How Did Hip Hop Find a Home in Fashion? | In episode 59 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits is joined by Fab 5 Freddy, Lisa Cortés, Eli Morgan Gesner, and April Walker for a virtual panel discussion about how Hip Hop took over the fashion industry, hosted by Burb.
For our first Light Culture panel discussion, we invited four experts who saw how Hip Hop style fashion went from outsider status on the fringes to being copied by every major fashion label. Fab 5 Freddy, Lisa Cortés, Eli Morgan Gesner, and April Walker all were there and saw it happen and are joining us to pass down the lesser-told stories. And oh, the stories they tell. In one hour we are only able to scratch the surface of the story of the birth of Hip Hop and its proliferation around the world. Get the story straight from the source in a unique listening experience exclusive to Light Culture and featured in Complex and Billboard.Read Transcript
So welcome ladies and gentlemen, to this special edition of Light Culture Zoom, “how did Hip Hop find a home in fashion?” I’m David Hershkovits the host of Light Culture, weekly podcast with cultural disrupters of the past, present and future.
Nice to have these three guests. They’re all my friends. They have all been on the podcast in the past and they’re all fucking amazing. So I know we’re going to have a good time. Each guest is uniquely qualified to talk on this subject and other relevant topics that will undoubtedly come up in the course of our conversation. Racism, an ongoing story is very much part of the picture, especially when it comes to getting credit for work done or being recognized for one’s achievement or getting paid for laying the foundation for what has become a billion dollar industry, the brilliant exuberance of communities of color and their allies is also part of the picture when it comes to breaking down walls and asserting oneself in the cultural conversation. Subway art, skateboarding, Hip Hop, and yes, even fashion where once small dots on the public landscape, but look at them now.
Fab Five Freddy is often cited as a Hip Hop historian, but I would include a lot more than that. One of the original graffiti artists and still a working artist, his history spans the downtown music and arts scenes of Debbie Harry, Keith Haring and John Michel Basquiat to Yo MTV, directing videos and documentaries and a growing list of awards and accomplishments too numerous to mention. For Fred was the first guest on my show when it’s doc, The Grass is Greener, played on Netflix.
Eli Morgan Gesner is one of those New York city kids who fell in love with graffiti and skateboarding and made his mark at an early age from his work with two major East Coast skateboard brands, Shut, to being a vital part of the founding and visual aesthetic of Zoo York. He’s also credited with the introduction of Streetwear from his work with Sean Stussy and Russell Simmons of Phat Farm. Opening soon is a documentary he narrates called All the Streets are Silent. The convergence of Hip Hop and skateboarding 1987 to 1997.
Lisa Cortes is a busy producer-director and documentarian. Before turning to film, Lisa worked in the music business for Def Jam and as a label president at Polygram. Her documentary, Hip Hop X Fashion is the inspiration for this panel. And it looks into the untold story of women and hip Hop, especially when it came to establishing the visual identity of the music that conquered the world. Lisa produced the Academy award-winning Precious and The Apollo, the documentary of the legendary Harlem nightspot. In the thick of the political world, Lisa’s documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy with Stacey Abrams, explores the history of voter suppression and is scheduled for release before the elections on Netflix. So these guys have done a little bit in their young lives. So first we’ll start with Fab, first happy birthday to my fellow Virgo, Fab Five Freddy.
Fab Five Freddy (00:17:33):
What’s up David? Thank you.
I know you’ve been celebrating madly.
I want to ask you a big question. To what extent did the early graffiti writers care about fashion or how they looked? Was that an element of concern or taking care of oneself and how one looked at each other?
Fab Five Freddy (00:18:30):
Oh, wow. I would say, in the era of graffiti, real raw New York that foundation thing that happened… Seventies into the eighties, when you would really jumping, running through tunnels, in yards, that whole world, you were dirty all the time. It was hard to be clean. I’m sure many people here haven’t been on the actual train tracks or the subway. But what you find is like fine metal dust, which comes from the wheels and the grinding on the track. So there’s a real layer of dirt everywhere you go, everything you touch. And then with the painting, you’d always be splattered, paint on fingernails and things like that. We’re just a part of that world. So not conscious of a look of fashion and all of that stuff. Just really, that was, I guess, more of a trait that I recall from that period.
When did that change? Cause when we went on a trip together to France with The rap tour. And on that trip for me I was getting to know a bunch of guys and hanging out in the same hotel rooms and so on. And I noticed some particular attention to, “hey, my sneakers, they better be clean.”
Fab Five Freddy (00:19:51):
No question. At that point in the game, you’re absolutely right, David, that was the New York city rap tour, not widely known, but that was the first tour of a whole hip hop thing that we were blessed to all be a part of. Graffiti painters, break dancers, The Rock Steady Crew, Bambaataa, DXT, Rammellzee, Futura, Dondi. We were all toured as a gang and the Double Dutch Breakers. By that point in time, early eighties, as we were converging with people from hip hop that were way more stylish, the beginning rappers and that general street feel vibe, we were all plugged in. So, that was the beginning of it all. So, we were definitely conscious of the sneakers, keeping them clean. That original stuff that was fashion before we were conscious of fashion as an industry, business, or any of that. It was just like the looks of the city, street looks. The name belt buckles, the press on letters. You would go to like the Delancey street and get letters and stick them on your sweatshirt. Yeah, that was the beginning of it all.
