Steve Stoute Talks VH1 Documentary Series “The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip-Hop”



Over the past 40 years, a cultural shift, marked most recently and vividly by the election of President Obama, has been underway. Hip-hop culture, and its luminaries including Fab 5 Freddy, Dr. Dre, Diddy and Russell Simmons, has been the driving catalyst and laid the foundation for the development of this new generation.

Entrepreneur, advertising and record executive Steve Stoute has had a front-row seat and been an active participant while this transformation has taken place, distinctly conveying those thoughts in his 2011 best-seller The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy.

“Tanning” is not simply the process of hip-hop culture being accepted by mainstream culture. Rather, it’s the creation of an entirely new culture. “It’s an entire new language, [and] an entire new approach that comes from an openness to borrow and learn and share cultural data,” Stoute says. “People are now hopefully willing to visit, accept, deal with and participate in other cultures. You’re seeing a generation that has adopted that to their lifestyle. That’s the reason why I go back to [saying], ‘You can’t just predetermine someone’s cultural values,’ because we are all borrowing from each other’s culture. There’s so much cultural sharing and tanning happening, that you have to be able to really deal with somebody for who they are. You can’t just hedge on anything because of the amount of sharing and the amount of information that’s being transferred.”

Stoute joined forces with VH1 and filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman for a four-part documentary series, The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip-Hop, based on his book. Life+Times caught up with Stoute to discuss his ideas about recent tanning moments, and the documentary, which is set to air on VH1 February 24-27.

Life+Times: Talk about the success of the book and the reaction to it when it came out back in September 2011.
Steve Stoute:
The reaction to the book – the thing that surprised me – was the amount of companies that started buying the book and using it as required reading for their companies, or schools that started adopting the book as part of their curriculum. That was more surprising to me than anything, because I really wrote the book from the perspective of a person who grew up watching hip-hop really get going and make a cultural difference, not only in America, but around the world. I kind of speak to someone coming from that perspective, living through it and going through it. Never in my wildest dreams did I start to think that it would become adopted by schools and businesses. That was the most surprising part.

L+T: Macklemore’s recent Grammy success, and Jimmy Fallon’s move to The Tonight Show along with The Roots, are two more recent tanning moments. What are your thoughts on those?
: You start to see more and more blending of cultures playing out on national television and in media. It’s really good because what you start to see is this whole generation activated and fully moving around so that there’s basically no boundaries on the culture, and it’s moving around in a very colorless manner. That’s the biggest shock to the generations of the past where they would look at people and come to a conclusion. At this point, it’s become involuntarily; some point of view that’s pre-determined because of someone’s ethnic background. We’re seeing a generation rise and succeed where they don’t look at ethnicity to predetermine anything that they value culturally.

L+T: Ironically, in the documentary, there’s a segment about when hip-hop first became a Grammy category, but the award wasn’t televised. [Slick Rick, Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa and others] boycotted the awards and the next year it was televised. But this year and in recent years, the Grammy Awards have again not televised hip-hop categories. Does that surprise you?
No, it’s not surprising. You know what they’re saying? “Black people are getting enough coverage in every other category, so we don’t have to worry about hip-hop.” It’s so funny. I was watching that, too. Nas said something [recently] that was really smart: “In this day, as important as the Grammys are, if you’re trying to make so many people happy, of course you’re going to get things wrong.”

L+T: The rise of Beats headphones is discussed in The Tanning Of America. I can vividly remember the US Olympic Men’s basketball team, along with a number of college basketball teams wearing them. What was it about basketball players wearing those headphones that made Beats click?
I think that just like anything else, when you have people that you aspire to be rocking something, that’s an opportunity – if you feel like it makes sense – for you to get with it. That creates that contagious consumer buying pattern, like, “If he has it, then I want. If I got it, then the other guy wants it.” What was unique about basketball is when they come in the arena, they show the athletes in their outfits, pre-game suits and how they come off the bus. There was an opportunity there to really get a lot of airtime coverage for the headphones. They were loud and different colors, people were wearing them around their neck even when they didn’t have them on their ears. It just became a fashion statement. It became more about lifestyle and a badge brand than it was about headphones, to be honest.

