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Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 12 News List

When bubbly falls foul of bling

Hip-hop made Cristal a household name. Can it also unmake it?

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Since the rapper Jay-Z called for a boycott of Cristal champagne after its maker seemed to sniff at its popularity with rap stars, some in the music, night life and beverage industries are predicting a long-term flattening of the US$300-a-bottle bubbly.

The first evidence of any effect the boycott might have came on Tuesday night in Los Angeles at the BET Awards, which drew an A-list of African-American entertainers like Kanye West, Sean Combs, Mary J. Blige, Prince and Jamie Foxx. But something was missing.

"You normally see Cristal around these festive events, and it was noticeably absent this year," said Marvet Britto, the head of a New York public relations and brand strategy company specializing in the African-American market. "If you saw champagne on a table, it was Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot."

Britto said this was in contrast to last year's MTV Music Awards in Miami, where "you saw people walking the red carpet with Cristal like a badge of honor."

"That's Jay-Z's influence as a tastemaker," she added. "He's the E.F. Hutton of hip-hop."

And what exactly did this E.F. Hutton say about Cristal, whose name he once liberally dropped into his songs as a symbol of the plush life?

Two weeks ago, the rapper announced that Cristal would no longer be served at his chain of 40/40 nightclubs, and he called for a consumer boycott. He was reacting to a quotation by Frederic Rouzaud, the president of Champagne Louis Roederer (the maker of Cristal) in The Economist magazine.

Asked by an interviewer if the association with rap's bling-bling set could hurt the brand, Rouzaud was quoted as saying: "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it" (Rouzaud later issued a statement saying that the company had "the utmost regard for, and interest in, all forms of art and culture").

In a phone interview last week, Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, said he didn't appreciate the tone of Rouzaud's initial remarks.

"Surely he meant to say, `Thank you,' right?" Carter said, referring to the free publicity his and other rappers' music and videos have given the brand over the years. "Anything but a `Thank you' is racist."

Carter had also vowed to expunge references to Cristal from his songs at a concert at Radio City Music Hall last Sunday that marked the 10th anniversary of his first album, Reasonable Doubt. He did so in some songs, but in others -- perhaps because it's harder to come up with rhymes for Dom Perignon -- he left the mention of the brand.

"When I was conscious, I could change them," he said by way of explanation. "When I perform sometimes I go in so far. That's where you're supposed to really operate the whole time, on an unconscious level."

Carter, who once famously rapped: "I'm not a businessman; I'm a business, man," was ranked at No. 16 in Fortune magazine's "40 Under 40" list in 2004 with a net worth of US$286 million. Largely retired as a performer, he keeps busy as president of Def Jam records and as a part-owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team.

He is keenly aware of the power of music to build brands. The materialistic mid-90s school of rap he championed, along with Notorious B.I.G. and others, was a beat-heavy version of the Robb Report, full of references to luxury products. Of his then-favorite champagne, he rapped in 1996:

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