And even then, as I recall, with Futura on the tour as well. And one of the things that- they all went to the Adidas stores, for example, right? To see the other styles, cause they didn’t have it in the U S so that I could bring back these colors and styles and be like, “Oh, look what I got,” right?
Fab Five Freddy (00:21:24):
Yes. That was also a major revelation for anybody that was definitely into whatever their brands of sneakers were. The fact that there were brands and colors that had not been released in America. And people went bananas to get them on those first trips. We had another trip that you weren’t a part of David, but about no more than a year later, it was the Japanese tour. When Wild Style went to Japan with a huge contingent over 30 people. And we saw things over there as well that people went crazy for style-wise.
So, Eli, what about you? Cause… Fred is a little older than Eli going, but not just like age here, but also because Lisa is very much about today. What’s going on and catching up with giving credit where credit is due, and Eli you were sort of in the middle there. And so what do you feel? Did hip hop influenced skate or did skate influence hip hop?
I think, I mean, being from New York, it was real different to the whole skateboard thing, but clearly hip hop fully ended up influencing skateboarding later on. It kind of slowly leaked its way in. I was a graffiti writer before I was ever… well, way before I started skateboarding and looked up to fab five and all those guys. They were my heroes. And once I got into skateboarding… On the upper West side of New York City, that’s where the Zoo York crew started, with Ali and Futura. And there was this weird from the 1970s, this whole skateboarding and graffiti aspect that was going on in my neighborhood. So I was hanging out, there was a wings on a Broadway and I would hang out with like the TC five guys and kind of annoy them.
And then a lot of the kind of older guys basically forced me to get a skateboard. They were like, if you want to hang with us, you got to get a skateboard. And that’s how I kind of went into skateboarding. And when I first did that, I kind of thought, a, I was younger than everybody else. I felt like the older guys were forcing me to skateboard and it wasn’t trick skating at that time. It was kind of still 1970s cruising around type of skateboarding. But then around 82, 83, 84, I start kept running into guys like Ali Asha and myself and Paul Middleman and all, Dante Ross. All these guys wrote graffiti and skateboarded. And there was a weird kind of convolution or a stew that was going on in that world.
But I don’t think that existed anywhere, but in New York in the eighties and it was only through the efforts of the hip hop becoming more and more popular that skaters started to embrace it and kind of, especially West coast skaters, because that’s where the whole skate game was. But that was very punk rock and new wave in the eighties. And then slowly I think public enemy was kind of the first thing to break through. Also, let’s talk about the Beastie boys. I mean they were in their videos in the eighties skateboarding. So I think in New York there’s always been a weird little cycle of that going on and it just took years for it to spread out to the rest of the world.
Fab Five Freddy (00:25:06):
If I could jump in for one second. I just want to first ask that film that you narrated is that the film that David Koh and submarine films isn’t…
Oh yeah. That’s it. Yeah.
Fab Five Freddy (00:25:22):
I saw a rough copy. It is incredible. Oh no, seriously. I was like, Oh my God, what’s the name of that doc? It’s brilliant. I’m good friends with David. I don’t know if you’re aware of Mikey Alfred, young Mikey, young, black, he has this company crew, Illegal Civilization. He came up with Odd Future and those guys. He was the producer of the film Mid 90s. I had the rough cut early in the summer and he was losing his mind.
Fab Five Freddy (00:25:55):
So I just also wanted to add just on the tail end of what you said, personally, Glen Friedman was a really close friend of mine. And in the mid eighties, I happened to be in LA making an art show. Glen and I were friends and Glen was telling me all about skateboarding. I totally didn’t get it. I knew the New York guys seen him skating everywhere around the statue at Astor place. But when Glenn’s… The film, he was one of the producers. Well, what is that?
Dogtown and Z-Boys.
Fab Five Freddy (00:26:25):
Dogtown and Z-Boys.
Fab Five Freddy (00:26:31):
Total story totally filled it all in for me. So yeah.
I mean, Glen Freeman, is a perfect example. I mean, how much skateboarding right into hip hop. I mean, there’s punk rock in there too, but all these things are, especially in the eighties, it was literally counterculture, and that’s something that I talk about a lot now, because now, there’s a monetary aspect to being a skater or being a graffiti writer or going into fashion. When we were kids that was a dead end. You were wasting your life if you wanted to go be a graffiti writer or go be a skateboarder, you were just doing it because you had a passion. There wasn’t like a career path. Now that exists, exists, and it’s sort of changed everything for me. But we talk about this in the documentary.
