Today, it seems almost impossible to find a hip hop artist who does not include lyrics referencing either designer brands or high end labels. Of course this essay is not a criticism of all hip hop artists, and certainly not a criticism of the designers or brands themselves. In such a consumer centered, capitalist America, it may sometimes appear as though the music and visual displays are like advertisements for various companies, and not necessarily focused on the lyrical and productive qualities from which rap originated. There are even times when the representation of luxury products appears to symbolize social upward mobility and consumption. In a thorough examination of the age old relationship between fashion and music, one should examine the lyrics and the versatility of the artists to work across several disciplines to determine whether or not the music and fashion industry merely exist symbiotically, or if there is an inextricable link between the two.
As previously mentioned, rap and hip hop lyrics can sometimes appear to be littered with designers and brands. “Money to Blow” by Birdman, Drake, and Lil’ Wayne is a perfect example of a song that incorporates the use of many different high end labels. In the song, Birdman raps “Lamborghini and the Bentleys on the V-set/Louis lens iced up with the black diamonds/Cartier, Ferrari the new Spider” (Birdman “Money to Blow”). These lines are certainly not exemplary lyrics by any standard, but in a matter of 3 very short lines, Birdman dropped five specific, high end brand names: Lamborghini, Bentley, Louis Vuitton (Louis lens), Cartier, and Ferrari. Up-and-coming rapper A$ap Rocky is infamous for his very curated sense of style (McCloskey, “A$ap Rocky’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Wardrobe”). In his song “Peso” he raps, “But these bitches get impressed when you pull up in that 7 Them 6′s, them Benzes, I gets the freshest Raf Simons, Rick Owens usually what I’m dressed in.” (A$ap Rocky “Peso”). His references to “that 7” and “them Benzes” are most notably the uber luxurious BMW 7 Series and the high-end car company Mercedes Benz, while Raf Simons and Rick Owens are ultra exclusive and expensive lines of designer clothing. Drake’s song “Congratulations” opens up with the line “Uh, black hearts on my cardigan,” which is a reference to the Japanese cult brand Comme des Garcons’ logo, the black heart (Drake “Congratulations”). The line is surprising because of its very understated reference to the brand, but infers that Drake is indeed in touch with the cult fashion world. Rick Ross raps “The ones beneath me recognize the red bottoms I wear” when he references the ultra expensive shoe designer, Christian Louboutin, who is famous for his red bottomed shoe soles (Rick Ross “I’m on One”). These lyrics are simply a small sampling of references to fashion by rappers in the music industry, but what does it all mean? Are these rappers just stating their love of some of the hottest brand names in the world, or is there more to it than just that?
It may be important to note a popular news story that surfaced early in 2011 about famed designer John Galliano. Mr. Galliano was the head designer at the famed fashion house Christian Dior. In an incident in Paris, France, Mr. Galliano began a rant that included anti-semitic remarks, and ended with his removal from the position at Dior (Socha, “John Galliano: Downfall of a Couturier”). Interestingly enough, Lil’ Kim referenced Mr. Galliano in the song “We Takin’ Over Remix” when she rapped “cocktail dress by John Galliano” (Lil’ Kim “We Takin’ Over Remix”), and Kanye West even has a song entitled “Christian Dior Denim Flow” (Kanye West “Christian Dior Denim Flow”). It is not a criticism of either Lil’ Kim nor Kanye West for including the designer and the fashion house in their music, but it certainly poses the question whether or not musicians are socially aware of the sometimes negative, racist, or derogatory ideals that these individuals or companies portray. This question brings into account the earlier question of whether the rappers are simply stating their love for these brands, or if there is more to it than just that.
