a hip hop history told through pants
Call them whatever you want – pants, slacks, trousers – but the materials used to clothe your lower half are indicative of every movement since hip hop’s inception. Pull ‘em up, zip ‘em up, button ‘em, and check ‘em out…
A documentary at Sundance this year, titled Fresh Dressed, highlights the importance of fashion in hip hop, but right now we want to just talk about the pants. A pair of pants can spark a movement, and often has. From too baggy to too tight, rappers identify themselves by their choice of trouser. Sure, there are some staples across the board, but for the most part if you see a specific pair of pants, you can almost hear the kind of music that'll come from the body wearing them. i-D would like to take you on a little tour of hip hop history told through its pants.
Before we begin though, let's give an all-encompassing shout out to regular jeans. Jeans span every era — ripped up in the early 80s, paired with Polo (shout out to the Lo Lifes) in the late 80s, revived by FUBU and Tommy Hilfiger in the 90s, all the way up to now. Jeans are a staple in the history of hip hop's choice of leg coverer-upper. To designate one era would be false, so without further ado, we bring you all of the other pants.
Era: Late 1970s
Coming off the disco days, bellbottoms were still the norm during the earliest days of rap. Sugar Hill Gang rocked them, and ultimately it was a sign of extreme swag back then to have a nice leisure suit with a monochromatic pattern that ended with a belled bottom. KRS-One reminisced about those days in his DJ Premier-produced track Outta Here, "Rappers wore bell-bottom Lee suits / Me and Kenny couldn't afford that". It was a testament to the disco-infused tunes and funk tracks that were giving hip hop its first breath of life. Now though, you can find them at your local thrift store for a proper Halloween costume.
Era: Early 1980s and early 2010s
Punk and hip hop drew a lot of parallels due to their political nature, with both delving into the anti-establishment realm of creativity. With that came an edgier aesthetic, and while punk kids would rock spikes on leather jackets with asymmetrical hairdos, rappers jumped on the leather pants movement, often adding shirts with ripped sleeves and a headband to match. Of course there were some who rocked jeans and a leather jacket, but that was too basic for the leather-bottomed crowd. Kanye West would reignite the leather pants revival 30 years later, only his were twice as expensive, even with their slashmarks at the knee.
adidas Track Suits
Era: Mid 1980s and mid 1990s
The slang term for these pants are called "windbreakers," and that's so appropriate, given the number of b-boys and b-girls who would rock these pants while dropping classic moves like the windmill. adidas was the favoured designer for these pants, and heaven forbid you walked down the street with some pants that only had two stripes. Of course, the group that led the charge for adidas was Run-DMC, who would wear the full outfit of track pants, track jacket and some fresh shell-toes to match. This style signified the heavy breakbeats used on records that inspired movement on a whole other level. Those "matchy-matchy" tracksuits evolved into sweatsuits and later velour suits, rocked by guys like Biggie a decade later.
Era: Late 1980s
To say this was a style donned predominantly by women would be a misnomer, but let's - for the sake of argument - give this one to the ladies. From JJ Fad to Salt-N-Pepa, it was all about the ass. Okay, not all about it, but as women were hotboxing their way up the ranks in rap, it became a necessity to remind the male audience that while they might be the female of the sex, they had more than enough balls to lace some tough bars. Spandex pants and an 8-Ball leather jacket were not an uncommon combination, with the top letting you know that hip hop was in the building, while the bottom shouted, "Yup, and a woman at that!"
Era: Early 1990s
On the West Coast, Los Angeles County became the birthplace of gangster rap, with cities like Compton and Long Beach birthing young storytellers documenting life on the Crenshaw Blvd and beyond. Their clothing of choice? Oftentimes Dickies cuffed with Chuck Taylors, white tees and flannel shirts. While it was Gangster Rap attire, above all it was gangwear, arguably predominantly worn by Crips and Crip-affiliates, though the signature khaki colored Dickies were gang-neutral so other gang members (especially Latin gangs) would adopt them as well. Now Dickies are one of the main manufacturers of hospital wear (i.e. scrubs). Considering how many young men died from gang violence and police brutality wearing those Dickies, the irony is not lost on us.
Era: Early 1990s
With gangster rap often promoting violence, a whole other moment in time was blooming in the midst of hip hop's golden era. The Flower Child movement, (casually pegged as "alternative hip hop") was born, where the music derived from historically Black colleges (or the African American College Alliance) and housed more conscious undertones. Clothing lines like Cross Colours and Karl Kani became pioneers, dyeing denim (either as pants or really really long shorts) to match the colours in the Pan-African flag (red, black, green) and the Rastafarian flag (green, yellow, red). Of course more colours were thrown into the mix like burgundy, orange, indigo - you name it. However, the sentiment involved daring to be different. Take TLC and their safe sex mantra or A Tribe Called Quest. While alternative hip hop was seen as a disrespect (as to suggest that positive rap had to be alternative), these artists were providing an alternative to what else was happening in rap at the time. And their clothing matched it.