Well, everyone is going to go see it. I’m sure. Lisa she’s also had a documentary, which is really excellent. She makes a case for something that’s not been recognized. So it’s an important work as well on another level besides just being super entertaining. But one of the things that comes out in that, Lisa, is that the sort of the history of fashion and the African American community did not start with hip hop. Right?
Absolutely. You got to put your Sunday go to meeting clothes on. And I think that from 1619 upon our arrival, forced arrival in this country, African Americans have continuously been taking straw and spinning it into gold. And our culture is one that it from the source is about adornment. It is about splendor. It is about regalness and upon finding ourselves here, there’s this long tradition of recontextualizing either what were hand me downs or what we were able to create. You know, one of my favorite photographers is, is James Van Der Zee. And I love the portraits that he took in his studio, here in Harlem. And just showing that black folks, we’re always… let me get my crease, let me tilt my hat, let me show up and shine. It’s an extension of our creativity, our resilience and our spirit.
A great example of that, Fred, and something that I think about as a real turning point in the history of fashion. And we can make the hip hop connection too, but it’s your old friend, Jean Michel Basquiat, who is a real fashion original… Starting with his hair, and down from there. But you know, his famous photo that I’ll never forget when he was on the cover of the New York times magazine wearing an Armani suit, which in those days it was like 800 bucks or whatever, that was fortune. Right. And it was all covered in paint and you know, and everyone was like, Oh man, look at that. He’s wearing this like Armani suit covered with paint. Oh, cool. I didn’t know. It was outrage. Look, what’s, what’s wrong with him? Do you remember that at all?
Fab Five Freddy (00:30:07):
Yeah, I remember it well, and I believe if I’m not mistaken. Wait, was that the James?
Well, was that James Van Der Zee’s photo? I don’t know
I think Van Der Zee did the one in the chair, which is looking like he’s in the throne.
Fab Five Freddy (00:30:22):
Exactly. It’s the classic James Van Der Zee, black and white. And I’ll never forget specifically about that photo, Lisa. I just wanted to add that I was at the fun gallery the days Jean Michel had just had the photo taken. That, but James Van Der Zee, early eighties. And he showed up at the fun gallery and he was excitedly told me he had just taken this picture and in the playful kind of way, we would always trying to outdo each other, whatever, in a fun kind of way. I was like, “God damn, that is such a great idea. I’m going to have to get Gordon parks to take my photo.”
Fab Five Freddy (00:31:09):
I just want to add particularly in the way Lisa mentioned with our long history in this country and being able to make do with the little that we’ve been able to access, that’s been a thing that I call, whether it’s the cheapest item, whatever that element, that item that becomes hot is how you’re going to freak it. What are you going to do to it? How you going to wear it? And then if you pull it off with a certain attitude and the right swagger, then people like dominoes, they will follow.
So it was a real organic way styles happen in the streets, growing up in Brooklyn, Harlem, and major black neighborhoods. When you just look at the pictures through history, that’s really how it, how it went down. And so when the music got big, it got exposed to people across the country and around the world who wanted to jump on board and follow suit in order to be that artist that did it. So if you had a hit record then and was doing something really unique style-wise then people would follow that lead, which is how it would go down.
And you were on MTV. MTV obviously had a huge influence on spreading the visual culture, making music visual, right? Music became… Yes, Lisa?
I was just going to say that I just put in the chat, the picture of Jean-Michel that Van Der Zee shot when he was 80 and you look at it and it’s so fresh, he’s in a suit, it’s got paint, he’s holding a cat, he’s sitting in a big old chair, but like, he’s, he, there’s such a great sense of ownership of himself and of his artistry of his individuality.
And now you see this and you don’t think anything of it, but there was a time when people were looking sideways. The mainstream was not appreciating the ability that… I see our sister on here with pink hair. Like we take for granted this freedom of expression, which then leads to freedom in other ways of how we can live our lives. And there was a time where there were these artists who, and in their visual representation really helped to shift the culture.
Fab Five Freddy (00:33:54):
No, that’s really a hundred percent right on point. During the times when that was the unique thing. Of course, David, how we would meet. And so much of this would, would really pop off at that time. The attitude of downtown New York, the cultural dynamics were extremely open to any and everything. And if you brought it to the table in the right kind of way, and you had your thing on point, then it was a receptive audience, like Paper who was also one of the first people to, to cover and be very adept on various street styles going on. And other people that were open to this, the East village, I actually did the first real story that I think constitutes the beginning of hip hop journalism, but also because it covered several articles on the culture and Paper did the same thing, the Village Voice, and helped a lot of this become what it has become, obviously something way bigger than anybody.
Yeah. That’s nice to get the support in the early days before everybody else catches on because originally it was a fad, right? Well, everything’s a fad. It’s going to go away. All the mainstream people later, that’s all, they don’t want to be threatened or challenged in your film. You also have sort of a moment in history that kind of personifies what we’re talking about, this convergence of cultures and in particular skateboarding and hip hop with regards to the Club Mars. Oh yeah. And this party that you were throwing there, that was really the first hip hop downtown club, right?
