At NYU in 2017, the first version of this essay was written for “The Golden Era of Hip Hop”, a class taught by one of my favorite professors: Dan Charnas. I procrastinated the essay, which had to include an “artistic element”,– and so in panic, I enlisted my father to help me with this portion of the project. With 15 hours notice, he came up with this concept and executed an oil-on-canvas painting of the famous Run-DMC Adidas Superstar Sneaker with a lyrical backdrop of “My Adidas”. My professor gave the essay a B, and this painting an A+. He wrote me a letter of admiration for the art and noted that it would be on display in his personal office.
RUN-D.M.C. and the Birth of Sneaker Culture
“Society is founded upon…cloth”
Birthed out of the poverty-ridden streets of The Bronx, Hip Hop is a multidisciplinary movement comprised of five pillars of creative expression: Graffiti, MCing, Bboying, DJing, and Knowledge. Through these diverse creative outlets, the urban youth of New York developed a unique sound, style, mentality, vibe, and culture that would quickly spread to the West Coast, the South, Europe, Asia, and everywhere in between. With the vast and diverse fundamentals, and an objectively “cool” demeanor, the global adoption of the Hip Hop culture is seemingly inevitable. Specifically within the realm of fashion, Hip Hop’s influence has radically popularized—“sneaker culture” being one of the most fascinating movements to globalize as result. The scholarly research is extensive in the respective subcultures and appropriations that have come out of Hip Hop, however there is a lack of discussion in the ways in which Hip Hop may expand while still containing authenticity. This reflective and psuedo-optiministic stance is neither common nor generally respected amongst the academic field. Using sneaker culture as a case study, this research essay seeks to gather historical and academic context to understand how the understated “sneaker” birthed a cultural movement.
The sneaker, in and of itself, is certainly not a new style of footwear – dating as far back as the 1800s with the British Navy and becoming popularized in America by Ked’s first rendition of the modern shoe (Idle Man). However, it is clear that this simple item of dress has completely transcended its once solely utilitarian purpose to something much greater. There now exists an entire movement behind the fashion, novelty, exclusivity, mentality, and market of the sneaker – that which we refer to now as sneaker culture.
The origin of sneaker culture can be traced back to the late 1980’s in Hollis, Queens NY where Hip Hop legends, Run-D.M.C, were dominating the game. Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, the three members of the group, almost exclusively sported uniform Adidas tracksuits, gold “dookie rope” chains, black fedoras, and of course– white Adidas Superstars. Image A is synonymous to the “Run-D.M.C. style”, displaying the group posted up in front of Eiffel Tower. Their gold chains contrast with their deep blue tracksuits with opulent red striped accent. Most notably are Run-D.M.C’s, now signature, white unlaced shell-toe Adidas Superstars with the tongues pushed up. Released in 1986, “My Adidas” was the catalyst track on Run-D.M.C.’s triple-platinum album: Raising Hell.
Now me and my Adidas do the illest things
we like to stomp out pimps with diamond rings
we slay all suckers who perpetrate
and lay down law from state to state
we travel on gravel, dirt road or street
I wear my Adidas when I rock the beat
on stage front page every show I go
it’s Adidas on my feet high top or low
A pivotal moment occurred at the Madison Square Garden show of the Raising Hell Tour in 1986, where tens of thousands of Run-D.M.C fans lifted their own Adidas in the air and rapped along to the song. “[Dressing] for the stage the same way they dressed for the streets” and uniting a crowd through both music and fashion, Run-D.M.C. landed a one million-dollar sponsorship deal with Adidas the following day, making them the first non-athletes to receive a sneaker deal. “The simplicity and consistency of the band’s self-identifying, quasi-tribal style of dress reflected the state of flux in New York and American society and beyond,” and thus, amidst a boom of musical clarity and revolution for Run-D.M.C., they also inadvertently created a modern sneaker culture (Mellery-Pratt).
