Title: Under the Influence: Tracing the Hip-Hop Generations Impact on Brands, Sports & Pop Culture.

Author: Erin O. Patton


Under the Influence is the first book to really look at the Hip-Hop generations influence on pop culture, brands and sports. Erin Patton provides great detail throughout the book on how the swagger, attitudes and lifestyle of hip hop moved from the ‘hood to Madison Avenue (for those who do not know, Madison Avenue is a street in New York synonymous with the advertising industry).

The most interesting aspect to Under the Influence is that it is written by an insider, in fact, someone who has taken urban culture to the mainstream. Erin Patton is the former director or product and marketing for the Jordan brand, the architect of the Starbury movement, and as the owner of a firm that has worked with countless fortune 500 companies. Erin discusses the tactics, strategies and methods he has utilized in helping hip hop move from the underground and into the mainstream and prominence in the global marketplace.

The most insightful (and really the part that makes the book worth buying) component of Under the Influence is Patton’s 7 Cipher’s marketing framework which dispels the notion of a homogenous urban market and enjoys widespread application in many sectors of industry.

It’s important to note that while a lot of the information in Under the Influence can be related to the majority of Western Countries (attributable to American cultural colonization via the US media system) it may be American specific in parts- however all in all its an important and relevant read for any/all brand merchants…

…And its only 150 pages.


Summary of Key Ideas

It’s important to recognize that New York is to urban culture what Silicon Valley is to technology. As the birthplace of hip-hop music, it has traditionally served as the epicenter for innovation and inspiration within urban culture. New York’s pace and competitive street dynamics also foster creativity, ingenuity, and a hustler’s ambition among the urban culture “software developers” to come up with the next “killer app” for the culture.

That can be a new artist, a new drink, a new dance, or a new brand. Much like the internet start ups that were born out of and led by a new generation of avante garde, “techpreneurs” who were products of the Silicon Valley culture and not classically trained business schools, the “hiphopreneurs” who profited most from the urban marketing boom were the generation X urban culture “software developers” such as Jay-Z, Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Jermaine Dupri and Master P who married their passion for hip-hop music and lifestyle with street-level business instincts.

Urban is a “psychographic” not a demographic. Urban is a mindset, based on shared lifestyle interests, not race alone, especially among this generation of youth.

Barak Obama also took a page from hip-hop’s generation X audience by making a way from no way and creating a new future with an insurgency campaign built on a platform of change and transcendence. Obama even gave a not-so-subtle nod to the origins of this notion within hip-hops generation X as he mimicked a wiping gesture taken from Jay-Z’s song “Dirt off Your Shoulders” after facing an onslaught of negative attacks from Hillary Clinton.

The 7 Cipher’s

Each of the following segments has adopted its own interpretation of urban and added a twist which makes it unique. Generic marketing messages and advertising will no longer work for this generation which is equally savvy and cynical. In order to be successful, marketers have to recognize the segments that align best against their brand and products and develop marketing messages that are written in the code of those specific ciphers.

  1. Core Urban (the innovators)


The Core Urban consumers are the innovators and “software developers” I mentioned earlier. These consumers are primarily African American and Hispanic aged 14-25 and live in the inner cities of New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore and Boston. The epicenter for urban culture and much of what becomes adopted by the mainstream popular culture rests with the Core urban consumers who have traditionally driven trends around music, language, and fashion.

Reebok clearly recognized the value of the Core Urban consumer and the role hip-hop plays with their target when it developed a controversial campaign featuring rapper 50 cent in 2005. The campaign was called “I am what I am”.

50 Cent is a good example of the influence of the Core Urban consumer on the mainstream. He didn’t sell seven million records to kids in the inner city. He sold them to suburban kids, which Reebok also factored into it’s analysis of its partnership with the rap artist.

Without question, Core Urban consumers are brand creators who impact products in virtually every industry with innovation and a distinct set of brand attributes to satisfy their own lifestyle preferences. For example, Core Urban consumers took creative license to alter the Timberland boots brand positioning from that exclusively representing outdoor enthusiasts to become the brand of choice for the rugged, inner-city landscape and signal urban male machismo.