Well, I mean, as you know, I’m not going to say anything from the fab five Freddy, cause I’m sure I’ll get schooled. And there were lots of hip hop parties. I would go to, pop up parties here and there. And at Union Square and at Irving Plaza. And then of course The World, they had a crazy hip hop night. I know Freddy remembers that they had the hole in the wall that you’d sneak through into the other abandoned building, really wild stuff. But as I’m sure he’ll attest to, if you went to like a club like Palladium or Limelight, the original tunnel, no hip hop. It Takes Two. That was the only hip hop they were playing. And it was just all house music. And because it was dangerous. I saw my friends get shot at a lot of these places, and there was always a fight breaking out.
So there was this whole dynamic of the criminality or the dangerous aspect of New York city at the time. And it was… My brother who I would skateboard and write graffiti with was our dearly departed Beasley. Domini Beasley. B79 is what he wrote. And he and I had the great opportunity to be given the basement of Mars to go and basically make a party for our friends. And if anyone remembers the basement of Mars, it was just a little, tiny basement for 30 people. So that was kind of how we convinced or finagled the owners, Yuki. And of course you have to help me out here.
Shout out to Rudolph, you know, that we were like, yeah, let us do a party here, but we’re going to play hip hop. And we, kind of basically snuck around playing hip hop records and had someone watch for them coming downstairs.
So we’d put on a house song. So they weren’t thinking that this was a hip hop thing. And then as I say, in the documentary, for whatever random event Beasley went and got a microphone and then out of the bar came Kay Gee from the Cold Crush Brothers, just took the microphone and then just turned it into a hip hop party. And then as soon as that energy was there, the entire club just wanted to get into this basement. And then poof, two weeks later, they were like, go up to the second floor. You guys have an entire floor. And it just sort of like snowballed. And it was because … Not that we did anything genius, we were just providing a need.
But you were into it. As skaters, you were into that music right? Already.
I think also there was like … Being skaters, people kind of accept you as a juvenile delinquent, more so than like … Freddy, we talk about when you were a kid, you write graffiti, you get ink on your hands. You’re always filthy, but you kind of just have like a hobo homeless look when you’re writing graffiti. I know a lot of graffiti writers who would intentionally get dressed up like a homeless guy so they would be ignored and could go write graffiti. But when you are skateboarding, especially in the ’80s, you’re kind of dirty. You’ve got neon colors and you’re dragging this skateboard around with you constantly and there’s a symbology there. You know, the symbology,
Fab Five Freddy (00:39:02):
I’ll have to ask you a question, Eli. Are you talking about Beasley with the blonde hair?
Of course. That’s my brother. Yeah.
Fab Five Freddy (00:39:10):
I am so … I swear, that’s like watching your film. I’m going to gush on and on and on about it, because it was like, Oh my God, I didn’t … I knew those kids, but I wasn’t in that scene like that. But so when I went, to-
We were in awe of you. Your Fab Five Freddy, man.
Fab Five Freddy (00:39:27):
But when I did go, you guys had went upstairs. Great to get the backstory, and I met this kid Beasley who sadly had cancer and passed away.
Yeah, way before his time.
Fab Five Freddy (00:39:39):
Meeting Beasley there… And then I became really close with him towards the end. And no, that was special memories. I always remember Q-Tip. I never thought of Mars as a hip hop club, but what I did remember about the crowd, and your film once again captures this, is a crowd that had developed downtown going to Hotel Amazon, Milky Way, those cool underground outlaw parties that Tuck, Crook and Beaver would give, then your spot. Obviously now I get it, and I remember that was when me and Q-Tip first began to vibe. Like me and him are still tight. We talk often and I’m like, “Yo, I remember me and used to kick it at Mars,” and he’s like … The whole … That whole native tongue crew was … They were dropping and that was where a lot of that energy was popping off.
Yeah. It was an amazing, amazing time. Even … Listen, I vividly remember you being at the party and being like, “Fab Five Freddy’s here.” And like Q-Tip, and then everyone just kept coming. It was ridiculous. It was like you just made … You like lit a spark and then this thing happened that we just sat back. I’m glad that you remember Beasley and love him.
Fab Five Freddy (00:40:54):
Oh yeah, so special, and on top of it, I’m sure everybody would concur, like the way you talked about it. There was some dangerous element. Some real edgy hood cats that would come to some of these parties. Sometimes things would happen and it was … Like a lot of club owners were maybe scared of the idea that something could happen, but then there was an unfortunate racial dynamic going on too where it’d be like, yo, not just black kids, but them real hardcore cats that’s about that thug life, some of them. You feel me?
Fab Five Freddy (00:41:30):
But still, the fact that people like Rudolph and clubs like that happened and they changed their views is the kind of heart and the outlook and courage that made things happen back then. It wasn’t about, “I’m doing it, because I feel this energy. This is something real. I want the real players in the room.” And that’s what really ruled a lot of what became hot club-wise downtown. It wasn’t about just ’cause you had a lot of money to go buy a lot of bottles, you know what I’m saying, you get in. It wasn’t about that. So I appreciate that energy.