L+T: The headphones are one example. You’re also talking about Adidas and Run-DMC, and Hilfiger and hip-hop culture. The streets have always seemed to be ahead of the curve when it comes to style and dictating what’s fresh. It’s almost like Black people make these things cool. Is that a fair statement?
I wouldn’t necessarily pigeonhole it to Black people. I would say more that urban youth in general make things cool. I don’t think it has to be Black. I think as long as urban youth adopt it, it makes things cool. And yeah, the streets are the first ones to officially give something a stamp of legitimacy and give it the authenticity that every brand desperately seeks. That really does start on a street level, and the urban consumer is the consumer that drives the consumption.

L+T: Is there a fine line between tanning and co-optation? Tanning being an authentic relationship between a product or company and a person, and co-optation being an inauthentic relationship where a company sees an opportunity to reach a certain market and exploits a person or culture for economic profit.
I don’t think so. I always feel like you can see co-optation, or inauthentic partnerships, from a mile away, and it just doesn’t get rewarded. I think the consumer sees it and their reaction to it isn’t one that’s met with their pocketbooks. They don’t purchase it, they’re not moved by the relationship. I made this joke years ago; I remember seeing the Rihanna, Drake, Trey Songz, and Pitbull Kodak advertising and it was terrible. I didn’t understand why they thought that with that level of star-power, they were asking people to believe that they were using Kodak. I mean it’s like, come on, man. You obviously just bought a bunch of talent to do something, and they did, but that wasn’t an authentic relationship that the consumers believed. That thing came and went. That’s how those things are. If people don’t believe that the celebrity or the person of interest actually participates in designing the product or is engaged in using the product themselves, it becomes a meaningless transaction.

L+T: It’s been athletes, entertainers and musicians that have really led the tanning movement. As you allude to in the documentary, they certainly played a major role in President Obama’s election. Has tanning influenced laws and legislation affecting minorities and middle and lower classes yet? Or has it not gotten that far?
I think it has [been influential]. I think it has put pressure on local politicians to change some laws. Living here in [New York City], just the whole controversy around stop and frisk is really about tanning because it’s about profiling. It’s about going into neighborhoods and profiling people. The world has evolved beyond, “What does a criminal look like? What does a bank robber look like?” A guy that’s gonna come and buy a $100,000 Mercedes – what does that family look like? Everything has changed. It’s hard to profile people. It’s hard to just look at somebody and say, “That’s the guy, I should pay attention to him,” versus, “I shouldn’t pay attention to him, he’s not a criminal.” These things are coming in all shapes, sizes, everything, Any laws that give way to some sort of predetermining, having the right to harass somebody or take action because you have a “hunch,” is completely under pressure right now to be abolished. Those are things that are driven from tanning and from the generation that realizes how much bullshit that is. From the Census forms to these local laws, you have to be able to allow people to not necessarily be defined in boxes or predetermined.

L+T: Since the book’s release, what are some other tanning events that have taken place in our society?
It’s hard to say one thing in particular, because the truth of the matter is there are so many things. What JAY Z did with Barney’s is big. It’s really tanning because of a lot of things: A. that Jay has a line that was bespoke in Barney’s; and B, it really put a light on the controversy of African-Americans being, again, profiled and people standing up for that. Because of the negativity around the controversy, nobody [paid attention to] the value that was taking place. JAY Z – an African-American man –  has a collection in Barney’s in which the money goes to help young kids of unfortunate circumstances. In the meantime, we get a chance to unearth the topic of Black people being profiled. That’s sort of what the whole notion of tanning is about: removing boxes and not profiling people. There’s gonna be institutions and people that, culturally, have to stop and understand how to interact and see the world the way we’re talking about. Instances like what took place, you need those to shine on a light on the the fact that there’s some old thinking and bullshit thinking that’s still apparent in some organizations. There’s so much more, to be honest. It happens so much. I would say after President Obama came in, if you were not part of understanding and moving the belief of tanning forward, then you are an outlier and clearly not with tomorrow and not heading in the direction that the world is going. You’re not with the whole contemporary movement and the way we deal with race and interacting with one another. It happens so much as a result of people being on board that it’s hard to pick one specific thing that’s been able to live up to the monumental election of the President.

Part one of The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip-Hop airs February 24, 2014. Click here for more information.