MTV shows such as Cribs and Xzibit’s Pimp My Ride are examples of how automotive, furniture, consumer electronics brands and even fitness equipment choose to align with Core Urban values and lifestyle preferences.

  1. Tertiary Urban (the influence of southern rap)


Given the mainstream popularity of Southern hip-hop artists like Lil Wayne Ludacris, Outkast, T.I., Nelly and the crunk music movement from Atlanta, innovation in the urban culture has shifted from the North East to tertiary markets in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis, and Miami that once had minor relevance in urban culture, but now command the majority of it.

Tertiary Urban consumers hail primarily from the Southern United States. These consumers are primarily African American with a growing number of Caucasians and Hispanics.

For tertiary urban consumers it’s all about regional differences in tastes from music and language to clothing. Once wholesale adopters of brands stamped by their northern hip-hop brethren, they eventually created their own to join the growing list of “hiphopreneurs” such as rapper Nelly did with Vokal and Apple Bottoms. Even brands born out of New York’s hip-hop lifestyle recognized the growing influence of tertiary urban consumer innovators such as P.Diddy, who eventually tapped Nelly to be the face of his Sean John line.

  1. Sub-Urban Cipher- the Eminem factor


The Sub-Urban includes suburban teens and young adults aged 14 to 25 who aspire to replicate the lifestyle of the core urban consumer. This segment is primarily Caucasian but includes a significant population of African Americans and Asian Americans.  More than half of all hip-hop CDs are purchased by white suburban kids.

Rapper Eminem as depicted in the movie 8 Mile best exemplifies the Sub Urban cipher. Eminem, who had aspirations of becoming a hip hop artist, had to immerse himself directly in the culture by crossing over Detroit’s 8 Mile Road to test his skills against MC’s in the ‘hood.

The majority of the urban consumers adopt trends- primarily language and fashion- that come out of the Core Urban and Tertiary Urban segments. They want to buy into the lifestyle, and they have the disposable incomes to do so. Thanks to MTV and the internet, suburban kids now have 24/7 access to urban culture.

Another key nuance for the Sub-Urban cipher is within the technology and new media space. These consumers are heavy gamers and are pre disposed toward consumer electronics, MP3’s and digital downloads. As technology becomes more advanced and capable of creating rich social experiences, badge items are more likely to be an iPod or iPhone rather than a Nike sneaker.

Sub- Urban Hiphopreneurs


As urban culture spread from the inner city to the suburbs, the list of successful Hip-Hiphopreneurs also broke the color barrier. Mark Ecko was a suburban kid who grew up listening to hip-hop music and painting graffiti. Mark parlayed his penchant for urban culture into a $300 million brand called Ecko, which became popular among suburban teens. Mark branched into apparel and a magazine called Complex, which is a testament to those, like him, who are influenced by Core urban culture but interpret it in a slightly different way based on their own, unique suburban experience and lifestyle such as skateboarding.

  1. Contemporary Urban


Members of the Contemporary Urban cipher are Hip-Hop’s generation X (30+) grown up. While they still follow the culture, music and fashion trends, they can’t quite show up to a PTA meeting wearing Timberland boots and a throwback jersey. On the weekends they still may wear Timberlands especially if they are going back to hang out with their old crew of friends for example.

Now that they’re grown-up at the 2004 MTV Movie Awards Kanye West, P.Diddy, and Jay Z all turned up in suits.

It’s important to underscore here that today’s Contemporary Urban consumer is yesterdays Core Urban consumer. As mentioned earlier, when these guys were growing up as Core Urban kids under the influence of hip-hop, brands became a badge for us to affirm status and project our aspirations. That mentality merely evolves as the Core Urban consumer progresses through life and gains additional exposure, resources and responsibility. This explains why many Contemporary Urban consumers are responsible for the growth of many luxury brands. They want products first and fast and are willing to pay a premium for them. As they come into wealth, the options to decorate themselves and experience life’s material treasures only grow.

  1. Vintage Urban – Global Innovators


While the Vintage Urban segment is a niche of Asian Americans, African Americans and Caucasians aged 14 to 30; their influence as innovators extends beyond the United States and represents the global reach of Hip-Hop and urban culture.

