Renaissance: Hip-Hop and Fashion in Harlem

Renaissance: Hip-Hop and Fashion in Harlem

Henry Furman

Photo: Randy Singleton.

Before the Apollo’s lights first flickered in the beginning of the 20th century, African ancestry, scattered across the Caribbean and southern United States, was pieced back together by the migration of its descendants to northern industrial America. This amalgam created one of the great cultural contributions the country has ever seen. The definition of the American experience, and subsequently American artistic expression, would be forever altered due to the creativity pulsating from the northern blocks of New York proper.

But Harlem is different now. The quaint neighborhood that housed Garvey, Du Bois and Armstrong is now riddled with big business. Urban development is also making Harlem difficult to recognize, as increased rent has dropped the African-American population to nearly 40%.

Since the new millennium, there has been a hunger for a voice from Harlem in popular culture. And finally, a new breed of musicians has risen from uptown. And they dress pretty damn well, too.

Hip-hop’s rising star au courant is A$AP Rocky. The corner of 116th and Morningside, where his father and late brother were full time drug-dealers, was part of the family business. A$AP Rocky – born Rakim Mayers – followed suit until last May, when he committed himself to his music career. But unlike gaudy Harlem rappers who came before him, namely Cam’ron and Jim Jones, his savings went towards Raf Simons and Rick Owens, both high-class designer brand names dropped in his hit single “Peso,” which quickly led to a $3 million dollar record deal with Sony RCA.

As a result, A$AP Rocky hears applause from West 125thth and Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a rare occurrence in his genre. “If I’m wearing Rick Owens and all that other shit, [people in the hood] are not used to that,” he asserted in a GQ interview. “I have a voice that speaks for a whole other market – not just black people, but high fashion urban people. I mix street wear with high fashion. It’s never been seen before.”

But A$AP Rocky is just the start. Apparently sporting 3.1 Phillip Lim isn’t just his thing, it’s a Harlem thing. Rising from the streets north of Manhattan is a contingent of fashion-conscious hip-hop artists, notable members including Vinny Cha$e and Rich-P, who look as good as they sound.

Cha$e, who can usually be found dripping in Jeremy Scott and vintage silk jackets, has released two mixtapes under the Cheers Club Music conglomerate. The former Juelz Santana videographer’s second project, Survival of the Swag, was received extremely well by the hip-hop community after its release earlier this year. His affiliation with New York fashion blog Fortune Taste has warranted attention from the city’s highest brows.

While his fashion sense is on par with A$AP Rocky’s, Vinny Cha$e has adopted a very different sound. Unlike the psychedelically slow pace of “Peso” and other A$AP tracks, Vinny is upbeat, with complicated rhyme schemes and a quick tongue. Producer Kid Art combines well-implemented samples with jazzy synths that interplay perfectly with Vinny’s repartee.

Perhaps a happy medium between the two artists exists in a third. Fellow Harlem native Rich-P brings a tone that is a little easier to swallow for the average listener, with familiar beats and talking points. His freestyle over Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Ni**as in Paris” is his most popular track, and deservedly so. Regardless, he’s still aggressive with his trendsetting. Mixing Comme des Garçons and a leopard print tank top is nothing more than a uniform for Rich-P. As he puts it in the first verse of “Can I Get it to Go,” he’s “showing them how the hood work[s], with better clothes.”

A$AP Rocky and Vinny Cha$e would certainly include themselves in that statement. All three artists have great lyrical skills, but their music, while quality, isn’t especially unique. What is unique is the tremendous attention to aesthetic detail and to the avant-garde rag trade. Especially considering each artist hails from Harlem, a community that celebrates tradition so fervently.

But hip-hop is all about progression and disregarding societal norms, so being different is expected. Even in fashion, rappers including Kanye West and Pharrell Williams have been setting sophisticated fashion trends for years. But that’s not the focus here.

Essentially, these cunning young men are fighting a two-headed beast. They’re trying to make their neighborhood relevant again, especially in regards to traditional black culture. But it’s non-traditionalism that is the driving force behind their brand. Few would take notice if Taz Arnold weren’t inspiring their wardrobes. It’s quite compelling.

When asked to describe the relationship between hip-hop and fashion in an interview with Complex magazine, A$AP Rocky explained, “As black people it was our thing to show that we’re not living in poverty and that we can afford extravagant things – that kind of stuck with us. So when our great-grandparents were putting on their favorite outfits, it was to put on a front for the hard times. And hip-hop is just a bunch of people that never had nothing. Fashion is just an expression. It’s an art. It expresses your taste. Good taste is important in hip-hop.”

In other words, there’s been a relationship between hip-hop and fashion for a long time. Hats off to Harlem for doing it right.

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