Coming to life in the 1970s, Hip Hop music not only brought the world a unique genre of music but it also created a new way for musicians to show their success through the jewelry they wore. Hip Hop had humble beginnings, first appearing at block parties in the Bronx. Its musicians were down-to-earth and unpretentious. They stuck to the fashionable trends of the times with a heavy reliance on distinctively styled sunglasses, bell bottoms, and running suits in soft materials. If they wore jewelry at all, more often than not, their choices included beaded necklaces and bracelets. Instead of gold crowns, their heads were adorned with knit caps in a mix of greens, yellows, reds, and blacks.
Before long, Hip Hop moved off the streets of New York and into the public’s eye, where it slowly transformed its musicians into urban-styled rappers wearing a little more of the money they earned performing. They turned their beaded necklaces in for gold chains and cross pendants. Their knit caps also got an update and became felt fedoras or baseball caps tilted to the side. Large hoop earrings took away the naked look of ears freshly released from knit caps. Running suits and bell bottoms gave way to running shoes and the ever-popular leather jacket. Kurtis Blow, the first artist to achieve the title of a “Gold” Hip Hop Album, was one of the first to put on several gold chains as part of his look.
The Early Years – 1980s
As Hip Hop marched into the 1980s to the beat of drums accompanied by rapping lyrics, new groups joined in and claimed their place in the growing popularity of this music genre. The fashion of Hip Hop changed as the music scene grew familiar with fresh names and faces. LL Cool J. and others garnered attention from the world of music fans with louder music delivered by guitars, unapologetic lyrics that tested cultural comfort levels, and base tracks that did everything possible to make noise.
The climate of Hip Hop had indeed changed, so it would not make sense for the fashion to remain the same. Leather jackets were now accompanied by leather pants or traded in for sports jerseys and flat hats. Shirts were often tossed aside and the nakedness of chests was hidden by numerous chains of gold. With all that bling hanging out on the torso, diamond-embedded gold rings became popular.By the time the second half of the 1980s came marching in, Hip Hop began to top the charts and win awards. As the popularity of the groups within this genre began to rise, the public’s embrace became even warmer than in the previous decade.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, gold rope chains not only grew in popularity but in size as well. While the cost of one was a mere twenty grand during these years, but the time the new millennium arrived, rappers were dropping close to a hundred thousand on a single chain. One of the most memorable iced-out versions was Nas’s King Tut chain.
Growing Pains – the Mid-1980s and Early 1990s
Between the mid-80s and early half of the 1990s, the music again began to change with new artists coming in with their own sense of experimentation and creativity. Hip Hop now encompassed a lot of players, creating the opportunity again for changes in fashion accessories.
High tops and Timberland boots covered feet, while oversize pants took center stage. Instead of oversized hoops, ears became adorned with door-knocker earrings. Chests were now covered with necklaces featuring large emblems, and knuckle rings entered the picture.
Soon, artists on both coasts began to market the culture as well as their music using gold chains featuring names and logos. Labels such as Bad Boy Records, No Limit Records, and Death Row Records are only a few of the ones participating in this strategy.
West Coast Influences – The 1990s
By now, Hip Hop had reached the West Coast, and a war of sorts came to life. Musicians from the East Coast continued to love their fedoras as head toppers, while stars from the West Coast preferred bandanas. Other differences in fashion were evident with East Coast stars embracing zoot suits and large parkas, and musicians from the West Coast choosing preppy shirts and baggy pants. Players on the eastern coast covered their hands in gold nugget rings and their teeth with fancy grillz, while the rappers on the western side of the country chose the accumulated sparkle of wearing multiple chains.
As the years reached the end of the decade, more changes took place with gold giving way to platinum adorned in brilliant arrays of diamonds. Leather wristbands, brass knuckles, and dog chains entered the scene along with Jesus-inspired chains and necklaces.
An East Coast rapper, Biggie, also known as “The Notorious B.I.G.” met an untimely end in 1997, but his influence continues today with many rappers embracing his iconic Jesus pendant as part of their fashion ensemble. While big jewelry has often played a role in Hip Hop, many artists have chosen the Jesus chain as their go-to piece, including Kanye West and Jay-Z, using it for inspiration in creating lyrics.
Bigger is Better – The 2000s
As the new millennium appeared, Hip Hop artists drew inspiration from previous decades of jewelry, but the bling got bigger and glitzier. Pendants grew to gigantic size and diamonds adorned teeth in even more numbers. By now, expensive pieces of jewelry were established as part of Hip Hop culture, and artists kept trying to outdo each other with bigger, glitzier, more expensive pieces of Hip Hop jewelry. Perhaps even more interesting than escalating prices in Hip Hop jewelry is the fact that many rappers began name dropping, giving their jewelry designers high praise. One of the most popular of these is Jacob the Jeweler, who designed huge pieces for Pharrell, Busta Rhymes, Diddy, Foxxy Brown, and Jennifer Lopez.
Hip Hop bling continued to undergo transformation with southern rappers going to TV Johnny for expensive grillz. Each one was designed to portray the ultimate level of success while holding to the principle of gaining attention through the size and beauty of Hip Hop jewelry. Famous rappers known for their customized grillz include Kanye West, Lil Jon, Juicy J, Paul Wall, and Nelly.
As rappers began to search for ways to stand out, Hip Hop chains grew larger and more expensive. Price tags climbed upward, skyrocketing into hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single piece of Hip Hop jewelry that was clearly over-the-top and going to get attention. One of the most famous of these is the 197-carat “Big Ass Chain” worn by T-Pain.
Times are changing the look of Hip Hop jewelry once again with a return to more subtle ways of showing off successful careers. Beads are making a big comeback and earthy tones are showing up in jewelry pieces crafted from wood. Nonetheless, the influence of the past can still be felt as gold and diamonds continue to play a big role in Hip Hop jewelry.
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