Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam, is the unofficial Dean of hip-hop. But in a chat I had with him the other day, his attitude about product placement makes me seriously wonder about this music form and what it stands for. Or, maybe I just don't get it.
We talked about the McDonald's offer to hip-hop artists to write songs that the fast food company would approve, featuring Big Mac in the lyrics. McDonald's then pays the artist and his or her company some amount of money--$1-$2 perhaps--per radio play. Simmons told me the deal was "all good." But, he added, that the deal may not get off the ground because the firm handling it leaked the story to Advertising Age. Simmons says the deal was okay when people didn't know how it worked. Now that they do, it probably won't work. Huh? This sounds like, "It's not a crime unless you get caught" thinking.
I don't pretend to know a lot about hip-hop and rap. I'm more of a Van Morrison/Eric Clapton fan. But what I do know is that there is a lot of lyrics about bling and money in hip hop. Simmons had a curious idea about how to save the deal. He says rappers could write lyrics about how they are getting all this money from McDonald's for writing a song about Big Mac. It will be funny and tie into a theme of African Americans being exploited by white corporate America, but getting rich at the same time. The, the theme is about young African Americans exploiting McDonald's desire to exploit hip-hop. Okay. But how many will be able to do that.
I spoke with McDonald's too, of course. Turns out they had no intention of the details of the deal leaking out. I called the firm who did the leaking, Maven of Lanham, Md., and was told the executives were traveling and couldn't get back to me. What, no cell phones?
Brand placement is no stranger to rap and hip hop. P. Diddy wrote and recorded a song called "Pass The Courvoisier" after Simmons cut a deal with the cognac's marketer to reposition the brand in the hip hop community. Simmons said no money changed hands in order to get P. Diddy to write that song. Okay. But given that Simmons said the McDonald's deal would have been fine if the details hadn't leaked, his insistence that no money changed hands to get that brand placement is hard to swallow. I'm not calling Simmons a fabricator. It's just that there is a credibility problem and plenty of room for doubt because of the way these product placement deals are being cut.