There’s nothing particularly special about the new Bud Light commercial if you watch in on mute: Six nine-to-fivers enter a bar to grab drinks for happy hour. They’re dancing like cornballs, playing pool and generally looking like goobers at a bar. It’s a pretty innocuous visual. But turn the volume up and the commercial is something totally different. That’s because Ice-T’s 1988 song “Colors” soundtracks the whole commercial. The comedy of the 30-second spot now becomes the fact that these dorks are dancing and acting like badasses while a hardcore gangster rap song is playing in the background. But it’s deeper than that.
“Colors,” for those not in the know, is an illustration of the dangerous, volatile L.A. gang life and how gang colors determined if someone lives or dies.
Red or Blue, Cuz or Blood, it just don’t matter
die for your life when my shotgun scatters
The gangs of L.A. will never die - just multiply
When the song initially dropped it was a landmark track that exposed the country to a gang country that had mostly bubbled under the surface of American consciousness. This is before Boyz In The Hood, the 1991 cult classic that mainstreamed the conversation about gang violence. This is before the L.A. Riots rocked the nation. This is Ice T, one of rap’s most renowned and truthful gangster rappers talking about the plight of the black community in a time when the country had no intention of caring.
In 2017, “Colors” is a comedy prop in a beer ad. It was absolutely jarring to hear the song in the the commercial. Even though Ice-T has become a household name as an actor — playing a cop on Law & Order: Pubic Hair Investigations or whatever — it’s still hard to imagine a song like “Colors” becoming a gentrified sideshow to a beer ad. So why would Ice-T allow his song to be used in such a way? The answer is simple:
850K….. https://t.co/NdxNO8n7UF— ICE T (@FINALLEVEL) April 23, 2017
Ice T’s response is particularly notable because Ice-T comes from an era of hip-hop where commercialism was looked down upon as selling out. Take, for instance, MC Hammer, who was an immediate cultural crossover phenomenon upon the release of his 1990 single “U Can’t Touch This.” Hammer, however, found his stardom decline when he started taking on Pepsi and Taco Bell endorsements, a blow to the authenticity of rap as counter-culture. When he became recognized as a pop act, so began his exile from rap. Ice-T, it should be mentioned defended MC Hammer on his 1991 album O.G. Original Gangster: “A special shout out is going out to the one and only MC Hammer/ A lot of people diss you man, they just jealous…” T said he had problems when hardcore rappers sold out and Hammer was a pop act from the beginning.
It appears, though, that MC Hammer was simply ahead of his time. By the late-90s rap had evolved into a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry and had embraced the economics of branding and cross-promotion. Maybe this was because of the deaths of Biggie and Tupac and rappers realizing they needed more fiscally viable means to secure their financial future. Maybe it was the emergence of business-minded rap moguls like Sean Combs and Jay Z who embraced “bling,” Clinton-era excess and the spoils of stardom. Maybe it was an embracing of the notion that rap was a tangible way to escape the inner cities and cashing in was more important than the amoebic notion of “keeping it real.” And, as rap and its fans wielded more marketing power, they were able to bend brands to their wills, creating more authentic campaigns than the saccharine commercials Hammer was peddling. Whatever the case, the draconian edict against selling out started to loosen. Jay Z was hawking Reeboks. Every rapper has a liquor sponsor. Snoop Dogg, once accused of murder, was pushing energy drinks.
Now, cash rules everything around hip-hop and the notion of selling out is almost all but gone. There’s a universal understanding that the need to secure financial futures is as important as image and unless rappers totally abandon their bases and start endorsing Fox News, they’re still safe in the eyes of their fans. Kendrick Lamar is making songs with Taylor Swift. Flo-Rida switched his entire sound to be a pop star. Snoop Dogg has a cooking show with Martha Stewart. Drake is, well, Drake.
Rappers are allowed to maintain their edge then shift to another avenue when necessary if the money is right. That still doesn’t make a song like “Colors” playing during a beer ad any less puzzling. Trivializing a song about gang violence for Bud Light seems insensitive at least and exploitative at worst. As if the ad itself is poking fun at what gangster rap really stands for. But in the end, it’s Ice-T’s decision and $850,000 is hard to pass up. And he probably figures that if the United States can capitalize on gang violence then why can’t he — someone who’s actually lived it and survived. That’s a stance that’s hard to argue with.