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Pitbull, 'Diddy' and other rappers step up alcohol endorsements

Nowadays rappers like Ludacris and Snoop Dogg aren't just name-checking favorite liquor brands, they're also high-profile salesmen who often have their own vanity line.

November 25, 2011|By Nate Jackson and Gerrick D. Kennedy, Los Angeles Times
  • Hip-hop and R&B artists have extended their brands in the club by marketing self-branded drinks.
Hip-hop and R&B artists have extended their brands in the club by marketing… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

In the video to Pitbull's latest chart-topper, "Give Me Everything," he pours a glass of Voli vodka, careful to display the label; in the lyrics and video for his single, "Rain Over Me," he hails the vodka as the new "it" drink. In both clips, the bottle takes center stage as the rapper is swarmed by flashing neon lights, svelte models and crooning pop wingmen.

Name-check references to the high life of liquor or drugs is nothing new to rap — a study released just weeks ago from the University of Pittsburgh and Dartmouth University found that for every hour that American teens listen to music, they hear more than three references to brand-name alcohol in rap/R&B/hip-hop lyrics. Brand associations have long been a symbol of status for performers. But Pitbull, like his contemporaries Sean "Diddy" Combs, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg and many others, have now taken it to the next level. Instead of just making references to the products they enjoy, they're rapping about products they're selling.

Pitbull has transformed his latest videos into not-so-subliminal ads for Voli, in which he owns a stake. He is the latest in a string of business-savvy rappers taking the phrase "popping bottles" to the bank by aligning themselves as spokesmen for liquors, often creating their own branded vanity lines.

"[Voli] gave me a great opportunity to be an owner of a brand that I really believed in," said Pitbull, born Armando Christian Perez. He became part owner of the line of low-calorie fruit and fusion flavored vodkas in March. "That's why I got involved with Voli. It's in a market where it's needed and everybody wants it."

Artist-identified drinks are so much a part of club culture now that they are even causing beefs. In an online video released Oct. 1 that quickly went viral, Combs was seen cursing and throwing ice at a Grey Goose-drinking club-goer at a packed nightclub, angry that the partyer wasn't drinking his brand, Ciroc. Combs has been an equal-share owner of Ciroc since 2007 and is a ruthless promoter. Ciroc has made appearances in his music videos and he's mentioned the liquor hundreds of times recently on Twitter. Combs even refers to himself as "Ciroc Obama" and created his own "Diddy" cocktail.

Combs, who declined to comment for this article, has since apologized on Twitter for the near-brawl captured on the video — with freshly on-parole T.I. in the background trying to stay out of the fray. But ruthless competition is part of the hip-hop hustle. Bragging rights, even survival, depend on sales, and liquor fits the aesthetic.

Similarly, these artists also align themselves with drinks with a kick: vodka, tequila, malt liquor.

The rationale for the rap-alcohol associations is rather straightforward: Branded liquors make money. Rob Vinokur, manager of upscale Hollywood hot spot Playhouse, said that celebs encouraging a particular brand have spiked its sales at his club.

" Jay-Z has this thing with Ace of Spades champagne. So because of that … sales are pretty high. There are celebrities that have raps talking about Moët Rosé, so that has a lot of sales for us," Vinokur said.

Diddy's aggressive campaigning has set his brand apart from competitors. He helped bolster the company from the middling 98,000 cases it sold in 2007 — before he was involved — to moving 795,000 cases in 2010, making it the eighth largest imported vodka brand by volume, according to current statistics from the Beverage Information Group, a Connecticut-based firm that tracks information on all segments of the alcohol beverage industry. The liquor is reportedly on track to move 1 million cases by year's end.

Multi-faceted hip-hop moguls like Diddy and Jay-Z have always combined street cred with street-meets-Madison-Avenue business savvy to sell products such as clothing and fragrance lines in a way that few genres outside of hip-hop have the power, or cache, to pull off.

Selling booze is just a natural for a music genre that's all about the party. It's easy to integrate drinks into videos and lyrics. But Diddy has pushed the envelope, allowing Ciroc to become part of his daily conversation with his fans. Other rappers haven't been able to do that with their vanity lines, according to Vinokur.

Perez has already inked deals with Kodak, Dr. Pepper and Sheets energy strips, and he teamed with Bud Light for a partnership that supports his current tour. Life-size cutouts of him clutching a cold one dotted the Staples Center for his recent sold-out show with Enrique Iglesias. He says he's being strategic, not following a trend.

"I don't really look at it as far as rappers and what they do. We're far from that," Perez said. "Those deals went down for the simple fact that we needed to build a brand. So how do you build a brand? You put it next to an established brand."

The Voli deal, however, is different. Voli Chief Executive Adam Kamenstein said the company didn't want a "face" to sell its liquor.

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