NEW YORK – It may be early to think about Christmas shopping — and what might be the next Tickle Me Elmo — but judging from the offerings at this year's Toy Fair, all things hip-hop will be hot.
From a Monopoly-meets-Trivial Pursuit concept called Hip-Hop: The Game to DJ Skribble’s Spinheads, which allows kids to play disc jockey, toy makers are bringing hip-hop culture to kids.
"The toy industry has always reflected what’s going on in pop culture," said Chris Byrne, an independent consultant known as "The Toy Guy." "The challenge is to find what’s cool to kids and interpret that through toys."
Now that generations are growing up glued to MTV, what’s cool tends to be the music channel’s deejays and veejays, featured pop stars and clubby, urban style.
Looking back at pop culture's influence on the toy industry, Byrne referenced the Western toy craze spawned by the 1953 TV series Pioneer Playhouse. And toy consultant Stevanne Auerbach, who calls herself "Dr. Toy" and rates products on her Web site, www.drtoy.com, remembers the Beatles figurines and games that came out during the band’s hey-day in the 1960s.
"Whatever is hot right now will show up in a toy," Auerbach said. "Our social trends are very much picked up by the industry."
And disc jockeying is all the rage these days. DJ Skribble, who spins and scratches records for MTV’s Spring Break, Total Request Live and other programs, said the rise of the club scene has fueled the popularity of his line of work.
That, in turn, paved the way for the Spinheads fashioned after him.
"With the DJ culture becoming so big, it’s a cool evolution into what’s happening in the world," Skribble said of the Spinheads, created by DSI Toys. "The MTV generation has definitely helped."
The Spinheads are seven character figurines representing different music styles such as hip-hop, ska, punk and reggae. Kids can hook the characters into the "Vinylizer" mixing board and move their heads like joysticks to mix musical sounds and tracks, just like DJs do.
"DJ Skribble can help kids make their own music," said DSI President and CEO Joseph S. Whitaker. "He does in this toy what he does in real life."
Spinheads are marketed to the much sought-after "tween" set — kids aged 8 to 12. The suggested retail cost is $9.99 per figurine, $29.99 for the Vinylizer and $19.99 for the Phat Ride cars that work like speakers. Currently, the line is being featured at a special music-themed exhibit at the Times Square Toys R Us in New York City.
Consumers who saw the products this week at the annual Toy Fair in New York City were impressed, according to Whitaker.
"The reaction has been exceptional," he said.
Also popular with children was Hip-Hop: The Game, for ages 10 and up. In the board game, players use "benjamins" (slang for money) to buy anything from the New York City subway to New York City itself, and answer hip-hop trivia (Q: Who was the first group to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone? A: Run DMC).
"The game is about the hip-hop music lifestyle and genre," said Gregory Hughes, the game's creator and founder of the company that makes it, Underground Enterprises. "I figured we’d come up with something that chronicles this history."
The game, which he described as "clean, family entertainment," has already created a buzz among those at the Toy Fair and is currently available at K-Mart stores for $19.99.
Bringing music to children through toys isn’t new, of course. Many adults can remember the toy xylophone, drum or keyboard they played as kids, or the miniature record player they listened to. More recently, there have been child-size karaoke machines and products like Hasbro’s Hit Clips, clip-on chips the size of postage stamps that play a minute of favorite pop songs.
The challenge for toy creators is to find the pulse of kid culture and stay ahead of the competition.
"Kids are much more visually and culturally sophisticated than they were even five years ago," Byrne said. "Toy makers are trying to reflect that process in toys."