LL Cool J and his Kangol hats. Run DMC and its adidas. Even Kris Kross and its backward jeans and baseball-style jerseys.
Throughout rap music’s history, the fashion choices of emcees have been almost as attention-getting at their rhymes. Fashion and hip-hop have evolved hand-in-hand since the ’70s, as director and journalist Sacha Jenkins explains in “Fresh Dressed,” the new documentary that shows how changes in clothing aesthetic have mirrored and influenced the culture.
amNewYork caught up with Jenkins to talk about that evolution, the biggest names in both rap and fashion today (several of whom, including Pharell and Kanye West, appear in “Fresh Dressed”), and his own recollections of when clothing became important to him.
How did hip-hop go from customized jean jackets inspired by biker gangs to Jay Z releasing songs about Tom Ford?
Jay Z was part owner of the Nets. His social circles and where he can shop and what he can buy is completely different than what the average rapper could buy in 1985. That’s why I knew fashion was a great way to tell the hip-hop story: The fashion has evolved and adapted through all of the hip-hop phases, whether it’s the rise of the b-boy to the rise of the drug dealer/rapper to the rise of the mogul, where we are now.
Hip-hop long ago became a global genre, despite language limitations. How important was fashion to the spread of the culture?
Even to people who speak English fluently, for folks inside of hip-hop culture, how you dress is another language. Growing up in New York, based on how you dressed, I could tell where you were from and what you were into. The example of Run DMC: The French rapper in my film said he didn’t really know English, but he saw the intensity of Run DMC in their leather outfits and their sneakers. The way they wore what they wore was really an extension of what hip-hop really is: Attitude, and how you apply it. -?¦ Fashion is about energy and hip-hop is about energy. And fashion is a great transmitter of that energy.
Kanye West, who appears in the film, has caught some flack for his foray into fashion. But isn’t he really following in the footsteps of a lot of emcees who had their own clothing lines?
You had all these rappers who had their own brands and great success, but then there was a crash because the success of those brands were tied into the success of those rappers, and once their careers started to fade, so did the clothes. But Kanye is looking to distinguish himself from that history, because he says that he’s very serious and devoted to it. He’s not just a rapper coming out with T-shirts, he has his own sensibility and point of view. You look at guys like Sean “Puffy” Combs who created Sean John and won all these prestigious awards. He crossed over to the high fashion world and earned respect. I think that’s where Kanye’s looking to go.
What was the first article of clothing that made you feel “fashionable”?
My mom would buy me three pairs of nice, expensive corduroy pants, because she said they were better quality and that I needed to be dressed in a dignified manner. Meanwhile, all my friends were wearing all the cool stuff. So I finally had to put my feet down and insist on her taking me shopping, and she ended up spending less money for three times the clothes. For me, the fondest memories are, like, my first pair of suede Puma shoes. Those shoes were just so cool. I felt special. I felt like, ‘finally, I’m not just wearing what my mother’s making me wear. I’m a part of a society, a part of a community. People are recognizing me, complimenting me.’ I felt like I belonged to something. And that feeling is universal — it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what color you are, young people want to be accepted. That’s what hip-hop gave a lot of us. It gave us an identity. I grew up with this stuff; before there was an industry, before people wanted to talk with me about a film, I was just a kid growing up in New York, dancing and doing graffiti and all these things that have now crossed the globe and influenced people all over the place. I’m very thankful that someone who is of the culture and of the community has the opportunity to tell these stories.
If you go: “Fresh Dressed” opens at the Angelika Film Center and is available on VOD on Friday.