Ethan Fixell

Remember when hip-hop was mostly associated with malt liquor?

Back in the ‘90s, Dr. Dre and Snoop threw parties with refrigerators full of fat bottles of golden swill everybody pretended to enjoy. Many of us who grew up in that era remember the legendary St. Ides ads, featuring coast-to-coast rhyming endorsements from prominent rap artists like EPMD, Ice Cube, Wu-Tang, The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac and many others.

Sure, malt liquor was gritty, and had a streetwise edge (mostly in the flavor) -- and there’s nothing wrong with starting from the bottom. That said, we’ve come a long way, and today in Atlanta -- a city considered by many to be the hip-hop capital of the world -- beer is picking up the pieces of broken glass everywhere and syncing the spirit of “The Message” with the bottle.

“Ever since I first heard EPMD’s lyrics on 1988’s ‘It’s My Thing,’ I knew that beer was gonna be a fixture in hip-hop from then on,” said Mike Potter, co-founder of the soon-launching online publication Black Brew Culture. He then provided proof that the lyrics stuck with him: “Cause I'm the thrilla of Manila, emcee cold-killa / drink Budweiser, cannot stand Miller / emcees cold-clockin' till the party's through / then they tap me on my shoulder, say ‘This Bud's for You.’”

Potter then laughed and admitted, “The beats and rhymes are more pronounced when paired with beer.”

Recently, several breweries have been joining the hip-hop beer freestyle cypher. And in the south, where craft breweries are launching almost as frequently as rap careers, a few folks are beginning to see synergies.

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“Hip-hop is such a collaborative form of music -- where else do artists so freely contribute to each other’s work?” asked Jonathan Baker, co-founder of Atlanta’s Monday Night Brewing. “Craft beer shares that mentality. Brewers collaborate all the time -- we’ve found that working with like-minded people inspires all of us to make our product better. Artistically, there has always been a kinship between craft beer and hip-hop in this way.”

Baker and his crew are already making hip-hop collaborations a major part of Monday Night’s marketing strategy and culture. Their senior market manager moonlights as an accomplished emcee who goes by the moniker Manchild, but also answers to his government name, Greg Owens. And he knows more than a bit about selling beer, having worked wholesale for Savannah Distributing, as well as Bell’s Brewery.

Between handling national accounts for MNB, Owens even found time to record a video welcoming the public to The Garage [a barrel-aging and souring facility] via impressive rap lyrics that included clever announcements of two Monday Night beers being retired (Eye Patch Ale IPA and Nerd Alert pilsner), and the arrival of a new year-round, Star-Wars-inspired standard, saying “Millennials and Falcons are down with Han Brolo.”

Monday Night has also worked with Kentucky-bred rap outfit Nappy Roots on more than one occasion, inviting them to perform at The Garage's grand opening, and collaborating on beers with the group. The latter include a citrus pale ale called Front Porch, and a soon-to-be-released Kentucky bourbon barrel-aged stout called Humdinger. It’s a significant association for a beer company founded in 2006 by three guys at a bible study.
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Also notable is that they were the first brewery inside the Interstate 285 perimeter of Atlanta (“ITP”) since the arrival of SweetWater Brewing Co. in 1997, and just like the 420 gang, they now have two brewing locations: the original headquarters, and that previously mentioned barrel-aging spot The Garage. Both are on Atlanta’s westside; the Garage is in southwest Atlanta, not far from where acts like OutKast, Goodie Mob, T.I., Killer Mike and other local-global rappers began their careers. Their first building? Less than half a mile from Stankonia (a.k.a. OutKast’s studio).

“Craft breweries are the hip-hop equivalent of selling your mixtape out of your trunk, hoping to make it big one day. There are so many similarities in philosophy that it only makes sense that there be more collaborations in the future,” Baker said. “I think you’ll see more local/regional collaborations -- not just the big guys like Jay-Z, but local rap heroes partnering with local craft breweries to create something truly for their communities.” Hopefully that also means they’ll reunite Andre 3000 and Big Boi.

The increasing familiarity of beer in hip-hop culture has also created an opportunity for emerging hip-hop tastemakers and opinionated beer culture influencers, who are making deeper connections between the two communities. Atlanta-based beer writer Dennis Byron, a.k.a. “Ale Sharpton,” was one of the earliest voices able to speak with authenticity to both craft beer nerds and hip-hop geeks.

“Hip-hop and beer are very similar. Go back to what is affectionately termed the ‘Golden Era’ of the late ‘80s through the ‘90s,” Byron suggested. “Yes, there were talented rappers, and a plethora of small, independent music labels that allowed their rappers to be as creative as they wanted to be. Now, link that to independent craft breweries of today, [with their] inventive styles, new flavors, experimentation with ingredients, various hop combinations, and even eye-popping packaging. A hip-hop head and a hop-head are one and the same.”

Byron is active in his efforts to prove his point. He has promoted and hosted a series of events under the moniker Brewtal Art, in which hip-hop and art are merged at Atlanta breweries. He also occasionally talks shop over craft beers with hip-hop personalities like DJ Quik, and radio personality/former Yo! MTV Raps host Ed Lover via his webseries Interviews With Brews. He said he’s noticed certain styles of beers are more popular in the hip-hop community, but expects things to expand in the future. “Stouts and IPAs are the biggies, but palates are becoming more and more sophisticated and open to more variations.”

