If there is one thing that male rappers are known for, it is for their unique sense of style. Their clothes, they way they execute themselves, their emphasis on materialism and other accessories are characteristic of hip hop. These fashions include but are not limited to full body tattoos, thick golden chains, wearing pants significantly below the waistline, brightly colored shoes without laces, and large scale brands. Ostentatious articles indicate monetary success. Since most rappers come from low or middle income upbringings, it also represents their rise to success, especially if all odds were against them prior to their careers. Many people will view some of these fashions in a lowly manner, deeming them bizarre. The absurdity and outrageousness characterize rappers from one another while still maintaining the commonality of being absurd and outrageous. Others will follow the style: “Rap styles have gone on to influence the entire fashion world” (Moore 8). Neither party will typically know where the fashion originated from or how it came to be. Whether it is consciously or not, the physical manifestation of hip hop influences listeners of hip hop, with the listeners replicating the fashions as they come and go in order to associate themselves with hip hop, especially youth.
Generally, when one thinks of hip hop fashion, he or she is probably going to think of the following:
Lil’ Wayne and Slick Rick are both wearing much gold. Wayne’s necklace is in the shape of a bag of money. His belt has the word “rape” on it in all capitals and also gold. He has tattoos covering his torso and chest, as well as multiple on his face and forearms. He is wearing a pink hoodie, which “remains a staple in…hip hop acts today, ranging from horror rap outfit Insane Clown Posse to mainstream phenomenon Eminem.” His pants are worn halfway down his thighs, so the bright colors on his boxers are exposed. Slick Rick is wearing a classier outfit, but dons multiple heavy golden chains. His eye patch is silver, not to mention the massive silver ring on his finger. While the gold and silver indicates their wealth, the colors, the “sagging” fashion, the dreadlocks represent something greater.
“Welcome to the melting pot, corners where we selling rock/Afrika Bambaataa shit, home of the hip hop,” raps Jay-Z in his hit “Empire State of Mind” with Alicia Keys. Paying tribute to roots, also known as shouting out to where one comes from is a prevalent theme among the vast majority rappers. While they may go all around the world, have houses in multiple places, they make sure to stress that they do not forget where they come from. Lyrics are one way to show this connection, but another way are their accessories. The thick chains that Slick Rick and Lil’ Wayne are wearing not only portray the fact that they have money, but also represent literal chaining, a practice that was done during the times of slavery. They wear chains as a symbol of paying homage; in an ironic twist, however, they put themselves in the very chains that their ancestors worked so hard to get out of. This latter reasoning is not the case oftentimes, though. A small controversy sparked between veteran rapper 50 Cent and the relatively new rapper, Yung Joc in the hip hop world in 2009. 50 Cent essentially calls Yung Joc out on wearing a “fake” chain, which was essentially a chain that was made out of fake metals (i.e. not gold, silver or platinum).
Firstly, the fact that 50 Cent knew that it was not real displays how legitimate a rapper is about their chains and what it symbolizes. Fake chains are unacceptable, as they defeat the purpose of wearing a chain to display prestige. Secondly, Yung Joc felt the need to wear a fake chain in order to make it seem like he was wealthier than his reality. In actuality, Yung Joc could not afford a thirty-thousand dollar chain, thus wore a fake one so he can give the illusion of representing monetary successfulness.
Another root that hip hop fashion draws from is jail: “Hip hop fashion pays homage to the garments that prison inmates wear; it emphasizes loose, baggy clothing” (Butler299). Wearing pants below the waistline is usually frowned upon in society. A great majority of rappers follow this trend, as do a large portion of urban youth. The US prison system does not allow prisoners to wear belts of any kind, as it poses a threat of death to other inmates or suicide. Subsequently, the pants are worn low, because they do not stay up. This practice is called “sagging” or “low-riding.” Teenagers who live in urban residence areas typically follow this trend as a “symbol of freedom and cultural awareness” (Forsyth). It can also represents rebellion of mainstream culture, as this sagging is not considered socially polite. Rappers began sagging in the 1980s, but did not become popularized until the 1990s. Interestingly enough, in jail, the lower the pants were worn, the more available you were representing yourself as to others. It was a portrayal of homosexuality to the other cellmates, which also ties into the debate on homoeroticism in rap music. Also not allowed in United States prisons are shoe laces, which is why many rappers wear large, thick shoes without laces or “shell-toed sneakers with…fat laces” (Powell 157). Oversized clothing also originates from prisons as stated by Butler in the aforementioned quote. The reason why prison has such a great influence on rapper fashion is that many rappers have gone to jail because of racial profiling and other unjust reasons. Rappers are representing this, almost refuting to acknowledge jailer fashion as demeaning or degrading; instead, they turn it around and draw inspiration from it, creating styles that are now unique to hip hop fashion.
