Steve Stoute found startling evidence of the global influence of hip-hop in the mountaintop town of Èze in southern France. On the square of a village that boasts thousands of years of history, he saw a jewelry store named Bling. "Lil Wayne invented the word 'bling'," says Stoute, who has been an innovator in bringing hip-hop culture and commerce together, and is the author of The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. "When I saw that, I was happy, I was shocked. It said to me, 'This [influence] is real.' "
Stoute has built a career on understanding and monetizing the global spread of hip-hop culture. He heads the ad agency Translation, which specializes in helping large companies understand and take advantage of hot trends and cultural shifts to better market their products. "The change [in branding] for luxury goods is very simple," he says. "The generation of hip-hop music has done a lot to influence mainstream culture by really driving it home. It became part of the aspirational dimension of America."
He vividly describes a scene from a 1986 concert involving LL Cool J, Run-DMC and Whodini at New York City's Madison Square Garden, the first big rap event at the landmark arena. Impresario Russell Simmons had invited executives for the German sport-shoe company Adidas.
When Rev. Run began performing his hit "My Adidas," he took off his three-striped shoe and held it above his head. Thousands in the crowd did the same. As Stoute tells it, the Adidas executive realized a vast market existed for their products that they had not tapped.
What Stoute, Simmons and other pioneers of the rap industry stumbled on was the appeal of the music — and culture — across racial lines, even if it was rooted in a shared materialism. "The hip-hop generation is not very apologetic about having aspirations," concedes Stoute. "When you hear these artists talk about brand — Gucci, Mercedes, Cristal — they're painting a picture of a lifestyle."
The credibility of hip-hop artists, the visibility of certain brands in music videos and seeing favorite artists use or interact with certain products, says Stoute, "created a lifestyle around [the products] that became contagious." Stoute, who is the child of immigrants from Trinidad, grew up in a black neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, N.Y., and he understands the connection between working-class aspirations and the rags-to-riches narratives of so many rappers.
In The Tanning of America, Stoute describes dining in Monaco's Hotel de Paris with Jimmy Iovine of Interscope, Jay-Z, Bono and actor Roger Moore, all of whom climbed to the top from modest circumstances, and reflecting with them on how far they had all come.
He teamed up with Jay-Z to start Translation after selling a stake in his branding and consulting business to Interpublic Group in 2007 for $15 million. Some news reports say that he now wants to buy back the shares. He was chosen as "Innovator of the Year" by AdColor in 2010.
Stoute sees a generation of Americans more relaxed about race emerging from the shared cultural experience of hip-hop. The title of his book conveys his central argument: that a generation of young men and women from the inner cities of America has created a culture that easily crosses racial lines and has quietly created a broader, multiracial society. "The Millennials do not see color as a barrier of segregation," Stoute says. "The previous generation was all about trying to define the difference. This is the generation that is trying to find the similarities."
And, Stoute argues, the long-term impact will be lasting because it is the outcome of a natural process. "Hip-hop culture has done more to bring cultures and races together than anything since Martin Luther King Jr.," he says. "It's through where people got together, through osmosis, through like minds coming together and saying, 'You know what, I like the same thing you like. That video speaks to me, too; that language, that style of dance, that feeling speaks to me.' It got bigger and bigger and brought people together."
It's a remarkably optimistic perception at a time when there are so many racial tensions, from questions about how Barack Obama has been treated to the widening economic gap between blacks and whites and between rich and poor. Stoute says the media often misrepresent conflicts as racial. "Because two people had a disagreement or didn't get along, see eye to eye, they may just happen to be of two different races." He stresses that he is no believer that racism is down to zero, but suggests that some vested interests have reason to heighten differences.
Ever the marketer, Stoute discerns a not-so-subtle message in how some conflicts are exaggerated: "Propaganda is always going to do what it does. That's marketing to your fear. The fact is that some people would love to keep race relations out there as a topic."
Stoute even sees the silver lining in the widely discussed argument that hip-hop has lost its creative edge. "All art gets to a point where it's consumed by all, so it naturally gets homogenized; that's just the way it is," he says, adding that is grateful for artists still delivering what he calls "pure art." "You still have Jay-Z and Kanye. You see it as No. 1 in 23 countries, and that's a hip-hop album."
What has not declined, says Stoute, is the marketing power of hip-hop. "The thing that's living is much bigger than the music itself," he says. "The music is nothing more than a Trojan horse for the culture. That's not homogenized. That's as strong as ever." And as long as the appeal is broad, we assume, America will keep blending its culture.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.