The Tanning of America

I’ll always owe my friend Rod a debt of gratitude for introducing me to hip-hop at an early age.  Back in 1981, I used to hang out in Rod’s basement and listen to records.  It was then that he introduced me to old school rap like The Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and many other groups.  When we weren’t listening to rap we were spinning Go-Go records by the likes of Trouble Funk, E.U. (Experience Unlimited) and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers; funk records by bands like Slave, Parliament/Funkadelic, Prince and The Bar-Kays; or soul from the likes of Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass and even a pre-Ghostbusters Ray Parker, Jr. In turn, I turned Rod on to arena rock like Rush, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Scorpions and The Police among others.  I still remember creating fake radio shows for our fictional radio station WROD with it’s tagline of “Funk, Soul, Rock, Rooooooolllllll”.  Whether we were white or black was irrelevant.  We bonded over music and we both dreamed of being a rap, funk or rock star.

I just finished reading The Tanning of America by Steve Stoute (Gotham Books, 2011).  In “Tanning”, Steve talks about how hip-hop culture transcended music to create a new consumer mindset – a mindset that is not black or white, but tan.  Stoute, who began his career in music as a road manager for Kid N’ Play and worked his way up to Executive Vice President of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, left the music industry in 1999 to enter the world of advertising and is now the founder and CEO of Translation, a leading brand marketing company.

In his book, Stoute traces the rise of hip-hop from it’s birthplace in the rec room of a Bronx apartment building to it’s effect on the election of President Barack Obama, showing along the way how it’s influence on youth worldwide created the first generation of consumers with the same “mental complexion.”  He explains how hip-hop as a musical form created a new language or set of “codes” that redefined urban culture as the embodiment of cool, and how understanding the culture, mind-set and “codes” of these millenial consumers can lead to success for any brand.

While some of Stoute’s claims may at times seem to over-inflate rap’s influence (NWA’s co-opting of the Raiders attire led to an increase in NFL licensing and merchandise revenues from $300 million annually to $3 Billion), his book clearly shows how hip-hop culture has influenced consumer taste across the entire socio-economic spectrum.   Throughout the book Stoute talks about how he realized what a mobilizing force rap music could be for a consumer company if they knew how to stay “on the right side of cool.”  Whether it was the effect of Run-DMC’s “My Adidas” on the fortune of that brand or the way LL Cool J’s early adoption of brands like Kangol, Le Coq Sportif and Sergio Valente created new markets for those brands, it’s clear that when a brand is embraced by a hip-hop artist there is a direct, and more often that not, positive effect on it’s bottom line.  While some may dismiss rap because of it’s overt brand-name-checking and emphasis on money, consumerism and “bling”, Stoute points to the universal themes of “aspiration”, “credibility” and “authenticity” in explaining why rap resonates with consumers no matter their socioeconomic status.  When discussing it with Jay-Z he got this response,

…he pointed out that many of the rock musicians had come from sustainable backgrounds, seeking acclaim for their talent and a level of cool that playing music gave them.  For rappers coming out of the projects, getting paid and bettering yourself is part of gaining credibility.  Jay reminded me also that it’s not selling out when a kid in the projects sees a guy rapping about Sprite or the Gap because they know he’ll be getting the money and that feeds his or her own aspiration.  It’s not that being acknowledged for talent and great work isn’t desirable, but getting paid trumps those goals.

Whether you agree with Stoute or not really isn’t important when you stop to consider how much race relations have changed in America over the past 30 to 40 years since rap emerged as an art form, and The Tanning of America makes a strong case for rap’s influence on those changes.  I know rap had an effect on me, because as a white suburban kid listening to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five I was given a guided tour of the Bronx streets in songs like “The Message”, and it was a revelation.  Having moved a lot as a child, I witnessed first-hand many examples of both overt and subtle racism, and while I was acutely aware of how race could be an issue for many people, it was never an issue for me.  Let’s face it growing up in the suburbs is very homogeneous, and I had little opportunity to interact with African Americans.  Music often bridged that gap and I think helped open my mind to different cultures, races, etc.  I guess that’s why I so loved those hours spent spinning records in my friend Rod’s basement.  As I said before, music bonded us together and was a way for us to translate those things about our upbringings that may have seemed different, but were in the end so similar.  It was indeed a “tanning” moment for both of us.  As I read this book I couldn’t help but think back to those times, and how music has continued to effect change and bring together generations of kids.  I know Hip-hop played a role in changing the way I think about race and what it was all about to be an American, and I hope it continues to do so for future generations.

Of course, The Tanning of America is also about how marketers can reach new consumers, and while you may think, “why would I want to read a book about using music to market brands?  Let me assure you that there are lessons to be learned here as well.  “Tanning” is a book about how an upstart musical style created on the streets of America changed the conversation not just about race, but also about how changing demographics and thinking continue to effect the new economy, a global economy that is fed by multicultural consumers who are attuned to how brands interact with them.  Let’s face it, music and marketing are inextricably connected, more so now than ever, and regardless of how you feel about that connection understanding why it exists and how powerful it can be is important to anyone who follows or wishes to be part of the music industry.  I know The Tanning of America gave me a new perspective on the subject, and I hope it will for you too.

So pick up a copy of The Tanning of America, give it a read, and get yourself a new “mental complexion.”

Visit The Tanning Effect blog.

Watch Steve talk about his book.

Follow Steve on Twitter.

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