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Liquid Trouble

bottle Forget about Joe Camel. Instead, beware the St. Ides and watch for the Hurricane. The malt liquor industry, drunk on high-octane sales to the black hip-hop nation, sets its sights on the Latino youth market

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

A LITTLE MORE THAN a year ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a small article that should have sent shock waves through the Santa Clara Valley's Latino population. Never mind--few people in the valley read the St. Louis papers, and even if they did, fewer still would have recognized the article's significance. Its full effects, however, when finally felt, will almost certainly have a devastating impact in the back yards and bars of the barrios of the South Bay.

St. Louis­based Anheuser-Busch brewers announced that with the introduction of a new drink called Hurricane, it was entering the malt liquor sales wars in earnest.

Although Anheuser-Busch has long dominated the American beer industry with its flagship Budweiser and Bud Light brands, it has never quite mastered selling malt liquor. Despite eye-catching red and gold packaging, its King Cobra brand languishes fourth among malts both in the nation and in California, partly because of its laid-back advertising campaigns. But malt liquor's main customer base is among the impoverished classes of the inner city, an in-your-face culture that doesn't respond well to laid-back. Bringing in Hurricane under the slogan "Brace Yourself," Anheuser-Busch planned to change all that. "Hurricane has a more street-relevant imagery [than King Cobra]," an Anheuser-Busch spokesperson was quoted as saying. "We want it to be part of an attitude."

Often referred to on the street as "liquid crack," malt liquor is the dregs of American brews. Although it is packaged like beer and looks like it when poured in a glass, malt liquor's alcohol content is twice that of beer, and its concentration of corn syrup and other sweeteners serves to jack up the intoxication process. Even beer industry papers refer to malt liquor as "high octane." A 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, which in many circles is the standard serving for one drinker, has the same amount of alcohol as five shots of whiskey. "Throwing back a 40"--drinking it down in great gulps, as is the fashion--feels like someone standing behind you with a baseball bat, teeing off on the back of your head every time you take a swallow. You leave your brains on the pavement when you walk away. If you can walk away.

Malt liquor is also among the cheapest legal highs you can get. Selling in San Jose grocery and liquor stores for as little as $1.39 for a 40-ounce bottle, King Cobra, for example, goes for about the same price as soda water.

Malt-liquor drinking in the United States has been most often associated with the African-American community. Black consumption of all malt liquor brands in this country is estimated at 28 percent, but it is considerably higher for such high-profile malts as Olde English 800 and St. Ides. A marketing brochure for Olde English once noted that the product is "brewed for relatively high alcohol content (important to the ethnic market!)." And St. Ides ads almost exclusively feature African-American rap artists.

Some malt liquor marketers have purposely avoided the Latino market. A sales executive for Stroh's (Schlitz Malt Liquor, Champale, Colt 45, Mickey's) said last year in Beer Marketer's Insights, an industry newsletter, that marketing malt to Latinos doesn't work because while malt liquor is often positioned as the brew of outsiders, "Hispanic consumers seem to be more interested in becoming part of the American mainstream and not as much [in] being different or setting themselves apart."

The Santa Clara Valley's Anheuser-Busch distributor downplayed the local impact. "The South Bay is not a big malt-liquor market," says Mike Fox Jr., vice president and general manager of M.E. Fox. "It's not a large segment of our sales volume. There aren't a lot of marketing plans for this area."

If all this is the case, why should the introduction of Anheuser-Busch's Hurricane brand have any relevance to the Latino population of the Santa Clara Valley?

Well, the Stroh's executive erred when he described the Latino population as exclusively mainstream-oriented. American Latinos are a young population, with a median age nine years younger than non-Hispanic whites, with almost 30 percent under age 15. In the valley, a restless rebelliousness brews within a Latino youth population whose musical tastes run closer to rap than mariachi. Young Latinos define themselves in different ways, setting themselves apart, and they are ripe for the youth-targeted malt liquor campaigns.