MC Hammer Pants
Era: Early 1990s and early 2010s
It would be easy to dismiss MC Hammer pants as just a hiccup in hip hop fashion, but there was more to them than that. There was always a counterbalance of opulence in hip hop - from gold chains and watches to gold teeth and fancy cars. But what MC Hammer did was fling hip hop into the mainstream with flashiness, pop-iness, and eccentricity. His harem pants — while suggesting he had a whole heap of women in the back of the club somewhere — were the attire of choice as he slid across the stage in a sideways moonwalk, with his pants catching air and expanding as he moved. And yes, people ultimately stopped wearing Hammer pants the moment he filed for bankruptcy, but fast-forward to a few years ago when harem pants returned. The hip size is smaller and the bottom much more tapered, but we can thank Hammer for the concept. For better or worse.
Era: Mid 1990s
As rap music became more and more conscious (on a sub-genre level), the obvious indie label uprising occurred. Major labels didn't want to pour their money into half-baked hits, so artists did it on their own. Duck Down Record, Rawkus Records, and many others brought an independent feel to what was now being coined as underground hip hop. Sure, some of these labels were imprints of the majors, but the marketing, the sound, all of it was fundamentally alternative. Including the clothing. Lines like Triple 5 Soul, Eckō, and later LRG were the norm, with cargo pants conveniently having extra pockets at both knees. They could hold anything, like a Discman for example. Or your trees.
Era: Mid 1990s
You can sort of thank Busta Rhymes for this one. As hip hop grew in commercial power, the idea of wearing a jailhouse jumpsuit on national television became a tongue-in-cheek statement to anyone who profiled young black men and now saw them on their TV sets. The jailhouse jumpsuit evolved rather quickly though, as the Beastie Boys would transform it into a Hazmat suit for their Hello Nasty campaign, and Puff Daddy would turn it pleather for him and Ma$e to dance around in. Regardless of how you rocked your jailhouse jumpsuit though, you had to have a pair of goggles on your head. Believe that.
Shiny Suit Pants
Era: Late 90s
Upon the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., hip hop entered an era that many want to forget. The Shiny Suit Era, where it was argued that rap was culturally bankrupt while financially wealthy. Biggie ushered in an era of mafia mentality, which included tailored suits and fedoras (even Roc-A-Fella Records jumped on the bandwagon). The suits just got flashier and flashier from there, signifying a new day in Hip Hop where the sky really was the limit and money was steady flowing. It's funny to think that this era was timed with the advent of Napster in 1999, where major labels were losing their minds over possibly going broke, but rappers were in shiny suits saying "Nope!"
Era: Early 00s
Yes, jeans came in all different sizes, and many times a slight flash of the boxer short was all that was needed to know your pants hung low. But the early 00s kicked off a movement of the long white T-shirt, and in an effort to still show your belt off, the pants had to go lower and lower. So low that with the wrong pivot, you could moon your whole neighbourhood. As long as you could show off your Air Force 1's still at the bottom, it didn't matter what was going on at the top.
Era: Mid 00s
Ironically, the size in jeans had no middle ground in the 2000s. They went from super baggy to super tight. Hipsters infiltrated hip hop and the Skinny Jeans movement began. It took a little while to get off the ground, but once it did, it was game over. Guys like Kid Cudi added a new size to the charts: Smedium (a hybrid of small and medium). It's funny to think that just a few years prior rappers were swimming in their clothes. Not everyone adopted skinny jeans immediately. To quote Jay Z: Can't wear skinny jeans 'cause my knots don't fit.
Tailored Suit Pants
Era: Late 2000s
Many rappers who rocked the pants of hip hop's past evolved into entrepreneurs with boardroom attire by the close of the 21st century's first decade. Jay Z fathered this movement, embracing turning 40 by dressing like it and diminishing the assumption that hip hop was a young man's game. Other artists followed suit (pun fully intended), and it became the norm to be a business, man, but dress like a businessman. Of course this was carried over from the late 90s, but there was a whole other sentiment attached. It wasn't the mafia anymore, but perhaps the Illuminati. That's a different playing field.
Era: Early 2010s
By 2010, hip hop lost its pants, literally and figuratively. Women arrived back at the forefront, with Nicki Minaj becoming hip hop's newest star. While the 90s had their fair share of women in rap - Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown in bikinis and furs, plus Lauryn in cargo pants and skirts and Missy Elliott in space suits — this was hip hop placed in an entirely different realm. It was hip-pop. However, as this decade progressed, male rappers became involved in haute couture, and with that came embracing styles that previously would have never been worn by rappers. We're talking about skirts, leather ones, worn by Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, and any artist who saw high fashion as a welcomed element into the world of hip hop. Both genders in skirts became a point of contention for hip hop in their own ways, yet they're both still here, which counts for a lot.
High End Legwear
Era: Mid 2010s
And here we are in 2015, where high end streetwear lines and historically dominant fashion houses all reside under one roof. From denim to leather to sweatpants to trousers, everything is welcome, as long as it's overpriced. But for the more frugal hip hop head, pants style is an amalgam of every historical element, much like the music. It could be skinny jeans one day, a jumpsuit the next. Rappers go where the wind takes them, and therefore so do their traveling pants.
Text Kathy Iandoli