The Most Name-Dropped Fashion Brands In Hip-Hop

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The Most Name-Dropped Fashion Brands In Hip-Hop

Words by Mr Jim Merrett

1 April 2020

A is for adidas… Over the coming weeks, we will be taking eight brands across MR PORTER’s roster and looking at how they have shaped the wordplay of rap – and how hip-hop has in turn shaped them. First up, how sportswear giant adidas earned its hip-hop stripes

Perhaps no one man has done more to set the template for hip-hop, the dominant musical and cultural force of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, than Mr Joseph Saddler. Better known as Grandmaster Flash, Mr Saddler took the DJing techniques, first displayed in the block parties of the Bronx of the 1970s, to the next level. Constructing his own twin-turntable-and-mixer set-up in his bedroom – a piece of kit that went on to become the industry standard – he further developed the breakbeat and pioneered scratching. After forming a group, the Furious Five, he went onto record “The Message”, the 1982 single that retooled the hypeman wordplay of the early hip-hop scene, introducing social commentary and establishing rap as the voice of the street.

Five years later, Grandmaster Flash presented another innovation. His 1987 album Ba-Dop-Boom-Bang rarely gets a mention amid his back catalogue, but with the track “Them Jeans”, he introduced a component that has since become commonplace within rap: the fashion brand name-check.

Clothes weren’t one of the original four elements of hip-hop (those would be DJing, MCing, graffiti and breakdancing), but as with any subculture, what you wore was a key signifier from the start. “Fashion has and always will be a huge part of hip-hop,” says Mr Mr Shad Kabango, rapper and presenter of the Netflix documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution. “Some labels will always be connected to hip-hop. Ralph Lauren, for example. And I think hip-hop will always be a big influence on fashion, too.” 

“Rap has almost always been a reflection of aspirational culture,” says Mr Eric Eddings, co-host of the black culture podcast-cum-TV show The Nod.

“Lyrics often boast of superior musical style and also of superior personal style and taste,” adds Mr Kabango. “There is also an aspirational fascination in hip-hop with finally attaining a level of comfort and freedom financially, so fashion labels can signify that as well.” 

Forty years on from the original hip-hop recordings, the genre has produced its first billionaire: last year, Jay-Z was named the world’s wealthiest rapper, with Mr Kanye West, reportedly the industry’s top earner, catching up fast (although, thanks to Apple’s 2014 buyout of audio-tech company Beats, rapper and producer Dr Dre claims to have got there five years earlier). And, perhaps more than any other project, Jay-Z and Mr West’s 2011 “luxury rap” album Watch The Throne set the tone for the excesses of the following decade.

Alongside the usual roll-call of rappers to lend a verse – and boastful nods to Hublot watches, Cuban cigars and “other, other” Mercedes-Benzes – Watch The Throne drew on leading figures of the fashion world. Featuring an embossed gold cover designed by then-Givenchy creative director Mr Riccardo Tisci, the album’s art direction is credited to Mr Virgil Abloh – who, in 2009, interned with Mr West at Roman fashion house Fendi and went on to launch Off-White and ultimately helm Louis Vuitton, the brand name that Mr West dropped the most, certainly early in his career. “Watch The Throne felt like a peak,” Mr Eddings says. “The two biggest rappers in the world were able to reposition both fashion and rap as high art."

Run-DMC perform on Saturday Night Live, New York, October 1986. Photograph by Mr Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

The relationship between rap and fashion was not always so flamboyant, of course. “Rock my adidas, never rock Fila,” announced the Beastie Boys on 1989’s “The Sounds Of Science”. By then, adidas sneakers had long been the standard-issue footwear for B-boys, with breakdancers wearing tracksuits emblazoned with the brand’s iconic three stripes alongside matching shell-toed Superstars. But three years prior to the Beastie’s declaration, one band had taken the shoe and turned marketing itself on its head.

Pioneers of the so-called “new school”, Run-DMC were the first hip-hop band to be certified gold, with their eponymous debut, and then platinum, with its follow-up, King Of Rock. As such, the trio were pivotal in turning hip-hop into a mainstream concern. But perhaps more than this, they played a big part in the way rappers dressed – a legacy that continues today.

Historically, hip-hop acts had worn costumes to fit in with the image of popular music at the time, often shiny, space-age Afrofuturist outfits in the vein of Parliament-Funkadelic, as championed by the likes of Mr Afrika Bambaataa. But Run-DMC’s uniform was more down to earth, typically trilby or Kangol hats, leather jackets, black jeans and gold rope chains – still outlandish to an extent, but far more representative of what real people back then were actually wearing. And on their feet, Superstars without laces – a nod to the restrictive dress code of the prison system, where the laces were removed from shoes to prevent inmates from hanging themselves.

“Run-DMC gave hip-hop its own look by not dressing like stars, but instead just dressing like the community that the music came from”

“Run-DMC gave hip-hop its own look by not dressing like stars, but instead just dressing like the community that the music came from,” says Mr Kabango.

Released in 1986, single “My Adidas” brought the band’s association with the German sportswear giant front and centre. While recorded without adidas’ knowledge or consent, the brand was prompted to offer its official patronage after an adidas executive witnessed the entire crowd hold their shoes aloft during a performance of the song at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Literally earning their stripes, the band garnered a $1m contract and their own signature line – an industry first.

“That gave the hip-hop business proof of its power and influence,” adds Mr Kabango. “From there, folks like Puff Daddy, Dr Dre, Jay-Z and others have taken brand partnerships in hip-hop to a whole other level.” 

These days, artists don’t just endorse adidas sneakers – they design them. Over the past decade, the brand has worked with the likes of A$AP Rocky, Mr Pharrell Williams (both Mr Williams himself and Human Made, his label with A Bathing Ape supremo Nigo) and Mr Kanye West, who in late 2013 brought his Yeezy imprint over from rival sportswear giant Nike. (Mr West has since said adidas CEO Mr Kasper Rørsted is “someone who allowed me to build something”, with Mr Rørsted giving the producer and rapper his direct mobile number.)

In terms of lyrics, adidas still gets the odd nod, name-dropped in recent years by the likes of Cardi B, Pusha-T and the late Juice WRLD. In the UK, a new generation of rappers and grime artists are embracing old-school streetwear. But almost a decade after Watch The Throne, the German sportswear giant has been supplanted by a list of luxury brands. And where Superstars were once common currency, today, the biggest names in the rap game are more likely to be sporting a pair of Balenciaga Speed Sock sneakers (admittedly still without laces).

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