Exclusive Interview: Steve Stoute & How Hip Hop Tanned America

Maybe you know him as the man Nas dubbed ‘The Commissioner’ or the former manager of Mary J. Blige. Or, maybe you’ve just wondered who that brown skin guy is, that’s always standing next to Jay-Z. But even if you aren’t familiar with Steve Stoute, there is not one doubt that you know his work.

A music industry vet, Stoute left the game some years ago to help change the way Hip Hop would be used. What resulted was what Steve calls ‘a conversation’ between the children of the genre and the brands desperate to market to them. For years Brands either ignored the power of Hip Hop or tried (incorrectly) to speak to us, unsure and unaware of the proper language to use. Enter Steve Stoute.

From resurrecting Reebok with the record-breaking S. Cater & G-Unit sneakers, to changing the way McDonald’s would forever market its food, Stoute became an ambassador. And now he’s sharing how he did it with ‘The Tanning Of America: How Hip Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy’, his first book that hits stores last week.

Steve Stoute has seamlessly gone from The Commissioner to The Ambassador Of Cool.

Leaving the music business for the advertising world was a risky move. When was your ‘a ha’ moment – the moment you knew you’d made the right decision?

Definitely the S. Carter and G-Unit sneakers. That is when I realized that I could just sell CD’s or I could also sell the countless other things that went with it.

You began as a Road Manager, then Record Exec, then an award winning Advertising and Marketing Exec, and now Author. What made you want to write this book?

Well, I felt like I was the only one who could truly write this book. Based on my history in the music industry and then leaving and establishing a new lane in the advertising field, I felt I was really the only one who might be qualified to tell this story from such a knowledgeable place.

Young Guru once said that ‘the hardest part of watching Hip Hop grow was having to tolerate all of the uninformed criticism that came with it.’ What has been the hardest part for you as you’ve watched Hip Hop ‘tan’ our country?

I would have to say some of the music. I think a lot of artists have gotten into the game, coming from an impure place. And because of this, the music has become homogenized. There’s a need to be something they aren’t. What hasn’t been disturbed is the cultural impact…but artists can’t try to get in the game at the sake of the art.

In the book you mention ‘Translators Of Culture’ – People who are able to carry an aspect of culture to those not familiar. What are the qualifications of being a Cultural Translator?

The thing that’s most important is honesty. In the book I mention Will Smith as a great Translator of Culture because he built his career off being able to be self-deprecating. People picked up on his honesty. The problem you have now is a lot of artists aren’t being sincere. You don’t see Drake running around trying to be Jay-Z. Some artists are trying to be someone they’re not and the public will pick up on that. In order to sell the culture, the audience must believe you’re of that culture. Just be honest.

Also in the book you mention the successes of such game changers like Apple (iPod) and Ray Bans and the Cadillac Escalade. In a few years, will there be a ‘Tanning Of America part 2’ – with an updated look on the state of Hip Hop five years from now?

(Laughs) No. There won’t be a follow-up. I would actually like for this book to inspire someone else to really look at how far we’ve come – to begin to explore for themselves and then write their own book. I mean there really is no ceiling on how far Hip Hop can go.

So there’s no limit? As Hip Hop grows, will we eventually see a rapper on television pushing Viagra?

As long as it makes sense. If something gets to the point where it doesn’t work, then we start to limit the possibilities. But when you have brands thinking they can just pair cool celebrities with their product, and all of the sudden they’re cool, then we’ll see what doesn’t work. Like Kodak. That campaign (The So Kodak campaign) is terrible. Pittbull, Trey (Songz), Rihanna and Drake are cool but the entire campaign is unbelievable – they wouldn’t use that product and it didn’t work. Just sticking cameras in cool peoples hands can’t make Kodak cool.

We’ve reached an era where we’ve got a lot of celebrities – people with no real talent – who are famous just for being famous. What are your thoughts on this? Is there a legitimate place for them as Cultural Ambassadors?

There’s always going to be a club that let’s C-List people in. Paris Hilton had Carl’s Jr. There’s always going to be a Go Daddy that values sensationalism over core values. I don’t think they serve as Cultural Ambassadors but rather shock and awe marketing. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do.

Last question, will the record industry and commercial advertising industry eventually become one and the same?

I think they will become one and the same. Look at Jadakiss and A1. Look at Chris Brown’s Forever. You gotta remember I made that song to sell gum and it went #1 in ten countries. Even is the two (industries) don’t become one, they will become a lot closer.

‘The Tanning Of America’ is in stores now. You can follow the blog at Translationllc.com and @SteveStoute.

Interviewed by @JasFly