When a rapper chooses to “endorse” a brand by dropping its name in a song, they promote that particular brand to the masses, and in a sense, the endorsement of one brand over another appears to simply be an advertisement. The link between the endorsement of specific brands and the effect on the listeners is real, and according to Bakari Kitwana, “hip-hop artists made brand names like Lees, Ralph Lauren, Pumas, Filas, Adidas, Timberland or Tommy Hilfiger must have products for hip-hop kids” (Kitwana 97). In the luxury market, Christian Dior for example is a huge fashion house that does not need the endorsement of Kanye West in order to stay afloat, so why would he choose them over another large scale designer brand like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, or Salvatore Ferragamo? There may not be a clear cut answer to this question, but some ideas begin to surface regarding rappers and their endorsement of fashion within their music. For one, the rappers clearly are knowledgeable about upscale brands and designers, and choose to make note of their consumption of these luxury goods. According to Mako Fitts, “commercial rap is a reflection of the mainstream success of this music genre” and “is the sampling of traditional American values of upward social mobility and consumption (defined by the gross acquisition of goods) (Fitts 225). Fitts’ statement makes clear the idea that the “gross acquisition of goods” in “commercial rap” may simply be a hip hop artist’s way of knowing and experiencing the fact that they had struck it rich in the music industry. Consumption is the symbolic way to physically show the financial independence and success of the hip hop artists. The idea of upward social mobility and consumption within rap music is ever prevalent, as evidenced in the song “I’m a Boss” by Rick Ross and Meek Mill, when Meek raps, “Look I be riding through my old hood, but I’m in my new whip/Same old attitude but I’m on that new shit” (Rick Ross “I’m a Boss”). The braggadocio of having a “new whip,” lends itself to the idea that Meek Mill has amassed a monetary fortune large enough to afford a new car: something he would be unable to do in his “old hood.” While “riding through [his] old hood,” Meek Mill would be reminded of his beginnings and his new found fortune through the music industry. Rappers may also endorse a specific product to which they have a direct link. For example, Jay-Z partnered with luxury watch brand, Audemars Piguet, to produce a limited edition watch to commemorate his tenth year in the music industry (Woollard, “Jay-Z Partners with Audemars Piguet to Make New Watches”). He even mentions the brand in multiple songs including his song “Allure” when he raps “Bathing Ape kicks, Audemars Piguet wrist” (Jay-Z “Allure”). The advertisement aspect of endorsing select designers or brands in rap songs may even have effects on the sales figures of such brands. For instance, in 1997 Audemars Piguet produced a small amount of watches at only 15,000 pieces (OO Cities, “AP Audemars Piguet Master Watchmakers”), compared to the 80% increase over 10 years, when, in 2007 they produced 27,000 timepieces (The Time TV, “AP New Brand Ambassador – Prom Meesawat”). From the collaborative work of both Audemars Piguet and Jay-Z, the watch company was able to greatly benefit from exposure from one of the top rap artists.
As Audemars Piguet receives great product placement from Jay-Z and other rappers, let it be known that many music videos highlight and promote a plethora of different brands and designers. Sometimes, however, these brands may not like the placement of their products by these hip hop artists. Take for example the exclusive French champagne brand Cristal. In Jay-Z’s book Decoded, he talks about how he wanted to drink something different that what everyone else what drinking, which at the time, in the 1990s, was Moet. He goes on to explain that he was introduced to Cristal, and it was a clear winner in terms of taste and exclusivity. He began to promote the brand in his songs, and carry them at his various nightclubs. Then, The Economist interviewed the owner of Cristal, Frederic Rouzaud, and asked him what he thought about the promotion of his product in “‘bling lifestyle.’” His response was met with great criticism from Jay-Z when he replied, “That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it.” Jay-Z immediately pulled the product from his nightclubs and swore to never promote the brand again. He later explained that he was not being compensated for the endorsement of Cristal, and that he was upset that the company was profiting off his free endorsements without due respect from Mr. Rouzaud (Jay-Z 83-6). This is a perfect example of a luxury brand that expressed disinterest in being associated with the hip hop industry. While most brands take the free endorsements, Mr. Rouzaud chose to not be associated with the free advertising of his product. It certainly would pose the question as to whether or not these brands take advantage of their advertising solely because of the great product placement and association with the rich and famous.
In a similar manner, the music video of the previously mentioned song “Money to Blow” by Birdman, displays the cars, jewels, and clothing in a strikingly similar manner as an advertisement may do. The two cars, one a Lamborghini the other a Maybach, are strategically placed on either side of the set with Birdman in the middle. It looks like a car showroom on set and Birdman fits the bill for the clientele who may purchase such expensive vehicles; he wear jewels and is dressed in designer clothing. You can see the video here (Birdman “Money to Blow”). The lavish display of such goods is creative and desirable enough that a Creative Director at either Lamborghini and/or Maybach could have designed the video. Again, this creativity crosses over between high end brand development and rap music.