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Byron thinks it’s all about exposure, and he loves seeing sensible, mutually beneficial partnerships developing, although he’s curious about whether or not craft breweries are being true partners. “Honestly, craft breweries are really embracing hip-hop because a lot of their customer base loves hip-hop and what it stands for. And the word ‘partnerships’ is significant because I see a lot [of breweries] taking lyrics and images, and using them for their packaging, especially Wu Tang members. I am truly intrigued if they got permission to do that. A true partnership would be what Run The Jewels did with Interboro and Burial. They were in it together from the beginning.”

Goose Island Beer Co., which once created a beer with fellow Chicago representative Chance The Rapper, also teamed up with Run The Jewels four years ago to create a Belgian pale ale in time for the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival in their hometown. The popular two-man underground rap supergroup -- consisting of New-York-based rapper/producer El-P and Atlanta rapper/activist Killer Mike -- told Billboard that Goose Island approached them about collaborating, and that working with the brewery was “a blast.”

“We were their top choice, and they just came to us. We came down for the day and helped brew the beer, pour the hops in, tour the factory," El-P told Billboard. Goose Island also hosted the group at the brewery in 2015 as part of their Barrel House Sessions concert series.

Earlier this year, Run The Jewels began creating various versions of their Stay Gold IPA (named after a track on the group’s third album and debuted at this year’s Lollapalooza) with craft brewers like Brooklyn’s Interboro Spirits & Ales, Burial Beer Co. from Asheville, North Carolina, and Chicago’s Pipeworks Brewing Co. And they recently announced a run of Stay Gold popup events in October, when you can drink their beer with them in Asheville, Austin, and Atlanta.

It’s an interesting pairing: although Killer Mike and El-P are enjoying massive success from their musical team-up (and the resulting merch sales), RTJ is decidedly not a crossover rap group. Their gritty and unrelentingly revolutionary music speaks to fans of heavy-hitting, street-intelligent hip-hop that harkens back to the days of Public Enemy -- which is ironic, since P.E.’s lead emcee Chuck D once sued the former owner of St. Ides malt liquor for using his voice in advertisements without permission. The lawsuit served as proof that beverage companies need to think carefully about how and why they engage with creative property.

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That’s something Lenox Mercedes, founder of Atlanta-based entertainment programming and event marketing collective High Gravity Hip-Hop, also believes is critical. “Hip hop is the single most impactful thing in the history of the Earth,” he said. “It permeates every continent and its influence can be seen and heard from mainstream media to the underground clubs. It’s like the ocean -- it can take you places, it can soothe you, it can provide so much fun for you and your family, and it can turn on you in an instant, and drag you to your doom.”

“Respect the power,” he advised breweries considering hip-hop integrations. “Have reverence for the artistry. I wouldn't chug a beautifully crafted beer; I think it’s disrespectful. I would recommend not doing the equivalent to hip-hop. Taste responsibly.”

One example of crafting a hip-hopped beer with respect would be Dogfish Head Brewery’s Positive Contact fruit beer. Made with input from pioneering hip-hop producer Dan the Automator, it represents hip-hop’s funkier roots, with herbed-and-spiced flavors that include cilantro and cayenne pepper. Sure, it’s strange -- but people admire the concoction for its creativity, despite its lack of mass consumer appeal.

Obviously not all craft brewing companies can afford to experiment with such niche products, but in Dogfish Head’s case it showed a willingness to put the idea ahead of the potential for immediate profit. For a culture that started in New York City’s Bronx borough, with deejays borrowing power from residents’ homes to throw street parties scored by new songs built from recycled breakbeats, it was a refreshing approach.

Potter also chimed in on beer companies “biting” the style and credibility of rap music to introduce themselves to the audience, claiming that respect for hip-hop culture is of utmost importance. “I see a lot of cultural appropriation going on in craft beer, and it’s troubling. A lot of breweries are using rappers’ likenesses and lyrics, and other elements of black culture in their labeling, but aren’t concerned with giving anything back.”

Or, as Potter put it, “It’s gotta be about respect and appreciation for our patronage [of the brewery’s products]. Everyone has a voice now with the internet and social media, and they will take their ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ elsewhere if you don’t show them you want it.”

It may be a little early to starting calling most rappers "hop-heads," but hip-hop is moving forward when it comes to beer. Ever since Run DMC's unsanctioned (yet highly successful) shoutout of Adidas, corporations have realized that hip-hop isn’t just an influential cultural movement -- it drives consumer spending.

“Like any business,” Byron said, “if there is the chance to expand your market, broaden demographics, and ultimately make more money, it’ll catch on.”

Today, while you can still purchase a 40-ounce of St. Ides, that super-sized bottle of malt liquor has become an outdated throwback to the '90s. Hip-hop is growing up, and developing an inclusive palate for stouts, sours, IPAs, and more. It just might be an equal partner with beer in bringing more people together for good -- or at least, it’s worth seeing what might ferment.

“I would argue that almost anything is better with beer,” Baker said. “But hip-hop and beer are both similar in that they are both ‘of the people.’ Beer is universal; it’s refreshing; it’s complex; it’s simple. Hip-hop is the same. It’s the voice of the people in the same way that beer is the beverage of the people.”

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Note: Goose Island Beer Co. is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.