More importantly, Latinos are expected to become the largest ethnic minority in the country by the year 2010, with a probable purchasing power of $188 billion a year. The chance that the malt liquor brewers would overlook such a market is practically nil.

Anheuser-Busch has proven itself to be a master at selling beer to the Latino market, where Budweiser "es el rey de cervezas." If the giant brewer can market malt liquor to Latinos in the same way it was marketed to African-Americans--and with the same success--then the other malt liquor dealers will surely follow.


The Cobra Strikes

IS MALT LIQUOR consumed mostly by African-Americans in the Santa Clara Valley? Take a tour of the grocery and liquor stores and carnicerías on San José's East Side, with its huge Latino population, and the conclusion might be different. Fully one-third of the available refrigerator shelf space is packed with malt liquor selections: St. Ides, Olde English, Mickey's, Hurricane, King Cobra. The stock is moving, and there's barely an African-American in sight. Somebody's buying it.

Stop for a while at the parking lot at the abandoned Pak 'N Pay Hardware Store on Story Road and King, and you will find out who.

A few steps to the west of the deserted store there is a bustling shopping center, complete with supermarket, bakery and a children's merry-go-round. Across the parking lot to the east is another busy center of commerce anchored by a liquor store and a fast-food restaurant. In the working-class Latino neighborhood behind, young men tinker with their cars, and children play underneath shade and fruit trees on manicured front lawns.

But here in the Pak 'N Pay Hardware parking lot, the old storefront warehouse sits vast and empty, marking time in the summer heat, gathering ghost-town dust, a silent, lonely guard over a decadent and slowly decaying territory. Like gold country strip miners, Pak 'N Pay took whatever riches it may have washed out of the area and abandoned the property to the elements. One of the last bits of open space on the east side, its gray, pitted desert sprawls alongside the blacktop dry river of Story Road. Weeds are littered with tossed-away pleasures; they reek of human waste. The July sun shows no pity, and among the handful of withering trees there is no place to hide from its stare.

A young Latino man lies crumpled in awkward sleep against the warehouse doors. This is not a homeless person seeking shelter--he's sleeping off a drinking binge. It's fairly easy to tell. Even in the mid-afternoon heat, homeless almost always find a piece of something, a jacket, an old rug, even a newspaper, to cover themselves. Drunks don't bother. A look at his hands curled stiffly over his chest confirms the suspicion. The brown skin of his fingers has swollen pink, so that the digits look as if they would burst if you poked them with a needle. It is a sign of the late stages of alcohol addiction, when the body is ravaged, is growing weary, is losing the fight. The man is 25, maybe, 30 at the most. How has he come to the late stages of anything?

"I have to walk through here every day to visit my ailing mother," a viejo tells us. "But I don't like it. They always stop me and ask me for money. And when I tell them I don't have it, they call me names. I am frightened of them."

The "they" he refers to is the scraggly coyote pack gathered in small knots in the shade between the Pak 'N Pay building and the food stamp pickup center next door. You do not notice them from the street, but they are always there. Los borrachos. The drunks. Furtive, ferret-eyed men with great shocks of hair, shifting back and forth on restless feet amid the alley shadows. They are constantly dispersing and realigning again, as if they have great and important business to attend to, but mostly they are just traveling from drink to drink.

They whistle sharply and call out a warning word in Spanish as strangers approach. Strangers mean no good here. Probably police. Still, the men make no effort to hide the yawning brown bottles of brew they are throwing back and downing in great gulps.

They assume that you are coming to do something about the empty building, to put something new there. "We need some jobs, man," they say through a translator, or in labored English. "We want to work." But that's bullshit. A line. If they are looking for jobs, why do they spend their days in the emptiness of this parking lot? "A good fiesta hall, a good place to dance and party," one of them says, grinning and showing a nimble step or two. "Hell no. A supermarket, that's what we need," another says. What are they talking about? The East Side abounds with dance halls, and there is a well-stocked supermarket within a hundred yards of where we are standing. Even their dreams are not based in reality.

