Chuck Inglish, one half of Chicago's retro-styled rappers the Cool Kids, is speaking about releasing the duo's new album, When Fish Ride Bicycles, through a quasirecord label funded by Mountain Dew, the lurid-colored soda brand owned by PepsiCo. "Green Label is not a record label — it's like a music company," he explains. "It's modeled a different way. There's no studio in the office; it's really a brand-new situation. They just let us make music." Inglish is absolute in the virtues of this arrangement: His group gets to release the music it wants, gets paid, retains copyright and ownership of its songs, and does so while avoiding the traditional stresses of the record label machine. In his view, it's a win-win situation.
The trend of corporate brands facilitating the release of music — whether on philanthropic grounds or in an attempt to appear cool-by-association — has been growing fast over the last couple of years. Any music fans reading about and sourcing their music online will be aware that this month Converse opened Rubber Tracks, a studio in Brooklyn that gives selected bands free use of its facilities; car manufacturer Scion has long sponsored DJ shows and mixtapes; Red Bull has a record label; and Nike has an iTunes storefront. Listening to (usually free) music in 2011 often involves the shadow of a corporation somewhere along the line, even if listeners aren't tacitly aware of it.
Concerns about the growing influence of corporate brands on the music scene have tended to focus on possible creative and ethical interference. Inglish is adamant that working with a brand has actually offered his group the sort of unfettered freedom that traditional record labels curbed. "It's been less stressful given the fact there's no one forcing opinions on you, like at the label," he says. "The label should not be artists. Let the labels be what they are, which is businesses." (The Cool Kids' discography features releases on the Fool's Gold, XL, and Chocolate Industries labels. It was the group's deal — and ensuing lawsuit — with the last of these that prompted Inglish to characterize it to online rap news source AllHipHop.com as wanting to be "the New World Order of the music industry.")
But the ethical side is more nuanced. A brand that sells soda is ultimately in the business of selling soda, and will use whatever marketing tactics will be most successful. At the moment, musicians — often ones with slightly underground and fashionable images — are that mechanism. Inglish says that he and his partner, Mikey Rocks, never had qualms about being seen as Mountain Dew poster boys: "Nah, we had no concerns. And that's not really it, anyway," he says. "I mean, the times have progressed, and there's a lot of artists that are aligned to a lot of questionable brands. We just wanted to align with someone who was a fan of our music."
In some ways, this justification is culled straight from rap's annals: It's like an N.W.A.-era Ice Cube venting, "Do I look like a motherfucking role model?" These are rappers, after all; there's no burden to change the world, and the Cool Kids would prefer to make songs about liking BMX bicycles. The issue gets trickier, though, when you factor in a brand's labor practices or political positions: Lady Gaga's relationship with Target broke down over accusations the company helped fund an anti-gay-marriage politician.
But beyond broader concerns about brands intermingling with musicians, the lasting impression of listening to Inglish talk about the deal with Green Label is that there's an established generation of musicians who simply don't care about the traditional notion or prestige of record labels. In hip-hop, there was a time when rappers were proud to define themselves by the labels they were signed to. "Def Jam — tells you who I am," Public Enemy's Chuck D. boasted. Labels had strong logos, iconography, and all-star lineups; label-branded tour jackets were coveted items. But, of course, nearly all of those artists, including Public Enemy, also fell out of love with their labels. (Rappers aren't shy about putting their disgruntlement into rhyme, whether through coded messages, like De La Soul's frustrations with label Tommy Boy wanting the group to write more commercial songs, or one-time Biggie Smalls collaborator R.A the Rugged Man brashly penning "Every Record Label Sucks Dick.")
Inglish says that he never fantasized about signing to any particular storied rap label. Instead, when he and Rocks first started making music, they'd record songs and take the time to package them creatively for their friends. He uses the analogy of a carpenter making bespoke birdhouses. The Cool Kids did this because they'd already seen labels as being "a game of smoke and mirrors." The greater issue, for them, has always been a hip-hop scene they view as "artistically not on point." Instead of complaining about the situation, they decided to "make something fresh." Green Label just happened to be the company that allowed them to do so.