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Nas x Hennessy
Nas joins Hennessy to celebrate hip-hop’s 50th Anniversary with a collaborative limited edition bottle on July 20, 2023 in New York CityPhotography Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Hennessy

Charting the history of Hennessy’s intimate relationship with hip-hop

As hip-hop celebrated its 50th anniversary, Hennessy released a limited edition bottle in collaboration with Nas – but the spirits brand’s relationship with hip-hop goes way back. Three decades, in fact

On 11 August 1973, at a birthday party taking place in the rec room of a block of flats in the west Bronx, New York City –  hip-hop was born. Here, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Clive Campbell – better known as DJ Kool Herc – was behind the decks, a Jamaican sound system, playing songs that would have filled the dancefloor in Kingston, predominantly soul and funk. But instead of playing the whole songs, he only played the funkiest bits; ‘the breaks’ or ‘breakbeats’ as they became known. This, along with Campbell’s rapping over the music, 50 years later, these breakbeats still define a genre that is now a global phenomenon and multi-billion dollar industry. One ‘back to school jam’, as they were known, spawned a musical revolution.

Hennessy has been part of this revolution for over three decades. First mentioned by Digital Underground in their 1990 song “The Humpty Dance”, Hennessy has since featured in the lyrics of over 4,000 tracks, making it the most name-checked brand in the history of hip-hop. “Hennessy” by 2Pac, “Hennessy n Buddah“ by Snoop Dogg and “One Dance” by Drake are just three examples. This summer, at the Hall des Lumières in New York, the spirits brand staged an event that paid tribute to its special relationship to hip-hop and celebrated 50 years of the genre. Hosted by Nas, the event saw the launch of the Hennessy VS collaboration with the rapper, which comprises a limited edition ‘HenNASsy’ cognac bottle, complete with a hand-written note from the icon.

In the wake of this party, which saw Nas himself take to the stage, Julie Nollet, the chief marketing officer at Hennessy, tells Dazed about the brand’s unique relationship with hip-hop.

Please can you introduce Hennessy’s relationship with hip-hop? How did this relationship begin and how has it evolved over the years? Can you tell me about Hennessy’s wider relationship with Black culture?

Julie Nollet: Hennessy’s relationship with hip-hop began long before the genre’s explosion into mainstream culture. Rooted in a genuine and profound connection with the Afro-American community, this love story traces back to the late 19th century and continued to blossom throughout the 20th century.

The foundation of this relationship was laid through the vision of Hennessy’s US partner, Schieffelin, who recognised the significance of supporting the Afro-American community. As early as the 20th century, Hennessy showed its commitment by becoming one of the first corporate sponsors of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), an organisation dedicated to civil rights and racial equality.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Hennessy took further strides in fostering a connection with the Afro-American community. It became one of the pioneering brands to advertise in publications like Ebony, a magazine that celebrated Black culture and achievements. Moreover, Hennessy made history by appointing Herb Douglas, an African-American Olympic champion and visionary, as the Vice President for Marketing, breaking barriers and setting an example for diversity and inclusion in the corporate world.

“Around 1990, Hennessy’s presence began to be recognised explicitly in the lyrics of iconic rappers ... Digital Underground gave a nod to Hennessy in their track ‘The Humpty Dance’, showcasing the brand’s growing prominence in the culture”

As time progressed, Hennessy’s involvement in the cultural fabric of the Afro-American community continued to deepen. It became more than just a beverage; it was embraced as a symbol of celebration, triumph, and unity. Consequently, it was only natural that hip-hop, which emerged as a potent form of artistic expression in the 1970s, would gravitate towards Hennessy as a representation of the community’s values.

Hip-hop, particularly rap music, found an organic connection with Hennessy. The genre, characterised by its raw storytelling and social commentary, valued authenticity and genuine experiences. As Hennessy had been a long-standing supporter of the Afro-American community, it resonated with the ethos of hip-hop.

In the early years of rap music, around 1990, Hennessy’s presence began to be recognised explicitly in the lyrics of iconic rappers. The legendary and pioneering band Digital Underground gave a nod to Hennessy in their track ‘The Humpty Dance’, showcasing the brand’s growing prominence in the culture. While hip-hop officially emerged in 1973, this early mention in 1990 exemplified the gradual intertwining of Hennessy’s image with the genre.

As time went on, Hennessy’s connection with hip-hop deepened even further. More and more rap artists name-dropped the brand in their verses, further solidifying its status as an icon in the world of rap music. The association between Hennessy and hip-hop became a testament to the shared values of the brand and the genre – authenticity, perseverance, and a celebration of culture.

What does it look like today, as hip hop turns 50?

Julie Nollet: As hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, the enduring and profound relationship between Hennessy and the genre stands out as nothing short of remarkable. Hennessy has been a steadfast companion, walking alongside the development of hip-hop culture, initially in the US and then spreading its influence across the globe. It swiftly became the drink of choice for numerous legendary artists, leaving an indelible mark on both the East Coast and West Coast scenes, eventually gaining popularity in Europe, Africa, and beyond.

Preserving the authenticity of this bond has always been a priority for Hennessy. Embracing creativity and urban art, the brand was among the first to collaborate with exceptional street artists to reimagine the design of the iconic VS bottle. Visionaries like Futura 2000, Kaws, Shepard Fairey, Vhils and Felipe Pantone have all lent their talents to this iconic series, elevating the brand’s connection to urban artistry.

