When Rapper Jay-Z Talks About Euros, People Listen

From DAVEY D for The Mercury News:

Several years ago, Jay-Z bragged that, if he were to start rapping about drinking water, rather than Cristal champagne or some other alcoholic beverage, H2O would become the drink of choice. At the time, it sounded arrogant, but in retrospect it wasn't far fetched, considering Jay-Z's track record as a trend-setter.

For example, the rapper is credited with almost single-handedly changing the tastes of the hip-hop audience from gold to platinum jewelry.

He is said to be one of the main influences in getting New Yorkers to embrace Southern rap, through his 1998 collaboration with Juvenile on the song "Ha" and another one a few years later with Southern rap icon Bun B of UGK on the hit "Big Pimpin'."

Jay-Z changed the landscape once again when he teamed with the then-emerging producers known as the Neptunes, which included Pharrell Williams. Their 2000 hit "Just Wanna Love You" helped accustom listeners to the falsetto harmonies that have become a staple in hip-hop.

A year later, Jay-Z changed things yet again when he tapped the emerging Kanye West to lace his "The Blueprint" album with soulful beats, instead of the hard-edged, gritty stuff that was popular at the time.

His influence even reached Maryland Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, for whom a lavish party was held at Jay-Z's New York restaurant, the 40/40 club. At the time, I asked Steele why he chose 40/40, and he said the location would send a strong message that the GOP was changing its image and diversifying its constituency.

All the while Jay-Z was setting trends, he was enthusiastically publicizing his taste for Cristal champagne, which sells for about $300 a bottle. So it came as quite a shock last summer when Frédéric Rouzaud, managing director of Cristal maker Champagne Louis Roederer, suggested that he didn't appreciate rap stars hyping his beverage.

In response, Jay-Z removed Cristal from the wine cellar at his nightclub and scratched the references he had made to it in his songs.

Rouzaud tried to repair the damage by sending a letter of apology, but it was too little too late. Today, Cristal isn't just passe; it's all but dead among the hip-hop crowd.

Two weeks ago, Jay-Z attracted wide attention again, when his video for the song "Blue Magic" made its debut on BET. He was the first rapper to buck the trend of flashing wads of greenbacks at the camera by flashing euros instead.

The move inspired a fierce commentary by CNBC's Jim Cramer, who criticized Jay-Z for further undermining an already weak dollar.

The euro incident also was noted in the financial sections of papers around the world. A week later, a much-read Bloomberg item focused on Jay-Z's video and Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen's public request not to be paid in U.S. dollars. In some places, both were praised for grasping that the dollar was out, and the euro was in.

It seems a bit naive to suggest that an artist such as Jay-Z could make an impact on the world economy. But there can be no question that he sparked a timely dialogue about international monetary policy on a number of popular hip-hop shows, including Chuck D's "On the Reel." On the Nov. 18 show, Chuck cited the recent move by OPEC to reject U.S. dollars.

In a popular Oakland nightclub last weekend, I heard a spirited debate involving 10 or 12 young men about the value of the dollar, and whether they should start getting paid in euros.

And I'll admit it: I'd much rather hear that kind of conversation than a debate about who's the best rapper.

Davey D's hip-hop column appears biweekly in Eye. Contact him at mrdaveyd@aol.com.

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