So Jay-Z has officially changed his name to Jay Z, presumably to play havoc with everyone’s iTunes. Will that matter? What if ‘Z’ gets filed as a surname? The chaos could be apocalyptic. Whatever his reasons, this is just the latest incident in a long-running series of artists annoying editors and chart compilers by switching identities. It’s an inexact science, sometimes subject to mere whim, sometimes a question of refreshing a tired ‘brand’, but it’s been going on for decades.
Hip-hop artists are particularly keen to change it up, from The Game dropping his ‘The’ to little discernible effect, to Dre becoming Andre 3000 to avoid obvious confusion. Occasionally you get a crazed individual like Ol’ Dirty Bastard flitting about from Dirt McGirt to Big Baby Jesus, or Mos Def flipping to Yasiin Bey just because he can, but the king of the hip-hop name-change is Diddy. Or Puff Daddy. Or P Diddy. Or ‘Poofy’, if you’re Mel B. It’s a gamble with your fame but also a way to command the headlines even when you’re doing the square root of, um, diddy-squat. Just don’t do a Gucci Mane and announce your new title Guwop online, before reversing within half an hour when everyone calls you a berk.
What better than a new moniker to emphasise a switch in style? Snoop Dogg’s the don here, becoming Snoop Lion a year ago in tribute to his new Rasta roots. He’s even just about maintained the hits, proving the enduring allure of the Snoop brand. Past masters in changing name to delineate style (and a revolving series of band members) were Jefferson Airplane, who embraced the stellar age with a jump to Jefferson Starship before dropping the Jefferson altogether in the 80s to show they had no truck with that psychedelic nonsense anymore and were going to hit us with glossy, cheesy FM rock. A change isn’t always for the better.
The writing was on the wall in 1986 when synth new-wavers Ultravox unofficially rechristened themselves U-Vox. Sure, that was just the title of the album, but the branding was so all-encompassing it was impossible to escape the impression they were going ‘yoofspeak’ like an embarrassing dad. With no single breaking the top 20, Midge Ure was out the door with the ‘ltra’. On a similar tip, and around the same time, Duran Duran were dropping a ‘Duran’ from their artwork, and losing the hits with it. Bang up to date, only this year we’ve seen Jermaine Jackson attempting to grab the news agenda by altering his name to Jermaine Jacksun. No, us neither.
Conversion to Islam in 1977 saw Cat Stevens ditch one name he wasn’t born with in favour of another, Yusuf Islam. It would be nearly 30 years before he tried it out in the pop charts and it came – nearly – good, his comeback album ‘An Other Cup’ just missing out on the US top 50. Rather more barking reasons led to 80s ego-on-legs Terence Trent D’Arby becoming Sananda Maitreya, after a series of dreams in the mid-90s. The hits had dried up but he gave them a coating of dust anyway, releasing albums independently online. Of course, they may have sold millions. But probably not.
An alarming phrase, but back in 1972 it had lucrative results for Hotlegs. Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme had already tasted top 3 success, but with Graham Gouldman on board they changed their name to 10cc – a name Jonathan King, who signed them to his UK records, saw in a dream, TTD-style – and enjoyed a run of No.1 and top 10 hits. Just as crucially, they sparked decades of debate over whether or not they were named after the average man’s ejaculate. If Jay Z can attract that kind of notoriety, it’ll all have been worth it.