Sneakers have long been hip-hop’s footwear of choice. The links between the artists making the music and the companies behind the kicks are now totally intermingled, from top-end exclusive lines like Jay-Z’s limited-to-five-pairs all-black Air Force 1s (decoded: they’re entirely black) and Kanye West’s Nike Air Yeezys to the populist-minded brand Converse sponsoring a summery release from Kid Cudi. In honor of the show that committed hip-hop sneaker freak Rick Ross played this past weekend in NYC as part of the 2010 Sneaker Pimps tour, here’s a look at ten top sneaker songs from the annals of rap.
Kanye West, KRS-One, Nas, and Rakim, “Classic”
If you were cynical, you could characterize this all-star, old-to-the-new line-up as a crass attempt at pimping Nike’s Air Force 1 sneaker, but when the marketing sounds this good, who cares for scruples? Yeezy holds his own with the certified lyrical legends over a chunky DJ Premier beat, while Rakim, who used to cop his sneakers and custom-made Dapper Dan suits up on 125th Street in Harlem, adds a hitherto unheard of biblical context to the footwear game, claiming, “I bet Kan’ had ’em on when he walked with Jesus.”
“I’m not paying $140 for them… Size eight and a half.” So begins a frugal–and apparently small-footed–Raekwon on this Pete Rock produced footwear ode from the Wu man’s largely disappointing second album, Immobilarity. Copping to being an “Adidas freak,” and claiming a collection that numbers a “multi-thousand pair,” it’s the second verse where he shows his sneaker stripes, rattling off a list of brands that takes in Italian lines Diadora and Ellesse, retro line Patrick, and ’80s hip-hop footwear favorite Travel Fox. Underscoring that tight budgeting is held in high esteem by the Wu, Rae’s rhyming partner Ghostface also bragged about snagging a pair of “bright fat yellow Air Max” for “$20 off, no tax” on “Apollo Kids” (although a bout of heavy rain soon ruined them).
The Geto Boys, “Read These Nikes”
An almighty ass-stompin’ anthem that also happened to big up the Houston group’s footwear brand of choice, here Willie D–a man who’ll “beat your mama ass and go get a six-pack” and who would later go on to record the song “Fuck Rodney King”–takes charge of the vocal duties, but it’s his mid-song banter with the dinky-sized Bushwick Bill that underlines their faithfulness to the brand. After Bill says, “Yo, D, I saw the way you stomped that motherfucker and left your trademark upside his head,” Willie responds, “Yeah, man, but that was one of my off nights–I usually leave the whole motherfucking logo.”
Run-DMC, “My Adidas”
There’s nothing unique or news worthy about a rapper endorsing a brand of sneakers these days–even underground recluse MF Doom has a signature Nike Dunk shoe. But back in the early ’80s a rap trio from Hollis, Queens gave the corporate sportswear world a wake-up call by voluntarily endorsing Adidas’s Superstar shoes, worn without laces–a move which led to them soon nabbing an official endorsement deal with the brand. They formalized their footwear preference in rhyme with 1986’s now universal anthem “My Adidas,” during which Run and DMC ram home their appreciation of the three stripes by name-checking the brand over twenty times.
Mashing up a whole batch of cultural signifiers, this ’90s TV advertisement was based around hip-hop’s self-proclaimed Teacher, the rabble-rousing KRS-One, updating Gill Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but flipping the song’s sentiment into an ode to basketball’s (then) new wave of talent Jason Kidd, Jimmy Jackson, Eddie Jones, Joe Smith ,and Kevin Garnett, all symbolically stamped with Nike’s swoosh logo. The self-righteous KRS caught a wave of criticism when it first aired, although in fairness he was always more about the idea making a point than the cogency behind it. And the result was far more palatable than basketball player Kidd’s own attempt at rapping, “What The Kidd Did.”
The Pack, “Vans”
Back in 1991, Public Enemy’s Chuck D implored, “I like Nike but wait a minute/The neighborhood supports so put some money in it.” Fifteen years later California’s kiddy quartet The Pack kinda heeded his advice, sticking it to the Oregon company by declaring, “Man, we be sporting Vans and we throw away Nikes/If you wanna get right, stop buying those Nikes.” Elsewhere in the song, group member Young L tells a heart-breaking anecdote: “Once copped me a pair from the skateboard shop/Went home, they didn’t fit, I had to re-cop.” They also suggest that you shouldn’t pay more than $36 for a pair.
Ice-T, “6 N’ The Mornin'”
Ice-T may have come off as a fuddy-duddy pining for ye olden days after his beef with rich rap whipper-snapper Soulja Boy, but back in his prime he conjured up one of hip-hop’s most vivid sneaker images with the opening to his epic crime narrative: “Six in the morning, police at my door/Fresh Adidas squeak across my bathroom floor/Out my back window I make my escape/Didn’t even get a chance to grab my old school tape.” As the urban legend goes, rubber soles are sonically beneficial when you’re engaged in a life of illicit shenanigans.
Nelly, “Air Force Ones”
Entry to rap’s sneaker-obsessed club isn’t cheap and requires a daily commitment. As Nelly claims on his homage to Nike’s one-time pro basketball shoe turned hip-hop phenomenon, “The only problem? They only good for one night/Cause once you scuff ’em you fucked up your whole night.” His St. Lunatics soldiers are equally as infatuated, with Kyjuan favoring sickly-sounding lime green pairs, Ali plumping for khaki, and the whole crew continually imploring that you need to cop ’em in doubles. (See also: the feistier David Banner remix.)
Mack 10, “My Chucks”
Despite sneaker brands courting clean-cut athletes to shill their products, there’s always been a stylistic link between the fashion on the feet of drug-dealers and rappers. L.A. institution Mack 10 reinforces the point by declaring that he feels like no less than “the dopeman of the west” once he’s laced up a pair of the canvas kicks. Then he coins a tag-line you wish Converse had the bravado to use: “Chuck Taylors–what the gangstas wear.”
MC Shan, “I Pioneered This”
At one point in the ’80s, sporting the clothing and footwear brand Troop was the height of rap status. Then, rumors started to percolate that the brand was owned by the Ku Klux Klan. As Queensbridge legend MC Shan claimed, in a far-from-watertight statement: “And Puma’s the brand cause the Klan makes Troop.” The allegations were refuted by the company, but their rep never recovered. (See also: Eminem’s recap of the situation on his apologetic “Yellow Brick Road.”)