by Booker Sim
Run DMC dedicated a whole a song to their Adidas sneakers. KRS-One used his Nikes to mark his Bronx pedigree. By wearing Pumas, MC Shan forever linked the brand with his native Queensbridge Projects.
Since the golden age of hip-hop, rappers have used sneakers to symbolize their crews, their neighborhoods, their lifestyles. And their fans followed suit, using their “kicks” to show their membership in the “hip-hop nation.”
This was a coming of age for hip-hop. By investing mainstream products with urban cachet, rappers now had the power to remake Puma, Adidas and Nike into urban brands. And that’s what appealed to hip-hop fans: it was ‘the hood, not Madison Avenue, that made the sneakers popular.
Or unpopular. MC Shan rapped that he wore Pumas because he believed the Klu Klux Klan were the makers of Troop sneakers, a fashionable brand in the day. Though an unfounded rumor, Troop lost favor amongst many hip-hop savvy consumers (like a young Eminem).
Since then, hip-hop has grown exponentially more popular, with urban music accounting for up to 25% of American record sales in recent years, and of late, has been the fattest growing musical genre in most major world markets . So it’s no surprise that hip-hop has been used to sell everything from soft drinks, movies and videogames, to champagne, cognac and luxury goods, to of course urban apparel, in what now amounts to a multi-billion dollar “hip-hop economy.” Last year, urban apparel generated billions in the US alone. And this does not include brands like Louis Vuitton that use hip-hop to sell their clothes. And more than just using urban styles in their product design and urban artists in their ads, mainstream Reebok has even released a Jay-Z and 50 Cent sneaker, with great success.
However, as a sneaker “major” FULLY embracing hip-hop, Reebok is the exception – and wasn’t even considered an urban brand by 80s hip-hop fans. Adidas, Nike and Puma, which were seen as urban brands back in the day, haven’t fully capitalized on their once privileged (if at first accidental) access to the urban market. Instead, companies like Ecko, Phat Farm, Bape, Akademics, Roc-a-wear, LRG and G-Unit have stepped into the multi-billion dollar urban sporting goods void left by the sneaker majors, with these upstarts branding every type of clothing with hip-hop flair.
Perhaps the sneaker majors only tentatively embraced hip-hop for fear of tarnishing the mainstream appeal of their brands with the “gangsta” aspects of the culture. Or maybe they didn’t want to gamble their hegemony on something that may have looked like a fad.
But hip-hop is here to stay. And there is much more to rap than crime and violence…more than even music. Hip-hop, like branding, is about telling stories – universal stories about the triumph of the human spirit.