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Chris Lighty, CEO of Violator Entertainment, whose clients include 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes, is looking at ways that record companies can work with artists in one area where rappers have been innovative: endorsement and branding. Whether it's 50 Cent owning a stake in Vitamin Water or Jay-Z doing a commercial for HP, most of these deals have been brokered by the artists' own camp. But Lighty sees in hip-hop a chance for record labels to generate more sponsorship and endorsements. "Record companies are going to have to make even better records and participate in brand extension. It's the only way they can survive," says Lighty. "We need to change the format, and this is the only way. 50 Cent is a brand. Jay-Z is a brand."
But the current hubbub over indecency poses a direct challenge to that brand strength, as the artist Akon recently discovered. While performing in Trinidad, Akon was videotaped dancing suggestively with a fan who was later revealed to be only 14. The video attracted the ire of conservatives like Bill O'Reilly. In the wake of the controversy, Akon's tour sponsor, Verizon, removed all ringtones featuring his work and retracted its sponsorship. The message was clear: Hip-hop needs a new and improved product.