Diamonds are a staple of hip hop fashion. From Tupac’s and Flava Flav’s diamond nose rings to the diamonds on a nameplate to diamonds on a chain, they have been ever-present in hip hop culture. In the video below, the manner in which the special effects highlight the blindingly shiny quality of the diamonds on Jibbs’s chain is an example of it’s value in hip hop fashion:
Chuck D of Public Enemy, a rap group that has made the decision not to wear overly expensive diamonds, narrated the short film Bling: Consequences and Repercussions. In it, he talks about how the diamonds that many rappers wear are directly related to blood diamonds, which are diamonds found in war zones in Africa. The blood diamonds lead to poverty, slavery and subsequently, killings in Africa. Immense devastation is caused by diamond mines. The flashy world of donning diamonds seems appealing, but the significant roles that diamonds play in wars have not-so-appealing consequences. South Africa especially has a “fetish” with gold. South African rap, otherwise known as kwaito, has been associated with this immense desire of gold, with the obsession tracing back to American hip hop, even though it would be more closely related to blood diamonds. Diamonds are also used in grills, which is mouth essentially jewelry molded exclusively for one’s teeth. Rap music is largely about possession and having something that only you can wear makes you specializes you; the rappers thrive off of the exclusivity. The grills are believed to highlight the mouth and represent vocal dexterity in rap music, which is always prestigious. Grills can also reference the old traditions of African oral story telling: “Rap is part of an oral tradition that originated in Africa many centuries ago” (Powell 246). Grills are speculated to have detrimental health effects if worn for a prolonged period of time and not intermittently:
The trend toward tooth coverings was boosted in recent years by hip-hop icons and rappers such as Nelly and Paul Wall. Although wealthy musicians and some athletes have spent thousands of dollars to decorate their teeth with grills made of gold and platinum, most teenagers and young adults who want to emulate these celebrities do so by purchasing inexpensive do-it-yourself kits online or from local jewelers. (The Journal of the American Dental Association 1192)
Most people who wear grills are African-American male hip hop listeners between the ages of 18 and 35, which is a young demographic. These grills can cost up to $30,000 a year, which is essentially on the border between the lower class and the middle class.
Neon colors are also popular in rap fashion. Andre 3000 is known for his flamboyant dressing:
While this was once associated with homosexuality, it has become more and more prominent in hip hop fashion. An example would be Nicki Minaj’s latest commercial for Adidas sneakers and clothing:
In the “Chain Hang Low” video as well, Jibbs is wearing grills that are bright red and bright blue, which is an unusual clashing of colors for someone who is not rapping about how much he loves America. A newer revelation for these bright colors, and the unusual mixing of, is that the artists are, “personalizing the gear – …use clashing of colors or colors out of season” (George 157). Personalization is huge in hip hop. Rappers will frequently “stamp” their music with either a specific sound or phrase that places their music apart from other rappers’. For example, Lil’ Wayne has a high-pitched laugh that is highly associable to him. Young Money Cash Money Brothers will usually have the sound of a lighter clicking on at the beginning of their songs. Similarly, we know when a specific pairing of colors come together, it characterizes an artist.
Some fashions are mere resurgences of greater magnitudes of fads attributed to school hip-hop fashion. Tattoos have become a pervasive aspect of hip hop fashion. Many rappers these days have followed the trend of facial and full body tattoos. Among them are Lil’ Wayne, Gucci Mane, Wiz Kahlifa, and Tyga. Other artists, such as Eminem, have many tattoos scattered throughout their body. Tattoos have always been a fundamental part of hip hop culture, at any rate.
