Hip-Hop Editorial: Did You Like the Sprite in Them?
Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon.
The era of Sprite rap commercials may be forgotten by many hip-hop historians because it lacked the dangerous cool of West coast G's touting hard alcoholic beverages. After all nobody ever shilling Sprite ever said it would "get your girl in the mood quicker" or make your "jimmy thicker." And yet back in the days when I was a teenager, before I had status and before I had a pager, these were very influential commercials. I couldn't legally purchase a tall can of St. Ides at that age, and in fact, most convenience stores where I lived didn't even carry beers other than Budweiser and Old Milwaukee. Sprite was everywhere though - vending machines, the snack bar at school, grocery stores, etc. This was the beverage every rapper seemed to drink - and not just the pop (no pun intended) crossover rappers.
A Facebook discussion about advertisers using urban slang and hip-hop "swag" to make their products seem cool brought back these commercials in a wave of nostalgia. I instantly remembered the Heavy D spot, as they would air his commercials during Fresh Prince of Bel Air (he would guest on the program several times), but I had forgotten that Hollywood "House Party" sensations Kid 'n Play had one too.
The undisputed king of Sprite commercials may be the Pete Rock & CL Smooth spot, as it features Pete Rock kicking a freestyle following CL's verse... and running out of words, causing them both to break out in laughter at the disaster. Even if it was scripted that way the camaraderie came across as genuine and true.
Now realistically we all know the deal. Hip-Hop music and culture started booming in the mid-80's and early 1990's, and everybody was eager to cash in on what some saw as merely a fashionable trend. The same people who said "rap won't last" were more than happy to use it (and abuse it) to put their products out in front of millions. I'd be lying if I said I didn't fall for it at that age - I probably DID drink more Sprite because Heavy D and CL Smooth said it was AIGHT. They are rappers I respected then and still do now (rest in peace Dwight) and when naysayers tried to tell me they "sold out" my response was always "Ain't it about time somebody in rap got paid to advertise something OTHER than alcohol?"
As each generation comes of age and turns over hip-hop to the next one, we should strive to not only fondly remember the nostalgic past gone by, but to see what lessons come from that past that can serve the next generation well. I've gotten cynical in my 30's based on experience, but at one point I was able to convince myself that sugar flavored fizzy water was "a good thing" just because it wasn't the same alcohol that was destroying so many lives in urban AND suburban communities. Then of course I got to college and the rhetoric of Public Enemy's "1 Million Bottlebags" seemed a little less relevant, as I started to enjoy those tall cold cans Ice Cube made so appealing. It's not that either one was ever really healthy. Alcohol will kill your brain cells, but soda is often cited as the leading cause of obesity and diabetes among today's youth - and the habits you pick up as a youth stick with you for years to come. I don't drink that much Sprite any more, but I've spent years trying to cut back on beer AND soda. It's amazing how many pounds you shed when you cut a large portion of empty calories out of your daily diet.
I'm not here to stand on a soapbox about healthy lifestyles though. In fact you can enjoy a lot of things in moderation that are entirely unhealthy. One beer in a day won't kill you, but a whole case of beer in one night just might. I do think as a hip-hop generation though we need to be conscious of how advertisers try to subvert our natural love for the art and culture to make us interested in their products. It's one thing when rappers throw out shoutouts to the things they buy, at times just to prove how much money they can afford to waste, it's another to be PAID to make product placements. You should always keep one eye open and be a little suspicious - much like Truman Burbank - that the things you see or hear aren't necessarily what they seem to be.
On the whole though, I'm fond of the Sprite era of hip-hop commercials. Even though they were an obvious attempt to co-opt successful rappers to sell Coca-Cola's line of products, there's something that seems more innocent and (no pun intended) refreshing about rappers shilling soft drinks over malt liquor or vodka. I realize I'm wearing rose-colored glasses and feeling nostalgic when I watch these old ads, but I didn't mind it at the time so it's hard for me to feel negative about rappers cashing in. As was once said in the movie They Live, "What's the threat? We all sell out every day! Might as well be on the winning team." And for a brief period of time, Sprite was winning. They even had a revival of their hip-hop relationship in the 2000's by recreating the old beef between KRS-One and MC Shan.
I for one don't mind a couple of pioneers from the 1980's collecting a little of that sugar water money. Knowing Kris he probably invested it right back in the Temple of HipHop, and Shan probably put it into a youth center in Queensbridge. Even if they just pocketed the money, rappers DESERVE to live comfortably. Hell we all do. We all have choices to make, and hopefully rappers will make sensible ones about what endorsements help them live comfortably without compromising their artistic message. Hopefully we teach the generation growing up swimming in social media to stay alert and not trust everything they see online, or buy everything just because their favorite athlete or movie star endorses it. If it's something cool you'd do or use anyway fine, but the lessons of Chuck D should come back full circle in 2013: Don't Believe the Hype.
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