Yeah. I wish it was back.
Yeah. Lisa … I wanted to ask Lisa, because she was actually involved in a real moment of fashion history. Wasn’t it the Adidas with Run DMC and negotiating that deal?
Yeah. Yeah. So I was an American studies major and I’ve always been interested in cultural trends and who sets them, so when I arrived at the management company, Rush and Def Jam, because I got to work for both for $200 a week and no health insurance.
But I was assigned to work with Whodini and Whodini was quite stylish with the gaucho hats and the leather pants. And so I actually wrote a letter to Fila and I was like, “You should give them an endorsement deal.
And they wrote me up a letter back and they were like, “Well, we tried supporting artists like Sheena Easton, and it didn’t work.” And I wrote them back. Like I was like, “No, we ain’t talking about the same audience.” You know? I actually have found this letter and one day I will share it, but I have always seen the importance of us as trendsetters and our ability to affect sales, not only here, but when we would tour in the UK and around the world with the artists, Run, the Beasties, LL, all of them. Kids would come and tell us these stories of like, they have their cousin who lives in Brooklyn who brought them the latest, whatever over, and it was … I was always so impressed how things travel.
So there’s a guy named Angelo Anastasio from Adidas. He found out what was going on with My Adidas and … Which was on the Raising Hell album and whenever the guys would perform it, they take off their shoes. The kids in the audience would. People would hold their Adidas up. And he got it. He saw what this marriage could be of this endorsement deal. But Adidas at that time, was owned by this German company who really was not feeling, knowing what this was about. There were a lot of letters that went and things that went back and forth giving stats, contextualizing things, so that it would be understood, not only the importance, but the importance of writing a real check for this relationship.
Of course I always see that as really setting the whole kind of artists and brand endorsement waterfall off. Things that really took off from there. I do want to give a shout out to my sister, April Walker, who has joined us.
Oh yeah. Great, because I was just wanted you to talk about her.
And I also want to give a big shout out to Vikki Tobak. If you all don’t have her incredible book, Contact High, all y’all who on here, I’m taking a vape for Vikki and I’m going to take another one for April.
And Daniel, we need to connect, because I like the Durbin. That works for me.
Fab Five Freddy (00:45:47):
Lisa’s on top of her game. I love it.
Yeah, yo, Freddy, I’m up here in the chat. It’s live in the chat.
Fab Five Freddy (00:45:55):
I see. Yeah. I’ve got the chat open, but I’m like focused … I’m looking.
So wait, tell us about April and Misha and the role of these important women in spreading the visual culture that is so much a big part of the whole hip hop legacy.
Fab Five Freddy (00:47:32):
April Walker is like the Coco Chanel of this hip hop, urban fashion shit. Don’t get it twisted, goddamn it. Walker Wear, shit.
So I’m going to set it up and then I’m going to pass the mic to April, because I believe when you have the architects here, as opposed to me talking about it, I’d love for her to share her continuing philosophy and aesthetic with everyone who’s on here.
I mean there’s been a lot of incredible hip hop docs. I’m really looking forward, Eli, to seeing what you’ve got, but I often find that women’s stories behind the scenes-
-have not been represented. And as a woman who was there and who worked with great people, like Monica Lynch, Carol Lewis, Ann Carly, Heidi Smith. I could go on. There’s a bunch of … Jeanette Beckmann and her documentation, in every area, women were there at seminal moments in hip hop history, starting in 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Cindy Campbell, she threw the party.
And with the remix, the the angle was to really … To look at look fashion, about how the snake eats its tail, about appropriation, and to really kind of establish on the timeline the creativity and lasting innovation of people like Misa Hylton, who worked with Mary J. Blige and Lil Kim and April Walker. I mean, we had a limited amount of time to go into depth, but I really appreciate what April and Misa our allies like Dapper Dan gave us in telling this important part of the history.
But I want to pass the mic to April because she’s here and she’s incredible.
Oh, I can’t even come behind that intro. Thank you so much. I want to thank you, Lisa, for just sharing your light with the documentary, because it really is an important story and it just … It touches on culture and, and culture shifters, and a lot of times, women are not on the spotlight and we are behind the scenes. But when we have male counterparts often we tend to … The lines get blurred and you don’t hear about us as much, so it means everything.
And just for everyone to know, I’ve been getting great feedback from all over the world of people who just never knew. So it’s great. It’s great. But what’s up, you guys, what’s going on? I’ve got a bunch of cultured people on this Zoom and I’m just jumping in. I’m a little late, so I’m sorry about the lateness, but I just … I do what I love and I work from here. I work from the heart. I fell in love with hip hop a long time ago in the ’80s, in 1987.
