How Hip-Hop and Cognac Fell in Love

This piece was originally written for Tastemade in November 2015.

Photo: Hennessy

Photo: Hennessy

Hennessy, Courvoisier, Martell, and Rémy Martin. These major cognac brands have set the scene in hundreds, if not thousands, of hip-hop and rap songs since the 1990s. But how did this digestif associated with stuffy aristocrats of fair complexions become the poster liquor for one of the most disenfranchised groups in America?

As with all French alcohol, location is key. Champagne is called sparkling wine if it’s not made in the Champagne province, and Cognac is just brandy if it’s not made in the tiny town of Cognac. When African-American soldiers were stationed in France during World War II, they developed a taste for cognac that would cross the ocean with them. Compared to the popular whiskey brands, many of which emblazoned Confederate paraphernalia on their bottles, cognac was much easier to swallow. Ironically, the introduction of scotch whiskey to post-war France brought about a massive dip in domestic cognac sales.

Photo: Master of Malt

Photo: Master of Malt

In 1997, while Americans bumped The Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous rap album referencing Remy Martin, the French town of Cognac was on the verge of ruin. Rising sales in America kept the town afloat until the boom that accompanied Busta Rhymes’ “Pass the Courvoisier” in 2001. Courvoisier sales spiked 30 percent due to the unprompted promotion and other cognac producers were eager to follow suit.

Throughout the early 2000s, many Cognac brands shifted focus from the once popular Asian and European markets to young, American consumers. Sponsoring and partnering with artists, in addition to the still pervasive free shout outs, made cognac a major player in U.S. bars, clubs, and music videos.

Here are a few of some of the most influential lines about cognac since the mid-1990s:

Nas “Represent” 1994

“So I guzzle my Hennessy while pulling on mad bl****”

Before anyone even starts rapping, Nas mentions Hennessy in the intro track on his Illmatic album. Several songs deep, he affectionately mentions the cognac again, nearly a decade before he would become the brand’s ambassador.

Wu-Tang Clan ft. Killah Priest “America” 1996

“Smoking a sp****, sippin cognac, God”

A bastion of the decidedly more political East Coast rap, even the Wu-Tang Clan wasn’t immune to the siren song of cognac.

The Notorious B.I.G. feat. Too $hort and Puff Daddy “The World Is Filled” 1997

“When the Remy's in the system, ain't no telling”

Due to Biggie’s death, this marks the most listened to reference to cognac at the time. The song sparked a noticeable uptick in hip-hop mentions of cognac and high-end champagnes.

Snoop Dogg “Hennessey and Buddah” 2000

“I pour a tall glass of Hennessy (want some?)”

No longer touting his gin and juice,  Snoop Dogg laid down this track for crossfaded fans everywhere. In 2012, Snoop would become an important part of Landy’s, a rival cognac, marketing team, likely the result of pouring too many tall glasses of straight Hennessy.

Busta Rhymes feat. Puff Daddy “Pass the Courvoisier” 2001

“Give me the Henny, you can give me the Cris/You can pass me the Remy, but the pass the Courvoisier”

With no payment or prompting whatsoever, this hit brought attention to less frequently mentioned cognacs like Courvoisier and Rémy Martin. The song’s effect on Courvoisier’s sales fostered the bond between cognac producers and hip-hop artists.

Missy Elliott “Pass That Dutch” 2003

Hpnotic in my drink/shake that a** until it stink

The Queen of Rap is back on the Billboard charts, but this 2003 club banger references Hpnotic, a blue elixir that should’ve stayed in the early 2000s. A mix of vodka, cognac, and “tropical fruits,” this syrupy sweet drink remained popular for several years.

Tupac feat. Obie Price “Hennessy” 2004 (1993-1996)

“Even the cops can't stop us, my enemies flip/When they see me drink a fifth of that Hennessy”

Yes, ‘Pac loved his Alize, but his obsession with Hennessy was unrivaled. Recorded in the mid-90s, but produced and released by Eminem in 2004, 2Pac throws major shade at Snoop Dogg’s gin and juice in favor of this very special cognac.

Kanye West “We Major” 2005

“Hypnotic for Henny, now n**** that's a chaser”

On this understated song on West’s sophomore album, Really Doe sings exclusively about drinking cognac during the song’s chorus. A few years later, after arriving arm in arm at the VMAs with Amber Rose and a bottle of Hennessy, West famously stole Taylor Swift’s microphone to declare the Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” the best video of all time.

Natalie Portman “Natalie’s Rap” 2006

“I don't sleep motherf***** off that 'gnac and the durban

When cognac references get so out of control that Lonely Island feels the need to parody it, however briefly, you know you’ve made it as a distilled wine product.

Ludacris “Wasted” 2010

“Apple juice and conjure make ‘em get naked”

In what is easily Ludacris’ worst mixtape ever, he heavily promotes his Conjure Cognac. A tried and true case of forcing something to be cool, no part of this song makes me want to pour some Conjure in a snifter.

Kendrick Lamar feat. Dr. Dre “The Recipe” 2012

“Let ‘em know I’m priority/Order me Hennessy”

Though snubbed by the Grammys, Lamar’s "m.a.a.d. city" provided a lyrical cadence atypically associated with the West Coast. For whatever reason, Hennessy still holds significant clout with young rappers, but few mention it as effortlessly.

Jay-Z on Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” 2014

“That D’Usse is the sh** if I do say so myself”

Whether he’s drinking it out of a Grammy or mentioning it in the first line of his verse on Beyoncés massive hit, it’s safe to say that D’Usse, Bacardi’s cognac, and Jay-Z have a solid relationship.

Fetty Wap “Trap Queen” 2015

“Remy Boyz got the stamp though”

Though Fetty Wap references his crew, Remy Boyz 1738, in the vast majority of his songs, the origin of the name is mysterious to most people. In their neighborhood, the most expensive bottle of alcohol you could buy was a Rémy Martin 1738, and the crew was named in an effort to emulate the quality and luxury of that particular bottle.