Zack O'Malley Greenburg – Who Killed the Jay-Z Jeep?
Adapted from a chapter in the Jay-Z biography EMPIRE STATE OF MIND: HOW JAY-Z WENT FROM STREET CORNER TO CORNER OFFICE. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Zack O'Malley Greenburg, 2012.
“That deal was the most fucked-up deal that I’ve ever seen or heard of,” says Michael Berrin, better known as MC Serch of 3rd Bass, with an intensity that makes me think he’s about leap out of my phone and into my office. “I came to Jay-Z with the automobile industry in my back pocket to do a Shawn Carter edition vehicle that he approved, only to have the automobile industry basically shoot it down for fear that he was a bigger star than the car.”
Just as he’s about to explain what happened, Serch is interrupted by the blare of a cell phone (the ringtone, fittingly, is Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”). When I press him for more details about the vehicle, he tells me that it was going to be a “Jay-Z Jeep” painted “Jay-Z Blue.” Then he starts to say something else, but stops short.
“That’s really a Marques McCammon question,” he says. “I haven’t spoken to Marques in a long time.”
Jay-Z’s ability to make money by attaching his name to products is one of his greatest strengths as a businessman, and it’s especially important given the ever-declining numbers in the record industry. In 2012, the year after Empire State of Mind went to press, he pulled in $38 million—less than one quarter of which came from album sales. Over the past few years, Jay-Z has shilled for Reebok, Hewlett-Packard, and Budweiser; in the wake of my chat with Serch, it was clear that Jeep was slated to join that list until something went wrong.
Finding out what happened to the Jay-Z Jeep starts with Jay-Z Blue, a color dreamed up by Jay-Z and marketing guru Steve Stoute. A decade ago, they approached industrial designer Adrian Van Anz with the idea of creating a shade to trademark as Jay-Z’s own. Van Anz, creator of the vodka-cooled computer and jewel-encrusted iPod, happily obliged by creating a reflective, silvery medium-blue color with a dash of platinum dust. “Gave it a little bit of my personality,” Jay-Z reportedly joked. “I’m known for platinum.”
“Jay-Z Blue is a license for corporations to get Jay-Z in the building,” Stoute told Rolling Stone in 2005. “Cars, laptops, lots of different things. I got deals lined up like you don’t understand.”
The Jay-Z Jeep seemed to be the car in question. But after three months of pestering industry sources and trying to reach Marcus McCammon, I wasn’t getting anywhere. And so, on a sunny spring day, I found myself at the front desk of a nondescript office building in San Diego, paying a surprise visit to my last hope for clarity on the Jay-Z Jeep.
“I’m here to see Marques McCammon,” I tell the receptionist brightly.
“Is he expecting you?”
Five minutes later, a stocky man in his late thirties ambles in and introduces himself as Marques McCammon.
“The skinny,” he says, “is this.”
He lowers himself into a seat across the table from me.
“I was in the process of having some discussions with Jeep … They were trying to skew a little bit younger, they were getting ready to launch the Jeep Commander, the first seven-passenger Jeep to hit their portfolio. It was supposed to be the granddaddy of the Jeeps, the most luxurious.”
McCammon’s first conversations with Jeep and parent Chrysler took place in late 2004, as part of his job at American Specialty Cars, a company often hired by Detroit automakers to make quirky-looking models like the throwback pickup Chevy SSR.
Hoping to secure a contract from Chrysler to produce a souped-up version of the Jeep Commander, McCammon asked the well-connected Serch what it would take to get Jay-Z to lend his name to the vehicle. “Serch was like, ‘Yeah, it’s gotta be the top of the line, it has to be the best of the best,’” McCammon recalls.
McCammon took the idea back to the executives at Mopar (short for “Motor Parts”), the automobile parts and services arm of Chrysler. With their blessing, he would have Serch reach out to Jay-Z and start the process of agreeing on terms and picking specs for the vehicle. But getting approval from the Chrysler brass proved to be tougher than McCammon had anticipated. “I probably went to four different executive-level meetings with directors and VPs inside of marketing at Chrysler,” he says. “I spent most of the time just trying to break down the stereotypes or the misconceptions of Jay’s evolution as a person.”
McCammon persisted, arguing that a Jay-Z Jeep would be the best way to rejuvenate the brand’s image. By the beginning of 2005, he’d prevailed upon Chrysler’s executives and Serch had convinced Jay-Z’s camp to take a meeting in Detroit. The duo started brainstorming the vehicle’s specs: butter-cream leather seats, twenty-two-inch chrome wheels, and a digital entertainment system preloaded with all of Jay-Z’s songs. The color? Jay-Z Blue.
According to McCammon, negotiations for Jay-Z’s up-front fee were to start at $1 million, plus up to 5 percent of every Jay-Z Jeep sold. With its impressive list of specs, the vehicle would have retailed for about $50,000, in the neighborhood of what a normal Jeep Commander would cost with all options included. The initial run of one thousand vehicles was projected to earn Jay-Z $2,500,000 in total—and exponentially more if it enjoyed the mainstream success that McCammon and Serch expected—all for simply lending his name to what was, quite literally, a cross-promotional vehicle. Says Serch: “It would have been a home run.”
The week before Jay-Z was set to fly to Detroit to seal the deal, McCammon called Chrysler to confirm. But in the days after McCammon convinced the company’s executives of Jay-Z’s legitimacy, there had been a reshuffling of management. The new boss didn’t want anything to do with Jay-Z, a former drug dealer, despite appeals from McCammon.
“We kind of got brushed off,” McCammon recounts. Serch puts it less diplomatically. “The automobile business is run by elitist white men who are very scared of losing their power, who would rather see the whole thing crumble and fall apart than to give up their power.”
In January of 2007, just two years after the collapse of the Jay-Z Jeep deal, General Motors hosted a gaudy gala on the eve of the North American International Auto Show in a gigantic tent on the shores of the Detroit River. A procession of celebrities, including Carmen Electra and Christian Slater, escorted new vehicles down a brightly lit runway. But the star of the show was the man who emerged from a GMC Yukon—none other than Jay-Z—who received a seven-figure check for his efforts.
Like its conceptual predecessor, the Jay-Z Blue Yukon never made it to the streets. But that doesn’t mean Jay-Z’s dealings with Detroit were a failure. Yes, Chrysler backed out of the Jeep deal, and GM never planned to actually sell a Jay-Z-branded vehicle. But in the end, Jay-Z was paid a heap of money to simply walk out of an automobile.
Perhaps by that point, he’d decided there wasn’t a future for Jay-Z Blue anyway, and the Yukon deal was the best he could get. As Warren Buffett has said, “Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”
Jay-Z was wise not to spend too much time on the latter.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg is a staff writer at Forbes, and, as his last name suggests, a real O.G. This piece is adapted from his freaking amazing book EMPIRE STATE OF MIND: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner To Corner Office, released in paperback this past summer by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Zack O'Malley Greenburg, 2012, son.
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