Cars and hip-hop go together like blunts, 40s and company of the female persuasion. But that's not to say tastes have always remained the same. From coast to coast, era to era, rap automobiles have shifted dramatically in shape, size and nationality. Here's a look at how times have changed.
Once upon a rhyme, the kind of car you drove meant something. At least, in hip-hop it did. If you drove a Lincoln Continental you were probably an old-school rapper from the East Coast. A ’64 Impala meant you were tied into the low-rider scene. And a Lexus? Well, you were probably from the East or West, but you were definitely about 20 years old in 1995.
Cars and hip-hop have been inherently entwined since the music crossed over into the public consciousness with the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" in 1979. Today though, the kind of car you drive has more to say about your bank account than your cultural background. But more on that later…
It’s no secret that hip-hop and rap were born in New York City’s inner-city blocks and tenement buildings. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that when guys like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Sugarhill Gang rapped about their aspirations, they spoke about what they knew: “I got bodyguards, I got two big cars, that definitely ain't the whack/I got a Lincoln Continental and a sunroof Cadillac.”
Ironically, to a large degree, both Caddy and Lincoln represented the white establishment that many of hip-hop’s founding figures railed against. The cars certainly were luxurious and powerful, but both were traditional brands marketed specifically towards old money. They were symbols of traditional American aspiration, which makes sense when you consider that most early rappers were born in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. These figures had grown up surrounded by large American cars, and this was their way of showing the world that those items weren’t off-limits to black, American youth.
As hip-hop transitioned from New York City’s boroughs to the national airwaves, becoming less 1970s counter-culture and more 1980s street soundtrack, the people creating it changed as well. Increasingly, they were children of the mid-to-late ‘70s who grew up with a ratty VW or little Honda in the driveway, if anything at all. The connection to Golden Era auto grandeur was long gone.
On the West Coast, many rappers had grown up around the ubiquitous Latino low-rider culture and rust-free, boat-sized So-Cal “hoopties." Interestingly, this too is a very traditional old-school culture that dates back to the hot-rodding days of the post-war ’50s and ’60s, in which American steel was revered above all (just as it is down South). With their plentiful scope for ostentatious modification, larger-than-life appearance and classic sense of prestige, it’s not hard to see how low-riders became the cars of choice among the wide open streets of the West Coast scene.
However, it wasn’t all six-fours and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. The real shift took place in the early ’90s, as the world shrank and the global ghetto got larger. Classic cars fell out of vogue in a big way, as artists like Biggie (“jump in the GS3/I got the chronic by the tree”) and Snoop (“the Lexus flexes from Long Beach to Texas”) embraced an entirely more modern breed of automobile. The interesting thing about this shift is how it happened simultaneously on both coasts, and in the mid-’90s Lexus experienced a rap world popularity greater than any car brand had ever done before
During this period the perception of what constitutes a luxury car shifted dramatically, with overseas automakers becoming a new byword for success. For example, on NWA’s 1996 Greatest Hits album they added a skit that jokingly (yet no-doubt with some element of sincerity) announced, “All you people listening, thank you for all your money. Hahaha, we really appreciate it. It’s going to a very useful cause—the ‘Help Dre Get a Brand New Testarossa Ferrari [sic] Fund.’”
Yet it wasn’t all foreign cars hogging the limelight; a few U.S. models clung on – although by no means the kinds of car that had proved popular in the past. The ’90s was the decade that SUVs went mainstream in a big way, and hip-hop culture played a big part in catapulting models like the Cadillac Escalade into the public consciousness in a way that directly affected sales. After all, it was the perfect car (or should that be truck?) for youth culture and hip hop — it had bags of attitude and presence on the road. But the Escalade peaked in rap songs in 2003, right after groups like Big Tymers pretty much funded their kids’ college educations on Escalade-based music. So following that, what replaced it?
In a word: foreign luxury brands. While Range Rovers and Hummers peaked around 2006, other brands like Maybach enjoyed a spell in the limelight (although they’ve since fallen off completely in the wake of the brand going out of business). Maybach’s parent company Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, is at the top of its hip-hop game right now, with premium models like the SL proving more and more popular as rap stars take on a more business-like persona. That said, since 2013, it seems that the vast majority of automotive brands are being mentioned less and less than in years gone by.
The reason? While awareness of foreign luxury increased exponentially in the ’90s and ’00s (thanks to the boom in global trade and advances in technology), these days rappers are rapping less about their aspirational automotive loyalties and more about the brands who actually pay them. Or, at least, about the brands they hope will pay them.
Brands today realize that the youth are watching less and less TV, and reading close to zero print magazines. Those are two huge marketing avenues denied to them, and so replacements need to be found that cut through with the young aspirational class. By dropping brand endorsements into lyrics, artists are able to send a message to brands that they hold the key to influencing sales. When a group like Migos rap the lines “You can do Truey, I do it Versace/You copped the Honda, I copped the Masi.” you better believe their management are hitting up Maserati in its wake. And what about Ace Hood, who wrote an entire track called “Bugatti?"
Now, obviously it’s not as simple as any old artist dropping a couple of buzz brands into their lyrics and expecting a hefty royalty check. Sometimes such behavior is purely speculative, and just because Tupac talked about “Flossing a Benz on rims that isn't stolen.” doesn’t mean there was a brand new one sitting in his driveway a week later shipped straight from Germany. But, when an artist like Gucci Mane mentions Bentley in no less than 72 of his songs, you’ve got to wonder where the paper trail ends.
Perhaps implying that it’s all business these days is a bit cynical. But there's no question that what was once a question of personal taste, congruent rhymes, and ingrained cultural affinity has been squeezed out by cold and calculating financial maneuvering. Just as imported cars have revolutionized the American auto industry, so too did they change the face of popular music, and while cars will always play a major part in hip-hop, exactly how much of the “culture” they are these days is entirely debatable.
Words by Yoav Gilad for Highsnobiety.com