LOS ANGELES — In the video to Pitbull's latest chart-topper, "Give Me Everything," he pours a glass of Voli vodka, careful to display the label; in the lyrics and video for his single, "Rain Over Me," he hails the vodka as the new "it" drink. In both clips, the bottle takes center stage as the rapper is swarmed by flashing neon lights, svelte models and crooning pop wingmen.
Name-check references to the high life of liquor or drugs is nothing new to rap — a study released just weeks ago from the University of Pittsburgh and Dartmouth University found that for every hour that American teens listen to music, they hear more than three references to brand-name alcohol in rap/ R&B/ hip-hop lyrics. Brand associations have long been a symbol of status for performers. But Pitbull, like his contemporaries Sean "Diddy" Combs, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg and many others, have now taken it to the next level. Instead of just making references to the products they enjoy, they're rapping about products they're selling.
Pitbull has transformed his latest videos into not-so-subliminal ads for Voli, in which he owns a stake. He is the latest in a string of business-savvy rappers taking the phrase "popping bottles" to the bank by aligning themselves as spokesmen for liquors, often creating their own branded vanity lines.
"(Voli) gave me a great opportunity to be an owner of a brand that I really believed in," said Pitbull, born Armando Christian Perez. He became part owner of the line of low-calorie fruit and fusion flavored vodkas in March. "That's why I got involved with Voli. It's in a market where it's needed and everybody wants it."
Artist-identified drinks are so much a part of club culture now that they are even causing beefs. In an online video released Oct. 1 that quickly went viral, Combs was seen cursing and throwing ice at a Grey Goose-drinking club-goer at a packed nightclub, angry that the partyer wasn't drinking his brand, Ciroc. Combs has been an equal-share owner of Ciroc since 2007 and is a ruthless promoter. Ciroc has made appearances in his music videos and he's mentioned the liquor hundreds of times recently on Twitter. Combs even refers to himself as "Ciroc Obama" and created his own "Diddy" cocktail.
Combs, who declined to comment for this article, has since apologized on Twitter for the near-brawl captured on the video — with freshly on-parole T.I. in the background trying to stay out of the fray. But ruthless competition is part of the hip-hop hustle. Bragging rights, even survival, depend on sales, and liquor fits the aesthetic.
Similarly, these artists also align themselves with drinks with a kick: vodka, tequila, malt liquor.
The rationale for the rap-alcohol associations is rather straightforward: Branded liquors make money. Rob Vinokur, manager of upscale Hollywood hot spot Playhouse, said that celebs encouraging a particular brand have spiked its sales at his club.
"Jay-Z has this thing with Ace of Spades champagne. So because of that ... sales are pretty high. There are celebrities that have raps talking about Moet Rose, so that has a lot of sales for us," Vinokur said.
Diddy's aggressive campaigning has set his brand apart from competitors. He helped bolster the company from the middling 98,000 cases it sold in 2007 — before he was involved — to moving 795,000 cases in 2010, making it the eighth largest imported vodka brand by volume, according to current statistics from the Beverage Information Group, a Connecticut-based firm that tracks information on all segments of the alcohol beverage industry. The liquor is reportedly on track to move 1 million cases by year's end.
Multi-faceted hip-hop moguls like Diddy and Jay-Z have always combined street cred with street-meets-Madison-Avenue business savvy to sell products such as clothing and fragrance lines in a way that few genres outside of hip-hop have the power, or cache, to pull off.
Selling booze is just a natural for a music genre that's all about the party. It's easy to integrate drinks into videos and lyrics. But Diddy has pushed the envelope, allowing Ciroc to become part of his daily conversation with his fans. Other rappers haven't been able to do that with their vanity lines, according to Vinokur.
Perez has already inked deals with Kodak, Dr. Pepper and Sheets energy strips, and he teamed with Bud Light for a partnership that supports his current tour. Life-size cutouts of him clutching a cold one dotted L.A.'s Staples Center for his recent sold-out show with Enrique Iglesias. He says he's being strategic, not following a trend.
