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In Hip-Hop, Making Name-Dropping Pay

Tony Rome, left, Kyla Triplett, Lamar Lee-Kane Sr. and Porta Jackson meet at Maven Strategies, a hip-hop marketing firm in Lanham.
Tony Rome, left, Kyla Triplett, Lamar Lee-Kane Sr. and Porta Jackson meet at Maven Strategies, a hip-hop marketing firm in Lanham. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 29, 2005

From a generic brick office building at the end of a road in Lanham, Tony Rome is creating a niche in an artless side of hip-hop that some people would rather not discuss.

Rome hooks up rap stars, R&B singers and urban comedians with major corporations that want to reach their fans. The ideal relationship, says Rome, who founded Maven Strategies in 1996, would have an artist write a brand name into a song, feature the brand in a music video and partner with the brand in other promotions, getting paid by the brand's owner along the way.

He began a recent Monday morning meeting at his six-person marketing firm with a bit of genial how-was-your-weekend banter. One company rep had gone to Dream night club in Northeast Washington; another played basketball with her boyfriend at ESPN Zone, and beat him. A company vice president celebrated his young son's birthday.

The conversation circled back around the small conference room to Rome, and on to business.

"So what's the status on the Seagram's Gin Live tour," asked Rome, a cool 37-year-old with a closely cropped afro.

Maven said he is promoting a concert tour for Seagram's Gin, and that he recently arranged a meeting between the liquor brand and singing hip-hop darling Lil' Mo at B. Smith's restaurant. The deal is done, Maven said, and contracts are signed. Seagram's will pay for the concert, the singer will headline the tour, and the posters promoting the concerts will prominently feature the gin.

Everything from gin to luxury cars is on the table, eagerly awaiting placement in a rapper's song or on the banner above a comedian's tour. For a price.

On to the next matter. Has the company that paid to have its product placed in scenes of up-and-coming Houston rapper Slim Thug's new music video approved the final cut? Thug is the latest rapper in hip-hop's dirty south genre, with its big beats and yell-along choruses. Rome declined to name the company that paid for the placement.

"We have the still pictures, but we're waiting for the video," said Lamar Lee-Kane Sr., Maven's vice president of branded entertainment.

The way Rome sees it, "no other media outlet gives away anything for free."

"We are trying to bridge that gap" between hip-hop artists and corporate America, he said.

With that philosophy as a guide, he has built Maven into a player in urban branding and product placement in hip-hop music and videos, advertising industry watchers say.

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