Bayley discusses the interesting relationships between rappers and automobile brands.
With the exception of the ineffable Heathcote Williams, who died last July, the car has been not much bothered by poets. In 1987, shortly after he sprayed graffiti over Buckingham Palace and set fire to himself on Jean Shrimpton’s doorstep, Williams published his epic poem Autogeddon in The Whole Earth Review. I quote:
‘In 1885 Karl Benz constructed the first automobile
It had three wheels like an invalid car
And ran on alcohol, like many drivers.’
That’s about the limit of the muse Calliope’s interest in the automobile.
But popular music is altogether different: cars and songs are inextricable. Perhaps the first rock ’n’ roll record was Jackie Brenston and The Delta Cats’ ode to a car, the Oldsmobile Rocket 88. And anyone who has ever heard it will not (unfortunately) be able to forget Ronnie and the Daytonas’ Antique ’32 Studebaker Dictator Coupe, to say nothing of The Hot Rods’ Judy’s Got a Stick Shift.
More mainstream was Janis Joplin, who beseeched the Lord to buy her a Mercedes-Benz even as she drove around Los Angeles in a psychedelic Porsche 356. And then there was Don McLean who took his Chevy to the levee only to find that it was in drought. Johnny Cash sang about someone stealing components from a Michigan assembly line with the aim of building an entire Cadillac at home. The Beatles and Beach Boys? Of course. I can hum them now.
More recently, rappers, inflamed by Heathcote Williams’ alcohol as well as MDMA, ketamine and pethidine booster shots, have begun to mine the rich seams of symbolism and status of the automobile, as fascinating research by Bloomberg reveals. Examining the brands most name-checked by rappers, Bloomberg discovered that eight out of the top 12 were cars.
Rolls-Royce came top. Williams described Rolls-Royce as ‘that moving Pantheon’, but the classical reference may have been lost on Kodak Black. Nelly rapped about Porsche, as P-Money has of Lamborghini and Azam Aulakh of Ferrari (in Punjabi). Bentley has been comparatively analysed by Lloyd Banks, who raps ‘Beemer, Benz or Bentley?’ Also oft-rapped were Chevrolet, Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz.
The non-auto brands most often acknowledged by rappers were Xanax, a popular tranquiliser; Hennessy cognac, Rolex watches and Nike Air Jordan trainers. Marketing managers at Martell, Adidas and Omega may here wish to pause for thought.
What about those credible and ambitious car brands ignored by the rap aristocracy? Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Maserati, McLaren and Range Rover, where are you? We can ignore Peugeot as irony is not yet well developed in the rap community.
Angels may fear to tread a path into the rap imagination, but the answer is clear to me. Aston Martin will soon join the elite: it is presently not well understood in the US, but new cars and a big sales push will change that. Besides, Aston Martin possesses the ever-important parametrics of outrage. And it’s for that reason that Alfa Romeo and Maserati will never be rap stars: just as Italian restaurants are in fashionable decline in London and New York, so the rich history of Alfa and Maserati is irrelevant to kids from a Baltimore project.
McLaren might yet make it despite being 50 years behind Ferrari in incredibility, but Audi and BMW are Spam in a foie gras market while Mercedes still retains an untouchably special prestige. Jaguar has become a follower, not a leader, no model for apex predator alpha males, and a rapper would prefer a kill-me-quick Cadillac Escalade to a fine and tweedy Range Rover.
It’s easy to sneer at rappers’ brutal idiocies, but their enthusiasm is a fine testament to the enduring ability of cars to express shared values, collective yearnings and private desires. This should be the stuff of poets, but, as a formal exercise, poetry has disappeared from culture. Rappers make good this failing.
Actually, there is one other example of a proper poet writing about the automobile. Here is Rudyard Kipling in To a Lady, persuading her to a car:
‘Thus in our thund’ring toy we’ll prove
Which is more blind, the Law or Love.’
Demented by driving-induced adreno-toxins, just like a rapper, the outstanding poet of The Imperium recognised, as rappers do, that great cars are very often about speed, sex and noise.
Stephen Bayley – Author, critic, consultant, broadcaster, debater and curator, Stephen co-created the Boilerhouse Project at London’s V&A, was chief executive of The Design Museum, and fell out with Peter Mandelson when he told him the Millennium Dome ‘could turn out to be crap’.