“Rap is something you do! Hip hop is something you live!” Bronx native and hip-hop apostle KRS-One stated in his 1993 track, Hip Hop vs Rap. The Bronx is the birthplace of hip-hop culture, growing from a small block party in 1973 for around 100 people to becoming the most important music-based culture and movement in the world today. However, hip-hop is not just rap, dance and art; it is a way of being in the world.
The Street Dreams: How Hip-Hop Took Over Fashion exhibition at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam earlier this year, curated by Patta’s Lee Stuart in collaboration with Rotterdam’s Hip-Hop Huis examined how the genre of hip-hop has revolutionised style through customising, sampling and inclusivity. Through visual art, photography and video installations it explores how hip-hop took over fashion, focusing on the origins and underlying philosophy of this street culture.
“Creativity is the essence of hip-hop, and fashion services as a connecting element. Even though you may have been born a pauper, you can still look like a million bucks”.
Lee Stuart on hip-hop culture.
Street Dreams splits the ground floor space of the Kunsthal into four sections; somewhat echoing the four key elements/pillars of hip-hop as set out by Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation: mcing, djing, breakdancing and graffiti. The first and opening room sets the tone through a large video installation made especially for the exhibition by the Dutch artist Victor D. Ponten: A Trip Down the Memory Block. This video consists of one long-shot of 60 Rotterdam residents dressed in a variety of looks making up a living timeline which shows the development of hip-hop style and fashion.
This video timeline shows how much fashion plays a role in hip-hop; with just an instrumental track and the clothing it’s immediately obvious who these people are imitating such as Run DMC’s Adidas shelltoes, leather jackets, Kangol hats and thick gold chains, Public Enemy/Flava Flav’s sideways cap and clock necklace, Mobb Deep’s loose jeans, Timberland boots and varsity jackets, NWA’s black, logo-emblazoned caps, denim Carhartt and black Raiders jackets, Dipset’s loud, oversized and heavily printed jackets, bandanas and graphic t-shirts as well as many, many more.
“Nineteen years ago I moved from Velp (a little village in the East of Holland) to Rotterdam. I was just a kid, didn’t know shit about anything but I was pulled towards the city like metal to a magnet. I lived in Rotterdam-West, studied in Rotterdam-East so every day I rode my bike over the infamous West-Kruiskade. Soon I found out I didn’t need my Walkman any more, since out of every shop or car passing by a dope tune floated towards me. The vibe of that street was instantly printed deep into my memory. So, when [the] Kunsthal recently asked me to create a video installation that chronicles four decades of fashion in Hiphop music videos for their exhibition ‘Street Dreams: How Hiphop Took Over Fashion’, I knew I had to return to that memory.”
Victor D. Ponten on A Trip Down the Memory Block.
Sampling is at the heart of hip-hop; taking something existing and re-inventing it into something new, for you. This is what each era of hip-hop fashion has done , sampling and re-inventing what came before. Opposite this video, this timeline is explained in words and goes into detail of how hip-hop fashion grew in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, 00s and into the 2010’s and can be summarised (somewhat/generally) as this:
1970s: extravagant, colourful, leather and tight.
1980s: sportswear, trainers, kangol hats, gold jewellery and african-inspired.
1990s: loose fitting shirts, Timberland boots and own-brands against luxury.
2000s: baggy, sportswear, jewellery and sweatbands.
2010s: streetwear, graphic print t-shirts, high-end fashion and all the above.
The second room of Street Dreams is called The Gallery and is filled with some major artworks by contemporary artists; it represents the hip-hop dream of being very successful, earning money and having attitude. Many of the works here are photographs by the likes of Janette Beckman, Jamal Shabazz and Dana Lixenberg, showing the early years of hip-hop fashion.
Janette Beckman (b.1959) is a British documentary photographer whose initial interest was the UK’s growing punk subculture but moved to New York to capture the music scene there. After moving to New York, Beckman presented her portfolio to American record companies looking for work but they felt that the gritty feel of her work did not fit the “airbrushed” aesthetic preferred at the time and she was passed on to hip-hop labels, where she photographed upcoming acts such as Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys in their early days.