I started my first shop in ’86. I started out of the house. It became a business custom shop called Fashion and Effect and from Fashion and Effect, I transcended into a brand, one of the first brands urban streetwear, as they say, called Walker Wear.
I was the first woman in that male-dominated category and we became a trailblazer, basically. But it all stemmed from me believing in hip hop with everything and the music led. Like the music, the spirit, and that spirit in the ’80s was different, because the spirit of hip hop in the ’80s for me … I can remember going to the Madison Square Garden and seeing Fresh Fest and seeing Run DMC on the stage and feeling like everything I’d ever learned about dress for success was a lie and I wanted then, right then. I was just like, I’m done, I’m going to figure this out.
My father was in the music business, so I watched him dance to his own beat and I wasn’t afraid to try something different. It was just that love affair with music and fashion and that fusion together that gave me the gumption to start. And listening and seeing that this hip hop thing was going to be here to stay and it was bigger than all of us and how am I going to create something out of what I already love, which was the music. The fashion wasn’t really there. We were … Yeah, we were bleaching our jeans and tearing up our stuff, but there was nothing in the store that we could guy at that time that represented us.
That was what I saw and that’s how the beginning of Walker Wear became. From that, it just … It was energy feeding energy. Biggie was from around my way. He was one of my first customers with the shop and we grew from there. It’s just like the domino effect. If you have some good product, people talk, and thankfully it happened that way.
Do you remember what was the first thing, item of clothes, that you felt like was hip hop or inspired by, or you creating to fit the music, the mood, the people, any of that?
I was talking about that today. We started with the velour sweatsuits in the shop. That was a big part of our thing with bucket hats and velour sweatsuits custom, but we mixed … So we would mix … Willy Smith was a big … I loved Willy Smith. So he used to mix patterns and fabrics and all that, so I took that inspiration and I put that in sportswear in the beginning with Walker Wear.
I would take like velour you’d have plain, I’d color block it or I’d add stripes with another piece. Something that you wouldn’t typically see and I’d flip it in that way or create just an accent with a belt, a solid bucket hat. But if you tipped up the front, if you bent up the front, you’d see it had a pattern. Stuff like that, you know? Like if you look at Crossover’s video with EPMD, that was like we were mixing … That’s all denim, but then it’s mixed with velour and some of that. We did a lot of stuff like that.
Yeah, you’ve mentioned Dapper Dan earlier and that’s, to me, is one of the great stories of someone getting recognized and getting paid back, in a way, for a lot of his contributions.
Yeah, he was a great inspiration for me.
What was he doing then? When you first say he was an inspiration, where did you see him? On 125th Street or where?
On 125th Street. Me and my girls— I was in college at that time, and we went to the Apollo. The amateur night at the Apollo and after we went over to see Dapper Dan, somebody was buying something in our crew and I never … It was late at night and it was just everything. It was like fabric everywhere, a lot of energy, a lot of people in there. I was just mesmerized, like this is so smart. It’s late at night. It’s when everybody hangs out in New York City. The energy was hip hop and they were making, at that time, stuff that Gucci wasn’t making, but better than Gucci. You know what I mean? So it was like I want in. I want to do this, but for my people. Brooklyn and Harlem were very different, so it wasn’t the same. The boroughs were really different at that time, because we didn’t have MTV then. It was just all different. We wanted to make … At first, we were thinking about Brooklyn.
Yeah. Fred, did you have early experience with Dapper Dan too or what was that encounter like? Describe the scene of what it was like at his shop at like 12:00 or 1:00 a.m. or whatever it was? 4:00 a.m.?
Fab Five Freddy (00:55:57):
Well, I guess it was just like what April just said. So it was interesting for me, because up until the time of Yo! MTV Raps happening, which was in 1988 and I was totally downtown. Like I was aware of hip hop, of course, but my whole aesthetic was very downtown. I’m making paintings. I’m in my studio. I wasn’t as paint splattered as my man Jean, but my whole aesthetic was not like what a hip hop fashion aesthetic was about to be. So when Yo! MTV Raps happened, I knew I had to … Oh, man, I’ve got to step my game up, because I might wear black all day every day, all week. You know how we did downtown. It was really simple.
Fab Five Freddy (00:56:46):
It wasn’t really that. So I had to get with the program, right? So Russell and the rush officers, they were down. They had come downtown. They were on Elizabeth Street off of Houston, so I would swing through there. We would hang out. And I remember one day we was all hanging and MTV Raps was just about to start jumping off and I’m hanging with Jay, Jam Master Jay and Kane, and just a couple of artists. And everybody was talking about going to Dap when their royalty check comes in, I was like, “who is this Dap guy?” I didn’t know anything. I was like, “who is this Dap?”, I pull Jay to the side, Jam Master Jay, Rest in Peace. I say, “Jay like, what’s up?” He said, “Yo Freddy, that’s Dapper Dan. He’s the guy that’s doing these incredible outfits”, with the Louis Vuitton, the Gucci, he was just remixing everything they was doing. And then, Boom!, I went up and eventually when MTV Raps begins, one of the first shows that we take is with Dapper Dan.
