Jay-Z on Cristal: 'Disrespect for the Culture of Hip-Hop'

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A. Zaeh

Jay-Z and his new book Decoded

I'm a hustler, homie/ You're a customer, crony
From the first time I rapped the line "You like Dom, maybe this Cristal will change your life" on my first album, hip-hop has raised the profile of Cristal. No one denies that. But we were unpaid endorsers of the brand — which we thought was okay, because it was a two-way street. We used their brand as a signifier of luxury and they got free advertising and credibility every time we mentioned it. We were trading cachet. But they didn't see it that way.

A journalist at The Economist asked Frederic Rouzaud, the managing director of the company that makes Cristal: "Do you think your brand is hurt by its association with the 'bling lifestyle'?" This was Rouzaud's reply: "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it." He also said that he looked on the association between Cristal and hip-hop with "curiosity and serenity." The Economist printed the quote under the heading "Unwelcome Attention." That was like a slap in the face. You can argue all you want about Rouzaud's statements and try to justify them or whatever, but the tone is clear. When asked about an influential segment of his market, his response was, essentially, well, we can't stop them from drinking it. That was it for me. I released a statement saying that I would never drink Cristal or promote it in any way or serve it at my clubs ever again. I felt like this was the bullshit I'd been dealing with forever, this kind of offhanded, patronizing disrespect for the culture of hip-hop.

Why not just say thank you and keep it moving? You would think the person who runs the company would be most interested in selling his product, not in criticizing — or accepting criticisms of — the people buying it. The whole situation is probably most interesting for what it says about competition, and the way power can shift without people's being aware of it. It's like in chess, when you've already set up your endgame and your opponent doesn't even realize it. What a lot of people — including, obviously, The Economist, Cristal and Iceberg — think is that rappers define themselves by dropping the names of luxury brands. They can't believe that it might actually work the other way around. Everything that hip-hop touches is transformed by the encounter, especially things like language and brands, which leave themselves open to constant redefinition. With language, rappers have raided the dictionary and written in new entries to every definition — words with one or two meanings now have 12. The same thing happens with brands — Cristal meant one thing, but hip-hop gave its definition some new entries. The same goes for other brands: Timberland and Courvoisier, Versace and Maybach. We gave those brands a narrative, which is one of the reasons anyone buys anything: not just to own a product, but to become part of a story.

Cristal, before hip-hop, had a nice story attached to it: It was a quality, premium, luxury brand known to connoisseurs. But hip-hop gave it a deeper meaning. Suddenly, Cristal didn't just signify the good life, but the good life laced with hip-hop's values: subversive, self-made, audacious, even a little dangerous. The word itself — Cristal — took on a new dimension.

It wasn't just a premium champagne anymore — it was a prop in an exciting story, a portal into a whole world. Just by drinking it, we infused their product with our story, an ingredient that they could never bottle on their own. Biggs first put me on to Cristal in the early days of Roc-A-Fella. We were drinking it in the video for "In My Lifetime" in 1994. We didn't have a record deal yet, but back then we'd show up at clubs in Lexuses and buy bottles of Cristal, while most people in the clubs were buying Moët. It was symbolic of our whole game — it was the next shit. It told people that we were elevating our game, not by throwing on a bigger chain, but by showing more refined, and even slightly obscure, taste. We weren't going to stick to whatever everyone else was drinking or what everyone expected us to drink. We were going to impose our sense of what was hot on the world around us. When people all over started drinking Cristal at clubs — when Cristal became a household name among young consumers — it wasn't because of anything Cristal had done. It was because of what we'd done. If Cristal had understood this dynamic, they never would've been so dismissive. The truth is, we didn't need them to tolerate us with "curiosity and serenity." In fact, we didn't need them at all.

Excerpted from the book Decoded by Jay-Z. © 2010 by Shawn Carter. Posted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.