Jameel Shabazz (b.1960) was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York where at the age of 15 he picked up a camera and began to document his peers in his neighbourhood, inspired by older photographers and their documentation of the African-American community. He embarked on a mission to document various aspects of life in New York City and youth culture; due to its spontaneity the streets and subway became the backdrop for his photography.
I recently wrote a small piece about Dana Lixenberg (b. 1964) and her, now iconic, photographs of Tupac and Biggie Smalls when I visited a hip-hop inspired exhibition at Het HEM in Amsterdam in July 2019.
Room three is The Masters where pioneers and key figures from the hip-hop fashion industry give their sides of the story in a very candid, public and larger-than-life sized immersive, spatial installation developed especially for the exhibition. These figures are April Walker: the first black woman to start her own fashion label, David Fischer: founder of the lifestyle website Highsnobiety, Angelo Baque: former brand director of Supreme, Guillaume Philibert: founder and creative director of Filling Pieces and Edson Sabajo: co-founder of the streetwear brand Patta.
Each tell their own personal stories about their role in the hip-hop industry and their influence on the current fashion industry; they explain how at the start of their careers they encountered many obstacles but now the doors of renowned fashion houses are wide open to them.
On Sunday 4 August, David Fischer gave a talk at the Kunsthal, having recently published their new book, The Incomplete Highsnobiety Guide To Street Fashion And Culture. Fischer started writing a weblog from his student room in Berlin in 2005, writing about rare streetwear and trainers. 14 years later this blog has grown into a media empire with locations in New York, London, Los Angeles and Berlin with 150+ full-time creative thinkers where the website now produces daily content about music, fashion, art, culture and have themselves collaborated with important brands in footwear and streetwear.
Fischer chose to speak specifically about the hip-hop mantra of sampling and re-mixing, taking a deeper dive into the subject. Asking when does sampling lead to a new creation and when does it become copying and when can a brand appropriate something?
“Sampling and remixing is essential to hiphop culture. From the MC that raps over a record to the DJ that loops existing samples into new tracks. However, the culture encompasses much more than just music. It is about self-expression, fashion and social activism. You can copy, borrow and remix… but do it in your own way.
Highsnobiety explores the phenomenon of remix culture, the philosophy of taking existing ideas and fashioning them into something new. The form’s earliest practitioners pioneered an approach that merged worlds, leading to an entirely new style that took inspiration in equal part from the runways of Paris and Milan to the skaters and surfers along Venice Beach.
The streets sensed a cultural shift before anyone, one that has since changed the mindset of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses. Highsnobiety unearths the obscure and reveals how today’s most influential creatives recontextualized high fashion, art, and classic design to speak the language of the streets and bring remix culture to the masses.”
Kunsthal on sampling.
The final room The Drop explores hip-hop fashion now. Hip-hop started in The Bronx, but is now a world-wide phenomenon. Today, young people will stand in line for hours for new product launches, unique collaborations and special edition items. Although the codes of hip-hop culture have changed over time, its heart and soul remains the same: a culture that pushes the boundaries of its own world. This last room shows the impact of the artists of the first three rooms of the exhibition which has created the most dominant youth culture at the moment. It is difficult to see what can compare to this.
These new product launches, unique collaborations and special edition items are released by brands throughout the year as new drops. Rare items, released in limited quantities without much advance warning; here, through photography we can see these young buyers trying to get these items and express themselves through their fashion. This lifestyle has been captured in the New York based writer and designer Byron Hawes’ 2018 book, Drop, through photography.
“There are a couple of things that we tried to focus on. I really wanted to focus on the fact that there is a community, and also the fact that it’s incredibly international. When you look at it, when you just look through, unless you’re really into the culture, you probably won’t necessarily be able to identify where the places are, and then at the end, it lists literally the dates and locations of every single shot.
There’ll be people or somebody who think, “Oh, that’s New York,” but actually it’s Paris or London. You get a sense that the community is completely global, it’s not intellect or learned.”
Byron Hawes on Drop.
However, where there is demand, there is money to be made and many people see this as an opportunity to profit by buying up stock and selling it on; explained well in this documentary by Complex, Sold Out.