And the shop would damn near go 24 hours because Dap was making so many garments and also customizing the interiors of, first it would be hustlers. Then it was rappers. He’d be doing the interiors of people’s cars, and Dap is just the smoothest, most intelligent articulate brother, and it was a nonstop, extremely unique thing that was going on in blowing up at that time because, some of the legendary albums that came out most, almost everybody had on Dapper Dan, even KRS One and Boogie Down productions and the leather jackets for Salt-N-Pepa, those were Dapper Dan, and he’s really a cut and sew Maestro in a serious fashion way, great guy.
Yeah(Affirmative). So everyone, this has been a really great conversation. Does anyone want to ask a question? Just jump in.
HipHop DX (00:59:09):
Well, first of all, thank you for Intro, it’s an honor to be on this call with so many legendary people, just hearing those stories, I’m imagining what it must have been like to live at live. So I appreciate you guys even having me on the call, but I was wondering for all of you guys, is there an outfit or a moment within hip hop that you recall being so inspired by, that it changed the way you dressed from there forward or changed your life and inspired you so much? I remember, for me, I’m a little younger, but it was I needed a pink polo cause Kanye had one, or I needed to wear cammo shorts because Whiz Khalifa, whatever it was like, there’s all of these moments that change culture forever. Do you guys have a specific outfit or person or moment that inspired you from there on forward?
Eli Gesner (00:59:57):
I do. Mine, I remember being, must’ve been 1980,81. And I was at the Loew’s movie theater in the eighties on Broadway. And they had video games and you had to like hunt down the video games. And I remember playing Pac-Man and I was a little kid and I remember all these, B-Boys came in the door and they all had ski goggles and the space invader hats. And some of them had like the Bowie fur hats with the raccoon tail and the civil war leather hats, and the Levi’s and the Press they’re just like right out of, and I just remember, first, like “what is going on?” Because at least from my experience, I had never seen, I had seen people break dance, but I never saw the outfit and the squad. And I just remember looking at that and being like, “is the circus in town or are they crazy?”. “Why are you wearing ski goggles?” And so many questions that just went through my head.
And it was important because everyone in the whole movie theater was looking at them and most of the people thought they were insane, And it was not just the outfit, but it was the attitude. It was how they were carrying themselves, which was basically the confidence to dress like this and wear this. And they knew it was cool. Even if you didn’t even understand what was going on. And I just was just enamored, just, step back when they went and played video games too, when I got a little scared and it was just watching them, like “what is going on?”. And then it just sort of, that was almost the tipping point for the 80s hip hop.
There was the early graffiti subway cars, but then when that whole kind of like, I would attribute it to the Rock Steady Crew, those the ski goggles and the mug face. That whole thing, I was just like, “this is, the shit!”. I was completely blown away, blown away! It was really, just how could someone walk down the street like this? And that’s what I want. I never got the outfit, the attitude was always what I aspired to get. Anyone else?
Fab 5 Freddy (01:02:14):
I want to jump in on that because you’re a 100% right. I was going to say, in that whole period, as I was also referencing earlier, when hip hop style really began to shape, Break Dancers had a large influence on that. Because the guys in the Break Dance crews, they would dress in a real cool way with the track suits. And then, a lot of the Break Dance kids also like those did graff, drew those classic B-Boy characters, which exaggerated those classic looks and they emphasized that. And that was really important.
But I guess also coming out of that period, the first important rappers all had clear definitive styles, most of them, Along with making music that was really original and having a unique style that has obviously changed. But back at that point, the looks of Run DMC, in the black leather, that hats, the Adidas, and then Big Daddy Kane having those smooth iconic look, dancing and still being the hottest cat. In the mix, it was just really unique, Slick Rick’s style to me was always uniquely fantastic, swagga beyond description with the jewelry, the furs. And I saw Slick from the beginning really be that character. So, that was also really quite interesting when to be unique and stylish was a mandate.
Yeah. Now everyone copies everybody else. Everyone now is like, Oh, this worked for that guy. I gotta go get the same outfit and do the same haircut.
“Where did you get that? On Instagram? Yeah, I want that”.
Fab 5 Freddy (01:04:04):
Exactly. You know, and I think that was sort of key for me because now, there’s completely, there’s fashion lines and it goes all the way to Adidas, to Louis Vuitton. And it’s, “we gotta get the material and this is the look”, but everything where hip hop comes from and probably, to even go back further is, you needed to cobble together the look. There’s no brand that was making it. You had to know where to go, what store had this. And that was part of the artistry of it. You’d see somebody with that particular jacket or those sneakers or that, “where did you get that?”
“I went down to Delancey street” and they were going to to put the letters on the belt buckle, “Don’t tell anybody”, and it was this weird underground communication hub of where to put the look together, even Madonna. That whole look was “where did she find that?”, then it was traveling around your city, trying to get the pieces to get the look now that has evolved into the whole line. Now the runway show happens and all the colors match and all that.
