We’ve talked a little bit about some of our favorite pieces of jewelry in all of hip hop right now. We’ve got more coming — exclusives on some of your favorite artists’ jewelry. Anything worth studying has a past worth studying, too. So today, we’re taking an at-a-glance look at the history of hip hop jewelry, and what got us all the way from Grandmaster Flash to 50 Cent. In particular, we’re looking at how the game has impacted the world of jewelry and vice versa.
The new sound
Hip hop isn’t a 90’s thing like you may have thought. Oh no, it’s much older than that. You can trace the roots of your favorite genre all the way back to the same decade where Led Zeppelin reigned supreme.
When hip hop exploded onto the scene, it brought with it a sense of fashion that was as unique, catchy, and fresh as the music itself. Not only did hip hop take influence from music genres all over the world to build its new sound, but it did it with attitude. Hip hop quickly became the voice of a generation — of anyone who was marginalized, unheard, and wanted a platform to express themselves in a new and creative way.
The pioneers of the early 70’s and beyond left their mark on the world. We still hear it in the music today, and we still see it in the jewelry our modern artists wear.
By most accounts, hip hop got its start in New York City. More specifically, the Bronx. The area often played host to block parties. These parties would often feature DJs who used to sample beats from disco, funk, R&B, and soul music. These short beats and mashups were already popular in Jamaica, so there’s a line of thinking that has Jamaicans bringing the early hip hop style with them to 1970’s New York. Jamaican music often featured chants and short bursts of lyrical content over samples, which could have been the genesis of rap.
The Jamaican style came with it, too. The Caribbean look quickly found itself right at home in the Big Apple, which saw beaded chains, bracelets, beanies, caps, and the like surge in popularity. In particular, yellow, black, green, and red were popular colors, just like they were and are in Jamaica.
Right here at home, running suits, bell bottoms, and massive “disco” sunglasses were all the rage. If you want to see a personification of the classic Bronx hip hop pioneer look, take a gander at one of the oldest heads in the book: none other than DJ Kool Herc.
Herc’s clothes, music, and jewelry were all the rage.
As the music evolved and influenced the fashion, the rap scene became inseparable from the headlines. The block party scene was now the national look — turntables, samples, loops, beats, and searing vocals were the new “in.”
The youth of the day brought the clothes to the forefront, too. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, alongside other classic artists, started turning their baseball caps sideways or backwards. Men strapped on the largest beaded jewelry and religious paraphernalia they could. Women adopted large, gold hoop earrings. Fedoras, leather, and sunglasses (especially indoors) followed shortly thereafter.
The 80’s saw a number of “new school” artists hit the scene. It’s funny to think of the likes of Run DMC or LL Cool J, or even the Beastie Boys as “new school” today. They’re hip hop and rock and roll legends, having transformed the music scene and exerted influence over thousands of artists to come. Still, in the 80’s, they were brand new. Controversial, even.
These artists brought hip hop to the total mainstream. Magazine covers were accessible to the day’s hot acts, and rap’s close relationship with corporate culture (more on that in a bit) began to develop. The music kept evolving, too, often featuring guitar riffs, funky bass lines, crunching drum interludes and lyrical stylings the likes of which had never been seen. This was truly revolutionary stuff.
It’s around this time rap started its happy marriage to the sports world, too. Team jerseys and attire became regular attire for rappers everywhere. Top brands once confined to sports circles became mainstream apparel. Nike and Adidas found their products enjoying considerable popularity during this time. It’s hard to imagine the Run DMC look without their trademark Adidas sneakers and sweatsuits.
Run DMC had a big impact on sneaker culture. Many consider them to be the pioneers of hip hop shoe culture, which is just as ripe as hip hop jewelry culture. Run DMC left their marks there, too. Their rope braided dookie chains are as iconic an image as any.
Many consider the late 80’s and early 90’s to be the defining years of hip hop. Some call it the golden age of rap. The genre had never been bigger, boasting celebrity status previously enjoyed by a relatively small group of rock megastars. For the first time, and only a short decade after its inception, hip hop music found itself atop all the charts. Hip hop-only television stations popped up. There were hip hop award ceremonies, and household name recognition. Everybody knew what rap was, whether they liked it or not.
The artists of the age are icons now. We all know the names — Public Enemy, MC Hammer, A Tribe Called Quest, Biz Markie, and the Wu Tang Clan — were superstars.
Much like Jamaican culture influenced fashion sense in the early 80’s, African culture took over for the 90’s. Patterns and colors of African origin could be found on everything. The oversized hoop earrings of a few years prior weren’t oversized enough. Excess became the name of the game, with Hammer giving us baggy pants and the likes of Flavor Flav, Ice T, Dre, and Snoop gave us oversized jewelry with emblems and medallions (well, in Flav’s case, it was a kitchen clock). Rings on every finger became a popular look around this time, and still is in some circles. Thankfully, we’ve left the “hammer pants” behind.
As the 90’s roared on, so did the music. For the first time ever, things weren’t all good in the hood. A rivalry between East coast and West coast artists emerged, and saw the uprising of two totally different takes on everything related to rap. The way the music was done, the way the artists acted, dressed, and carried themselves were all split right down the line. Each coast developed its own unique and distinct rap culture.
Thankfully, we don’t live in the middle of a culture war anymore. Lots of people were needlessly gunned down, or otherwise lost to the struggle. It was more serious than a lot of people realize — gangs of the day took the rhetoric of the genre and ran with it, helping to establish a still standing taboo about hip hop music and crime. People really died for the music.
The decade gave us some of the biggest, and arguably most talented, artists in the history of the game. Think of Biggie, Tupac, Jay-Z, Snoop — more superstars, to say the absolute least.
Once again, the music evolved alongside the fashion. Long gone were hammer pants, leathers, and oversized beaded chains. On the West coast, in came bandanas, do rags, preppy plaid shirts (often buttoned once… at the top!), dickies, Timberlands, and Jordans. The East coast favored their hoodies, fedoras, track suits, parkas, and started going very, very heavy on the jewelry.
By now, other genres were not only the ingredients of rap culture, but were benefactors of it. Rock, punk, and everything in between took influence from rap. Bands like Rage Against the Machine started to show off a heavy favoritism toward jewelry, too.
It’s around this time that Eminem, along with other late 90’s greats, brought hip hop into the new millennium.
The new millennium changed everything, and the history of hip hop was forever cemented in stone. The craft still continues to change with every passing day.
The likes of Eminem, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Nelly, and others kept rap in the mainstream. These were some of the first artists to truly capitalize on the potential of rap’s marketing power — they teamed up with corporate America and, often, became entrepreneurs themselves.
Dr. Dre became hip hop’s first billionaire after selling the rights to his headphone company to Apple. 50 Cent became Vitamin Water’s posterboy, while Kanye and Jay-Z became multi-hyphenate business owners.
The fashion, while always changing, still prominently features much of the iconic imagery of the past. Chains and medallions with tons of flair are still the “in” item, and may always be.
There’s no telling where the rap game is headed next.
Got your own favorite moments from hip hop history? Let us know in the comments below.