Hip-Hop: Marketability Like No Other

FFrom its birth in the late ’70s, hip-hop has shared a unique relationship with fashion. Years of trends, crazes and interaction between both industries has cemented hip-hop fashion as a legitimate branch of the clothing industry, even pulling high fashion labels such as Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana in to try their hands at the game.

The subculture of hip-hop is commonly misunderstood as simply a musical genre, namely rap music, however in reality there are a number of elements which combine to produce the finished article seen today. At its core, hip-hop represents the ability to give a voice to the voiceless, giving those who suffer from adversity an opportunity to speak out and let others know they are not alone. Initially, this was achieved through several mediums, namely graffiti (street art), dj’ing, b-boy’ing (breakdancing), MC’ing (rapping) and beatboxing, all of which combine to produce the foundations of hip-hop.

Due to the popularity of the subculture, and as a result the diversity in consumer, it ceased to belong solely to a certain demographic group (at the time, the black community in the United States). Instead, it represented the voice of anyone who had suffered from adversity from any imaginable walk of life. An example can be found in the form of “Slingshot Hip-Hop“, a 2008 documentary film directed by Jackie Reem Salloum, delving into the adversity facing Palestinian hip-hop in the late ’90s. The film follows several Palestinian rappers, two groups from opposite and draconian factions, and their use of hip-hop as a tool to surmount divisions imposed by occupation and poverty. This ability of hip-hop to bring people together regardless of their ethnic origin or religious beliefs based on their shared experiences was, and still is today, an extremely powerful marketing tool, as well as life lesson. This marketability proved to be a big contributor, amongst others, to the realisation that hip-hop and fashion could work together to an extremely profitable end. This realisation however, came later, with the help of years of trends set by the subculture.

The way in which trends are set in hip-hop fashion are unlike any other, and unusually stem from the so called lower classes, as opposed to the normality of the height by wealthy individuals. MC’s (or masters of ceremonies) were seen not only as musicians, but also as entertainers and representations of “the people”. Traditionally MC’s wore clothing which the audience could relate to and emulate, ensuring the consumer feels the artist remains a part of the community. The early DJs, b-boys and b-girls were zealous consumers and fans, but largely invisible to the corporate brands they religiously wore. Aaron Clapp, train conductor and resident of New York, or more specifically the Bronx; an area with a profound history with music, especially hip-hop, offers his insight into the era from a first-hand perspective. He states, in the world of hip-hop, brands could be an especially important emblem of identity:

In the beginning [’70s] it wasn’t as important, until like 10 years later. But then around the late ’80s it became important because it identified the brand with the person. It was things that they used as lyrics. For example, Run-D.M.C. when they brought the brand of Adidas out.


Image credit: Jacy Davis on Flickr

Run-D.M.C., the group particularly popular throughout the ’80s and ’90s consisting of Jam Master Jay, Rev Run and D.M.C., proved to be the earliest instance of a group adopting a label as their own, even publicising through their professional work. The love affair can be dated back to ’86, when Run-D.M.C. released a track entitled “My Adidas“, a revolutionary move relating directly to one specific brand. The record was not made with the intent of publicising the clothing label, but simply for the group’s enthusiasm and fandom toward the German brand, as the fact that no fee was ever chased up reinforces. This proved to be too much of a promising opportunity from a marketing perspective for Adidas to pass up however, which only had Angelo Anastasio, a former European footballer and long time fan, as the face and ambassador of the brand in the Los Angeles area. As a result Russell Simmons, one half of the pioneering duo founding hip-hop label “Def Jam” who Run-D.M.C. worked alongside, invited Anastasio to see the group perform at Madison Square Gardens in New York, which proved a stroke of genius in a time where such a thing was unheard of. Anastasio was moved to such an extent by the performance which left the majority of the audience holding their pair of Adidas sneakers aloft in the air, that he immediately recommended to his superiors that the trio be signed in a multi-million dollar endorsement deal. This proved to be the first of its kind and marked the end of hip-hop’s corporate invisibility, and a growing realization of the power of hip-hop as a marketing tool for corporate brands.

Following the deal, as Aaron Clapp recounts, the fashion element in music grew to unforeseen levels. Every artist from bedroom to studio took an interest in their appearance with regards to clothing, and tried to out-do their competitors. Different regions of the USA brought in specific trends and claimed them as their own symbols of hip-hop, such as the west coast adopting oversize flannel colour shirts and Converse sneakers, the south introducing the “gold teeth” fashion, as well as New York assuming hoods and Timberland boots as their own. The specific garments identify artists, who wear them with pride, as a part of the certain community they represent as well as part of the wider hip-hop community in general.

The genre grew in a different direction during the early ’90s, with artists such as Will Smith, Tribe Called Quest and N.W.A. hitting the scene. Will Smith and Left Eye (of TLC) in particular assisted in the introduction of the brief neon phase, bringing brightly coloured clothes and baseball caps to the streets of America, and the world. Another trend of the time rang true to hip-hop’s roots, with styles such as wearing no laces in sneakers and the sagging of the trousers, being born from prison outfitting, where prison wardens would confiscate belts and laces from prisoners upon arrival. The major player in terms of brands of the time period was Nike, who benefited from their capture of basketball star Michael Jordan from rivals Adidas.