Young followers of hip hop are usually the most influenced by the materialism depicted by artists. In several case studies performed by Shannon Coden of theUniversityofWarwick, the function of these artists in relation to the fashion consumption of children is examined. One boy, eight year old Robert, draws inspiration from Eminem, as shown in an interview:
Robert: I just like wearing clothes. You know, like pop stars like the brown boys. They wear like white vests and then a denim jacket . . .
Sharon: The what boys?
Robert: The black guys when they are like…
Sharon: Oh black guys, sorry I though you were on about a group. Like rappers?
Robert: Yeah rappers, like that, Eminem he wears like a white vest and then he wears like denim jacket over it. I was trying to find my vest and I was going to wear it over so like a vest but a really thick one. Like that vest and then put my denim jacket over it. But I couldn’t find it. (Coden 292)
While Robert is far too naïve and young to understand exact fashion terms, it is interesting to note how he says “black guys” at first, but then touches on Eminem, who is a white rapper. Robert is white, and therefore relates more to Eminem than to other rappers. Additionally, no mention of an African-American rapper is made, though those constitute the majority of the rap industry. Whatever it may be, hip hop fashion influences youth. They are exposed to it in the same way they are exposed to many things: through various outlets. Television, radio, YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, outside of their window – virtually every corner they turn, they have some level of exposure to these sort of styles. Rapper French Montana recently said, “People think what rappers wear is cool.” This is especially true of kids who are still looking to find a niche. They want to fit in somewhere. The style associated with rap music is so highly characteristic that kids simply have to put on a hooded sweatshirt or, as Robert said, one vest on top of another to feel that much closer to being a part of something bigger than them. Chuck D also said the following on the mentality of youth who are highly focused on following the latest trend:
Man, I work at McDonald’s, but in order for me to feel good about myself I got to get a gold chain or I got to get a fly car in order to impress a sister or whatever.
Low income youth will often be seen donning expensive jewelry or driving high-end cars, even though they cannot afford it. Chuck D is saying that hip hop fashion is too dependent on consuming highly expensive jewelry and items in order to impress others as well as the consumers themselves. The sheer fact that some young people are not able to feel comfortable in their own skin without having purchased such expensive items can be unsettling. However, “hip hop is a refuge for many young people” (Kitwana 5). By dressing like and replicating hip hop celebrity lifestyles, youth feel better about themselves.
Public Enemy, Immortal Technique, Common – these are just a few artists who have openly made the decision to not follow the fad of wearing expensive jewelry. Many criticisms have been made about some of the more ostentatious fashions of hip hop. The high price is one downside. Because various stereotypes do exist about African Americans typically being in the social underclass, rappers usually attempt to debunk this by displaying their money. This can backfire, as well, however. Those who publicly display their wealth are targeted by thieves and robbers, including these rappers. Queen Latifah’s car was stolen, Guru of the rap group Gang Starr had his Rolex stolen at gunpoint, and Prodigy had $300,000 worth of jewelry stolen from him. Some have suggested that the mass media “try showing some less expensive brands so heads will know they don’t have to hustle, steal, or rob and blast shots for flyness” (Keyes 172).
In essence, hip hop fashion stems from various backgrounds. Although they might seem outrageous and arbitrary, the way in which rappers have manipulated the fashions from their origins is clever. The way they also try to twist the fashions around in order to create a more unique style for themselves is creative and gives credibility to them as artists. They start trends that people, especially youth, actually follow and turn into a lifestyle. While there may not be explicit intentions by the artists to start fashion trends for people to replicate, hip hop fashion influences the likes of their listeners greatly, as seen with the various articles that have risen to prominence among rap music listeners. Fundamentally, hip hop fashion will continue to evolve and change, but the roots will always remain stable and impact those exposed to rap music for years to come.
Bling: Consequences and Repercussions. Dir. Kareem Edouard. Perf. Chuck D. WGH Films, 2005. Short Film.
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