From the time hip-hop took its first steps in 70s New York, to the juggernaut it is today — crushing charts, selling out stadiums and creating icons — sneakers have stepped along with it.
Earning cred in the hood, looking slick in the cypher circle, inspiring the next big fashion statement, signing million-dollar deals, launching your own brand — hip-hop’s biggest heroes have had their sneakers as their biggest hype men on several occasions. With the right sneakers on their feet, rap revolutionaries have brought the world to their feet.
Here’s a look at rap’s relationship with sneakers, and some of the dopest kicks to have kickstarted the culture. Lace-up and step right in.
“I wear my Adidas when I rock the beat
On stage, front page, every show I go
It’s Adidas on my feet, high top or low.”
-‘My Adidas’ by Run-D.M.C
They all started trading their craft a stone’s throw away from each other in New York’s Hollis, Queens neighbourhood and earned their stripes as arguably hip-hop’s first international superstars. But for sneakerheads looking to step into their legacy, it’s just three stripes away.
The trio of Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay kicked open many firsts in hip-hop. But it was their love for sneakers that earned them rap’s first million-dollar cheque and a partnership with Adidas.
It was in 1986, when Adidas executive Angelo Anastasio heard about this rap trio from Hollis, and decided to attend their gig at the Madison Square Garden. What followed was a brand manager’s wet dream.
About to perform their new track ‘My Adidas’ — Run-D.M.C asked the packed stadium to raise their Adidas in the air. Anastasio watched in rapt breath as thousands of fans held up their Adidas sneakers in unison as Run-D.M.C dropped the beat.
At the end of the night, Anastasio offered the group a $1 million deal with Adidas — the first in rap history. “I gave them $1 million but they ended up generating sales of more than $100 million over the next four years,” Anastasio recalled in Babrbara Smit’s bestseller read Sneaker Wars.
Run D.M.C had become the Kings from Queens, and their adidas Superstars were now the world’s.
“Grinding in my Jordans
kick ’em off they might be hot. Swish.”
-‘John’ by Lil Wayne ft. Rick Ross
In 1985 on the back cover of his debut album Radio LL Cool J turned up in a black Air Jordan I with a bold red swoosh. The initiation of Air Jordans into the world of rap had been done. But come the late 80s and 90s, fanfare for these iconic sneakers was set to hit the stratosphere.
As Michael Jordan hit GOAT like form, decimating opponents for fun and clinching 6 NBA championships, everyone wanted to be like Mike. And rappers on the block surely found inspiration from ‘His Airness.’
By the 90s, thanks to the roaring popularity of the Air Jordans, Nike had managed to merge sports, entertainment and music worlds together. You could be slam dunking on the court, dropping a bar at the cypher or walking down red carpets — all while rocking the newest version of the Jordan.
“And I ain’t rockin no more designer shit.
White T’s and Nike Cortez”
-Kendrick Lamar on ‘Control’
While the New York rap scene was all about showing off their clean Air Jordans or Adidas Superstars, back in LA your sneakers had to be way tougher. The city of angels loved a touch of danger in their rap and their kicks.
Dubbed as hip-hop’s most dangerous sneaker, the Nike Cortez became a de-facto uniform of LA gang culture in the 80s and 90s. Khaki pants, white tee, flannel shirts and a Cortez on your feet was the hood uniform in certain neighborhoods you didn’t want to mess with.
Eazy-E, one of LA’s first hustlers on the mic, strutted on MTV for N.W.A introducing the world to Compton’s street knowledge. Kendrick Lamar, watched his hometown heroes in awe and went on to follow in their footsteps. Lamar today has his own range of Nike Cortez.
The West Coast welcomed home its prodigal son and sneakers with open arms, while a new generation of sneakerheads can now go “Damn” looking at the iconic Cortez.
These were some of the early pioneering sneakers that powered the culture. From rap’s early rise in New York, to its booming gangsta success in the West Coast, these were the kicks of choice for rappers and hip-hop’s creators.
But there’s a lot more history to step into. Kanye West building his own sneaker empire, Jay-Z switching sides, A$AP turning designer, sneakers being name-dropped frequently in rap hits — for all those and more, see you on the next read of ‘sneakers that shaped hip-hop history.’