On the way back to the car, we get the chance to see what these men have been drinking. The weeds and baked dirt in the alleyways are littered with empties, more than a dozen of them. 40s of King Cobra. Malt liquor.

liquor store
Our Lady of the Six Pack: In an East Side liquor store, the Virgin Mary finds some shelf space next to more secular wares.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

By the Numbers

WHAT ONE SEES evidence of in the Pak 'N Pay lot has been quantified by sociologists and social workers. The statistical evidence is irrefutable: There is a high rate of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems within America's Latino population.

Latino youth are particularly vulnerable. A South Bay study last year showed a strong relationship between the number of alcohol outlets, the prevalence of alcohol billboards and the incidence of violence and crime among the Latino youth population. A report to the Santa Clara County Latino Youth Forum earlier this year said that although Latino high school youth here are less likely to drink than white youth, "those who do drink tend to drink heavier than their white counterparts." That doesn't take into account the large number of Latino high school dropouts (at a rate of 50 percent in California as opposed to a 15 percent rate for African-Americans)--a group which has a higher drinking rate than students.

A distinct pattern of public drinking among Mexican-American men leads to a higher rate of alcohol-related violent deaths. While 2 percent of white and African-American deaths occur in bars, the figure is 12 percent for Mexican-Americans. One study of homicides determined that alcohol was found in the bloodstream of fully 70 percent of Mexican-American male victims between the ages of 25 and 35. A University of California Medical Center study indicated that alcohol was involved in twice as many deaths of Mexican-American males as those of whites.

"Drinking is accepted within the Latino culture," says José Flores, a counselor in the East San Jose office of Stride, a county-funded program providing services to prevent drug and alcohol abuse. "It's culturally based. It's been around forever. Latinos drink within the family structure, within a religious context. It's used in festivities, even in funerals. Many Latinos start drinking at home; I remember having a couple of sips of beer when my Dad would come home. It's not like drug abuse. Especially among new immigrants and first-generation Latinos, drug abuse is a huge stigma. But alcohol--that's acceptable. And that's what makes it such a problem when it's abused."

Flores, who holds a master's degree in social work from San Jose State University, has worked in the field for more than 10 years. He says there is nothing wrong with drinking, just with it not being handled properly. And, he says, that happens far too often among Latinos.

Rogelio Balderas, a program analyst for Santa Clara County's Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs Prevention Division, agrees. "Hispanics tend to drink to excess," Balderas says. "We don't drink to have a good time; we drink to get drunk." In Mexico, he says, that is less of a problem than in the United States. "In Mexico, people drink por quinceña, every 15 days, that is, every paycheck. You drink your little bit of money off, you get drunk, you sleep it off, you go back to work. But here in the United States, people get paid more often. They get paid more money. The alcohol's more accessible. So when Mexican immigrants bring with them the same type of drinking habits they had in Mexico, it gets accelerated."

The Drinko for Cinco

SOME CRITICS BELIEVE that part of the problem of alcoholism in the Latino community is that alcohol companies are appropriating elements of the culture, turning it to their own benefit.

"The alcohol companies are trying to take over Latino culture by sponsoring festivals and institutions," says Felix Alvarez, a theater and music professor at Santa Clara University and the National Hispanic University and one of the organizers of San José's anti-alcohol Teatro de los Pobres. "They give scholarships to Latino educational institutions, they give grants to civic groups like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, they give 'Hispanic Achievement Awards' and then do full ads on the awards in the Hispanic press to make sure we all know about it.

"The alcohol companies don't do this because they love us," he adds. "They do this for two reasons: one, so that Latino culture will be closely associated with drinking, and two, so that Latino organizations will be less likely to speak out against drinking."

