The proverbial phrase, “the clothes make a man” might turn out to be an unquestionable truth here. Even though it may sound to be originating from an edgy remark by the disillusioned protagonist of Mad Men, Don Draper, this idiomatic expression seems to actually find its natural collocation in the present day’s hip-hop scene, especially when it comes to an accessory in particular – the kicks.
The unbreakable bond between hip-hop and the sneaker probably resides in the ascensions of the latter as a key element of this cultural movement and its different styles, so much so that it dictates one’s status symbol. “Where I’m from, life’s a gamble, grab the dice/’Fore I leave, pray to God, then I grab my Nikes,” sings Fashawn as he’s getting ready to go out in style.
…every movement needs its own distinctive traits and symbols.
Hip-hop artists have always advocated hip-hop as an “authentic” and “real” African-American artistic and cultural form since its emergence in the Bronx in the ’70s. In order to be distinguished from what’s not real, every movement needs its own distinctive traits and symbols. For instance, as the counterculture of the ’60s saw a lot of males with long hair and females without bras expressing their political disdain, the hip-hop movement claimed its own identity through other elements, such as gold chains, kicks, and money as the end all be all.
Blood Stained Kicks
In the early 1980s, rappers who came from the wrong side of the tracks of NYC, Philadelphia, and other East Coast inner-cities, where sneakers were a staple amongst hustlers, found their first listeners and small-time endorsers in those same characters. To make this narrative even more relatable and compelling, Run-DMC would sing, “I wear my Adidas when I rock the beat” while Nike released the most iconic kicks ever conceived, the Nike Air Force 1.
After a decade, the rap and sneaker industries were finally booming. In the sneaker world, Michael Jordan had already established his line as the dopest, must-have items. However, many controversies were also threatening the sneaker business. Sports Illustrated, for instance, came out with its infamous “Your Sneakers or Your Life” cover in response to the many sneaker-related deaths. With this action, the publication aimed to outline the dangerous issues related to the rise in sneaker culture, specifically in regards to the death of 15-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas, who was killed over his pair of Air Jordans.
I wear my Adidas when I rock the beat On stage front page, every show I go It’s Adidas on my feet, high top or low My Adidas… my Adidas…
– “My Adidas” from Raising Hell (1986)
However, these events didn’t stop groups like N.W.A. and solo artists like Tupac Shakur from rising to prominence and dominating the charts. Coming out of endless controversies for the themes touched in their songs (including their kicks), these influential rappers allowed today’s artists to dictate business and trends in a way no one could have ever predicted, to the point where rappers have surpassed athletes as the go-to endorsers.
An Unbreakable Cultural Force
In the early 2000s, Reebok began to really think outside the box. To begin with, they got Jay-Z and 50 Cent singing endorsement deals that included signature shoes for their own lines and a commercial featuring the two of them. While the other shoe brands were focusing solely on athletes, the executives at Reebok took a risky gamble that ultimately paid off.
Along with what’s happening, Kanye West was tip-toeing into the hip-hop scene in his own Bapestas and his debut album, The College Dropout, under his arm. His ambitions to be a designer soon began to rival his musical mastery as this artist was able to convince Louis Vuitton first, and then Nike to give him his own signature kicks. This was like an earthquake in the hip-hop culture. It was the first time Nike had ever given a rapper their own signature shoe.
When West asked for more freedom to create, his views clashed with the Nike’s execs, ultimately leading to the end of his relationship with the Beaverton-based company in 2013. He forged a new partnership with Adidas in 2015, and released his first kicks popularly known as the Yeezy Boost 750. Adidas gave the rapper more freedom to create his own line. Every single shoe released by the line in the last years was sold successfully, and it’s hard to deny West’s expansive influence in both hip-hop and sneaker culture.
In the Realm of Realness
Ever since their rise to prominence, these artists looked at sneakers as symbols of authenticity and prestige. When they first saw the neighborhood’s hustlers in their fresh Air Force 1s, they saw a status symbol. After spending so much time hustling to buy the sneakers they couldn’t afford growing up, the axis has shifted in more ways than one. Now, they want to be the decision makers.
Whether it’s Run-DMC or Kanye West’s time at the top, sneaker companies looked at rappers as mere means to appeal to younger people and make more sales. Today, signing a rapper to an endorsement deal or investing in a partnership with them isn’t an option anymore; it’s a downright necessity. And Kanye West proved to be the real game changer in this shift.
…the axis has shifted in more ways than one. Now, they want to be the decision makers.
So, let’s keep it real. Sneakers are not only one of the bases of this artistic movement, they are also identity traits that extend to each and every thing these artists say or touch, from their artistic expression to their own fans. In Uncut Gems, Kevin Garnett takes a watch in his hands at a Manhattan showroom, addresses the Jewish jeweler and says, “You sure? Brothers are called out for this shit.” Well, that sentence pretty much sums up what him and his brothers want to be – real.