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What is Independent Hip Hop?

Youth commentator and hip hop artist Hector Gonzalez wonders how savvy marketing affects a culture traditionally bent on "keepin' it real."
A while back, I was the opening act at a hip hop show that featured underground MCs from San Jose and Los Angeles. The show took place in a small theater venue in downtown San Jose. As I walked off the stage after performing my set, I kept my head down, thinking that no one had paid to see my performance.

But outside was a group of people playing the role of groupies. They asked me to stand next to a car so they could take my picture. In return, they gave me a magazine and a CD. Suddenly, I felt like a superstar.

Little did I know this was only the beginning of a multimillion dollar campaign Toyota was setting up to sell its new product line, Scion, to younger drivers.

Since then, Scion has been making its presence known in the underground hip hop community. In and around San Jose, Calif., where I live, Scion paraphernalia can be found at most hip hop venues. Toyota's marketing strategy makes it clearer than ever that underground urban culture is a sought-after commodity.

Corporations have long used urban culture to market their products. I remember a McDonald's commercial where a circle of black youth were rapping about a Big Mac. Anyone who knew anything about MCing could tell you that those MCs were pretty whack, and that the idea of rappin' about how McDonald's burgers make you feel better was pretty corny. There's also the commercial that features a guy in K-Swiss tennis shoes break dancing. But in the hip hop scene, K-Swiss is labeled a "preppy" shoe by everyone I know.

But unlike McDonald's or K-Swiss, Scion has been doing a good job in maintaining its street credibility while selling its product. In 2003, Toyota sold about 11,000 of the newly introduced vehicles. In 2004, they sold close to 100,000.

Scion's secret is that they don't use fake gimmicks; they stick with the real deal. They produce a monthly magazine that features some of the hottest underground hip hop heads from the Bay Area to London. Half of the magazine focuses on urban trends in fashion, art, digital media, etc. The other half is nothing but Scion ads.

The magazine can be compared to URB magazine, one of the most dominant urban magazines in the world. This is no accident. The people behind URB -- a marketing firm called Rebel Organization -- are also responsible for Scion's marketing strategy. Rebel Organization has also run successful marketing campaigns for Reebok and T-Mobile.

Apparently, they've learned from the mistakes other corporations have made in trying to tap into urban culture. "Scion doesn't attach itself to big stars," says Josh Levine, president of Rebel Organization and a lead sculptor of Scion's marketing plan. "Instead, it captures the local scenes, because that's where urban culture really takes place."

In the local market of San Jose, Scion sponsors and supports many hip hop functions. In return, the company asks that Scion banners be put up and Scion merchandise -- hats, shirts, CDs and magazines -- handed out.

The latest Scion magazine asks the question, "What is Independent?" and features DJ J Boogie from San Francisco, legendary Graffiti writer Sabe, and rapper Guru from Gang Star, among others. Underground hip hop culture in general is based on "keepin' it real," and hip hoppers have always questioned the integrity of others by asking them if they're "keepin' it real." But what happens when a corporation is the one asking you that question?

Some underground artists say that going corporate means selling out, while others say companies such as Scion could now be contributors to the culture.

Tommy Aguilar -- the events coordinator of the Movimiento Arte Cultural Latino Americana, which hosts regular hip hop events -- is one of the leaders of the San Jose hip hop scene. He can usually be found downtown, wearing a newspaper-boy hat and reporter-style glasses, promoting the hip hop events he puts together through his independent collective Universal Grammar.

Aguilar is responsible for bringing such acts as Crown City Rockers, Lyrics Born and DJ Questlove to San Jose -- all with the help of Scion. Aguilar says having Scion sponsorship does not infringe on the authenticity of the functions. "The money they give us doesn't change our program," he says -- "it's simply put to good use."

Five years ago, Aguilar says, he saw the issue of corporate sponsorship in a less positive light. His newer understanding of the business aspect of hip hop is representative of a growing understanding in the underground scene that artists need to be getting paid in order for the culture to maintain itself.

Kenny May is on the opposite end of the spectrum. May is the founder of Funk Lab Productions, a promoting collective that has dominated the break dancing scene in San Jose for the past decade. May has never received sponsorship from Scion. Even when the corporation offers the hip hop community financial support, he says, "they are still taking advantage of us, because the corporations will always get the upper hand."

When I ask Josh Levine what he thinks about people saying that Scion is just another corporation trying to take advantage of artists, he uses hip hop to frame his response.

"It's no different than an MC. Although some people would like to see the MC come up, you'll always have tons who want to see that MC fail."
Hector Gonzalez, 21, writes for Silicon Valley De-Bug, a Pacific News Service publication.
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