Keeping in line with the idea of collaborative work between the fashion industry and the music industry, there have been countless examples of designers and rappers doing collaborative projects together. Designer Alexander Wang featured the up-and-coming rapper A$ap Rocky in a promotional video for his eponymous label that you can see here (Watch A$ap Rocky in Alexander Wang Fall Line Promo Video). In the video, A$ap Rocky talks about personal identity and that “if [he] cared about what other people thought 100%, [he] wouldn’t be himself.” Rocky tries to connect with both the label and the consumer in an easy-to-watch clip that highlights fashion, music, and thoughts about life. Female hip hop star M.I.A. will reportedly collaborate with Italian fashion house Versace for a collection in the coming year (Krupnick “M.I.A. and Versace Teaming up For…Something”). As mentioned before, Jay-Z collaborated with watch company Audemars Piguet. These are only a glimpse of the many examples of hip hop artists collaborating with high end fashion brands. One of the most notable collaborations in recent years was that between Kanye West and designer Riccardo Tisci.
Kanye West commissioned Mr. Tisci of French fashion house Givenchy to design the album cover for Kanye West and Jay-Z’s album Watch the Throne. (Sanchez, “Riccardo Tisci Talks Working with Kanye West and Jay-Z on “Watch The Throne” in the Latest Issue of Vogue”). The collaborative effort led to Mr. Tisci designing the tour’s t-shirts, and becoming the art director for the tour itself. (Young, “Riccardo Tisci: Designer of the Year 2012”). In the photo below, Kanye is wearing a $265 Givenchy t-shirt designed by Mr. Tisci himself. The influence of collaborating with Riccardo Tisci went beyond the tour and into the Kanye West designed women’s clothing collection which debuted in Paris in the fall of 2011. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Kanye West’s collection was so Givenchy-esque that it’s embarrassing that Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci was an expected guest” (Lutz, “Why The High Fashion World Will Never Take Kanye West Seriously”). The collaboration and inspiration that both Kanye West and Riccardo Tisci gained helps to reinforce the idea that there is an inextricable link between the fashion industry and music industry.
It seems that sometimes this link between the two industries is so great, that artists in the musical and design fields work across the two disciplines to flex their creative muscles. One could note the development of the relationship between the two industries as far back as the early 1980s when hip hop music started to infiltrate the club scene in urban areas such as New York, New York. In Nelson George’s 1985 book Fresh, Hip Hop Don’t Stop, he notes that the Lower East Side Manhattan club Funhouse was a great location for people to go and dance to hip hop music. On a weekend night, there would be “upwards of 3,500” people at the club dancing all night. The only problem was the sweltering heat that came along with so many people dancing in a crowded area. So, in order to combat this problem, “some of the Italian and Spanish guys would roll up their tee-shirts to the middle of their chests just to cool off” and “soon boys and girls were coming to the club in tees cut off at the midriff.” It was then reported that “Designer Calvin Klein noticed and later commented in the fashion trade paper Women’s Wear Daily how much he loved the look” (George 65). Calvin Klein took notice of a small change in the t-shirt that resulted from the hip hop movement, and began one of the earliest relationships between hip hop and high end fashion. In addition to Calvin Klein, other haute-couture “by the late 1980s and early 1990s, designer fashionistas from Issac Mizrahi to Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel would show collections inspired by hip hop on the runway” (Romero XIV). The receptiveness of such huge designers to the inner city hip hop fashion scene commenced very early on in hip hop’s history. The creativity and inspiration that each industry had on each other is still prevalent in today’s society.
Fast forward to today and the relationship between music and fashion is still immensely strong. Among some of the rappers who have designed or started their own labels are: Swizz Beatz for Reebok, Jay-Z for Rocawear, Nelly for Apple Bottoms, Pharrell Williams for Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, and Andre 3000 for Benjamin Bixby (BET, “Fashion Forward: Rappers That Design”). With all of these hip hop artists working at the intersection of music, design, and art, it would be difficult to say that there is no connection between the two creative fields. The aforementioned hip hop artists that started their own clothing lines took with them inspirations from their lives and surroundings to produce their vision of fashion based on their own creative genius. Sometimes the creation of a clothing brand leads to very successful results, like Jay-Z’s clothing line Rocawear. Jay-Z and his friend Damon Dash started the clothing line in 1999, and in 2007, after Jay-Z acquired Dash’s shares, he sold the company for $204 million (Binelli, “King of America”).
By analyzing the lyrics of hip hop artists, and examining their capabilities to work across various disciplines in the creative arts, one should be able to clearly identify whether the fashion industry and music industry simply co-exist side-by-side, or if there is an inherent connection between the two fields. Through this examination that spans from lyrical analysis, advertisements and the corporate promotion of luxury goods, collaborations between designers and musical artists, and the multi-faceted talents of the actors from both fields, one can infer that music and fashion have a connectedness that is inseparable since the birth of the musical movement.
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