Hip hop, which started in the Bronx, New York on Aug. 11, 1973, was born out of defiance and having something to say. In no other genre is this need to make a statement as prevalent, so it’s fitting that music and fashion are closely entwined the way they are today. Staying “fresh to death” or “fly” is a prerequisite in the culture and for many, their entryway into this state of being has been through sneakers. For the 50th anniversary of hip hop, let’s take a look at a few of the shoes that have shaped the genre’s history.
When RUN-DMC dropped their single “My Adidas” in 1986 waxing poetic about their love for the Adidas Superstar, they became the first music act to have an endorsement deal with an athletic company. They were unknowingly setting a trend for what would be the future of hip hop and sneaker partnerships. But it wasn’t just a track boasting about the many pairs of Adidas they owned. It was a statement of defiance to not judge the rappers by what they wore or art forms by their expression. Hip hop was in its early years and there was a stigma around its youthful audience, the way they dressed, and how they connected with the music.
Speaking on the group’s behalf to MTV News, Darryl McDaniels stated, “So me, Run and [Jam Master] Jay was like, ‘Yeah, we going to make a record about our Adidas.’ Yeah, we wear Adidas [with] no laces, we got gold chains, we got Cazals and all of that, but I go to St. John’s University. These Adidas stepped onstage at Live Aid. People gave and the poor got paid. It was about taking the image of the B-boy and B-girl and letting the world know we’re a people of vision, we’re inspiration, motivation, and we’re educated, too. So it’s kind of a kick in the face to the people that were hating on hip hop.”
By this time, sneaker culture was already becoming mainstream, so when Spike Lee starred in a Nike commercial alongside Michael Jordan in 1989 and declared, “It’s Gotta Be The Shoes,” the world was already enamored with Air Jordans — hip hop, specifically. They were worn by many of the genre’s pioneers as early as 1988, from KRS-One to Kid ‘N Play and Ice T. Will Smith took it further by wearing many unreleased versions throughout the ‘90s during his time on “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and that kind of impromptu placement led to many of the collaborations we have now between the brand and artists. Hip hop’s love for the Jumpman has never wavered throughout its first 50 years and is even stronger now, as joint efforts with celebrities like Travis Scott and DJ Khaled prove.
The Clarks Originals “Wallabee” was also able to find its footing in hip hop in a similarly organic way, and by the time Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah dropped his debut album, Ironman, in 1996, the Wallabee was already the go-to for the group. They discovered the shoes in their neighborhoods on the feet of Jamaican immigrants, who adopted them as part of their uniform, and followed suit. With his Ironman album cover, Ghostface Killah alongside Raekwon, and Cappadonna immortalized the pair with a bevy of different-colored Wallabees surrounding them and helped to cement their status amongst the culture. To this day, Clarks Originals, the brand behind the classic shoe, continues to honor its unique heritage with collaborations and new releases of the Wallabee that speak to hip hop’s core and creatives all over the world.
Another sneaker staple that emerged and is now synonymous with hip hop is the Nike Air Force 1. It was designed and debuted in 1982, which makes it only nine years older than hip hop, and the two entities grew up together in a way. One of the first hip hop sightings of the Air Force 1 was by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock on the cover artwork for their single, “It Takes Two.” The Air Force 1’s importance in the culture can also be referenced by its different nicknames throughout the many regions of the United States. As hip hop grew and branched out from New York to Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and everywhere in between, every region has identified the AF1 by a different moniker. To date, the Air Force still holds court as one of the most worn silhouettes by rappers.
It’s been quite the feat to witness hip hop grow from a building in the Bronx to the most popular musical genre in 50 years, and these three sneakers have been there helping to shape the visual landscape of the genre while standing the test of time. Cheers to the next 50 years of hip hop, all the sneakers that have been a part of the culture and the new ones to come!