The mid to late ’90s once again grew and developed styles specific to their time, moving away from the scruffy street image and instead becoming more about a display of wealth and class. The previously commonplace gold chain was replaced instead by platinum, for those who could afford it, as well as the gold teeth “grill” (removable golden metal cast over the teeth) being replaced with the same pricey metal. On the east coast for elite artists especially, “Scarface” proved to be inspiration. The “mobster” look consisted of several items such as the pinstripe suit, double breasted jacket, silk shirts and alligator skin shoes; all items intended to suggest the genre had grown to such an extent that artists could wear what only the upper classes could have before. Brands which flourished as a result included Tommy Hilfiger in particular (after artist Snoop Dogg wearing the brand during a TV performance) alongside Calvin Klein and DKNY, though others such as Jordan and FUBU still proved to be successful on the most part down to the exclusivity and cost of the “mobster” look. Additionally, the brain child of Damon Dash and Jay-ZRocawear” grew to popularity soon after it’s creation in ’99, proving to be the first of it’s kind to have artist directly involved in design and production of garments, later prompting the Wu-Tang Clan (Wu-Wear), Outkast (Outkast Clothing) and 50 Cent (G-Unit Clothing) to try their hands at the fashion game, without quite as much success.

jay-z-damon-dash-rocawear-by- Piper_Mckei

Image credit: Piper_Mckei on Flickr

Hip-hop fashion trends from the early millennia have fluctuated enormously, as opposed to having specific looks to define each era. Artist owned brands have been fighting it out with regards to consumer bases, all suggesting the time suit their look particularly in place of the others. The gangster image, varied from the late ’90s however, was firmly back in fashion during the early period of the new century, due partly to Curtis Jackson‘s (50 Cent) success and influence over the mainstream market. Expensive chains and earrings made out of materials such as platinum, gold and diamond rose to fashion once more, enabling a route into the industry for high fashion luxury brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton, contrasting with the traditional low-key streetwear image of the genre. Several artists such as Common, Public Enemy and Immortal Technique purposely choose not to wear such items however, in an attempt to portray a message against materialism. The trends we see before us today once again fluctuate largely depending on the specific style of hip-hop involved however generally, the style of wearing loose fit, baggy clothes has died. Instead, truer fitting jeans and t-shirts featuring the logo of, what were traditionally skateboard brands, such as Obey, Supreme, Stussy and HUF as well as “snap-backs” are commonplace, brought in on the most part by new-school hip-hop groups such as Odd Future, A$AP Mob and Pro Era, featuring Tyler The Creator, A$AP Rocky and Joey Bada$$ respectively.

With any trend, there are those who disagree with the message portrayed. There have been many instances of complaints against the materialistic values of hip-hop fashion, especially during the boom in popularity of luxury brands. One reader voiced his complaints in a letter to the editor in chief of hip-hop oriented Source magazine, claiming that the amount of advertising space for luxury brands left the hip-hop community, most dangerously the youth, believing they had to “hustle, steal, or rob and blast shots for flyness”; promoting drug and violence culture in order to stay fashionable due to the price of on-trend garments. There have also been several instances of high profile artists being involved in street robberies, such as the theft of Queen Latifa‘s car, and the theft of $300,000 worth of jewellery from Prodigy at gunpoint, both of which point at materialism as the sole reason of blame.

Whether these trends and fashions promote negative culture within consumers or not, one thing can be said conclusively; the genre has a certain niche marketability unseen in any other. Hip-hop storian Nelson George describes the genre as:

an incredibly flexible tool of communication, quite adaptable to any number of messages,” which is “why it has been so easy to turn every element of the culture associated with [it] into a product.

It is precisely this ability to market hip-hop with various different messages that enables the genre to appeal to so many demographic groups of consumer, and collectively represent the voice of the few. Initially, hip-hop was solely the voice of the black community, however today it relates to a general struggle, whether through money, power or any other fight against adversity which can be found, bringing such a variety of people together in a way different than ever before. This unique ability was big contributor to the realisation that both music and fashion could intertwine and marry to an extremely profitable end, however not the sole reason.

The culture of “hype” within hip-hop centres around the consumer’s need to hear a track simultaneously as it’s released, or even if it is “leaked” beforehand, of which the internet blogging site “HypeTrak” relies on; presenting news on, and the music itself, earlier than anywhere else. With regards to clothing, the need for a rare model of sneaker, or exclusive collaboration is apparent, as popular blogging site “Hypebeast” displays; bringing consumers news on upcoming collaboration or collection releases.

… N***’s a target for marketing.” (Tyler The Creator, Lone, Wolf, April 2013)

Rapper, producer and director Tyler Gregory Okonma, known in the musical world as Tyler The Creator, refers to the industries use of artists in order to market new collections in the image of the individual or group. This is possible through the idolisation of artist by consumer, which sees numerous fans replicate a group’s style through choice of clothing. Artists simply become “targets for marketing”.

This use of artists as marketing tools playing on the culture of “hype” alongside the ability of hip-hop to represent the voiceless from so many demographic groups, prove to be the two biggest contributors to the genres seemingly unmatched level of pull with regards to consumer buying habits.

By Marc Vasmant.


  • Andrew, you always come up with some good stuff . I know the culture took off because it did relate to generation x and all those looking for an identifier . Over the years the organic nature that made rap so compelling is no longer there . Mainly because the compositions that accompanied ol skool was full of big hooks. And those choruses had meaning . Listen to some of the early music that came from the east/west coast even southern rappers . The music was music not beats .

  • So well said Devine. Thank you for the feedback and the support, as always!