By Mar Calpena
Last November 20th, a luxurious party gathered in Manhattan a bunch of celebrities for the presentation of the DeLeón tequila, whose brand ambassador is Sean “Diddy” Combs. Combs is a veteran on the subject: his deal with vodka brand Cîroc has brought him, according to some sources, more than a hundred million dollars. Because as a study by the Boston University School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 38% of hip hop songs cite at one point or another an alcoholic drink. Brands have realised the potential behind it and want to take advantage of it. But, how did we get here?
Let’s go back to the origins. In Africa, there aren’t many distilled drinks –excepting the very colonial South Africa, only a few countries pass their fermented palm wine through the still– but without alcohol slavery makes no sense. Because rum was one of the vertex of the damned triangle that moved around people, raw materials and consumption goods (amongst which rum didn’t take a minor place) from Africa to America and Europe. The most important drinks in Africa then, and now, are hibiscus tea and kola nut juice. I’m not saying all this just as anthropological details, but because both drinks share a flashy red colour and are usually taken with some kind of sweetener. These characteristics (flashy colour and sweet taste) will be repeated again and again when slaves start drinking in America.
Besides, kola had stimulating properties –although I tasted it once in Senegal and had to vomit at once–, so at the end of the 19th century it was incorporated into the formula of, err, Coca-Cola (although it seems nowadays is no longer part of it). These teas, together with other equally flashy-coloured and sweet drinks, were a lot more salubrious than the water available at the plantations. Strengthened with the treacle of sugar cane, they granted enough energy to labour at the fields all day. Negros were only given alcohol on free days, and then they were given it in large amounts, because a sober slave is a clearheaded slave and can have thoughts of rebelling or escaping. That’s why, after the American Civil War, the liberated slaves emigrating to the north of the United States preserve within their gastronomic traditions –what would later be called “soul food”– red drinks that often have lemonade, tea or Kool Aid as their base. But their relationship towards liquids was still complicated: on the one hand, the church, very prominent within African American communities, disapproved of excess and defended that alcohol was the enemy of social progress; on the other, blacks have worked in distilleries and beer factories since colonial times, and had become bartenders in bars and saloons even since their first appearance, so they weren’t foreign to it. During Prohibition, bothe visions prevailed and coexisted, and where a preacher preached temperance, it appeared too a clandestine distiller or black bootlegger (I’m looking at you, Chalky White). However, until World War II, alcoholic culture won’t be too different between the races.
Just hit the corner store, you know what I’m looking for
During the war, black soldiers stationed in France discover cognac. France was considerably more open towards coloured people, and besides, cognac hadn’t the Southern connotations that whisky and bourbon had, very much associated to the confederate side. Its success will be so big that Hennessy will end up being the first distilled drink to be advertised on magazines Ebony and Jet, devoted to the emergent African American middle class. Yes, Malcolm X will denounce the consequences of alcohol, but despite its rhetoric, there will start to appear new alcoholic drink brands created for and by blacks, the first ones being malt liquors, very sweet beers with a high degree of alcohol that are still the drink of the ghetto par excellence and remind, more in form than content, the red lemonades of slavery times. Sold in forties or forty ounce bottles, Janet Jackson will say about them in a dialogue of John Singleton’s movie Poetic Justice that “they aren’t even sold in whites’ shops” (although high school kids, like my very white US friend Shawn Stoker tells me, will spend their weekly allowance in buying forty ounces bottles in the petrol stations of the suburbs as a kind of rite of passage). The two best known malt liquors are Olde English and St. Ides, and in the nineties, rappers like Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G. or Cypress Hill will advertise them and they will be hegemonic until hip hop gets out of the ghetto.
Because that’s when bling comes around. Hip hop becomes something that generates an awful lot of money, and the tension between temperance and drunkenness crosses its trajectory with another axis, the one going between credibility and ostentation. With this boom, cognac, which in the eighties was considered an old folks’ drink, regains its prestige, and, further on, champagne becomes king. Either drunk or just mentioned, Louis Roederer, Dom Pérignon, Moët (the most cited) or Cristal were everywhere. The last one became a common place, flowing down the backs of the girls on Jay-Z videos: he didn’t seem to be able to stop mentioning it in his songs. A bottle of Cristal costs two or three times more than a Moët one, which, despite being expensive, it’s still affordable. Rappers begun to drink like bosses.
Nothing could seem to stop the impact of champagne until in 2006 the CEO of Cristal, Frédéric Rouzaud, said during an interview to The Economist that he didn’t quite like to have his wine associated with hip hop. What did the guy just say??? Jay-Z considered this statement racist and portrayed himself rejecting a Cristal bottle in his video Show Me What You Got. But this had another effect: musicians noticed that there was almost as much money, or even more, in alcohol than in music. Jay-Z invested on his own label, Armand de Brignac (popularly known as Ace of Spades) and Diddy dis the same with Cîroc, even calling himself “Cîroc’s Obama”. On the other hand, red lemonades are not dead. Transformed in sweet concoctions, like malt liquor already did, Alizé, a mixture of brandy or vodka and fruit juice, or Moscato, an Italian sparkly pre-diabetic wine whose ambassador is Nicki Minaj, are putting all their marketing efforts in the up-to-then forgotten black women. However, it’s possible that the golden age of alcohol as a symbol of status is already gone. Millennials, it would seem, are becoming more and more suspicious towards the interests of products and services that attack them from all the ends of the cultural spectrum. Excess, before a symbol and something to admire, seems to have quietened down a bit with the crisis. Alcohol might have completely lost its cultural value within hip hop, but no one can deny the splendid, sparkly and intoxicating hangover of songs it has left behind. We invite you to discover it here.