Hip hop culture has become the #1 influencer of modern music in the US. According to Statista and Nielsen rap/hip hop is the number one music genre today. Anyone who has listened to the top playlists on Spotify or YouTube knows this. Turn on a radio and switch to the most played station, what are they playing? Hip hop. And it's not just an American phenomenon. It's taken over the world. Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa all have their own twists and takes on this genre. It's a genre and a culture that speaks to everyone and anyone. With a style that lets you know, that hey, I listen too. Artists are easily spotted in a crowd with the way they carry themselves, the way they present themselves, their style and taste. The quintessential piece de resistance being a chain weighed down with diamonds, gold, and platinum. No one needs to question their credentials. It's obvious. Their resumé is hanging from their neck. How’d we get to this point in the culture though? It's all starts in a little known place called the Bronx of New York City in the 1970s.
Walk through a neighborhood in the Bronx back in the 1970s, and you'll see people who are African American, Latino, and a bunch of other immigrants coming together at block parties in honor of the latest local accomplishment. Someone's niece graduated, a grandbaby is getting older, a friend is getting engaged. Who cares what it is! Its time to get the DJ and get the music going. One particular block party has a DJ who will come to be known as the founder of hip hop, his name is DJ Kool Herc. Now, DJ Kool Herc was in the custom of using two turntables and two copies of the record he wanted to play in order to extend the breaks in the songs by alternating the two records. Soon people familiar with Jamaican toasting started to speak over the beats and breaks in a rhythmic way. This later came to be known as rapping as we know it today. More and more people started to come to these block parties and adding their own touch to this emerging subculture. We get the hip hop components of MCing, rapping, record scratching, break dancing, beatboxing, and graffiti as an art form. At this point, these block parties and house parties got to be so popular that DJ Kool Herc started using outdoor venues to let more people join. Most of these people were living in poverty, were considered marginalized, and suffered hardships that came with their socio-political realities. Hip hop gave them an outlet, it also gave the youth of the community an alternative to gangs and the violence that surrounded them. But it was the stigma associated with the burgeoning subculture and ghetto neighborhoods that caused the inevitable popularity that was to come, to stall for just a little while longer.
Although it's acceptance by that outside of the Bronx was slow, it did come. 1979 was the start of hip hop being accepted by a wider audience as The Sugarhill Gangs recorded single Rappers Delight became the first of many hit songs to come. The 1980s became a decade of diversification for the genre. Just like at those early block parties allowed for a free flow of ideas, the 80s allowed more people to hear the music and create their own with their versions of their realities. Run DMC became a prominent hip hop group, adding to what is now staples of fashion for the culture. They kept to street styles rather than switching it up with their new found fame. Kangol hats, leather jackets, thick gold chains, a few gold accessories, and Adidas shoes without laces. These thick gold chains gained popularity in the 80s with other artists as well. They were nicknamed dookie chains as noted by the chick interwoven rope appearance. Often these dookie chains are worn plain without a pendant and layered on top of each other. Of course, the more the merrier. Other artists that dressed similarly in this era were LL Cool J, Biz Markie, and Slick Rick. Slick Rick notably used this layered dookie chain method reminiscent of Mr.T. When it came time for a photo-op he made sure he wore every single chain plus a few more he's alleged to have borrowed from friends. But that's the thing, artists would start with one piece and as they became more successful they added to their personal collection. Until then, they borrowed what they could. Like the hip-hop artist Drake says, “I wear every single chain, even when I'm in the house, cause we started from the bottom, now we're here.”
The mid-1980s to early 1990s is known as the Golden Age of Hip Hop. It was the right moment for new artists to sample tracks from past hip hop singles with their own experiments and innovations with the sound. It had not become so established yet that there were gatekeepers at every turn. Everything was new, and the only question musicians needed to ask was, why not? The group Public Enemy kept the ball rolling in the same style of Run DMC. This time with baseball caps and larger chains with prominent pendants. Most notably from this ensemble is Flavor Flav with his now famous large gold chain and clock. What made this stick out was this was signature on a staple of the fashion. Do music your way, wear your chains your way, display your wealth and gold in your own way. Another duo is Eric B and Rakim, always seen in their finest and largest chains they could find and often matching, letting us know they were always in step with each other and the culture. Rakim specifically is now regarded as one of the best lyricists of all time as their album Paid in Full was a huge success. He was often seen in performances and from day to day wearing his signature Mercedes Benz chain pendants. These were as unique to his personal as his rhymes were. Later on, Pusha T would have a similar pendant commissioned in honor of Rakim's style. A stand out group of this time was the Beastie Boys. Their style was markedly different from others, opting out of the leather jackets for jeans jackets and pants or letterman jackets. It definitely reflected on the socio and economic differences between themselves and other prominent hip hop artists. However, what didn't change was the way they accessorized. Gold chains front and center with large pendants offering a bit of insight into what they thought was unique to their worldview. The rapper The Notorious B.I.G. Known for his influence on 90s East Coast hip hop music, is probably the best example of this era and jewelry. He brought to popularity a very specific item, what is now known as a Jesus piece. Often worn with a chain, it depicts the image of Jesus Christ made of precious metals and inlaid with various gemstones. Other artists that have the piece are Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Rick Ross.
Fast forward to the 2000s and we see more and more hip hop artists taking a piece of the corporate pie. 50 Cent got a nice buyout from Coca Cola, created a clothing line, sneaker line, started acting, and made investments in this and that's. Take a look at Eminem, he won an Oscar! Lil Wayne created his own record label, Young Money Entertainment, that became wildly successful. As we all know Jay-Z is almost a billionaire as well as Diddy all from business ventures and good investments. Jay-Z has been in the public eye for a long time now and he has his own go-to's when it comes to chains. His ever revolving favorites are usually a pendant with a religious tone, such as a Jesus piece similar to The Notorious B.I.G., as well as dookie chains in varying widths ala Run DMC, and pieces that show off his clothing line Rocawear. As you can tell, with all this cash flow in the hip hop scene, it has to go somewhere. And the place it usually goes to is the flashiest gold jewelry possible. Chains worth up to a quarter of a million dollars. These successful artists didn't make it overnight. They worked hard and made it happen. They never imagined they would get this big, and now that they are they're gonna make sure everyone sees their new found status.
Hip hop originated in the ghettos of New York City. Everyone who was swept up in its sphere added their own spin. It didn't matter where you were from, what you looked like, or who you knew. You could go from a nobody to a somebody. Chains, gold, platinum, diamonds, and jewelry demonstrated that. Logic said it best in his single My Chain, “And you wonder why us rappers floss, cause for once, we can finally afford the cost I once was the worker now I'm the boss see my chain is an accomplishment I call these diamonds milestones.”