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How Hip-hop Works

Hip-hop Fashion

Baby Phat model with grill
Karl Prouse/Catwalking/Getty Images
A model sporting a grill walks the runway at a Baby Phat fashion show in New York City.

Fashion is fickle -- styles come, go and come back again in the blink of an eye. Hip-hop fashion is no exception. In the beginning, DJs were the leaders of hip-hop style. Many took fashion cues from the disco styles surrounding them, while others developed styles of their own. As graffiti and breaking united with music to create the beginnings of a cultural movement, eyes started to focus on the MCs and breakers.

At first, most breakers dressed for comfort and practicality. Loose-fitting pants (sometimes with suspenders), comfortable sneakers (with the laces left mostly undone) and colorful t-shirts (to go with other members of a dancer's crew) were standard on the East coast. Meanwhile, military-inspired outfits with baggy pants (again, sometimes with suspenders) and lace-up boots were popular with some dancers on the West coast.

When Run-D.M.C. hit the scene, so did a look that would, at least in part, be emulated for years: black leather jackets and pants, black fedoras or Kangol hats, large, chunky chains and, of course, Adidas. Eventually, these leather "suits" made way for nylon and cotton tracksuits, still adorned with heavy jewelry. The ensemble was often topped with a Kangol or baseball cap and bottomed with a pair of designer athletic shoes (Adidas made way for Nike). African-inspired clothing also enjoyed a surge of popularity. Kente cloth from Ghana appeared in almost every type of apparel, and red, yellow, black and green were the colors du jour. Hats, and even entire outfits, were worn backward (remember the Kriss Kross video "Jump"?). Basketball jerseys were worn over t-shirts with jeans so baggy that they pooled in a puddle of fabric stopped only by the open, unlaced top of a Timberland or Lugz boot.

Love (and Life) is Strange
In a genre primarily run, produced, written and sung by men, it's surprising to discover that a woman was behind the first hit rap recording. Sylvia Robinson was co-founder and co-owner of Sugar Hill Records. Robinson had her own hit at the age of 14. In 1957, Mickey & Sylvia's "Love is Strange" garnered No. 1 on the R&B charts and made it to No. 11 on the pop charts. If you're having trouble conjuring up this tune, a little "Dirty Dancing" might help. Recall the scene where Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze mime the lyrics to the song playing in the background? That's the Mickey & Sylvia hit.

As the 1990s came to a close, oversized was still the size of choice, be it denim or cargo pants. The gangsta style of wearing pants so low that underwear shows persists today. Reportedly, the practice comes from prisons, where belts aren't allowed due to potentially lethal uses [source: CNN]. Kangol hats remain, as do baseball caps. Joining them is the do-rag, reportedly another prison-wear influence.

Gangsta-inspired clothing wasn't the only 90s hip-hop staple. Designer labels, such as Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, filled closets from the East to the West Coast. The label-heavy trend remains today. Some of the more prominent brands on the shopping list include: Baby Phat, Carhartt, Converse, Dickies, Ecko and Ecko Red, Fubu, G-unit, Lacoste, Phat Farm, Reebok, Rocawear, Sean John, and Von Dutch.

Some of these didn't originate in the fashion industry -- they started within the hip-hop industry. Probably the oldest label is Russell Simmons' Phat Farm. The original hip-hop mogul's holdings are reportedly worth close to $325 million [source: Katel]. Jay-Z sold Rocawear for $204 million and purchased another clothing line, Artful Dodger, for $15 million [source: Brown].

Clothing isn't the only big business associated with hip-hop. Accessories -- particularly jewelry -- bring in the Benjamins, too. Long before the word "bling-bling" ("bling" for short) was coined, Kurtis Blow gave gold a good name by donning several chains, some with medallions, at once. Run-D.M.C. and others took it a step further and beefed up the gauge of the gold, wearing incredibly thick chains that resembled actual rope. As time went on, jewelry became more elaborate, and gold gave way to platinum -- of the iced-out variety, encrusted with diamonds.

For those so inclined (not all hip-hoppers adorn themselves), there's jewelry for almost every body part. Multiple-finger rings can double as a set of super-expensive, not-so-brass knuckles. Belly chains can complement a navel ring. Even teeth can go gold or platinum. While some early hip-hop artists went in for simple gold caps, today's stars can have extra sparkle and shine with a grill.

From graffiti to grills, hip-hop is one of the most influential cultural movements ever to transpire in the United States -- and its impact isn't confined to one continent. Next, we'll take a look at how hip-hop has spread.