Alvarez says one example is the sponsorship of the Cinco de Mayo festivals by Budweiser Beer. This formerly staid, military-oriented celebration has, with the active prodding of beer company sponsorships, recently passed St. Patrick's Day as the No. 1 occasion for alcohol consumption in the United States. Not coincidentally, rock- and bottle-throwing melées leading to numerous arrests have tarnished Cinco festivals in both San Jose and Los Angeles in recent years.

Others believe that the problem is the saturation of alcohol ads in the Latino community, manipulating national, religious and sexual images in order to induce Latinos to drink.

Maria Alaniz
Industry Malt Practice: Maria Alaniz, a member of San Jose's Human Rights Commission, says malt-liquor advertising is "the most lowlife" alcohol advertising--the worst of a manipulative lot.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

San Jose State professor Maria Alaniz, currently on a one-year sabbatical, says such ads are nearly impossible to escape in the barrio. Hard-liquor commercials continued on Spanish-language television even while the liquor industry was voluntarily keeping them out of the rest of the media. And one recent study organized by Alaniz in Redwood City, Union City and Gilroy showed that the typical Latino student in those cities passed between 10 and 61 billboard liquor ads each day on the way to school.

In the darkened ninth-floor Berkeley offices of the Prevention Research Center, where she works, Alaniz presents a slide show of billboard and liquor store poster ads, all taken in the South Bay.

Some alcohol companies expropriate Latino national or cultural symbols, surrounding themselves with Latin American flags, architecture, party symbols such as piñatas, or food items like tortillas or jalapeño peppers. A Budweiser ad repeats the popular Mexican nationalist saying: "Como Mexico no hay dos" (there's only one Mexico), and then replies, "Como Budweiser tampoco" (Budweiser, too). Miller stirs the pot of Mayan nationalism, reprinting a Mexican map with pre-Columbian borders. Corona puts Mexican clothes on a parrot, sticks a bottle of beer in each claw, and has it alternately shouting ¡Viva Mexico! or proclaiming its beer as "the Drinko for Cinco."

Other ads, almost breathtaking in their brazenness, try to enlist God's aid. An ad for Felipe II whiskey shows a priest, full glass in hand, blissfully eyeing heaven, from which a soft light has descended to bathe his enraptured face. "Tomarle no es pecado" reads the copy. To drink is not a sin. Cuervo Gold aligns itself with one of the sacred religious symbols of Old Mexico, placing a margarita blender on top of a Mayan pyramid.

But most of the ads use sex as a selling point, some double-dipping with patriotic themes. Coors dresses a smiling, curvy woman in a swimsuit, upon which is printed a Mexican map. Budweiser shows a group of guerrilleras modeled after the heroines of the 1905 Revolution, but now with their shirts thrown away and only criss-crossing cartridge belts to partially cover bare breasts. But more often the Latino-oriented liquor ads rely strictly on straight sex with no chaser. Slide after slide shows long-legged, long-haired women with half-exposed bosoms and hiked skirts, often alone in bars, obviously waiting for a man.

Alaniz explains the special significance of such ads to Latino men. "In Latino culture, if a woman is alone in a bar, it means she's not worthy of respect," she says. She pauses, considering her words carefully. "It means she's a whore. They're filling our communities with images of whores."

A member of the San Jose City Human Rights Commission, Alaniz has done a series of research projects on alcohol advertising and the Latino community and is considered an expert in a field where little work has been done.

"The advertising campaigns of alcohol industry aimed at the Latino population is insulting our culture and history," she says. She blinks and her voice drops to an almost plaintive whisper as she says the word "insulting." Dispassionate and rigorously academic in her writing, articulate and quietly forceful in her public presentations, she allows this one unintended insight into the depth of her emotion on this subject.

