been saying for 15 years: CMOs who want a handle on young consumers from all walks of life must understand what’s taking hold dozens of stories below their penthouse offices, on the streets of the cities where they lunch. Nearly three-quarters of the 18- to 34-year-olds surveyed told us that they paid attention to urban culture, and most said they integrated urban trends into their personal style. Young urban style is clearly a mainstay for a solid minority, but more significantly, it is a major influence for a big majority of young people. And its appeal of urban culture extends far beyond music and fashion. Urban culture, respondents told us, exudes youth, energy, excitement and creativity.

It also appeals to anyone who believes in the American dream. Urban culture as brought to life in films like ATL and Hustle & Flow gives audiences a taste of hip-hop’s hyper-paced rags-to-riches fantasy. 50 Cent, who documented his rise from drug dealer to rap star, wears his street cred on his chest, sporting a Kevlar bullet-proof vest in concert, even as he spouts lyrics about popping champagne corks.

Even bubbly-boycotting Jay-Z started out life in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects and gained notoriety as a rapper after his father left the family. Now he owns Roc-A-Fella Records, upscale clubs and a fashion line. The artists who have made it to the top used their street hustle to get there. They are self-made, and the brands they name-check have old-money heritage, but appeal to their new-money need for conspicuous consumption. In fact, 50 percent of Americans and 44 percent of Brits say the life experiences of urban culture leaders—for better and for worse—appeal to them. Flashy cars and flashy clothes ranked at 35 percent among Americans and 38 percent of Brits, and about 28 percent of both groups cited flashy jewelry.

Despite urban culture’s emphasis on material wealth, members of that community are wary of being hijacked by commercial interests. That makes it particularly difficult for marketers to elbow their way into the party. Gaining endorsements from people that place a premium on self-reliance and authenticity can be tough. Brands must establish their own street cred, but to do it they have to get into the game via the underground scene, where constant innovation makes it tough to take a pulse. The minute you pick it up, the true influencers have moved on.

One place to find underground idols is the B-Boy Summit, a four-day breakdancing competition in Los Angeles from Aug. 31-Sept. 3. Among the contest’s less-than-street sponsors is Tylenol. (Surely head spins have their downside.) Only marketers who misunderstand the culture would pay for ham-handed placement in their songs and videos. In fact, they risk alienating the very people they are courting. Well over one-third of Americans and even more British think urban culture is being “tainted by paid endorsements.” But only one-fifth of respondents believed a celebrity who gets paid to advertise or mention products in songs and movies definitely loses credibility. The brands are more likely to get spurned.

In fact, after more than a decade of watching their urban idols cash in, there is a subtle backlash against the commercial interests that drive mainstream urban music. “A lot of rappers become dependent on the big check, the cars—this front,” b-boy choreographer Rokafella told us at a dinner moderated by Skylab’s Schuyler Brown. “There’s this façade about ‘I’m paid and I got all this,’ and they forget that there is a way to live . . . without having the extra four or six zeroes at the end of that check.”

Optimists hope that the wider exposure of hip-hop around the world will drive new artists to create more innovative and conscious music and fashion. With the growth of Latinos and other ethnic groups in the United States, the youthful vigor of Islam and the economic emergence of India and China , it is likely that innovation may come from beyond the African American community. Consider Jin, a Chinese American rapper whose freestyling prowess prompted The New York Times to issue Eminem a warning: “Slim Shady Watch It: Asian Rapper’s Got It.”

“A lot of the hip-hop I’m seeing coming out of these countries and on the MTV World channels is stunning, because [it’s] all the things that we’re very familiar with, which is a form of protest, some expression of struggle,” MTV executive Nusrat Durrani has told us.

Booty shaking and bling may always be in style, but we think hip-hop’s future is in the music with a message: the young Parisian Arabs who have something to say about racism, the Mexican youth who rap about poverty, the Middle Eastern teens who seek to protest war. We think artists who turn away from mass-marketed music will begin using their skills to raise consciousness and make a difference. They may yet make Grandmaster Flash proud.