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.”