Bubble Trouble: Jay-Z's Cristal War

If Cristal champagne had an unofficial spokesman, it was hip-hop impresario Jay-Z: musician, club owner, fashion entrepreneur, New Jersey Nets co-owner and president and CEO of Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella Records.

You would think Cristal would be pleased to have one of the music industry's most influential names hawking its wares, repeatedly and free of charge, on several of his songs — including the No. 1 hit “Hard Knock Life.”

But you'd be wrong. Frederic Rouzaud, managing director of Champagne Louis Roedere, characterized his company's reaction to hip-hop's embrace of his particular brand of bubbly not as ecstatic but as one of “curiosity and serenity” in an interview with The Economist in mid-June.

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He then went on to add: “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.”

The Economist placed his comments in an article with the subheadline “Unwelcome Attention.”

And so began the Cristal War of 2006, and with it questions about whether Champagne Louis Roedere would spark a movement of upscale and mainstream companies distancing themselves from the hip-hop world.

For his part, Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Jay-Z, real name Shawn Carter, didn't hesitate to make the chasm between hip-hop and Cristal even bigger.

He quickly forbade his 40/40 Clubs in New York and Atlantic City, N.J., from serving the $300-a-bottle drink he once affectionately called “Crissy” and fired a broadside against Rouzaud in the form of an angry press release.

“It has come to my attention that the managing director of Cristal, Frederic Rouzaud, views the 'hip-hop' culture as 'unwelcome attention.' 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.

In an added dig, the press release continued: “Just as Rouzaud stated, 'I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business,' Jay-Z and the 40/40 Club will now be serving only Krug and Dom Perignon to their customers seeking high-end champagne products.”

An uppity champagne house isn't the only enemy the hip-hop world perceives. Also this year, rappers Ludracris, 50 Cent and Ice Cube took Oprah Winfrey to task for supposedly holding a grudge against hip-hop. Winfrey has said that she feels that many hip-hop lyrics are demeaning toward women.

Bill Cosby also recently spoke out against hip-hop, saying "They put the n-word in a song and we get up and dance to it."

And Rouzaud may have been thinking about another elite brand's troubles when it was adopted by an “upstart” culture. When Burberry's distinctive checks were adopted in the late 1990s and early 2000s by so-called chavs — the modern British equivalent of urban “white trash" — pubs, stadiums and shopping centers across the U.K. barred entry to those wearing Burberry tartan, Burberry fakes flooded the markets and the company watched its U.K. sales plummet.

The brand, which was also favored by U.S. rappers like Ja Rule, was forced to respond with drastic measures, stripping its checks from all but less than 5 percent of its products and discontinuing the chav-popular Burberry-checkered baseball cap in 2004.

But most people say the same thing isn't likely to happen to hip-hop in the U.S.

“I haven't heard of any other brands distancing themselves from rap,” said Andrea Duncan-Mao, senior writer for the hip-hop magazine XXL. “It's happened here and there, like the urban legends about Tommy Hilfiger saying he didn't make clothes just for hip-hop people and then going back on that, the talk about Oprah not liking hip-hop, but I haven't seen any consistent pull away from rap or hip-hop.

"In contrast, you see a lot of people marketing for the hip-hop generation — you have raps in commercials, from Dr. Scholl's foot insoles to fast food. It's really permeated the culture and Madison Avenue,” she added.

Freelance journalist and former MTV correspondent Alisha Davis agreed.

“I think it's just the opposite [of companies pulling away] — I think they're jumping all over hip-hop,” she said. “You have Cadillac branding with Snoop Dogg for cars, McDonald's, Wal-Mart and Pepsi deals. Pharrell Williams is the face of Louis Vuitton right now.

"Let's be honest, hip-hop didn't start out high-end, you didn't used to have hip-hop artists on the cover of Vogue, but now you have a company like Louis Vuitton making Pharrell Williams their face."

Davis thinks mainstream companies have realized the power of hip-hop as a mainstream marketing tool.

"They looked at the music charts and music sales, which are dominated by hip-hop, and realized that they've got to make inroads into this market.”

It's not a new revelation. Tommy Hilfiger, in fact, saw a large uptick in profits when he designed a line specifically for the hip-hop set in 1999.

In 1994, Sprite began using rap music in its commercials and was rewarded with quadrupled sales, and Burger King soon followed suit in its own TV spots, as did Macy's with more hip-hop-friendly selections on its racks.

And Nike gained a fair amount of publicity when it took only a couple of hours to sell its 1,000 pairs of the Nelly-branded “Air Derrty” sneaker in June 2003. The St. Louis rap artist has since signed a deal with Reebok.

Even other liquor companies are eager to lap up the hip-hop market — Hennessy Cognac has published a book, "Manifest XO," that seeks to blend hip-hop sensibilities with old-money style, offering primers on choosing tie lengths and cutting cigars alongside tips on seducing women and "living large."

It's unclear whether Jay-Z's crusade is hurting Cristal. Anecdotal evidence suggests that you're much less likely to see Rouzaud's bubbly being served in clubs that cater to hip-hop clientele, but firm figures probably won't be available for a while.

And, to be fair, Rouzaud did respond to Jay-Z's anger by explaining that he was misunderstood and that charges of racism are unfounded.

“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,” he said.

Duncan-Mao said that the furor over Rouzad's comments, which may have been warped by the language barrier, are ultimately a bit “silly.”

“If I was an old-money brand that likes a low profile like Cristal does, you may not want to be associated with rap sometimes, because there's a lot of negative things happening with rap. This year, look at Busta Rhymes, who had a video shoot where someone gets murdered on set, [and] the hype man for Emimem, Proof, probably murdered in Detroit after a gun battle."

Duncan-Mao believes hip-hop is often its own worst enemy.

"I haven't actually seen a backlash toward rap, but I wouldn't blame certain companies if they didn't want to be associated with it at certain times from all the negative images you're getting from it," she said. "I love rap and I've defended hip-hop for 15-20 years, but it's like what Chris Rock said one time, you get sick of having to defend it.”

But as for Cristal's explanation about Rouzaud's original comments, it's too little, too late, said Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5W Public Relations, who's worked with dozens of hip-hop artists, including 'Lil Kim, Ice Cube and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

“Many brands don't understand the power of hip-hop to make or break them,” he said. “Hip-hop is about Main Street and Wall Street. Who do you gain by making comments like that?

"If you want to go for white and older, no 60-year-old golfer is going to say 'Cristal doesn't want Jay, so let's go buy the product.' In terms of the hip-hop consumer, they're done, I don't see anything they can do.”

Which may actually make Rouzaud very happy.

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