If she seems to take this personally, there is a reason. Alaniz grew up in a Mexican-American community in Stockton, where her family home stood behind the neighborhood bar. "I saw it firsthand," she says. "I heard all the noise. I saw the men walk home and beat their wives in their front yards. I saw men fighting and shooting each other. This bar was a magnet for the men. They were mostly farm workers, and I saw them work hard all week and then go out on the weekend and spend their whole paychecks on alcohol. I saw all the harm alcoholism causes in a community and in a family. I saw all of that stuff as a kid, and it's deeply imprinted in me. That's why I'm committed to this work."

Alaniz sees the alcohol advertising campaigns both as an attack upon Latina womanhood and an attempt to "commodify" Latino culture. "They come to the Latino community pretending to be great friends of the culture," she says. "But underneath they are reshaping Latino culture, altering it for their own benefit, so that the culture can better serve only one thing: the consumption of alcohol."

Of all the alcohol ads, Alaniz says that those produced by the malt liquor companies were "the most lowlife." Her study turned up many such ads in the South Bay.

"Malt liquor ads are raunchier than rest," she says. "If a beer ad puts a woman in spandex, the malt liquor ad puts them in leather, often astride a can or a bottle. They are the worst."

She points to the slide photograph of an Olde English ad taken inside a liquor store in Redwood City's barrio earlier this year, a picture of a black-dressed Latina against a tiger-striped background. The tiger is one of the advertising symbols for Olde English. "El Tigre te desea," the ad copy reads. The Tiger desires you. The tiger-striped backgrounds seems to undulate and pulsate, like living flesh.

Nationalism Is Fair Game

A SPOKESPERSON for Bromley & Associates, the San Antonio Latino advertising agency that handles several Anheuser-Busch ads, says that the agency is prohibited from commenting on anything connected with the A-B's advertising campaigns. And representatives for Stroh's and Anheuser-Busch failed to respond to repeated telephone messages requesting that they comment on their malt liquor marketing policies.

But Octavio Emilio Nuiry, an independent Latino marketing executive, says he has no particular problem with the way alcohol companies are marketing their products to Latin Americans.

In the past, Nuiry has been highly critical of the way U.S. advertisers have approached the Latino market. He is a Cuban-American journalist who worked in the public relations field for years and presently owns his own marketing firm in Long Beach. Last year, Nuiry wrote an article for Hispanic Magazine titled "Ban the Bandito!" which took advertisers to task for using stereotyped Latino images.

But Nuiry says that Latino-targeted alcohol ads are "quite good; they're put together by very clever people. ... A line can be crossed, of course, if the ads are done crudely or with a lack of respect for the culture," he explains. "But using Latin American flags and national symbols is fine. Look, I'm Cuban. If Budweiser did a very good ad of Cuba, I'd be proud of it. Advertising is driven by emotion, and nationalism is a strong emotion. It's fair game."

Nuiry laughs at the Felipe II priest ad and doesn't consider it blasphemous.

"No, this ad is very funny," he says. "Sometimes there is a humor to things that other people might not understand, but Spanish-speaking people, they won't miss the punchline. There's a tradition in the Catholic Church of priests drinking, even being alcoholics. Americans are appalled by this, but you can't look at it from an American point of view. America is a conservative society."

Nuiry says that the Latino-owned advertising agencies which produced some of these ads had "a certain amount of moral responsibility owed" to the Latino community not to create advertisement that was detrimental to the community. "Every ad agency should have some moral fiber and some limit to what they will do. But they also owe it to their clients to produce good work." He says that the greater problem is Latino agencies being left out of campaigns that targeted the Latino community, and says that he would even do malt liquor ads himself "if I didn't have any money coming in from anything else."

A Family Thing

MARIA ALANIZ says it is only partially true that Hispanic consumers do not want to separate themselves from the mainstream. Earlier groups of Latinos migrating to the United States were interested in assimilating into the mainstream, and that's where ads for beers like Budweiser and Miller have traditionally been targeted. "But a lot of younger Latinos are not into assimilation," she says. "There's a spirit of rebelliousness, with things like tattoos, lowriding and gang affiliations. They believe assimilation is not going to happen. It's a volatile situation. They're very susceptible to what malt liquor will throw at them."

