An investigation into the endearing relationship between two of our obsessions
By Nabeel Allie
Since Run DMC's iconic track, 'My Adidas', to when Tupac namechecked Chucks on 'California Love', all the way to "Yeezy, yeezy just jumped over Jumpman!" on Kanye West's 'Facts (Charlie Heat Version)', sneakers and hip-hop have been inextricably tied together. Let's take a journey and look back on how the two met and marvel at their relationship.
From the track and the courts to the street, the journey of sneakers into hip-hop culture was a straight line. No deviations, no detours, no nonsense. Kicks like Nike's Cortez and adidas Originals' Superstars stand out as foundational street culture kicks because of their successful stint in athletics and basketball respectively. In America particularly, the social influence of sneakers is almost limitless because African Americans have dominated both sports where sneakers draw their origins from: athletics (track and field) and basketball.
In 2013, over 70% of the NBA's players were African-Americans. It's a league that is followed closely by Black America. What NBA stars wear, their fans wear, so it should come as no surprise that sneakers quickly found and continue to find their way from players' feet to fans' in a heartbeat.
The Puma Suede, one of hip-hop's most iconic shoes, owes much of its cultural relevance to athletics. Tommie Smith famously broke the 200m world record – the first to ever go sub-20 – at 1968's Olympic Games in Puma running shoes, which he held up and showed to the world. He then famously held his hand aloft with the Black Power salute as he stood atop the podium. Five years later NBA star, Walt Fraizer (nickname Clyde), endorsed the Suede sneaker and soon a shoe was made in his honour.
Can I kick it? Yes you can!
Run DMC's 1986 classic, 'My Adidas', is often hallmarked as the hip-hop sneaker song and the growth of sneakers and hip-hop has only grown since then. 2003 stands out as a watershed moment in the two's relationship because Reebok linked with the hottest hustler and businessman, Jay-Z, to make him the first ever non-athlete to get their own signature shoe, the S. Carter – which still holds its position as Reebok's fastest selling shoe ever. In the same year, after they made an appearance in his music video for 'Wanksta', 50 Cent collaborated with Reebok to produce his signature G-Unit shoe. Choosing to align with two of rap's most prolific artists is illustrative of the position and marketability of hip-hop and sneakers at the time – as well as the endeavour of both artists. The move by Jay and Fiddy is a reflection of the former's iconic line on 'Can't Knock the Hustle': "All us blacks got is sports and entertainment/Until we even".
In 2005, to help with the launching of her album, Respect M.E., Missy Elliot joined forces with adidas to release a street-ready capsule complete with bold high-tops and baggy tracksuits. Three years later, Nas connected with the Italian sports giants Fila. "My best friend Will and I loved Fila," he told Billboard. "It represented prestige and everything that was cool to us. When Will passed, we buried him in a black Fila sweatsuit, so doing a deal with them has a lot of significance for me."
Two years after Hova and Fiddy released their sneakers, Pharrell Williams collaborated with BAPE founder, Nigo, to launch Billionaire Boys Club and his sneaker brand, Ice Cube – "See these ice cubes?/See these Ice Creams?" – but Ice Cubes never amounted to what they could have due to a fallout with Pharrell and Reebok, who he had signed a distribution deal with (ever wondered why his Ice Cubes were blurred out in the 'Drop it Like it's Hot' music video?). When 2009 came around, Kanye West followed in the footsteps of his big brother and became Nike's first non-athlete to release a shoe of his own, the Air Yeezy. That same year he designed a sneaker for Louis Vuitton, which he iconically wore for some of his performances of 'Runaway'. The Red Octobers, or the Air Yeezy II, were the last shoes he made with Nike. Perhaps it's for that reason, in conjunction with the sneaker's striking silhouette, that a pair of them went for over $15 million on Ebay in 2014.
Kanye leaving Nike was one of the biggest moves in the sneaker industry. They offered West money (lots of money) to stay with them but adidas' Global Director of Entertainment, Jon Wexler, shed light on the affair saying that they offered West something he craved more than money: full creative control. This was new territory for West, and it would become new territory for Williams and hip-hop too. While 50 and Jay were capitalising on their brand as street rappers to create once-off kicks, Yeezy and Skateboard P went about designing their own shoes that have proven their longevity. During AW14 Pharrell released his first capsule with adidas and Kanye stepped up the following year with his Yeezys. Last year, the former released his Human Race collection, which stood out thanks to its striking wording on the upper of each shoe and to this day Yeezys have the highest global resale value of any sneakers.
Kanye is an important figure to show how hip-hop artists have diversified their creative endeavours. In 2014, one of our time's most memorable musicians entered the fashion world when she was named Puma's Creative Director. Her name? Robyn Rihanna Fenty. Starting with her Fenty Creeper – which sold out in 12 hours, no sweat – Rihanna quickly followed that up with stunning collection after stunning collection. Importantly, she went about creating her own original sneakers and clothes, both of which blurred the lines of gendered fashion. Her recent venture into the makeup industry has proved just as fruitful.
Throughout these moments, one brand seems to be keeping things relatively low-key. Nike have entered a phase where they're re-releasing their most famous silhouettes more so than creating new ones, as adidas and Puma are aggressively doing. But they have locked down hip-hop's favourite sadboi, Drizzy Drake, who is an important figure to have on board – never forget when Kanye rapped, "If Nike ain't have Drizzy, man they wouldn't have nothin'," on 'Facts'. Brand ambassadors are important but Drake doesn't specialise in creating new shoes, rather, he adds his own touches to Nike's basketball-focused high-top silhouettes. The layperson could scarce tell you what a Drake sneaker looks like, while those designed by Rihanna, Kanye, Pharrell, or even Tyler, the Creator – whose shift from Vans to Converse was an undoubted success – are more memorable because of the originality of their designs.
Who will survive in America?
Any rapper who's releasing albums in the top 50 of the Billboard charts has a sneaker deal. Back in the day it was MC Hammer, LL Cool J, and The Game, and Lil' Wayne. Today Vince Staples, Rick Ross, Travis Scott, Pusha T and many others all have sneaker deals. It's part of the package and has consistently grown in its marketability. Today you'll find hip-hop everywhere – in the way we speak, dress and conduct ourselves – and beyond the genre of music, the culture of hip-hop has become imbued not only in the fabrication of the latest sneakers, but into the fabric of the world we live in as well.