The pioneering relationship between Run-D.M.C. and Adidas propelled the brand into a lifestyle. “The partnership pervaded every press call, every image and every association the band made,” and the success that spurred from their relationship not only paved the way for endorsement deals that saturate the music industry today, but single-handedly forged Adidas’ forever relationship with Hip Hop (Mellery-Pratt). Adidas has since collaborated with Kanye West, Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, Ciara, Pharrell, and the modern Hip Hop/fashion pioneer superstar: A$AP Rocky. Outside of Adidas, other lifestyle brands have developed Hip Hop artist/sneaker endorsement deals including: Rihanna and Puma, Kanye West and Nike, Wiz Khalifa and Converse, Swizz Beatz and Reebok and many more. These endorsement relationships paved way to the exclusivity, novelty, and trends that make up the modern day sneaker culture. The boom of signature kicks in this era provided all the necessary elements to birth a community where the goal was to wear the freshest, hardest to find, limited edition models. Sneakers became a statement piece and another vessel for creative expression. Fred Davis, in Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion, he states, “that the clothes we wear make a state is itself a statement” (Davis). The statement a sneakerhead makes beyond the actual statement piece is that of immense significance. The sneaker, through these connotations with music and music icons, became a symbol—a means of coolness and inclusion to the community globalizing by the minute. For what began as subculture is now omnipresent.
As result of this rapid globalization, sneaker culture has evolved tremendously and, in turn, has moved away from the authenticity in which it was so deeply rooted. In Laidlaw’s Blackness in the Absence of Blackness, the author notes that the OG fans and artists of Hip-Hop music were obsessed with the “hood repped”, and the streets served as credibility (Laidlaw). The emphasis on “repping your hood” (or emphasizing your authenticity within the culture) in America paved way for an innate exclusivity. As Hip Hop was born in the streets of The Bronx, it’s initial purpose was to serve as a creative outlet for the young minorities whose opportunities for success became increasingly limited in the ghettos of the late 70’s and early 80’s. In turn, creative expression was a direct reflection of their lives lived. Is it not then serving the same purpose of its original inception?–surely movements and styles are bound to evolve in time and in globalization, but is it truly Hip-Hop without its authentic ties?
One example of the globalization of sneaker culture moving away from its authentic roots would be that sneakers have become another form of currency—the “shoe” being used as trade, similar to that of the stock market or cryptocurrency. As result, people have been able to make exorbitant amounts of money by trading, purchasing, and upselling rare sneakers. Additionally, through the advancements of technology, exclusive sneakers have become more accessible via specified applications and online purchasing/trading. The combination of these two factors has changed the ways in which fans participate in sneaker culture– in result, taking away from what used to be special and unique to the culture. And although Alison Lurie states “To chose clothes, either in store or at home, is to define and describe ourselves”, in Clothing as a Sign System, it’s important to acknowledge the shift in meaning within the culture as a whole via where the item was purchased (Lurie). After Run-D.M.C. and the explosion of Adidas, shoe brands began to release exclusive shoes at specific retailers in New York, with the only ways of knowing about a new release being through radio and word of mouth. In the late 90’s, the “golden era” (if you will) of Sneaker Culture, there existed a ritual behind copping the latest and coolest sneaker. This exciting process involved weeks of anticipation, schemes of acquiring funds, finding time to skip class, and standing in long lines with your friends without promise of actually receiving the new product– it was the art of the hunt (Koplewicz). Jeff Ng (stylized Jeffstaple), one of the most successful sneaker designers in the world, commented on this notion of “the hunt”:
Honestly, without sounding naïve or cliché, but without the story it just becomes stuff now. It’s just a commodity item. Whereas with the story attached, then it’s the culture. That’s what makes the culture: is the stories. Because of the technology and the Internet now, it’s removing the storytelling process of it (Ng).
The simple yet profound “story” is representative of a shared love of fashion and culture – birthed by accident. Although the sneaker may seem trivial, it is, in a lot of ways, the embodiment of what Hip Hop stands for: it is more than another trend, or revenue stream, or hobby—it is the ongoing contextual reinforcement of why the culture was born in the first place: to represent the inextricable relationship between urban youth and their creative outlets. Despite its innate value structure, the broader issue of globalization is inevitable and worthy of analysis to further understand the rise (and fall) of this cultural movement.