It does not take much research to find out how true this is.

Four young Latinos sit around a conference table at an East San José youth center, trading quickly flashed smiles with looks of serious contemplation. Two men and two women, all in their early 20s. They don't look like "at-risk youth," to use the popular phrase--more like bright, well-adjusted kids dealing with the normal problems of growing up in the '90s. But they live in dangerous times. Their counselor has only granted the interview on the basis that their names and the location of the center may not be used. Talking about the drinking situation in their communities could get them in real trouble with their families or their peers.

They described a youth culture where drinking is as normal as mother's milk.

What percentage of their friends drink, they are asked. They shrug. All of them, they reply. All of your friends? Each one nods.

One young woman says she was just a little girl when her aunt started giving her sips of Kahlua, a Mexican coffee liqueur. "It made me sick," she says. "But after a while, I got used to it." One of the young men had a similar story; an older relative started him drinking beer at the age of 4. "Drinking's always around," one of them explains. "You always see it at weddings and family parties and things; the old people are always doing it. My aunt gave me a bottle one time and told me that if I was going to drink, I needed to stay at home and drink. That way I wouldn't get in trouble. Drinking is a family thing."

One of the women, married, pregnant and proudly proclaiming that she's been clean and sober for many months, says she began buying alcohol at liquor stores in East San Jose when she was 14. She still looks young enough to have to show her ID but says that was never a problem. "You always know which stores to go in," she explains, "which ones will let you slide. I even had a bar I could go to when I wanted."

The young people say that while some East Side liquor stores sold to minors willingly, others were intimidated into doing so. "We do these beer rushes," one of the young men explains. "We get a bunch of kids together, and we'll just rush the place. Take all the beer you can hold and run back out. The clerks are so scared, they're afraid they'll get beat down, so they don't do nothing. And next time you go there, they don't even card you." He says that many times police observing such gangs walking the streets in East San Jose will simply disperse them, ignoring open cans and bottles of beer. Throughout the interview, this particular young man uses several phrases associated with African-American street slang. "Beat down." "Homeboys." Spoken in a Spanish accent they stand out sharply, like road signs marking the place where a cultural boundary has been crossed.

Leaving the interview, one of the women turns on the radio in the main office. It's KYLD, a rap station, and one or two of the young folks begin doing the familiar bounce to the hip-hop music. This could be East Oakland or East Palo Alto, rather than East San Jose. I ask them to name their favorite Latino rappers, and they hesitate. One girl shrugs, giving up the effort. "It's not like that," she says. "It ain't Latino or black, or nothing like that. It's all mixed in together."

beer ad
Hip-hopped Up

THERE DOES NOT seem to be a precise definition of rap and hip-hop, though there is general agreement that hip-hop is the young, inner city, African American-driven culture, while rap is the music that describes it. Although only a handful of Latino rappers have done malt liquor commercials, the rap/hip-hop connection is the key to understanding how malt liquor advertising has already penetrated the Latino youth market.

"They don't really need a lot of Latino rappers to push malt liquor," says Oakland researcher Makani Themba. "They can get to young Latino consumers in other ways." She has studied the malt-liquor advertising issue for the past six years, first as a media policy specialist with the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems, a private organization located in San Rafael, and now as co-director of the Oakland-based Praxis Project, a media and policy advocacy group in such areas as environmental justice and violence and substance abuse prevention. [Themba, the ex-wife of this article's author, is used as a source because of her standing in the field. --Editor]

"Hip-hop is not stratified along racial lines in the same way as the rest of the country," Themba says. "Advertisers have turned hip-hop into a single, multicultural market, with black kids as the 'opinion leaders.' It's called the 'hip-hop nation.' When they get black rappers to do ads for malt liquor, they're reaching black kids, Latinos and everybody else who identifies with the music."

