Branding in Hip Hop Culture

branding in hip hop culture
In this post we explore some of our favorite examples of branding in hip hop culture. We talk about why some of these branding efforts work so well, and how they’ve influenced the culture as a whole. Walk this way...

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Hip hop is the music industry’s most consumed genre. To say people crave it (and have for decades) would be an understatement. As of 2019, recorded songs within the genre made $30 billion. The richest rapper in the world, Jay-Z, is worth $1 billion on his own (not to be outdone, Beyonce’s estimated net worth is $400 million). 

hip hop logos
Iconic band logos

Because hip hop is such a force and everyone wants a part of it, it’s no wonder that hip hop culture has become highly influential in the U.S., and throughout the world. When you think about hip hop, what comes to mind? The clothes, the brands, the logos, the overall sense of style? It all rolls into one unforgettable package. 

But, some do it better than others. When it comes to branding in hip hop culture, it all starts with what you remember and what might be forgettable. If someone mentions Wu-Tang, you can probably instantly picture their logo, and maybe you’ll even throw up a “W” with your hands. When you think of N.W.A., you can probably see the painted letters in your mind. The same goes for groups like Outkast, Naughty by Nature, and of course, Public Enemy

Hip hop culture covers music, art, fashion, political movements, dance movements, and so much more. With so many powerful influences throwing their hats in the ring, It’s hard to narrow down the most important examples of branding within the culture itself. But, we’d be hard-pressed to ignore those who shaped the overall look and feel of hip hop style, like Adidas, Roland (TR-808), Sugar Hill, and of course, Technics.

We’re here with our most notable picks for the biggest influencers within the scene who were there at the birth of hip hop, and who had the greatest influences on the culture.

Honorable mentions must go to Adidas, Roland (TR-808), Sugar Hill Records & of course Technics…

So, let’s talk about why these powerful branding efforts work so well, and how they’ve influenced the culture ever since.

The Iconic Run DMC Logo

It might be tricky to rock a rhyme that’s right on time, but it wasn’t tricky for Run DMC to burst on the scene with their own sense of style in the 1980s. Their logo instantly became iconic, and it’s nothing more than a particular bold typeface, enclosed at either end with a red line. 

The logo was designed by Stephanie Nash, who worked in-house for Island Records. Nash’s inspiration for the Franklin Gothic font was the hard-hitting words of rap music. She wanted something poignant and powerful without appearing to be too old fashioned. The fact that the letters in the band’s name could be perfectly stacked didn’t hurt matters when it came to a simplistic design, either. 

Six fat letters that changed the way people saw the group. 

The British influence – Kangol Bucket Hats…

Not to be outdone by their own logo, Run DMC also developed their own sense of style that’s still notable today. You can probably visualize everything from the bucket hats and track pants to unlaced Adidas (Superstar) sneakers and the fat chains around their necks. This group of influential rap trailblazers set the stage for hip hop branding for years to come, and they did so by being unapologetically themselves. 

The British Influence

Don’t call it a comeback – okay, maybe you should call it a comeback if you had never heard of the Kangol brand before (an English clothing company), LL Cool J became notorious for wearing their bucket hats. In the mid-1980s, it was rare to see LL without some type of cap on his head. The Kangol, became the most synonymous with the rapper until the early 1990s, influencing other hip hop artists (including those in Run DMC) to wear it, too. 

In the years to come Kangol would cover the heads of such hip hop greats as Slick Rick, Erik B and Rakim, and Grand Master Flash

Nowadays, it’s less about the Kangol for LL Cool J, but more about hats in general. Let’s face it, the man is hardly ever seen without a hat, whether it’s a baseball cap, a flat cap, or (once upon a time), a leather tophat. 

Because of LL’s popularity in the 80s and early 90s, the Kangol became more than just a symbol of the rapper himself, it became a prominent fashion fixture in the world of hip hop most notably the 507 & 504 flat caps. In fact, it deserves its own era. 

Contemporary Kangol branding campaign

While ‘bucket hats’ never seemed to have the longevity that other types of headwear do in the hip hop industry, Rihanna made an attempt to nod at the era when Kangol was king by modeling a line of them for designer Melissa Forde in 2015. 