In addition to the changes endured through the development of technology and commodification of the sneaker, the adoption of sneaker culture by high fashion brands certainly shifts (and expands) the culture. With fashion brands such as Balenciaga, Acne Studios, Louis Vuitton, Golden Goose, and more, creating their own luxury renditions of the “urban sneaker”—the exclusivity expands from being “in the know” or “of the culture” to the upper financial echelon of society.
As sneaker culture gets more mainstream and continues to stratify into specialized markets, it’s important for its participants to respect the O.G.’s without feeling like they can’t put their own unique spin on things (DeLeon).
One way luxury brands attempt to “respect to the O.G.’s” is through aligning with Hip Hop stars. Designer brands have been name-dropped by Hip Hop artists for decades, however the reciprocation of acknowledgement has only more recently occurred. A$AP Rocky modeling for Loewe, Pharrell’s collection for Chanel, Thom Browne designing for Cardi B at the Met Gala, or Gucci Mane as the new face of Gucci— are examples of these collaborations. Additionally, it’s essential to acknowledge that many of these high fashion designers are themselves self-proclaimed sneakerheads. In this case, the designer’s themselves are innately paying respect to the O.G.’s. “When brands like adidas tap Yohji Yamamoto, Rick Owens, Raf Simons, and Mark McNairy for special collaborations, it’s a win-win. Fashion heads get a more accessible, lower-priced designer creation, while sneakerheads get put up on some of the most lauded designers in the industry” (DeLeon). Arguably elevating the culture in many ways, the successes of Nike + R.T. Collection, Converse x Margiela, and A.P.C. Nike collaborations, and more have forged a new lane and bridged the gap between an otherwise vast disparity between luxury brands and the average fashion consumer. “Fashion is a form of imitation and so of social equalization” (Simmel).
Despite the shifts to and from its authentic roots, what remains true is that Hip Hop is everywhere. The movement is everywhere. Sneaker culture is everywhere— and certainly will not be going anywhere anytime soon. The sub-cultures of high fashion and trading only prove sneaker culture’s appeal to a growing demographic of people. These societies were undoubtedly founded upon and influenced by the sneaker.
My Adidas cuts the sand of a foreign land
with mic in hand I cold took command
my Adidas and me both askin P
we make a good team my Adidas and me
we get around together, rhyme forever
Davis, Fred (1992) ‘Do Clothes Speak? What Makes them Fashion?’ in Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 1-18.
DeLeon, Jian. “How High Fashion Elevates Sneaker Culture.” Complex, Complex, 1 June 2018, www.complex.com/style/2014/04/high-fashion-sneaker-culture-menswear.
Koplewicz, Joshua. “A ‘Sneakerhead’ Growing Up In NYC.” Oct. 2019.
Laidlaw, Andrew. Blackness in the Absence of Blackness: White Appropriations of Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture in Newcastle upon Tyne-explaining a Cultural Shift. Diss. © Andrew Laidlaw, 2011
Lurie, Alison (1983) ‘Clothing as a Sign System’ in: The Language of Clothes. London: Bloomsbury, pp 3-36.
Mellery-Pratt, Robin. “Run-D.M.C.’s ‘My Adidas’ and the Birth of Hip Hop Sneaker Culture.” BOF, July 18, 2014. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/video/run-d-m-c-s-adidas-birth-hip-hop-sneaker-culture.
Powell, Ricky. “Run DMC.” Https://Www.1xrun.Com/Exhibitions/Ricky-Powell-Run-Dmc-Paris-1987/.
Simmel, Georg (1904 / 1957) ‘Fashion’ in: The American Journal of Sociology. Vol.62(6), pp 541-58.
“The History Of Sneakers.” The Idle Man, https://itheidleman.com/pages/the-history-of-sneakers.
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