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.
"In the past, [product placements] were negotiated in a somewhat informal way; what Maven Strategies has done is to really codify the relationship and create a structure for how much people get paid," said Lucian James, president of Agenda Inc., a San Francisco-based brand research firm. "That's one of the holy grails for product placement: to really work out what it is worth."
Rome began showing celebrities the money when he founded his company as an independent sports agency nine years ago, representing NFL players Kevin Hardy and Brian Mitchell. But as America's idols changed, so did Maven. As Michael Jordan grew older, kids no longer wanted "to be like Mike" but like Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z.
Soon Rome was no longer inking deals for football players. A deal in 2000 promoting the national Kings of Comedy tour, headlined by African American funnymen Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac, led to a focus on urban entertainment and eventually hip-hop music. Rome got the HBO cable network, Crown Royal Whisky and other sponsors to back the tour with $1 million.
"What we are really about is helping our clients connect with their customers in unique creative ways," Rome said. He also works on product placements in urban films and finding corporate sponsorships for events targeted at African Americans, such as a program to stop childhood obesity.
Maven's prices vary depending on the branding a company is after, but Rome made news last Spring when Advertising Age, the ad world's publication-to-read, splashed a story across its Web site about a deal Maven stuck with McDonald's. According to the story, McDonald's confirmed that if rappers would include "Big Mac" in their lyrics, the fast food giant would pay them between $1 and $5 each time their song was played on the radio. Rome won't discuss the deal with McDonald's in further detail and guards his client list closely.
Most brands that hire Maven for product placement would rather not draw attention to the money exchanging hands between companies and the rappers.
Corporations want consumers to assume that rappers name-dropping hamburgers, cell phones or cars wrote the brands into their lyrics because they love them not because they were paid, said William Chipps, senior editor with IEG Sponsorship Report.
"It has to be organic," Chipps said. "It can't be blatant."
"Organic" is subjective. Robert "T-Mo" Barnett, a member of the once widely popular Atlanta rap group Goodie Mob, is working with Maven on a deal to promote a brand. Maven gave him the name of the product, and he wrote it into the lyrics of the single he is planning to release this year. T-Mo's contract with the company has not yet been signed, and Maven would not identify the brand. How much the company pays him for mentioning the brand depends on the radio popularity of the single.
T-Mo was in the studio recently and laid down the song, which he is calling "What's Happening."
"I was vibing," the rapper said. "It just came natural. I heard a good beat, and I just flowed with it. It was nothing I had to really force.
"I am helping them brand their company and at the same time they are helping me," he said. "I got a brand new baby boy, and I'm trying to feed him right now. I want to be smart about every move I make so I can maximize my earnings."
Larry Khan, senior vice president of R&B promotion and marketing for Jive Records, said this process for making music is "pretty much accepted."
"I guess in days gone by it would have looked like the artist was selling out, but now it has become a part of American culture. It doesn't hurt your street cred," he said.
Hip-hop artists, who often rhyme about their lives, fantasies and aspirations, have been touting their favorite brands in songs for years and subconsciously enticing their fans to buy them.
Hip-hop originally functioned as a sort of "black CNN," as rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy dubbed the music in the late 1980s. And the transition to mainstream pop culture, and thus branding, began innocently -- and unpaid. In 1986, popular Brooklyn rap group Run-DMC released "My Adidas" -- an ode to the sneaker company and their personal style. The song topped the charts and boosted the company's sales. Later, Adidas offered the rappers a paid sponsorship deal, and the relationship between the business and the art was formed.
In the past decade, the link between rappers and brands has evolved along with the music's promotion of bling and living the luxurious life. According to Agenda, brands were mentioned almost 1,000 times in the top 20 singles last year on the Billboard charts. The top brands were: Cadillac (70 mentions), Hennessy (69), Mercedes-Benz (63), Rolls Royce (62), and Gucci (49).
In the popular song "Overnight Celebrity" Grammy-nominated rapper Twista mentioned nine brands, including these:
I can get you on CDs and DVDs
Take you to BeBe and BCBG, . . .
Y'all take a look at her, she got such an astonishing body
I can see you in some Gucci or Roberto Cavalli
Rome said 90 percent of those radio plugs were free product placements and would cost the companies upwards of a billion dollars if they were paid advertisements.
"Hip-hop is really the only music genre that embraces brands in their songs and because they are doing it, I think the hip-hop artists should be paid for it," Rome said.
At least one of those artists was not only paid but says so in his song.
A version of Maven client Petey Pablo's song "Freek-a-Leek," which was one of the most played last year, included this line:
Now I got to give a shout out to Seagram's Gin/Cause I'm drinkin' it and they payin' me for it.