Words by Lily Mercer

In the nineties, rappers realised their influence stretched beyond music and branched into the world of fashion. After years of designer brands copying hip hop street style, it was a natural move as simple merchandise expand into full-fledged clothing lines. In fact, fashion history is full of trends that have sprung from black youth culture, with comedian Paul Mooney even stating that the African-American male is the most copied human on the planet. Of course it’s not just rappers – rap entrepreneurs are guilty too, as Russell Simmons and P. Diddy have established successful fashion lines.

It began in the early nineties when Naughty by Nature became the first rap group to start a line of merchandise, their baseball- bat logo appearing on everything from hats to bedspreads. Many lines followed, most notably Wu- Tang Clan’s Wu-Wear and Jay Z’s Rocawear. Today in fact, it’s harder to think of rappers that haven’t expanded into clothing, with everyone from Busta Rhymes to DMX to OutKast claiming a fashion designer credit during their career.

Many brands have remained limited by the nepotism that boosted them. However, there are exceptions; Pharrell Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club is a fully- fledged clothing brand rarely considered as a line founded by a hip hop artist. Besides Billionaire Boys Club, one of the most popular brands created by a hip hop artist was P. Diddy’s Sean John clothing, aimed at a stylish but casual man. His white tees became as significant as the Calvin Klein white tee, but for a less preppy crowd. Equally significant was Russell Simmons’ collection, Phat Farm, Baby Phat and Run Athletics.

The recent return of Phat Farm to the fashion market has drawn attention to the changes in the popularity of rapper-designed clothing, with some wondering, ‘is it still that time?’ For many brands, the celebrity status of their owners seemed to hold them back instead of propelling them in the street wear scene. In the case of No Limit, Akoo and even G-Unit clothing, these brands have become the mockeries of the Hip Hop clothing movement. But at some point they’ve expanded beyond their popularity in the streets, in the case of, Phat Farm and Rocawear, and in the case of Sean John, when it appeared draped across P Diddy in the pages of Vogue.

With musicians putting their faces to brands in a long line of sponsorship deals, collaborating with brands is a familiar aspect of participating in consumer culture, making it a natural step to create a new brand. The relationship between rappers and fashion brands goes back to the eighties, but the nineties saw the two collide in revolutionary ways, including the monumental occasion that Tupac walked for Versace in a fashion show. Biggie Smalls was a Versace advocate too, which he wore along with his beloved Coogi. At the time of his death, Biggie had plans for a clothing line, Brooklyn Mint, though we’ll sadly never see those results. Or a fantasy Biggie x Coogi sweater line, that would have inevitably existed in the collaboration world we live in today. More recently, brands like Coogi, Supreme and A-Life have built on their relationships with hip hop artists, including Jadakiss, Ghostface Killah and Prodigy. But the appearance of rappers in clothing brand adverts is nothing new, with Biggie having appeared in a Bathing Ape advert in the nineties.

Wu-Wear became one of the classic rap-influenced clothing brands in the early nineties as the Wu’s associate producer, Oliver “Power” Grant capitalised on the success of the group’s music. Forever starting trends with their references to brands and garments, the foray was a natural one. Undoubtedly inspired by Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica, the items re-interpreted the high end items worn on the streets, the brand logos replaced by Wu-Wear ones. The line stretched to women too, as they unleashed the tees from the ‘Ice Cream’ video complete with ‘French Vanilla’ and ‘Butter Pecan’ titles. Not all the members entirely supported the move, with Method Man being the most outspoken opposer. In 2009, he said to Blender, “When Wu-Wear started making shoes and sneakers and pants, it was shoddy material. I never rocked that shit.” Prior to that, he’d been a proud model, even appearing on RZA’s track, ‘Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance’ on the 1996 soundtrack to ‘High School High’. The brand fell off in the early noughties, but in 2007, the Wu teamed up with Alife NYC for “A Wu- Tang Life”; a collection of custom sneakers, tees, hoodies and more.