While the Vintage Urban consumer can be found in markets like San Francisco and the Northeast, the global laboratory for this segment is taking place in Japan. Its chief scientist is a Japanese designer named Nigo who has embraced the retro craze and created a brand called A Bathing Ape, which became a popular but exclusive urban niche. Nigo grew up consuming nothing but hip-hop music. This is an extremely important shift in the paradigm as you now have an Asian influence on urban and popular culture by influencers who use their urban mindset to export culture and products to the US from their consumer laboratory in Tokyo.

As technology become more advanced and China continues to become a focal point and growth market for fortune 500 companies, the role of the urban mindset will be critical in building bridges between Western brands and Asian consumers. Brands that realize this will surely maintain a first-mover advantage in the race for the loyalty of Asian consumers with an urban mindset.

  1. Alternative Urban- the fusion of Hip-Hop, rock and skate


The Alternative Urban cipher represents the fusion of Hip-Hop culture, rock music, and skate culture. These consumers are aged 14-25 and are predominantly Caucasian with a growing African-American and Asian-American population. They are tech savvy, action-sports enthusiasts, and gamers. They are also cultural transporters who are equally comfortable blending in their environment.

Since the Alternative Urban cipher geography is also sub urban, the mindset, preferences, and lifestyle interests of this segment run parallel to the Sub-Urban cipher (similar to the way the Core Urban and Tertiary Urban do), albeit with some distinct nuances and attitudinal and behavioral differences. For example, unlike the Sub-Urban consumer, the Alternative Urban consumer are not going to rush out and buy the latest high-priced sneakers or apparel because 50 cent is wearing them. They are more about simplicity, and prefer non-descript lifestyle brands such as Zoo York, but also have an element to their personality that boasts excess.

Pharell is an excellent example of this cipher. He has a rock sensibility and skateboarders fashion style from his suburban experience but has also been influenced by a Hip-Hop culture of excess.

Such collaborations and fusion reveal both the essence and evolution of the Hip-Hop generation and the 7 Ciphers. Urban consumers take bits and pieces of the culture and weave it into their unique fabric to maintain a sense of self-identity while striving for constant reinvention. This sentiment is perhaps best captured by the acronym for Pharell’s group N.E.R.D., which stands for No one Ever Really Dies.

  1. Organic Urban- Keeping it real


Organic Urban consumers are similar to Alternative Urban consumers in terms of simplicity, authenticity, and self-identity. They are primarily African Americans aged 25-49 with a significant white population. These consumers run parallel to the Contemporary urban cipher in many ways.

This segment is opposed to the commercialization of the urban culture. For these individuals, it’s all about being true to your self. This segment is also defined as the “urban intelligentsia”. They are well educated, socially and politically aware. Cause related marketing is an important vehicle to reach this segment.

In addition to the racial transcendence of this segment, the Organic urban cipher also speaks to the global influence of the culture. Organic Urban consumers are also a fertile target for satellite radio because they are opposed to the commercialization of the radio and want to be able to program music according to their tastes.

Implications for marketers and the 7 Ciphers


In essence the traditional race based paradigm is no longer effective, especially when marketing to the current generation. For them, it’s really about identifying with others on the basis of shared lifestyle interests and mindset that cuts across cultural and racial lines. The 7 ciphers serves as a framework to guide the process. While the benefits are substantial, there are three broad implications for using the segmentation. 1) Improved target alignment and brand positioning, 2) Achieveing brand resonance and 3) Measurement.


The following chart represents the effect of the 7 Ciphers lifecycle and the influence on the mainstream:

That’s a lot for you to soak in.

I’ll follow up with a second review of Under the Influence in a couple of weeks, as there are a few other ideas Patton illustrates which are worth looking at.

I  recommend you buy this book. And listen to some  hip hop music from the last 30 years while you read it.

Stay breezy.

Ollie W

Thanks to:

Patton, E O (2009).Under the Influence: tracing the hip hop generations impact on brands, sports & pop culture. New York: Paramount Market Publishing, Inc.