Hip Hop may be music's most entrepreneurial genre, obsessed with hustle, status and the path up from nothing. No other sound is as focused as rap is on starting from the bottom, that is because no other genres have as many artists that have started life at the bottom. For those pioneering black artists who were raised around crime, violence and hustle music helped them transcend their environment. Clothing, more specifically European luxury brands were the original flex; a middle finger to the society that had written them off. Not only did the bars of a hip hop artist have to be hot, so did the clothes and this was the embodiment of the American Dream for the people who bought their records.
Now it was never easy to get these brands as in the 80s and 90s no luxury brand wanted to associate themselves with the rappers of the era. Biggie might’ve been a big name and would always rock brands such as Louis Vuitton but, it’s prominent buyers were old white men and having their clothes on an ex drug dealer was thought to be detrimental to their brands reputation.
That is where Harlem took over and a haberdasher known as Dapper Dan “blackinized fashion”. His clothes embodied what street culture was as he met the needs of those who were young and rich but were locked out of enjoying such luxuries in clothing by white people. Copping a Dapper Dan piece for an up and coming rapper in the 80s and 90s was a sign you’ve made it. These pieces matched the swagger of these rappers on the streets as well as the need for clothes that were oversized, influenced by luxury tailoring and sportswear and overall something that the African American culture could call theirs. Eventually Dan was sued out of existence in the early 90s but, his demise brought rap's tough reputation to the forefront creating a more authentic way for Hip Hop to express their unique fashion needs.
Rappers grew tired of rocking knock off luxury wear or the hassle of going into a Louis store and being harassed, so a shift in style was necessary. The rap group Wu-Tang started this by starting their own streetwear brand called Wu Wear. Creating clothes for their fan base that came from a place of rejection but turned into intent and passion. Their clothes were relatable to the people as like their music it spoke to the people because it brought out the reality these rappers came from. Creating that connection and community around their clothes and fan base was something never seen before.
Wu Tang was not the only label to start their own brands as P. Diddy did the same with Sean John and Jay-Z and the crew over at Roc-a-fella records started Rocawear. This rise in urban fashion allowed music labels to really speak to their listeners, as these fashion brands would not listen to their audience so clothing and brands were created to cater to this crowd of rejects. This shift didn’t just end with clothes either as these artists were starting to build their own businesses outside of music. Whether it was alcohol or cigars African American artists saw an opportunity to take advantage of their platforms to build their own brands and businesses. If these fashion brands and labels weren’t going to co-sign these rappers why not make their own products?
Hip-Hop culture in the 90s really showed off how marketable these artists were. We could list all these trends that we see in fashion today and root them back to 90s Hip-Hop culture. Whether it’s LL Cool J and Kangol, Aaliyah and Tommy Hilifger, Tupac and Karl Kani, Biggie and Coogi sweaters, Queen Latifah and those loud prints, West Coast gangsta rap and paisley prints to the trends of baggy t-shirts, you get the point. I could list artists from this era and trends they have set in fashion forever. Put a unique piece onto an artist of that era and it would sell out the next day. Hip Hop artists pushed brands and trends onto the public creating a hype around these brands that was not even paid for. With these trends still very real today Hip-Hop and African American culture’s impact cannot be denied in today's world of fashion and business.
With hip-hop being a symbol of youth and rebellion a lot of prominent artists now do not take their influence lightly. Whether it’s Beyonce, Kanye, Travis Scott or ASAP Rocky these artists are now in the mindset of, “Why am I giving people free press?”. This turned into African Americans being the movers of the culture through sponsorships then eventually turned into these black artists having ownership or stake in these brands. From Kanye West with Yeezys and his influence on Adidas to Virgil Abloah with Off-White and his role as creative director of Louis Vuitton. African American influence in fashion and business is something to marvel, as sticking true to their vision and never giving into the box society put these people into has shaped the world of fashion into a world like no other today.
Written by: Hector Nilo