By Kyle Coward
First up is the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man rapping over a minor-key piano sample atop a classic East Coast boom-bap beat, climaxing with a roar and proclaiming that he likes to wet his whistle with a 40-ounce. The camera pans past Ol’ Dirty Bastard with a lady on his lap, and the mic is thrown to Raekwon, who’s gallivanting on a rooftop and dropping mid-tempo paeans about the art of imbibing. The scene, interspersed with shots of a large beer bottle exploding and re-forming, then switches to Ghostface Killah in front of a bodega, frenetically waxing poetic about the pleasures of liquid yeast.
But this alcoholic ode wasn’t a video for a track off from a Wu-Tang Clan solo album. This 30-second 1994 commercial was part of a campaign for St. Ides, a low-cost, previously obscure brand of malt liquor, that was the first to weave a hip-hop aesthetic into its central messaging.
Today—when Dr. Dre is an Apple executive, Jay-Z has partnered with Samsung on an album release, and Snoop Dogg has appeared in Chrysler commercials—the St. Ides campaign appears strange, a relic from a time when hip-hop culture hadn’t yet earned wider Madison Avenue respect.
“Back then, part of the excitement within the hip-hop subculture, as it still was at that time, was the dawning realization of the potential for hip-hop marketization,” says Eithne Quinn, a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom. “Many artists, from poor backgrounds as they often were, didn’t see this as selling out.”
Read More Breaking Ad: When Hip-Hop First Went Corporate — The Atlantic.