In the 1970s, a new type of groove called hip hop that relied on rhythm, technology, and poetry became the music of choice within African American and Latino communities in New York City, particularly in the Bronx. Borrowing from African American, West African, and Caribbean forms of musical expression, hip hop artists would combine the flavor of rhythmic phrasing, percussion breaks, and melodic sampling to create dance hits that were often politically charged and socially relevant. Using large stereo systems, DJs would manipulate turntables, intertwining, overplaying, and undercoating beats over which artists could rap and slam. As the art form became increasingly popular and recognized as a new form of giving voice to marginalized communities, DJs, MCs, word stylists, and singers would perform at neighborhood block parties, using call and response chants, involving the people into the work itself. Break-dancers found their role in the performances early, inventing body flows, freezes, power moves, top rocks, and down rocks in time to the syncopation and the complications of the music. B-boys and B-girls became permanent fixtures and new personalities in the formation of youth identity among many African Americans and Latinos.
Emerging from hip hop was a distinct style of dress, of aesthetic, of swagger. Although more mainstream and traditional critics called this new art form noise, a degeneration of youth, and delinquent, others praised the music as finally speaking the truth to the social, economic, and political realities of oppressed and marginalized communities. For those who found voice in hip hop, the hip hop look became a part of owning the identity. Although certain garments, hairstyles, and makeup were considered hip hop cool, the aesthetics of hip hop became much more associated with an attitude, a gangsta reputation, a street cred. It was not until hip hop became part of the MTV generation, with music videos and documentaries introducing an underground movement into a wider, whiter mass and popular culture that the term hip hop became a branding that could be sold to a much broader market.
Hip hop artists such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Sister Souljah, the Sugar Hill Gang, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G., Roxanne Shante, and Tupac Shakur wielded unprecedented power and influence in American youth culture. Distinct and talented artists, together they helped to give an edge, a particular flavor to a subversively political urbanity. Just as the messages about inequality, racism, and prejudice in America were communicated loud and clear through hip hop, so too were the clothes and aesthetic bold, bright, and bombastic. Hip hop fashion harmonized with the attitudes and expressions of hip hop culture—at times outrageous, many times in your face, and at all times creative. In the 1980s, as hip hop moved from the streets onto the television screen and radios, boom boxes, and stereo systems everywhere, name brands such as Timberland, Adidas, Nike, Le Coq Sportif, Carhhart, and Kangol sold themselves as outfitters to B-boys and B-girls. For men, tracksuits, bomber jackets, sneakers with phat laces, Clarks shoes, harem pants, low-rise jeans, and leather work boots became identified with the male swagger of the new culture. Hairstyles ranged from dreadlocks to hi-top fades, braids to Afros. Accessorized with large eyeglasses, nameplates, bold belt buckles, big gold rings, heavy gold chains, and blinged-out pendants, hip hop fashion for males was in control and on display.
Although many saw hip hop as a predominantly male genre, many female artists demanded a place in the new world and a mic to express their views. Women such as Missy Elliot, Queen Latifah, Left Eye Lopez of TLC, MC Lyte, and Salt-NPepa rapped their way into starring roles in the hip hop and rap worlds. Inspired by black nationalism in the late 1980s, many of these female artists adapted their look to the political movement, dressing in the red, black, and green of the panAfrican flag, wearing kente cloth head wraps, and playing with the stereotypes of male and female clothing. In her video, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” Missy Elliot pushed the definitions of masculine and feminine with various outfits of baggy overalls, black leather, sci-fi shiny blown-up pleather, and track suits. Some female artists wore what male hip hop artists wore—baggy jeans, work boots, and jerseys, but with makeup and flair. At the same time, other women such as Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown used sexuality as part of their modus operandi, donning tight, glamorous, and sexy outfits that celebrated their curves and played on their roles as women who controlled their own desires and the satisfaction of those needs. While the outfits often manipulated ideas of gender, makeup tended to be feminine, sexy, and sensual. Haloed by a multiplicity of hairstyles, from weaves to braids, from short to long, from curls to straight, women often had glossy, dark lips; long, luscious lashes; and glowing, lustrous skin. Blinged out in nameplate necklaces, oversized gold doorknocker and hoop earrings, and large shiny rocked rings, hip hop females played with the nuances of gender and sexuality.
In juxtaposition with these strong female figures, however, were the women cast in the music videos of primarily male artists. Cultural critics and feminists decried the objectification of women in these videos, often scantily clad, sexually posed, and derogatorily depicted, as sustaining and perpetuating the patriarchal, hyper sexualized stereotypes of African American males in the black community. Many male artists referred to women as ho and bitch, and described cases of physical abuse, rape, and psychological violence in the song lyrics. Accused of being misogynistic, hip hop culture has been heavily criticized for exacerbating male/female power relations and advocating male dominance and violence toward women.
Designers And Artists
As the hip hop movement became increasingly visible and popularized by MTV, hip hop artists defined the parameters and limits of the art form and soon realized the potential of their influence on youth culture. While many hip hop artists wore designers such as Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, and Polo Ralph Lauren in the 1990s, other artists ventured out of the music industry into the fashion and beauty world. Sean Diddy Combs, to whom the term ghetto fabulous is commonly attributed, was one of the first producer/performers to use his image and reputation to sell his own brand of clothing. Sean John earned critical and commercial success, taking hip hop from the streets into couture. Russell Simmons, producer and cofounder of hip hop label Def Jam and brother of Rev. Joseph Simmons (also known as Run of Run-DMC), created the Phat Farm clothing line. Simmons’s now ex-wife, Kimora Lee Simmons, took the Phat Farm line one step further, expanding into women and children’s fashion and offering hip hop fashion-forward fabulous clothing to the wider American public. Jay-Z and Damon Dash started Rocawear, 50 Cent runs G-Unit Clothing, Kanye West is slated to debut Pastelle, and Eve relaunched her Fetish clothing line in 2008. Female hip hop artists have also been involved in the makeup industry. Queen Latifah is a spokesmodel for CoverGirl; Kimora Lee Simmons has started her own makeup line, KLS Cosmetics; and Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, and Eve all represented the M.A.C. Viva Glam series.
Hip hop fashion and beauty has also had a strong international influence. In Italy, southern youths and young Arabs living in Rome have appropriated the art form, the mode of dress, and the lifestyle as a way to communicate their own dissatisfaction with Italian politics and society. Hip hop artists in France have found voice through poetry and beat as the country struggles with racial integration, anti-Arab racism, and nationalism. In Japan, where hip hop was part of an underground club scene, the art form has become part of the mainstream as Japanese hip hop stars have made their own albums, speaking their own poetry, telling their own stories. Throngs of youth crowd record stores looking for the latest albums by such artists as Schadaraparr, Rhymester, King Giddra, and Hime. Beyond the music, the fashion has hit the streets of Tokyo as well—more than 300 stores selling hip hop clothing have been doing fast business with Japanese youth.