Commercializing the Game for Fame
By: Oscar L. Orias
With the album Straight Out of Compton a new and controversial element was added to Hip-hop: corporatism. The West Coast movement was born in some sense by corporations understanding the allure and influence the genre had. This marriage was no coincidence; hip-hop by nature is concerned with image and appearance. B-Boys and Girls along with DJs wore Adidas Shell Toes. Nike, especially the Jordan brand quickly embraced the counterculture and rebellion of urban culture.
“I’m A Nike Head/I wear chains that incite the Feds”
In 1984 the Bulls selected arguable one of the greatest and controversial basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan. His gravity defying leaps and seeming air of arrogance capture the attention of the nation. He was seen early in his career as an arrogant, Machiavellian black superstar basketball player. A superstar who didn’t obey the rules of gravity or the NBA. Jordan was so “Machiavellian and arrogant” that he broke the NBA tradition of wearing white shoes to play basketball. His shoes were black, red, and white; the respective color of the Chicago Bulls. This moved caused the NBA to fine Jordan and banned his shoes. Nike seized on this opportunity and ran a commercial stating that Jordan’s were so “different and rebellious” the NBA had no choose but to banned the shoes. This reflected some of the tenets of Hip-Hip and the “hood” underclass. It taps in to the mind-set and sentiment of the urban youth who felt marginalized to the point of illegality. They felt that their actions and demeanor were looked down by general society. They looked at Jordan as a symbol of themselves and what the future might hold. He was a young rebel pursing the American Dream of material wealth, power, and influence. He was doing all of this while dressing in an “urban matter” and defying the laws of nature and authority. He ultimately answered to no one in general society.
Nike, which begin to recognize the influence hip hop had on youth society, began to aggressively target the urban community and hip hop culture. The company also recognized how the genre was shaping youth cultures in different parts of the world. When Hip-hop spoke, the young people of the world listened. The company began to sponsor star studded basketball tournaments in large cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami. Many of these cities were also seen as Hip-Hop Meccas (no coincidences there). They also became involved in youth leagues like the large AAU organization and created their own summer camps.
How They Did It
The strategy was to influence the urban underclass to buy a certain style and brand of shoe. Inner-city youth were seen as trend setters in the shoe industry. By doing this they created the seeds of influence that would spread to the rest of America’s youth culture. In the minority neighborhoods and ghettos shoes became a powerful status symbol. The more expensive your shoes were the more status you gained with your peers. I can attest to this effect personally. I started wearing Nikes in school and in my neighborhood to fill a need to belong and to reach a certain status. Children and teens that wore inexpensive, generic shoes were seen as un-cool and very poor. Parents were coaxed into buying them because they didn’t want their kids being teased at school.
Nike’s aggressive and effective marketing led to the creation of a whole separate youth culture devoted to their products alone. These shoes by Nike captured the imagination of hundreds of kids, especially kids living in impoverished areas. They did this by not advertising the shoe itself but on how the shoe can bring hope and make dreams reality. Nike managed to take a simple product like shoes and turn it into a way of life and a culture.
The Nike Cult
This takes the marketing concept of creating brand loyalty to new and potential dangerous heights. Today there are hundreds of websites and publications devoted to rating and discussing certain shoes and manufacturers. Many of these shoes have a cult following and have been used in popular culture, especially Hip-hop. Nelly did a whole song devoted to the Nike’s Air Force 1 model. This song caused the demand and price of Air Force 1s to skyrocket. Many adults today (especially from impoverished areas) still use shoes among other things as a symbol of self-worth. They are usually the most devoted followers and hardcore collectors. These same adults become parents and instill the value of worth based on material possessions (i.e. shoes) on to their children.
On part 3 of Hip-Hop: A Phenomenon 32 Years in the Making I explore how Nas’ Illmatic touched off the 90s Rap Renaissance and how hip hop started to fracture.