A history lesson from the good people at Sole Collector and D.M.C.:
“So, they put (Angelo Anastasio) up on it, so he went to adidas and said, “You know, listen, I know what’s going on. There’s this rap group Run-D.M.C. that made this, so adidas assigned him to leave L.A. to fly to New York to go to the show that Run-D.M.C. was doing in Madison Square Garden. He came … and he was hanging backstage. … But, when Run went out there during the show, “D, take it off your feet; hold it up. What’s those? Everybody in here, if you got adidas on, hold ‘em up.” So, 40,000 people in a sold-out Madison Square Garden held a sneaker up and Anastasio was like, “Oh my god, it’s true.””
This sparked the birth of the first partnership between rap and sportswear. Since then, it seems like every rapper has had some sort of influence on a major footwear producer. From Nike’s work with Drake and Macklemore, to Reebok collaborating with the likes of Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Rick Ross, and adidas’ Jon Wexler signing half of the rap industry with the three stripes it seems that rap has planted its flag of influence in the sneaker industry. There’s no debate that the influence of rap is worldwide, but its influence I believe is definitely strongest in the country it was born in.
The reasoning behind all these relationships is simple. Athletes sell shoes, but so do artists. The target market for a lot of silhouettes are identical with specific artist’s fans. The effect that an artist like Kanye West can have on the popularity of a piece is dumbfounding. For example, Kanye West attached his name to a plain white $120 T-shirt with French company A.P.C., and it “sold out instantly”. With millions of followers across the globe using mediums like Instagram’s Team Kanye Daily, WhereToGet, and a variety of blogs and magazines that showcase his outfit choices it’s no surprise that people want to dress like him. He isn’t the only artist with a cult-like following when it comes to fashion, so it is definitely worth mentioning that Puma’s move of bringing on Rihanna as Creative Director (much like Reebok did with Swiss Beatz in 2011) is a huge move for the women’s side of the brand. She is not a rapper, but it seems almost necessary to comment that Puma’s influence in the women’s market should see major growth thanks to her endorsement. 14.4 million Instagram followers will be subjected to her fashion choices, and Puma will likely see a nice bump in revenue thanks to her.
The adidas Run-D.M.C. partnership topped the list of the “best partnerships between rappers and sneaker companies”, and as the initial partnership it definitely has owned that spot. The now almost 30 year partnership has produced countless exclusive pairs and even has its own massive display pair at the adidas campus in Portland.
After adidas and the three Hollis-based artists teamed up there wasn’t very much collaboration between artists and shoe companies. The next big partnerships to form were Jay-Z and 50 Cent, who in 2003 partnered with Reebok. As 50 Cent said, he made “80 million (dollars) off the deal” and outsold Jay-Z’s more limited model by a 6:1 margin. The shoes may not have held their popularity as well as the Eminem Jordan 4 models that came out in 2004, but they are hard to compare since only 50 pairs were released by the Beaverton based behemoth. At this point, rappers were able to command incredible sums of money to co-sign a product based on their influence over customers. 2003-2005 was when rap planted its flag as a serious influencer in sportswear, and its reach has only grown since then.
Fast forward to a young multi-talented man from Chicago that in 2005 began his ascent to the top of the sportswear mountain. Kanye West’s work on a Nike model was his first foray into footwear, but his first pair that went past the sample stage was with the Japanese brand Bape. His work is well documented here, and there is no shortage of his influence. He even had his famous “dropout bear” on the heel of the Reebok S. Carter. In fact, the brands he’s worked with directly are Bape, Nike, and now adidas.
Since the Dassler feud brought on the battle to sponsor the best athletes in the world the sportswear industry hasn’t been afraid to push products using athletes as endorsers. As we saw beginning in the late 80’s this trend had begun to encompass more of popular culture. Just as athletes are seen as knowledgeable about what model might be best for their sport, celebrities became viewed as guides for how to look good. Rap has played a key influence in the sneaker industry based on a few things:
- Culture of product placement – The prevalence of showcasing brands in songs, videos, etc. is growing by the day.
- Prominence of brand shout outs and mentions in media – Social media, magazines, and blogs focus on who is wearing what, and what brands are showcased at various events. This has escalated with the explosion of the culture in the digital space.
- Opportunities for collaborations – Based on the history between hip-hop and sneakers there is a long history of artist collaborators that have worked with brands.
- Connection between basketball culture and rap – There is no debate that basketball and rap go together like Drake and the Raptors, but what is interesting is how sneakers all fit in here as well. There is clearly a happy marriage between these three cultural pillars, and the great brands leverage their influence in all three areas.
America is not only the birthplace of rap (and hip-hop), but it is very clearly the home of the genre. The relationship between rap and sneakers is possibly the largest relationship between music and a commodity outside of musical instruments and the music they create. As rap continues to flourish and develop subgenres the opportunities for collaboration between the two interlinked sub-cultures is massive. As long as hip-hop celebrities continue to be regarded for their fashion choices it’s a “no brainer” that their involvement will evolve from the successful product seeding initiatives and further we will see more artists listed as collaborators on projects.
(Image courtesy of High Snobiety)