"I don't really look at it as far as rappers and what they do. We're far from that," Perez said. "Those deals went down for the simple fact that we needed to build a brand. So how do you build a brand? You put it next to an established brand."
The Voli deal, however, is different. Voli Chief Executive Adam Kamenstein said the company didn't want a "face" to sell its liquor.
"What we were interested in was a partner who could add value and leverage that value for the brand. We wanted a true partnership, which is also what Pitbull wanted," Kamenstein said. "But obviously, given his celebrity recognition, that's a component that we'd be foolish to not take advantage of."
Kamenstein wouldn't disclose specific numbers of his privately owned company but said that since Perez joined the company they've seen "multiple hundred percent growths over the year before he arrived."
Like other celeb-endorsed products such as clothing or perfume lines, a rapper's involvement with alcohol ranges from spokesman to silent partner. Some are reluctant to publicly promote, while others see no shame in placing their products in videos, tweets or lyrics.
Last year Ludacris released the mixtape "A Hustler's Spirit" centered on his Conjure cognac, with interludes serving as commercials. Snoop Dogg, who pushes Landy cognac and a controversial malt liquor by Colt 45 called Blast, released a music video for the fruit-flavored, high-alcohol concoctions. Both rappers were unavailable to comment.
Not all artists in the hip-hop world are so public about their brands.
Pharrell Williams of production team the Neptunes and rock outfit N.E.R.D. prefers to stay behind the scenes when marketing Qream, his new liqueur sold specifically to women. Aside from his signature on the packaging, the lavish, perfume-style glass bottle of silky liqueur hardly resembles his hipster image. Despite hosting a string of launch parties, he has yet to promote it using his face or through interviews. Similarly, Justin Timberlake has partnered with 901 Silver Tequila, even declaring "901 Day" on Sept. 1 on his website. Though he's directed ads for the liquor, only his voice appears in them.
"Pharrell's persona is more about him as a creator and a visionary. He really believes in the brand Qream and the product in its own right and wants to let it stand on its own," said Anna MacDonald, marketing director for Diageo, which launched both Qream and Ciroc and markets such well-known brands as Johnny Walker and Tanqueray. "Qream's promotion is very much about working on the events side and working with women to help create ambassadors for the brand."
Qream hasn't had its first quarter of sales yet, so figures were unavailable.
Some drinks become famous just because they appear in songs. Nuvo, a French sparkling liqueur, appeared in dozens of R&B-rap songs and videos, including Jamie Foxx's massive hit "Blame It (On the Alcohol)." Rapper Flo Rida is now the face of the brand.
Hip-hop mogul and author Steve Stoute says that while it makes sense for certain artists to align themselves with alcohol products that promote celebration, history has shown it doesn't always work.
Jermaine Dupri had a line of soy-based vodka that has been discontinued; Lil Jon has stopped making his an award-winning line of wines; T.I.'s arrest led to Remy Martin dropping him; Dr. Dre has yet to debut his Aftermath Cognac; and Lil Wayne's proposed liquor deal was scrapped. Cash Money Records kingpin Bryan "Birdman" Williams will test his luck when he debuts his line of liquor from a partnership with Grand Touring Vodka in January.
Stoute said success hinges partly on authenticity.
"When the strength of the celebrity and the strength of the brand are so strong, when you see the marriages come together, people believe it." However, Stoute says, even charismatic personalities like Perez or Diddy risk overdoing it and denting their credibility in the process by thinking they can sell anything.
Perez treats his brand like his music, in which he strives to cross over to as many demographics as possible; for him, liquor was just another way to tap into that ethos.
"When we got involved with Voli, our investment is justified by being part owners. We are going to give it 150 percent," he said. "We don't sit back and say, 'This is Pitbull and this is a product and all of a sudden it's going to go through the roof.' Whoever thinks that is unfortunately thinking wrong."