Tommy Boy Music Hip Hop Record Label

For a period of time, Tommy Boy Music’s logo and brand were in a class of their own. With artists like Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature, Coolio, De La Soul, and House of Pain, it’s a label that essentially ruled the charts and had an enormous impact on hip hop culture from its development in 1981. 

The high-charting hits produced by Tommy Boy did more than just turn the artists above into household names. The music brought urban street culture into mainstream hip hop. 

Toomy Boy Records LP artwork

Why is Tommy Boy so important to hip hop culture? They were the first hip hop record label to produce their own merchandise. Their first records had nothing but the recognizable logo on them, which is why it’s still so widely-recognized today. 

Branded DJ slipmats

Tommy Boy Music is a prime example of a “less is more” mindset when it comes to branding. They represented urban street culture from the very start, and never pretended to be something they weren’t. Without this label, we also likely wouldn’t have the unique combination of electro and hip hop that is so often seen today.

Released in 1982, Plant Rock is considered one of the most important hip hop records ever made

Tommy Boy often gets overlooked as a cultural backbone of hip hop because of their partnership with Warner Bros. in 1985. That merger made Tommy Boy harder to define and harder to recognize, but it still doesn’t take away from the short-yet-golden era when the label managed to blend street style into mainstream music and give us some of hip hop’s most notable and unforgettable artists. 

Def Jam Recordings Hip Hop Label

While it’s impossible to play favorites with so many incredible icons in hip hop culture, it would be hard to argue against the idea that Def Jam is perhaps the biggest and most easily-recognizable label within the hip hop community, and has been for decades. 

The label was created by Rick Rubin in 1983. Rubin’s initial reason for developing the label was so his punk band could release an album. The label was officially created in a dorm room in New York. How’s that for hip hop? 

Throughout the early 1980s, hip hop and Def Jam were one and the same. It took off when Rubin partnered with Russell Simmons and hip hop was changed forever. Def Jam’s influence on the culture is undeniable. 

It has never strayed away from controversy, most notably when it released Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. It has been influential in fusing together different types of music and different cultures, as represented by the Beastie Boys. It gave the world iconic hip hop anthems like “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem”. It even crossed over into the world of comedy and skyrocketed the careers of Bernie Mac, Dave Chapelle, and Martin Lawrence. 

Hip Hop Comedy at its Finest

Def Jam remains iconic for so many different reasons because it was never afraid to cross borders, boundaries, and genres. Jay Z took over the presidential position of the label in 2005, proving once again that the company favors hip hop culture over inexperienced executives who might squash its roots. 

Of course, you can’t ignore the iconic logo, either. Again, like Run D.M.C.’s logo, Def Jam took something simple and iconic to develop a look that would stick with people. You can even remove the secondary letters of the label, and when people see the capital “D.J.”, they recognize it. 

Hip Hop Culture Today

As you can see, the fluidity of hip hop as a culture is what has kept it going over the years, and why it remains so popular today. Some of the most popular Instagram and Facebook accounts are hip hop artists like Drake and Jay-Z. Eminem, Nicki Minaj, and even Macklemore have some of the top-viewed videos of all time on YouTube. 

At time of writing – 1.5 billion views…

Even hip hop labels have embraced the era of social media and digital branding/marketing. Because it’s such a competitive genre, labels have to continue to be creative while continuing to focus on the simple street culture that built the genre, as a whole. From a digital and social standpoint (or the instant gratification culture), doing things like behind-the-scenes videos with artists and giving fans early access on streaming services have been essential to keeping labels popular and growing. But, behind all of the glamor and excess that might now be associated with hip hop, the importance of branding still remains. 

Having a solid digital presence is essential, whether you’re an artist or label trying to break into the industry. But, you’re just that – an artist, or someone with the business savvy to find incredible artists. By working with a marketing/web design company, you can kick your brand off the right way. At Easthall Design, we can help to set you up for success while allowing you to stay true to your roots. 

Remember, it took Run D.M.C. a few years to develop their logo – they already had albums under their belt before the iconic look came into play. If you can harness that kind of bold statement in your branding from the very start, you’re kicking off your career on the right foot, and that’s something that will help any artist or label leave their mark in the world of hip hop. 

In researching this post – we found this great article covering hip hop fashion – How hip-hop fashion went from the streets to high fashion – a great read.

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