The Alife collision wasn’t Wu-Tang’s only sneaker collaboration. 1999 saw the Wu-Tang x Nike Dunk High land on the streets, then leave again in an elusive blur. One of the rarest shoes to pass through Flight Club’s glass doors, the Nike Dunk High in Wu-Tang’s trademark yellow and black colourway hasn’t been for sale via the Manhattan store in over five years. The last time they did stock a pair, they sold for $5,000. Rap’s sneaker fetish has long since expanded into a million dollar empire in which the MVPs, like basketball, eventually expand into footwear. Sneakers have been a focal point in hip hop as early as Run DMC’s endorsement of Adidas. No Limit had a line of sneakers, G-unit had a short-lived moment, as did Jay Z’s S. Carter’s. More recently Kanye launched the precious Yeezy’s and Swizz Beats teamed up with Reebok for his Basquiat inspired line of shoes. More controversially, Rick Ross became an ambassador for the brand, until a criminally misogynistic lyric saw them drop him. Trust Cam’ron to take the rap footwear trend one step further with a sock line, complete with his own face imprinted onto the wearer’s ankle. Naturally it’s the photo of him on a flip phone in the all pink fur combo. Alongside the predictable items, it seems like the more obscure elements of rap fashion are still in demand. Paul Wall’s love of grills saw him expand into the industry with his line of oral accessories, Grillz.

Before clothing lines, fans only had tees branded with their favourite band’s logo, but the first rap-owned clothing lines opened the door to a whole world of hip hop merchandise. Today rapper’s must be more creative with branded clothing. In an era in which music sales aren’t as strong as the nineties, today’s rappers are forced to make additional revenue from sources outside of record sales. Touring, and its close ally; merchandise, are great avenues to make money from today. As we’ve seen from previous generations, there’s a lot of money to be made from rapper’s clothing lines. According to author, Michel Chevalier, in 2012 Rocawear was worth almost €500 million. The company is still stocked in Macy’s among others, and while Jay Z no longer retains control of the brand, he’s still in charge of marketing, licensing, and product development.

Considered one of rap’s fashion icons, A$AP Rocky has said rappers clothing brands are corny, which is why you’ll never him starting a fashion line. In an interview, he reminisced on his favourite brands growing up, “I used to be into the Rocawear and Enyce and Ecko Unlimited, what else? Fucking Sean John and shit like that. All that shit was dope when we was coming up you know what I’m saying, but I guess niggas grow out of that shit. I guess the new thing is TRUKFIT so kids is gonna wear the TRUKFIT shit.” He stated with a tongue in cheek jab at Lil Wayne’s clothing line.

While few are flourishing outside of their respective fan clubs, Odd Future’s natural expertise has seen them dominate this field. During their global tours, they open up pop- up shops in almost every town they perform in, selling obscure and original merchandise. Having begun their careers giving music away for free, today they’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars on clothing sales alone. The success of a rap clothing line relies on a strong artist influence on fans. In their heyday, the Spice Girls could brand anything with their logo and it would
sell out. This was because girls all over the world didn’t just like them, they wanted to be them. While adult fans are less keen to admit that they want to be their favourite rapper, there is an undeniable desire to embody their sound that encourages music lovers to buy into a brand.

It’s also a mark of a brand’s success to skilfully straddle the music and fashion worlds without appearing to be trying too hard. Looking at Odd Future’s skill at branding, they’ve managed to make cats, donuts and even random friends into recognisable elements of their brand. The seemly meaningless term, ‘Golfwang’ is so significant to OF followers that many have it tattooed on them. In an era in which many young adults grow into their own personal brands, this no longer seems shocking. The once surprising idea of a person branding themselves with a Nike swoosh tattoo is now tame.

In addition to the genuine fads, fake merchandise has become as lucrative as the real thing with knock-off G-Unit appearing in markets across the world and faux Odd Future tees all over e-Bay. Counterfeit Flatbush ZOMBiES merchandise has been found as far as Miami. In part, this explains the downfall of many brands, as the once high-end labels began flooding the street in forged form. Throughout the noughties, brands simply lost credibility or lost a fan, as the artists became out of date in the eyes of their formerly loyal followers.
Or could it be that a brand’s overall success doesn’t rely on the individual face of the brand but on youth culture’s desire to emulate the stars of the rap world? With this in mind, the industry relies on young people to want to be like their favourite rapper. But who doesn’t wanna be a rapper? Oh.

Originally published in Viper Magazine’s 2013 Zine.

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