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WE ARE ALL BRANDS 

A. Gully's 'Witness' car and video ride the viral-to-backlash wave

It just might be the most famous 1987 Cutlass Supreme in the country right now. Dark black, 23-inch rims, Nike swoosh, the number 23 on each side and "Witness" spelled out in bright white letters on each door.

The Witnessmobile hit the web in local rapper A. Gully's homemade music video — a love song to LeBron, the Cavs and Cleveland. Gully (real name: Austin Briggs) went viral the past few weeks, with the video landing on just about every sports blog imaginable, local network news filing stories, and screaming and waving people on the street as he cruises around in the unofficial rolling Nike billboard.

Predictably, the initial wave of interest waned, and pretty soon the backlash started: insults about his rapping, cheap shots at the car, punny plays on Nike's catchphrase, like "We are all douchebags" aimed in Gully's direction. Why not? Gully presents an easy target. Young white rapper. Gimmicky video. Musically, not terrific.

If you knew that before the Witness paint job, the Cutty — which Gully bought for $1,000 — was decked out in an artistic homage to Rally's, you might think differently. No, really, it makes sense. See, Gully had a mixtape called You Gotta Eat, and the Kent State entrepreneurial major went about marketing himself the only way he could think of — by tying his brand to a more recognizable one. "I started driving it around, and eventually one of the Rally's franchise owners paid me," says Gully, 22. "Suddenly the car was in parades."

Marketing, baby. Branding. Creativity. Next step, tie himself to a bigger brand, or two — Nike and the Cavs. And a minor Internet sensation was born.

Look at the Witness car and all the recent attention. Yes, it comes off as a ploy. It has a one-hit-wonder flavor to it. Without the Cavs' success and the interminable days off following the sweeps of Detroit and Atlanta, maybe this story would have received a whole lot less attention. Even now, most media outlets have had their fill, the stories getting sparser by the day.

The collective memory of the Internet is pretty damn short, and once the playoffs are over, it wouldn't be all that surprising if we never heard from the Witness car or Gully again. The deck is stacked against anyone wanting to break into the rap game, so there's no need to delve into the obstacles Gully faces. Who the hell knows if he'll develop the talent and connections, and be graced with the luck, to make a name for himself in the music business.

It wouldn't surprise me, though.

As the Cavs square off against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Gully has just finished a week of finals at Kent State. Three grades in already — three As, right in line with his 3.88 GPA. He'll be a junior next year, but he's already the fundraising chair for Kent State's Collegiate Business Association.

So mock him all you want. The Witness video? Gully edited it himself, the first time he'd ever done that. The camera? Straight out of Rent-A-Center. The car? Probably the star, and the only reason most people are talking about the video. But that paint job was marketing genius.

That's probably not what Gully wants to hear. He wants to be known for his music, letting his rhymes do the work. He gets defensive when asked if he thinks the Witnessmobile is a gimmick.

It is and it isn't. It's a vehicle ­— literally and metaphorically. If that's what it takes to get people to listen to his raps, then so be it. It's freaking brilliant. And, not to ascribe too much to his former life as a Rally's ad, but when you have a track record of doing quirky things that people pay attention to, "gimmicky" stops being a derogative statement. It's an attribute.

When it's suggested that maybe the rap thing isn't going to work out for Gully, that maybe his KSU degree and marketing skills will be more useful one day, he dismisses the idea.

"I want to do the music thing," says Gully. "The creative part is what I love to do. A lot of kids that get into this, they don't know the business side. They don't know how to make deals or negotiate, and they fail. I want to control the destiny on the business side."

Luckily, he's got that set of skills locked up.

Despite all the exposure of the past couple of weeks, there's nothing much to report on Gully's music career. No new contacts from labels. No deals. He'll be all around Cleveland during the Magic series, driving the car, hosting parties and working. And to the naysayers, he says, "I hope they see the bigger picture. It wasn't just a one-time thing. We've got some spins on 107.9, and people knew me before the car. I'm working hard."

vgrzegorek@clevescene.com

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