Popping bottles of Champagne is so ingrained in rap culture that it almost feels compulsory– but how exactly did the drink seep so seamlessly into hip hop’s DNA? We’re covering the history of Champagne and the American hip hop stars that transformed bubbly’s place in modern pop culture.
Symbols of Opulence
The status of Champagne’s elegance is so indisputable that it transcends time, language, and culture (feeling thirsty yet?) No matter where you are, Champagne is a lavish symbol of elegance. Whether it’s bottles of Cristal at the club, a wedding toast, or Winston Churchill’s daily bottles of Pol Roger, the message is clear– Champagne is one of the finer things in life. From the very moment that Dom Perignon exclaimed, “Come quick, I am tasting the stars” it seems only fitting that stars themselves would want a taste of this transcendent elixir.
East Coast Emcees began referencing Champagne brands in their lyrics as early as 1985. Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “King of the Streets” was of the first to do so. The lyric paints a clear picture of the status of Champagne and what it would become in the genre.
“I was always famous, but never a star / A Dom Juan Perignon, Antoine, bourgeois / I’m bad without the fancy cars and the Louis Vuitton and Yves St. Laurent / The bodyguards and the higher echelon / Not like Prince and Michael, I come up hard.”
From the start, premiere Champagne brands were an identifier of status, or better yet, swagger. Melle Mel could have said he’s a James Bond type, a class act, suave, sophisticated, worldly, and silver tongued– but he didn’t have to. Dom Juan Peringnon did the trick.
Though some of hip hop’s pioneers disagreed with the bourgeois sentiment, luxury had already been woven into the fabric of the genre. Aspiring rappers had taken note– ballers drink Champagne.
Champions of Champagne
Champagne had been used as a lyrical motif since the dawn of hip hop, but the man responsible for bringing bubbly off of the track and into the limelight of the cultural movement is none other than Branson B.
Regarded by Forbes as “hip hop’s unofficial sommelier,” Branson’s first encounters with bubbly were in Harlem, where he saw the men in his community indulging in glasses of fine Champagne. These men were doctors, lawyers, hustlers and gamblers– Branson took note. No matter what you do, if you’re doing well, you drink Champagne.
To develop his own taste, he searched Harlem liquor stores high and low for unique labels that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the city. When he was emerging in the rap game, he started bringing bottles of bubbly with him to studios, parties and events– if he was at a club, he always made a point to order Champagne. Eventually, his taste started floating to the top of the 90’s rap scene.
Branson B is credited with introducing the drink to Sean “Diddy’ Combs and the late Notorious B.I.G, who’s massive influence cemented Champagne into club culture. At this point, bottles at the club were a status symbol, a sign of making it. But Branson’s love of Champagne ran deeper than the surface level.
Branson debuted his own line, Guy Charlemagne Selected by Branson B, in 2007, and his influence continues to impact rising hip hop stars to this day.
Building Brands and Tearing Them Down
We can’t talk Champagne and rap without talking about tastemaker extraordinaire, Jay-Z. When it comes to brand integration, no one does it like him. From 1995 to 2006, his drink of choice was Cristal– and he shot the brand into the stratosphere.
He first mentioned Cristal in track 1 on his first album, “Reasonable Doubt” in 1996… it took off. From 1996 to 2006 there were 264 references to Cristal across the genre, according to Tahir Hemphill’s hip hop word count project, “Champagne Always Stains My Silk.” Compare that to the decade prior, which only had 21 references to the brand.
The influence went far and beyond the music. Cristal became the drink of the 2000s– wherever celebrities were, a gaudy gold bottle wasn’t far behind. Cristal bottles were the finishing touch to award show tables, club appearances, and everything in between. The $300+ bottle was in high demand, and it became hard to get your hands on one.
You would imagine the brand would be grateful for the hype, but that was, unfortunately, not the case.
When asked about whether the hip hop hype would damage Cristal’s brand, director Frédéric Rouzaud said, “What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”
Obviously, this is not the sentiment Jay-Z expected to hear after a decade of free promotion that sent the luxury Champagne into the center of pop culture. The remark was deemed a racist slight, and Jay-Z called for a boycott in June of 2006, and removed the brand from all of his 40/40 club locations, many followed suit.
From 2006 to 2010, there were only 29 lyrical references to Cristal across the genre… ouch. Their sales plummeted throughout the years following the boycott, but have leveled out since. However, the brand has yet to achieve the cultural relevance it once had.
Rappers have the influence to put brands into the center of the cultural zeitgeist, and they can take them down hard. Champagne does best when hip hop is on its side.
Champagne and Hip Hop Today
The relationship between Champagne and rap has evolved significantly over the years, extending far beyond lyrical references. Step into the fine wine aisle of your local purveyor, you’ll see rapper’s labels.
In 2014, Jay-Z acquired Armand de Brignac Champagne and created the “Ace of Spades” label. In 2010, Armand de Brignac was voted as the no. 1 Champagne in the world in a blind tasting of over 10,000 Champagnes. Drake, nicknamed Champagne Papi, owns Mod Sélection… and the list goes on.
We have learned that Champagne is cemented into rap culture, but we cannot understate the importance of the reverse– rap culture is integral to Champagne.
The Champagne and fine wine industry has a millennial problem, and hip hop can help solve it.
Millennials, known for their preference for craft beers and canned seltzers, have been less inclined toward traditional wine consumption. However, the convergence of rap music and Champagne presents an opportunity for the wine industry to capture the attention of this demographic. The world needs more bubbly lovers, and rap’s influence might be the best way to convert more millennials and Gen Z to the sparkling side of life.
So, the next time you enjoy a bottle of bubbly, raise a glass to the rappers that are keeping Champagne culture alive.
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