She backs up her opinion with a reference to a November 1996 American Demographics article, "Marketing Street Culture: Bringing Hip-Hop Style to the Mainstream," which lists such trendy, high-style mass merchandisers as Tommy Hilfiger and Estee Lauder as riding along in the hip-hop wagon to sell their wares, and citing figures that more than 50 percent of American consumers ages 12 to 20 either "like or strongly like" rap music.

Themba says Olde English first made the jump into hip-hop, but it was St. Ides that moved in and set the identity of malt liquor as what she calls the "gangsta drink of choice, the brew of alienation."

In the early '90s, the rap pendulum took a dangerous swing from the "wave your hands in the air, and party till you just don't care" East Coast to the more raw and violent "fuck tha police" West Coast. Crack had ravaged South Central Los Angeles, dredging up a breed of teenage African-American hoodlums with practically nothing to live for. West coast gangsta rap groups and rappers like Tupac Shakur, NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dog came out of this element.

With a huge leap of corporate faith, St. Ides signed up a core of these young, chip-on-their-shoulder, immature and sometimes even mentally unstable rappers to be the spokespersons for their brand. One rapper, Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boyz, was signed up almost immediately after one of his eyes was almost blasted out in a suicide attempt. Amazingly, the horrific injury was glorified in the ad itself, with Bushwick rapping, "Bushwick on the bo' with a blow to the eye show."

"What other major American commodity producer was going ask these kinds of people to do ads?" Themba asks. "Hawaiian Punch?"

Rather than trying to dilute gangsta rap's hard edge by giving them studio-written lines, St. Ides turned the rappers loose, allowing them to create their own copy. In the first half of the '90s, St. Ides rap ads reflected gangsta rap's gross immorality, linking malt liquor with drug use, underage drinking, misogyny, violence, gang activity and irresponsible sex. Eric B. and Rakim labeled the drink "bold like a Smith and Wesson" and Erick and Parrish called on their homies to "hit the bozak [gun] while I take a sip." In a television ad, Snoop Doggy Dog rapped, "I just come through the door with a box of 4-0's [40 ounces]. 40's just a bounce and a house full of whores." The word "whores" (pronounced "hoes"), an obviously derogatory gangsta rap term for women, was bleeped out in the television ad. But the rhyming reference was too obvious to miss and, in case it might have been, the camera lingered on the figure of a young black woman while the bleep was heard.

Yo-yo, a female performer reportedly under drinking age when she made the ad, rapped, "St. Ides in the house. Ladies try this. Puts you in the mood. Makes you wanna oooh!" But the prize for both underage and sexual explicitness went to O'shea Jackson, the Los Angeles gang member, now movie star, rapping under the name Ice Cube. "Please pass the bottle, cause I've been drinking ever since I could swallow," he said in one commercial. "And when she sees that black can and the trees, it makes her talk about the birds and the bees," he said in another. "Drink St. Ides and her boots are ass out [she'll be ready for sex]." And in another, this one aired on African-American­oriented television, Ice Cube just cut to the chase: "Get your girl in the mood quicker, get your jimmy thicker, with St. Ides malt liquor."

The ads provoked outraged protests. In some African-American communities, malt liquor billboards and posters were defaced. St. Ides commercials were publicly criticized by the U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Consumer Protection Commission and drew fines from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the New York State Attorney General's Office. One of the largest complaints was that by using a music form, rap, which was heavily popular among teenagers, St. Ides was directly targeting underage drinkers.

But the trend had been set.

"Before the St. Ides ads began in the early '90s," Themba says, "binge drinking was not a facet of young African-American life. In only a few years, they turned that completely around. Now when you think of rap or inner city black kids, you think of a malt liquor 40."