Ten years ago, Hennessy solidified its partnership with the renowned rapper Nas, commemorating this milestone alongside the hip-hop community. As the brand now celebrates this landmark 50th anniversary, it proudly announces the global launch of its first-ever limited edition in collaboration with Nas, paying homage to one of the most respected and talented rappers of all time.

This limited edition serves as a true milestone for Hennessy, a testament to the brand’s unwavering dedication to hip-hop and its artistic expression. It also serves as a humble tribute to a culture that has evolved from a subculture in the early 70s to become the thriving force of contemporary pop culture worldwide. Through the decades, Hennessy’s connection with hip-hop has remained authentic, deepening its roots as it continues to inspire and be inspired by this transformative musical movement.

“The rhyme between ‘Hennessy’ and ‘Enemies’, famously referenced by Tupac, is just one example of the clever wordplay and associations that have further solidified Hennessy’s presence in the genre”

Hennessy features in the lyrics of so many hip-hop songs (over 4,000 isn’t it?) – why do you think this is?

Julie Nollet: The prevalence of Hennessy mentions in so many hip-hop songs can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, there is a genuine and organic love that has been nurtured over time. From the very inception of hip-hop, Hennessy has been embraced as the drink of choice by the community that played a significant role in the genre’s birth. This authentic connection has resonated deeply with rappers and artists, leading to frequent mentions in their music.

Additionally, Hennessy’s status as a luxury brand with a rich history and a strong commitment to traditional craftsmanship and terroir holds immense appeal. Rappers often seek to reference what they consider the finest and best in their songs, whether it’s fashion, cars, watches, or spirits. For many, Hennessy represents the epitome of excellence in the world of spirits, making it a natural subject for lyrical expression.

The name ‘Hennessy’ itself plays a fortuitous role in its prevalence within hip-hop. Being the creation of an Irish man in the Cognac region of France, the name possesses a pleasant sound that resonates across various languages, especially English. This linguistic harmony has contributed to its seamless integration into rap lyrics. The rhyme between ‘Hennessy’ and ‘Enemies’, famously referenced by Tupac, is just one example of the clever wordplay and associations that have further solidified Hennessy’s presence in the genre. Rappers have creatively woven the brand’s name into rhymes involving honesty, energy, recipe, and more, adding to its frequent appearance in their verses.

What are some of the most famous examples?

Julie Nollet: There are countless examples of Hennessy references in hip-hop, as it has become deeply intertwined with the culture. A few famous examples include of course the track ‘Hennessey’ by Tupac, ‘Hennessy n Buddah’ by Snoop Dogg, and the track ‘One Dance’ where Drake mentions Hennessy in the chorus. These are just a few examples, the list is limitless as Hennessy’s presence in hip-hop spans decades and continues to be celebrated by artists from different corners of the globe, making it an integral part of the genre’s cultural fabric. 

Is there anything that people would be surprised to know about Hennessy’s relationship with hip-hop?

Julie Nollet: The relationship between Hennessy and hip-hop is filled with intriguing and surprising facts. For us, this is always a question of encounters, meetings, and connections, and I was for instance amazed to learn the first track to mention Hennessy was by Digital Underground, considering that Tupac started as a dancer for the group. And in his just released album ‘Magic II’, Nas proudly mentions he was the one to introduce Tupac to Hennessy so the circle is complete!

Hennessy’s presence in hip-hop spans decades and continues to be celebrated by artists from different corners of the globe, making it an integral part of the genre’s cultural fabric”

The brand featured Black models in its ads very early on – can you tell me about this?

Julie Nollet: As previously mentioned, Hennessy’s commitment to supporting the Afro-American community began early on, and featuring Black models in early advertising is deeply rooted in the brand’s history and values. As one of the first brands to positively portray Black models in ads during the 1960s and 1970s, Hennessy showcased its dedication to diversity and inclusion, setting a positive precedent in the advertising industry.

This commitment to representation and support for communities has continued over the years. In the United States, Hennessy proudly launched the ‘Never Stop Never Settle’ campaign, highlighting Afro-American heroes who have made significant contributions to their respective fields. By celebrating their achievements, Hennessy further emphasises its belief in progress through culture and acknowledges the importance of recognising the diverse accomplishments of different communities.

Hennessy’s dedication to local communities extends beyond the United States. In Africa, the brand launched the ‘All I Need’ campaign, which spotlights successful entrepreneurs from various regions on the continent. By showcasing the achievements of these individuals, Hennessy reaffirms its belief in the power of culture and the significance of supporting and empowering local talents and businesses.

Hennessy’s commitment to progress through culture is a guiding principle that drives its actions globally. The brand understands its influence as one of the most powerful cultural icons worldwide and actively seeks ways to contribute positively to the communities it serves. For instance, during the pandemic, Hennessy launched the ‘Unfinished Business’ initiative in the US, demonstrating its commitment to supporting and uplifting communities during challenging times.

Under the global NBA partnership, Hennessy introduced the ‘In the Paint’ program showcasing the brand’s dedication to supporting local artists and revitalising basketball playgrounds in various parts of the world. By investing in local talents and providing vibrant spaces for communities to enjoy, Hennessy lives up to its raison d’être as a brand that believes in the power of culture and community.

Find out more about the Hennessy VS x Nas collaboration here.