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From Beats to Brands: 50 Years of Hip-Hop (Jimmy Warren Commentary)

3 min read

“It was all a dream … . You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far. Now I’m in the limelight ‘cause I rhyme tight.” — Notorious B.I.G.

It began on Aug. 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell hosted a block party at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx, New York. Little did they know that this event would transform African American culture and leave an indelible mark on the world.

Kool Herc introduced a new technique using two turntables to separate the breakbeats of popular songs, including James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” and the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock.” This “merry-go-round” technique marked the birth of hip-hop and revolutionized music.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, we must reflect on its impact on music, fashion, pop culture — even business.

Hip-hop, after all, is unique among musical genres when it comes to branding savvy. In 2014, Judnick Mayard wrote in Complex magazine, “Rappers’ explicit use of luxury brands to signify upward financial mobility created an entire space for those brands to trend within the youth.” Throughout its history, hip-hop has launched brands into the culture and propelled them to success. How it has done so can inform and inspire successful branding strategies.

Just like hip-hop artists, companies must understand the desires and interests of their target audience to create a brand that resonates in a competitive world. And establishing an emotional connection with customers motivates them to engage with products or services. Knowing this, companies can create a relevant, impactful brand message that paves the way for success. So, what can we learn from hip-hop when it comes to branding?

1. Know your audience: Hip-hop artists understand the pulse of their community, and brands must possess an intimate understanding of their target audience. An example of this is Louis Vuitton, one of the world’s top luxury brands, which has embraced the once-subcultural movement from Harlem to reach young, affluent customers. Louis Vuitton went all in, hiring Grammy-winning rapper and producer Pharrell Williams as its men’s creative director. Williams’ first spring/summer collection — infused with hip-hop signifiers including gold grills, stylish sunglasses and vibrant colors — debuted last month at Paris fashion week.

2. Be authentic and bold: A celebrity endorsement … of a Happy Meal? Amid the pandemic in 2020, McDonald’s sales struggled. Enter rapper and reality TV star Travis Scott, who inked an out-of-the-box deal to put his name on the very Quarter Pounder meal he used to eat as a child. The marketing plan was a success, and McDonald’s and Scott partnered again in 2022 on a collection of adult Happy Meals, including a toy. The endorsement hit new heights when customers, inspired by TikTok, pulled up to McDonald’s blaring Scott’s song “Sicko Mode.”

3. Be clear: Hip-hop’s power lies not only in its infectious beats but also its straightforward messaging. Has there ever been a simpler, more powerful three-word manifesto than Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”? By delivering a focused and impactful message, brands can forge a strong connection with customers and leave a lasting impression.

By embracing hip-hop’s fundamental lessons — knowing the audience, being bold and delivering a clear message — brands can create an authentic, resonant presence. Let us celebrate and draw inspiration from this revolutionary art form as we shape the future of branding.


Jimmy D. Warren II is a communications officer with a private family office and serves as a marketing and branding volunteer with The Conductor in Conway.
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