That’s a part of why we love New York so, because one would have to travel all over to find these different accessories. I remember this one person would tell me where she got stuff, but to everybody else she would, “Oh you got to go out to Coney Island and there’s this little teeny store and it’s only open for two hours” and there was no fucken store that was there, but she is my favorite person. Because she would be like “Okay Lisa it’s two blocks from here”. And I think, as a woman in hip hop, I really loved when that moment came, where I could take my tracksuit and put on my mini skirt and get a little trashy Vaudeville number with ripped stockings and Doc Martens and a bustier because that’s what was going on.
It was going on so effortlessly and it was going on from a place of discovery and with no kind of rules that you can’t mix this with that it was just like, does this feel good? Does it make me feel strong and sexy and owning my voice? And I so appreciate, when I look at the evolution of Mary J Blige and what Missy did with her, it really allowed us who might have addressed a little bit like a Tom boy to, get our sexiness on and find a way to still be hip hop.
Yeah. Lisa, do we have another question?
I just want to say was going to say that I’m going to shout out Salt-N-Peppa right now, because I think they were catalysts for that sexy moment in hip hop of saying, we could dress this way and we could be independent women and strong but we can take off the baggy clothes and do the cat suits or whatever we want to do the fish nets and still be like, “Let’s talk about sex”. You know what I mean? It was a pivotal moment in hip hop, even from the fashion standpoint.
Yes, Queen of the dance hall.
Lisa Cortes (01:07:34):
Yeah. Yeah (affirmative). It’s amazing.
Awesome. So Ashley Scarboro owns a indie fashion magazine and she has a question. So Ashley, go ahead and jump on girl.
Ashley S (01:07:46):
So, thank you so much again, Sonia, thank you so much for adding me at the last minute. I piggy back and echo that I am ridiculously thrilled to be here. I’m somewhat a newbie in fashion, as she said, I own a digital fashion magazine called modern stitches magazine and it focuses on vintage and street wear fashion. And my question is for Lisa and partially also for April Walker, who I’m also a fan of, I viewed the remix. And I just thought it was so inspirational. And I just wanted to know when was the moment that you realized that this was so timely, it highlighted so many important people, such as April. April, Dapper Dan, Misa Hylton, all these people who paved the way for the black culture and some of the trends that are still relatable today. I just want to know why you felt it was so timely to release this moment in history.
Ashley S (01:08:53):
Because now, where do we go from here as a black culture? Everything is so redundant and I just want to figure out why, why did you feel like it was the right time to release that?
I wish I could say it was planned Ashley.
And first of all, thank you and congratulations to you and please put the information in the chat for us so we can all check out and support. It just turned out that initially it was going to come out in the fall of this year and we were able to move the release up, particularly as we went into this intense home viewing time, with the pandemic. And, I think the projects that I work on always have an evergreen conversation about black folks, culture, resistance, creativity. So, I would hope that anything that I’m working on there will always be a door that is a timely door, for us to present it to audiences.
Also, Carly is on the line. What’s up, Carly?
Carly Fisher (01:10:50):
Oh my gosh, you’re so nice. I actually had a question regarding, since this is about both hip hop culture, which I, by the way, I love the stories. But in line with that, we’ve been doing a lot of work with finding out what people are smoking. And I was wondering if you guys have any insight to what people were smoking back then. I feel like that was a big part of it and I don’t have any familiarity because a lot of that wasn’t documented then. So I was curious, sour diesel is kind of like the New York strain now. Like what was, what were people smoking in New York city back then
Fab 5 Freddy 01:11:51):
We didn’t have this thing with all these strains, probably a lot of the cannabis available was from Columbia and Mexico. Even High times would have articles with comprehensive stories about what was available then, which was kind of why that magazine was amazing then, but so I remember I was a fan of that then. And we had Columbian and Mexicans, a lot of pot had seeds in it. It was as you went into the eighties when the good bud from California and then the different names, Skunk and Maui Wowie, you begin to hear these names and this green pot cause the Colombian and Mexican, oftentimes the pot wasn’t green, it was Brown. So it was, different things began to change and get better.
Carly Fisher (01:12:44):
Are you guys weed snobs now? Have you shifted your focus or do you actually, I have a legitimate question because a lot of new Yorkers on here, sour diesel, I think is sort of like our local terroir as it is like, do we think that there is an official New York city, New York state, like that we should be really having some hometown East Coast pride over. I mean, there’s a lot of California versus New York. I’m just trying to take a stance for New York here.
Fab 5 Freddy (01:13:15):
The unfortunate thing about cannabis in New York, which we hope will change sometime soon. A lot of what we get access to obviously is coming from different places still. And that’s the unfortunate thing about us still, but that’s a great question. Like New York, I’m sure once they changed the draconian cannabis laws here and across the country, take it off of the schedule, which we hope Kamala can get Biden to do. If we, make it happen in November, we could get sensible and then be able to have a strain that represents that New York energy.