Several of the other malt liquors followed St. Ides' lead, making their ads and commercials, in Maria Alaniz' words, "raunchier." Colt 45 began an advertising campaign called "It Works Every Time." One of the print ads in the series showed an African-American woman down on all fours, with a can of Colt 45 hovering directly behind her. It did not take much imagination to get the inference.

Not coincidentally, malt liquor sales increased dramatically during the same period. While malt liquor comprises less than 5 percent of the beer market, it is the fastest-growing segment. In the early '90s, malt liquor sales increased almost 25 percent compared to a 5 percent growth rate in beer sales overall.

As other malt liquors adopted St. Ides' explicit strategies, St. Ides' problems rubbed off on them as well. Stroh's was forced to stop the manufacture of its malt liquor "gripper" bottle after African-American groups complained that "gripper" was a gang name for an enforcer. And Stroh's is currently under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for promoting its Schlitz Malt Liquor to the underage television market, with the probe also targeting Miller Beer and possibly Anheuser-Busch as well.

Some rappers have revolted against the trend to equate rap with malt. Public Enemy's Chuck D has consistently criticized malt liquor marketing and consumption, particularly with respect to young blacks. In a song called "1 Million Bottlebags," he rapped, "What is Colt 45, another gun to the brain?"

Steve Zul is another, less well-known rapper who has attacked the connection between rap and malt liquor. Under the stage name "Cricket," Zul writes and performs with the underground California Latino hip-hop group Aztlan Nation.

"My main complaint is that they're marketing malt liquor in the lower-income areas, but not the upper-income," Zul says. "It's detrimental to impoverished people. They're already down and out; they've got enough problems. A couple of 40s and then you're tore up, and then somebody's fighting. I drink malt liquor myself on occasion, so I know. But I won't promote it. It's pretty disgusting."

In a rap called "Dead Gringo Malt Liquor" on their first CD, Aztlan Nation parodied what a malt liquor ad would sound like if it were advertised to a white, suburban audience:

"Twist the cap as I bust this rap. Dead Gringo Malt Liquor has a taste that's phat. But you won't find it in a barrio or ghetto. Dead Gringo Malt Liquor is just for the wettos [a derogatory term]. Rednecks, yuppies and skinheads love to toss back a 40 and chug-a-lug."

But Aztlan Nation records don't get played on KMEL or KYLD, the most popular rap stations in the Bay Area. Instead, what you mostly hear is Kid Frost and Cypress Hill, two national Latino rap groups, and other rappers who have embraced malt liquor as the hip-hop national drink.

Malt Assault

FRIDAY NIGHT in East San José, in the Newberry parking lot across Story Road and King from Pak 'N Pay, Latino kids are cruising in their lowriders. From several car stereos and boom boxes, Cypress Hill's "Latin Lingo" is blasting, glorifying violence and getting high, just like their African-American counterparts:

"Hey homes, pass the cerveza, before I have to go and push up on your resa. Here, homes, have a hit of this yesca [a mixture of marijuana and cocaine]. Nowadays, you ain't shit without your cuete [gun]. Sometimes it's like a gangbang, vatos get it, BANG BANG."

In the corner of the parking lot, a huddle of teenage boys and girls take turns on drinks from 22-ounce bottles hidden in a couple of brown bags. They are drinking St. Ides Special Brews, malt liquor fruit drinks, especially attractive to underage drinkers because of their sweet taste, low price and high kick.

And earlier this year, posters for Anheuser-Busch's Hurricane Malt Liquor began appearing in liquor stores and groceries in San José. They show an luscious Afro-Latina, dark and inviting, long hair blowing in a tropical wind, jeans shorts ripped to the top of her long, black thighs, standing next to a bottle of malt brew. "Bebe esto y yo voy contigo," she seems to be saying. Drink this and I'm with you. Alcohol stirred by sex, a witch's brew.

The malt liquor assault upon the valley's Latino community has begun in earnest. As the Hurricane ads say, brace yourself.

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From the July 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro.

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