Grammy Attacker and Hip-Hop Ad Man Steve Stoute on the 'Tanning of America' (Q&A)
To many thousands of music industry observers, Steve Stoute became a household name on February 20. That’s the day a 900-word missive he wrote to the Grammy Awards appeared in the form of a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring that music’s biggest night has “clearly lost touch with contemporary popular culture." Two days later, he explained his views in greater detail, telling The Hollywood Reporter that the Recording Academy system “is flawed,” and that the “popular artists” (like Eminem, Justin Bieber, Kanye West and the like) are only “used to sell the show and to get ratings.”
If it was a public profile he was going for, Stoute most certainly achieved it, but in the hip-hop world, he’s long been the hidden hand. Consider him the Bruce Barton of boom-bap. His name never rang bells like LL Cool J, but if LL wanted corporate affiliation and sponsorships for said chimes, Stoute would be the first to call. The former manager to Nas and Mary J. Blige, the Queens-raised Stoute parlayed his industry connections and big-tent approach into urban music presidencies at both Sony and Interscope.
When record sales started slowing, Stoute adopted Madison Avenue digs, founding Translation, the Jay-Z aligned, brand marketing behemoth behind McDonald’s Justin Timberlake-aided “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign,” Samsung’s Beyonce branded “B” phone, and Lebron James’ recent long-term deal with the Golden Arches. Even Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani owe a significant share of their cross-promotional success to the swift-talking exec (Stoute helped broker a deal with MAC cosmetics for Gaga and worked on an endorsement deal for the No Doubt singer with Hewlett Packard).
Known for bridging the gaps between the streets and corporate suites, Stoute turns to hip-hop for the premise of his first book, The Tanning of America. His thesis holds that urban music served as a Trojan horse for the culture, one that shattered glass ceilings and even helped President Obama’s presidential bid. In conversation with THR, Stoute waxes philosophic on the country’s gradual shift towards bronze.
The Hollywood Reporter: How would you explain the Tanning of America to someone unfamiliar with the phrase’s meaning?
Steve Stoute:It’s a generation that grew up listening to music that wasn’t necessarily the music their parents listened to. It’s common to go against what your parents like. But something was different with hip-hop. The music was the Trojan horse for the culture. It taught you how to rock your pants, wear your hat, rock your car. Music videos became tutorials on dances. It brought a lifestyle with it, one that’s allowed seemingly different groups to see things through a similar lens. We have a generation that doesn’t see through color, but rather through shared cultural experiences.
THR: What are the five tipping points in ‘tanning’ history?
- When Run-DMC did “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith. They took a rock group that was pretty much done, redid their record, and put them in the video. It completely re-energized Aerosmith’s career and exposed them a new generation.
- When Run-DMC performed at Madison Square Garden in 1986 and had the whole crowd holding their Adidas’ to the sky, with the Adidas executives in the audience.
- Debbie Harry performing the rap in “Rapture.”
- Jay-Z and Linkin Park showed that ethnicity was no longer leading the charge as it related to the next generation and how they looked at each other.
- The rise of Eminem.
THR: What was the biggest obstacle you faced in terms of getting corporate people to believe in the viability of hip-hop?
Stoute: It was convincing them that what I was talking was sustainable as more than just music. It was a culture, a lifestyle, the embodiment of the way the next generation would proceed. It wasn’t just the music was selling well for the moment… People wanted to avoid the other implications. Disco music was by nature disposable. You danced to it and threw it away. Hip-hop wasn’t doing that, it had the beat that made you dance, but it also brought a culture and lifestyle that stayed with you forever.
THR: You worked with Interscope head Jimmy Iovine for many years. What was the most important lesson you learned from him?
Stoute: He taught me about how to play to the right audience and being honest with who you are and what it takes to be successful in business. [Iovine] never looked at music through the eyes of color. With rap, he invested deeper than anyone. He made real-deal videos because he felt that they were an important art form and needed the right level of creativity. I remember the first time I went to his house in Malibu, when he showed me [2Pac's] “California Love,” and it was like the hip-hop “Mad Max.” No one had ever done anything like that before.
THR: Do you believe Obama could have been elected without the tanning process?
Stoute: I don’t. It couldn’t have unless we had a generation that emerged who looked at African-Americans and Hispanics in a way that was different from what their parents had been taught to believe. He was able to get the white-collared student vote who saw him brushing dirt off his shoulders and first bumping and saw that he was one of them. That wasn’t just a black thing; that was a cool thing.
THR: How does Eminem fit into your theory?
Stoute: He’s been just as important to tanning as anyone. When the masses accepted him, he used his platform to show respect for the art form at its truest sense. He gave Dr. Dre the credit he deserved and was very mindful of the people before him who made it possible. You could tell in the way he performed, the way he wrote his lyrics, and what he said and acknowledged in those lyrics.
THR: What do you think about the rise of white frat rappers who have very really little connection to hip hop’s cultural origins. Does this support your thesis or does it bother you or both?
Stoute: Anytime anything becomes very successful, you’ve got to deal with what happens in its evolution. I’m sure that the guys who created the video game business with games like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders look at the new games like this is nonsense. Of course, it’s a different iteration and it might be less pure than some people would like it to be, but that’s a fact of life. With hip-hop, the music is going to be what it’s going to be. That’s sometimes disposable. The culture never will be.
The culture is going to live on. Look at its heroes: Jay-Z, Diddy, and Lil Wayne. Those guys continue to teach the next generation to keep going and how to do things differently. There is not a strict guideline. Kanye did it differently. Andre 3000 did it differently. Hip-hop is a culture with many different dialects.