The St. Ides Commercials and Rap’s Plutocratic Utopia

“Why’d you slang crack? Cuz I had to. A nigga gotta pay the fuckin’ rent.” — 2pac, “Po’ Nigga Blues”

“If you ain’t talkin’ ’bout money, you ain’t talkin’ ‘bout shit.” – Young Jeezy, “Umma’ Do Me”

“What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.” – Karl Marx, “On The Jewish Question”

In 1988, the San Francisco-based brewer McKenzie River Corporation signed up DJ Pooh (Mark Jordan) to produce TV spots for St. Ides, the new brand of malt liquor they launched two years ago which was struggling to find its place in the market against then market leaders Colt 45 and Olde English 800. The first commercial that DJ Pooh produced for McKenzie River featured himself and King Tee performing an original DJ Pooh tune to a typical L.A. gagnsta-rap style video, depicting DJ Pooh and King Tee driving into a typical ghetto liquor stores (“King’s Liquor Store”) in their black low-rider and getting a case of St. Ides, the “premium malt liquor, smooth and slick,” as King Tee raps while he brings the case of liquor to the cashier. The spot was met with a generally positive reception, and soon McKenzie River and DJ Pooh produced the second installment of their new marketing campaign, this time featuring Ice Cube, another West Coast gangsta rapper and member of the rap supergroup N.W.A., who would soon become the de-facto¬ endorser and spokesperson for the St. Ides brand. The DJ Pooh led marketing campaign was a colossal hit, and St. Ides became the market leader by 1991. Other superstar cameos in the St. Ides marketing campaign during the late 80s and early 90s included big names such as Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G., Cypress Hill, 2pac, Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg, Eric B & Rakim, among many others.

Perhaps what could be seen as yet another instance of the crass commercialization of a music-oriented subculture or “blaxploitation” by popular American culture, the St. Ides marketing campaign crucially differs from others not in the magnitude of all-star ensemble that they have assembled for the campaign, but in the attitudes of artists toward the perceived blaxploitation and commercialization of music. Whereas artists of previous generations often deeply resented the commercialization of their music and deplored the ubiquity of blaxploitation –while adamantly denying their own participation in the phenomenon,– rap artists did not just not care about them, but often openly acknowledged their own participations in them, as it made them, in an ironic twist of postmodern ghetto logic, more “street” and authentic. Cornel West observes that:

unlike bebop and technofunk…[,] black rap music is primarily the musical expression of the paradoxical cry of desperation and celebration of the black underclass and poor working class, a cry which openly acknowledges and confronts the wave of personal cold-heartedness, criminal cruelty, and existential hopelessness in the black ghettos of Afro-America… Black rap music… often eliminates the utopian dimension of [the Afro-American spiritual-blues] impulse,… [It] is the last form of transcendence available to young black ghetto dwellers, yet it, tellingly, is often employed to subvert, undermine, and parody transcendence itself.

One of the ways in which black rap music eliminates the utopian dimension of the Afro-American spiritual-blues impulse is by wholly embracing the concepts of modern capitalist society, or by converting to Secular Judaism, as Marx would have put it.

In his interview with the Vibe Magazine, Ice Cube mentions that:

I thought about stopping doing the commercials, and I talked to Dr. Khalid Muhammad from the Nation [of Islam] about the commercials. We figured [they were] anti-everything that everybody stood for. But we gotta use them as a stepping stone, we gotta use them to build our nation. We can use St. Ides, cause I get them to donate at least $100,000 a year into all kinds of organizations… How else could the Black community come up with $100,000 to help an organization?

In Ice Cube and 2pac we can still observe the vestige of fading utopian hopes despite their mammonistic façade: 2pac had to pay his rent, and Ice Cube had to deliver $100,000 a year to all kinds of organizations. But by the time of Young Jeezy, we can see that some time during the last decade or so it has become just plain and simple mammonism. Some pundits may blame songs such as B.G.’s infamous “Bling Bling” (1999) for such a change in attitude, but perhaps in an ironic way, such seeming elimination of the utopian dimensions in rap music may really be only the reflection of the radical reinvention of the self and therefore, the radical reinvention of the utopian dimensions of the Afro-American spiritual-impulse, probably not totally unrelated to the end of Cold War and the warmongering hullaballoo of the Republican administration immediately following eight years of what was perhaps the Golden Age of American history, but yes, absolutely unrelated to whatever Francis Fukuyama says about the end of history.

Quinn, Eithne. Nuthin’ but a “g” thang: the Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap. New York: Columbia U. Press: 2005, pp. 1~3.

“NY Officials Score St. Ides Ads,” Alcohol and Drug Abuse. November 13 1991. Pp. 43

West, Cornel. Prophetic Fragments. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1988. Pp. 186 ~ 187

Bernard, James. “Ice Cube: Building a Nation,” The Source, December 1991, pp. 33

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