Thug Life or Tame? Rappers Stray From the Street

Snoop's gone Bollywood, LL Cool J's doing kids clothes: It may get more bizarre.

January 8, 2009, 1:08 AM

Aug. 11, 2008 — -- It used to be that you could take the rapper out of the hood but not the hood out of the rapper.

But what happens when the rapper leaves the streets of Los Angeles for the gold-plated paths of Bollywood?

Snoop Dogg, the West Coast rapper who ran with the Crips gang and served time for selling cocaine, traded his baggy jeans for a slim-fit kurta and his cornrows for a diamond-studded turban to appear in "Singh Is Kinng," a Bollywood movie that just hit theaters in limited release. He raps on the film's title track, spitting lines like "Yo, what up. This Big Snoop Dogg. Represent the Punjabi," and "What up to all the ladies hanging out in Mumbai."

What up, indeed: In a video posted online, Snoop said he'd like to follow up the "Singh Is Kinng" track, already bumping in bars and clubs across India, with a tour.

"Snoop Dogg has a lot of fans in India and I love 'em right back," he said. "Get ready for me."

Of course, Snoop's far from the first rapper to look outside the hip-hop community to raise his pop culture quotient. Diddy pioneered that trend.

Among Diddy's host of ventures: developing reality series for MTV and VH1, endorsing high-end Ciroc vodka, starring in the Broadway production-cum-Emmy-nominated TV movie "A Raisin in the Sun" and putting out a line of fragrances, the latest of which will be called, simply, "I Am King."

Jay-Z followed in his footsteps. He co-owns the chain of 40/40 Clubs and the New Jersey Nets and recently sealed a game-changing $150 million deal with concert promoter Live Nation, which promises to finance his entertainment ventures for the next 10 years, however vast they may be.

But some of the latest partnerships between rappers and pop culture seem downright bizarre. Snoop Dogg rapping in a Bollywood movie and starring in an E! reality show? LL Cool J designing a kids clothing line for Sears? Aren't these guys supposed to be thug?

Apparently, it really ain't nothing but a G thang -- that's G as in grand, not gangster. With the recording industry unsure exactly how to monetize music, rappers need to go where there's money to be made and a market to be tapped, whether it's the children's clothing department, the South Asian subcontinent or reality TV, street cred be damned.

"It's very much a sign of how times have changed in the hip-hop world," said James Auburn, a hip-hop historian. "MC Hammer did a lot of product endorsements. He was considered a sellout and not true to his base, but now rappers can start their own clothing lines and make all the money in the world. It's all a part of people branding themselves."

Indeed, Jay-Z can spit lines like "Take the Forbes figure, then figure more" in part because of his deals with big names including Budweiser, Hewlett-Packard and General Motors -- Forbes put Jay-Z at the top of its "Hip-Hop Cash Kings" list last year, estimating he earned $34 million in 2006. But branding's not for every rapper: If an up-and-coming emcee were to front for a mainstream brand like McDonalds, it could be career suicide.

"If you're a young rapper and you establish yourself as being from the street and you're on your first or second album, making baby clothes isn't going to help," said Sean Fennessey, VIBE magazine's music editor. "But if you're 10 albums deep and you're pushing 40, you're likely an international brand. It's not as much of an issue."

Auburn added, "Snoop gets props for life. I can't think of what he would have to do to get his pass revoked. When gangsta rap started to blow up in the mainstream, he was sort of the symbol for that. He was the icon. ... The rules are different now. He can act silly on TV and it's OK."

Add to that the fact that many young hip-hop listeners don't know or care how today's rap icons rose from the streets to stardom. That allows rappers to cultivate multiple personas. While the shady parts of their past are a point of pride in their rhymes, they're quick to hide them when it comes to mainstream endorsements. 50 Cent hawks Vitamin Water now; how many of his young fans know his feel-good product of choice used to be coke?

"I have two teenagers and their recognition of Ice Cube is from the 'Barbershop' movies, not rapping," said Gail Mitchell, Billboard's senior R&B correspondent. "There's a whole generation out there that doesn't know what people like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Snoop brought to the table."

To be sure, there's a whole class of rappers more interested in rhyming than getting rich. Notably Nas, who promoted the release of his latest album by joining a group of protesters in front of Fox News' New York headquarters.

But rap and pop culture partnerships are only going to grow. Sure, Lil' Wayne sold a million copies of "The Carter III" in one week, thus far the largest first week sales for any album in 2008, but that type of success isn't common in any segment of the music industry these days. If they want to make bank, rappers must look outside the hip-hop sphere; if the rest of the world is looking to tap growing middle-class markets in India and Asia, why not them too?

"In terms of livelihood, it's all about being able to get into the mainstream. It's not like the old days where you can rely on a recording career," Mitchell said. "You've got to reach as broad of an audience as you can and India -- that's a pretty broad audience."

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