Bubbly Boycott? Oh Please, Jay-Z, Just Chill

Frederic Rouzaud, head of Cristal champagne maker Louis Roederer, backtracked on comments that were dismissive of hip-hop after Jay-Z labeled the remarks
Frederic Rouzaud, head of Cristal champagne maker Louis Roederer, backtracked on comments that were dismissive of hip-hop after Jay-Z labeled the remarks "racist." Rouzaud said the company is "open and tolerant to all forms of culture." (By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

The rapper Jay-Z, who is now the president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings, has called for a boycott of Cristal champagne, which sells in the neighborhood of $300 a bottle, because his feelings have been hurt.

Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, is upset because Frederic Rouzaud, the managing director of the winery that makes Cristal, made some indelicate comments about his customers. While Jay-Z's indignation may indeed be righteous, his call to arms is akin to a millionaire calling for a boycott of Gulfstream jets. It's a little difficult for the average person -- happy with a $10 bottle of Prosecco -- to get too worked up. Such is the burden of tremendous wealth. The little people mock your pain.

Jay-Z's harrumphing began a couple weeks ago when the Economist published an article examining the prestigious cuvées from several champagne makers, including Louis Roederer, which produces Cristal. Amid the descriptions of the famous consumers of expensive bubbly -- Madonna likes Krug, James Bond drank Moet et Chandon's Dom Perignon -- was the fact that Cristal is the favorite among hip-hop swells. The magazine inquired as to whether the company felt it was a positive thing to have its champagne, originally created for czars, swigged like a bottle of Budweiser. Rouzaud replied: "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business."

In response to Rouzaud's public relations pratfall, Jay-Z, in a statement, unleashed a cry of "racist." A fighting word.

"I view his comments as racist and will no longer support any of his products through any of my various brands including the 40/40 Club nor in my personal life," Jay-Z said.

Rouzaud volleyed with a statement of love and affection for all forms of music, art and culture:

"A house like Louis Roederer would not have existed since 1776 without being totally open and tolerant to all forms of culture and art, including the most recent musical and fashion styles which -- like hip-hop -- keep us in touch with modernity."

In the middle are the hip-hop high rollers who have to decide whether to cross Jay-Z's virtual picket line or make do with a $225 bottle of Krug or a $475 bottle of Dom Perignon Rose, which Jay-Z has suggested is his new favorite insanely priced libation.

Without question, rappers have made Cristal a household name in the same way that Sarah Jessica Parker and "Sex and the City" made Manolo Blahnik into a brand with deep resonance even among those for whom $500 shoes are the equivalent of a month's rent. And for all of that free advertising, Jay-Z expected some good old-fashioned kowtowing.

But nothing is ever that simple when it comes to luxury brands -- or, for that matter, hip-hop.

As product endorsers, Jay-Z and many of the most visible imbibers of Cristal come with a lot of baggage. Hip-hop has created a generation of performers, producers and entrepreneurs who have the cash flow to buy Cristal by the case and designer clothes by the trunkload. But often, the money has been made by bragging in songs about drug-dealing, gunplay and the demeaning of women. The guys footing the bill for the fancy products talk about their hustler pasts with a proud swagger. Jay-Z, long before his Purple Label suit-wearing, Beyonce-dating, boycott-calling days, rapped about dealing drugs. Snoop Dogg boasts about living a pimp's life. Sean Combs sat at the defendant's table in a Manhattan courtroom in 2001 on bribery and illegal gun-possession charges. He was acquitted. And much of the Cristal featured in rap videos isn't sipped or savored, it's sprayed over the bodies of nearly naked women.

Luxury brands -- and mid-priced ones, as well -- have had a variety of responses to hip-hop's embrace. Timberland was famously not thrilled with the popularity of its boots among rappers and their fans. Other brands, such as Prada, have simply kept silent about their prominence in rap songs. Other companies have been proactive in choosing the performers with whom they'll form close relationships. In 1996, Louis Vuitton featured Grandmaster Flash in one of its advertisements. Just recently, Pharrell Williams collaborated on a line of Louis Vuitton sunglasses and created the soundtrack for one of its runway shows. Giorgio Armani hosted 50 Cent at a recent ready-to-wear show. Dolce & Gabbana outfitted Mary J. Blige for a concert tour. And brands from Gucci to Chanel have been inspired by hip-hop performers.

In matters of style and status, companies like to pick and choose, always seeking the right image and the upper hand. They like to siphon off what is good and leave behind the bad: the police blotters, subpoenas and arrest warrants. At least until such unpleasantness has faded from the headlines.

Even at Cristal, the reaction has been inconsistent. In 2001, the American importer of Cristal spoke to The Post in rapturous terms about its hip-hop customers, their songs and their videos. Instead of making moral or ethical judgments about customers, the company was busy authorizing the use of Cristal in movies and videos, including several by Jay-Z. The only concern was whether the brand retained its aura of exclusivity.

But it isn't all that surprising that in a moment of pique, Rouzaud might sound rude and ungrateful about self-proclaimed hustlers treating Cristal like bathtub gin. After all, the difference between an $80 bottle of champagne and a $300 bottle -- grapes and fermentation aside -- has a lot to do with image management. One could safely bet that Mr. Cristal wouldn't have been any less peeved if the rapper uncorking that cuvée was Eminem, a white rapper who is also familiar with the inside of a courtroom and has anger management issues.

Luxury companies spend a lot of time crafting an exclusive image, a process that offends a lot of people. Yet it is that built-in discrimination that draws the crowds.

Jay-Z might be justified in getting his feathers ruffled. He's a rich, influential, self-made man who has done yeoman's service in publicizing Cristal. A thank-you would be in order. But Jay-Z has already gotten something in return for his work. Hyping Cristal, which was first created in 1876 and will probably be just fine without Jay-Z's endorsement, allowed him to name-drop, to be grand, to flash his wealth, to brag.

Jay-Z isn't indebted to Cristal. But he owes everybody this much: Don't drop a bomb like "racist" when what you're dealing with is a skirmish over image.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company