Like diamonds, hip hop is also the result of a certain amount of pressure. Political, social, cultural, even religious. His narrative does not escape any of these factors, not even the visual one. In fact, it is his image that conveys meaning and power, value and transcendence, identity and wealth, as much—sometimes even more—than the urban poetry he spends. When at the beginning of the eighties the metal badges disappeared from hundreds of the hoods of Mercedes, it was for something more than hooliganism. There was a lot of aspirational in wearing that car symbol jingling on the chest. If the street is your catwalk, you have no choice: the psychological need to show yourself and demonstrate is imperative. As a culture/society in which nobody gives you anything and everything has to be earned, hip hop has had to establish its own iconographic codes, not only as a form of (self)expression, but also as evidence of a common history that goes from the ancient African kingdoms to the streets of Brooklyn and Harlem. That is why jewels were from the beginning one of the best, fastest and most effective vehicles for transmitting the message. Ice Cold. A Hip-Hop Jewelry History (published by Taschen in luxurious coffee table format) is the book that now tells this story, in which much more lies than shines.
“Thinking of those shiny boulders and shining metals as mere ornamentation is a reductionist exercise, because their symbolism and power are simplified. Hip hop’s love of jewelry is built on a history of visual cues that refer to status,” says Vikki Tobak, author of the monumental volume. The journalist of Kazakh origin grew up on the streets of Detroit in the late 1970s, just when lyrical rap began to take over from soul and funk as an African-American musical expression, the perfect breeding ground to arouse her interest in a phenomenon that he would experience firsthand as soon as he moved to New York at the age of 19 and landed a public relations position at Payday Records, the record label that released Gang Starr, Mos Def and Jeru The Damaja. “She At night she was a bouncer at a club called Nell’s, which is very frequented by rappers, so between the two jobs I got caught up in music. As marketing director, I was also in charge of press relations, and that’s how I discovered how hip hop artists forged their identities and the essential role of style in the construction of their images, ”she says.
Taking advantage of the baggage size, in 2018 he published Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop, I review the 40 years of the genre through more than a hundred discards from some of the most emblematic photographic sessions of his first swords, of which this ice cold can be considered a natural continuation. Normal that many of those snapshots (signed by Barron Claiborne, Danny Hastings, Matt Gunther, Phil Knott or the sensational Janette Beckman) are repeated here.
Tobak says that, since its inception, hip hop has shown the world that jewelry is another way of documenting its time, a testimony of individuality but also of social order. “Once it was the pharaohs, the kings, the immortal gods who covered themselves with gold. Today, the new gods twinkle at the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and West 125th Street,” he states in his book. It is not easy, for that matter, to date the start of such a gold rush.
Some cite Slick Rick as an original reference, according to what the rapper himself, one of the most influential producers and MCs (masters of ceremonies) of the early days of New York block parties, exposes in Ice Cold: “I have told stories through my clothes and decorations in the same way that I have told them with rhythms and rhymes.” And there are those who bet everything on Kurtis Blow, disc jockey and MC creditor of the first gold record of the genre, achieved by The Breaks, included in his debut album in 1980 and on the cover of which he already appeared loaded with golden chains around his neck. The foundational gesture/flaunt that would lead subsequent generations of rappers and emcees to empower themselves with jewelry to showcase their career milestones. In 1987, when the duo Eric B. & Rakim released their first album, Paid in Full, the carats of his yellow lockets, links, and rings would have sunk to the bottom had they fallen into the Hudson River. The chains alone were estimated at $100,000. Each.
The need for the African-American community to create its own representation of success during the 1980s—the get-rich-or-die-trying, American-dream version of wild neoliberalism that obviously wasn’t invented for everyone—resonates with the hip hop bling heart. However, since the 1990s, the colossal amounts that rappers pay for their pieces are nothing more than another demonstration of the power dynamics established in hip hop, which has become a multimillion-dollar industry with a global reach, a corporate system. The aristocracy of the scene —artists, producers, record bosses and drug dealers alike— then made diamonds their communication tool par excellence, preferably displayed as trophies during concerts, as Mr. Cee, the DJ who laid the foundations for Big Daddy Kane, in Bling Bling: Hip-Hop’s Crown Jewels, book by the popular American radio host Minya Oh published in 2005: “Everything was competition. If one came out with a new piece, the others appeared shortly with others even more ostentatious”.
That rivalry led to the appearance of a goldsmith ecosystem (and a thriving business) with its own stamp and names. To the legendary Tito Caicedo, creator of the Manny’s New York firm, who died in 2016, we owe what happens to be the jewel among hip hop jewels: the gold and diamond pendant with the face of Jesus Christ, commissioned by the ill-fated The Notorious BIG for which he paid $10,000 (he got a few, to also give away to his team members). Jay-Z has since worn it as a charm every time he records a new album. The controversial artist formerly known as Kanye West has redesigned it at will on two occasions: the first, in 2004, in collaboration with Jacob The Jeweler Arabo, owner of Jacob & Co. in New York’s Diamond District to which every professional rapper made a pilgrimage. ; and the second, in 2007, with the valued Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Contemporary artisans (see Ben Baller, Alex Moss or Eliantte) today work on highly personal designs in new materials such as titanium or carbon fiber and with techniques ranging from 3D printing and enameling to sustainably produced diamonds. When it comes to shining, hip hop has always been ahead of the game.
With the ascension to the commercial heaven of the genre, the jewels associated with it evolved in parallel to being larger, more flashy, more ostentatious. The simple gold chains of the late 1970s gave way to bulky link strings (known as truck jewelry, truck-type jewelry, in the manner of the one popularized by the Cuban community in Miami). The medallions reached the size of wheels and the rings and seals extended their length to cover four fingers. The usual gold dental caps were transformed into the so-called grills, removable or non-removable crowns made of noble metals, sometimes encrusted with precious stones, which add flashes of wealth and status to smiles (a practice with more than two millennia of history, that Etruscan and Mayan women already wore), also in white, from Madonna to Rosalía, passing through Katy Perry (in possession of a mouthpiece valued at a million dollars). And, from the second half of the nineties, the diamond-studded delirium, in an escalation of whimsical and extravagant designs that ended up implanting the blinding onomatopoeia bling bling in the American lexicon. Of course, it has not only been a matter of men determined to show who had it—and continues to have it—longer, that women in hip hop have contributed their own, with pioneers like MC Lyte or Salt-N-Pepa and stars from the current pull of Cardi B or Megan Thee Stallion. They, moreover, have been the ones who have most honored the jewelery connection with their ancestral African origins, with pieces that speak directly of the type of ornamentation that Nubian women wore in the fourth century BC, signifying beauty, spirituality and sexuality without ambiguity. .
“Hip hop has never been about asking permission for anything. As a cultural expression, it imposes its visual codes as a sign of identity and declaration of power, dominance and wealth in an environment that has never escaped racism, especially when we talk about pop”, concludes Tobak. “And jewelry, historically, has always been linked to this type of demonstration. Even if the gold chain is a small thing.”